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Men's Football Past issues are holding West Ham back

The Hammers have underachieved on the pitch during the Sullivan-Gold era, but the problems go back way beyond their tenure as owners

BEFORE West Ham’s recent home game against Everton a few hundred supporters came out to protest about how the east London club were being run.

The protest coincided with the 10th anniversary of David Sullivan and David Gold taking over as Hammers’ owners.

Many fans see the evidence of the riches of the club (and its owners) growing off the pitch, while the playing side have not progressed at a similar rate. 

The fact that West Ham were 19th in the Premiership at the time of writing, the  same position they occupied when Gold and Sullivan took over in 2010, tends to back up that analysis.

With some 60,000 fans coming through the gate every week, the club sits in 18th place in the Deloitte Football Money League’s top 20 richest clubs in the world. But on the pitch it seems to be the same old same old.

Some view the re-signing of manager David Moyes, after letting him go 18 months ago, as a further sign of the path of travel on the pitch not exactly being forwards.

Much of the criticism of the owners is unfair. They came in at a difficult time for the club, which was slipping towards administration. They effectively bailed it out. Then oversaw the ambitious move to the Olympic Stadium — a move some fans like, the majority less so.

They put money behind the managers. Sullivan has pointed out how they have spent £210.4 million net since moving to the London Stadium in 2016, and that part of the problem may have been in some of the managers employed and sacked.

The owners have always been very keen on the great traditions of West Ham, keen to laud heroes of yesteryear at any opportunity — big adherents of the “West Ham way.”

Yet one of their early moves upon taking over was to get rid of manager Gianfranco Zola, the last manager to actually try to do things the West Ham way.

Zola was an excellent coach, always keen to bring young players through and give them their chance. Less at home, maybe, in the dealings of the transfer market but at that time the owners were happy to do that aspect of the job themselves. 

Zola’s record over a couple of seasons at the club was pretty good, and with new financial backing promised much.

The first big mistake was getting rid of Zola and bringing in Avram Grant. Grant managed to take what was a pretty good squad, with the likes of Scott Parker, Mark Noble and Thomas Hitzlsperger among the ranks, into the Championship. 

In his defence, the quite public efforts to replace him for much of the season probably weren’t the best way of motivating the team.

After Grant came four seasons of relative stability under Sam Allardyce, who brought the club back to the Premier League at the first attempt, then stabilised things in the top flight. 

However, come the end of the 2014-15 season, the owners and manager had had enough of each other. A new boss was needed with the move to the Olympic Stadium pending — someone to take the club to the next level.

The new man was Slaven Bilic. A fans’ favourite as a player, Bilic immediately seemed to hit gold, signing the mercurial French genius Dimitri Payet together with the likes of Angelo Ogbonna, Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini. It also looked like Bilic would give youth its chance, with Reece Oxford handed a debut at 16.

Bilic’s first season — the last at the old Upton Park ground — was a great success. Payet thrilled fans with his brilliance, as the club really did play the West Ham way. 

The team finished seventh and were unlucky not to finish higher. They could also have gone further than the quarter-finals of the FA Cup — but lost to Manchester United after drawing the first tie at Old Trafford.

And in true West Ham tradition, the dreams began to fade and die when the club moved to the Olympic Stadium the following season. 

The club signed a number of foreign players, who, with the exception of Arthur Masuaka, proved to be very low-quality. The team crashed out of the Europa League in the qualifying stages.

A stuttering season followed, ending in mid-table mediocrity. The following season things improved little. Marko Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez and Pablo Zabaleta came in. Bilic was replaced in November by David Moyes, who got the best out of Arnautovic and saw the club to safety.

Moyes was then dropped in favour of former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini. He was allowed to splash the cash, bringing in nine new players. 

The fans liked his attacking, creative way of playing the game. The addition of Felipe Anderson revived memories of Payet, with the flicks and creative genius. Pellegrini also gave youth its chance, making Declan Rice a mainstay of the team and giving chances to the likes of Grady Diangana.

The owners had also very much taken a back seat by this stage, following protests at the game against Burnley in 2018. Pellegrini was now the face of West Ham.

The first season went well, aside from a sorry start that saw the first four games lost, and the team finished a creditable 9th.

All were hopeful for the new season with a marquee signing in £45 million Sebastian Haller and the promising Pablo Fornals (£22m). However, after a good early start that saw the club as high as fourth, the wheels seemed to come off.

Confidence drained from the team, following defeat in the Carabao Cup against Oxford. Outstanding goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski then also got injured, heralding the arrival of Pellegrini favourite Roberto, who turned out to be a disaster. Roberto’s performances no doubt contributed to the lack of confidence that spread through the team.

In the end, as the Premiership trap-door edged ever closer, the owners sacked Pellegrini. Re-enter Moyes, who again is showing signs of stabilising things. Many believe Moyes’s appointment should have been made permanent at the end of the 2017-18 season, but the owners wanted to go for a bigger name. That did not work, so now Moyes must be given the chance to stabilise the club.

So there have been ups and downs in the decade since  Sullivan and Gold took over. On the up side the club is bigger, particularly off the pitch. The team have kept Premiership status for all but one season. On the down side, the club has not achieved its potential. The London Stadium needs a top-six football team, not one struggling at the wrong end of the table or even outside the top flight.

While there have been mistakes, which the present owners have openly admitted, I believe there is something that goes much deeper at West Ham.

There has been a record of underachievement and over-expectation going back many decades. Back in the halcyon days of 1966, when Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters were part of the England World Cup-winning side, West Ham underachieved.

A team with such high-class talent should have been challenging for and winning the League. In reality, the team struggled at the other end of the table during the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

John Lyall took over from Ron Greenwood as manager in 1974. West Ham then won the FA Cup and reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final in 1976. Another team of outstanding talent, and the last all-English team to win the FA Cup. But the owners of that time failed to invest in the manager and the team. 

By 1978, West Ham were in the Second Division. Lyall then created another team that won the 1980 FA Cup and came back to the First Division in 1981.

More ups and downs followed. The biggest up being the outstanding team of 1985-86, which almost won the league, with the likes of Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie. But again the owners did not invest in the team and within a couple of seasons they were relegated. 

And so it went on. The Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson generation, who went on to win hundreds of international caps between them, did more for the club’s bank balance than on the field.

There is something at the heart of West Ham that is not quite right. The fans really do believe that West Ham won the World Cup in 1966 and have set everything against that standard since. Yet the reality is that the club has not won anything for 40 years. The team continue to underperform. Players continue to arrive at the club, look like world-beaters, then relapse into mediocrity.

It must be hoped that David Moyes and his staff can deal with some of these problems. The team on the field need to come to match the growth of the club off it — and that means top-six finishes and winning something.

The owners seem to have learned lessons over the years and continue to do so, but the failure to achieve at West Ham goes way back beyond 2010 — and will take a long time to really overcome.


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