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Sunday, 17 July 2011

West Ham United: Where did it all go wrong?

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Mitch Waddon investigates where the tables turned on West Ham and why relegation was an inevitability . . .  


When Icelandic businessman Eggert Magnusson headed a consortium that agreed the £85 million purchase of West Ham United in 2006, he proudly proclaimed his plan for the East London outfit. Indeed, the then president of the Icelandic FA stated his intents on getting the Irons into the Champions League within five years and moving the club to the Olympic Stadium after the 2012 games, with his promise “to serve and to do all that I can to deliver genuine success on and off the field," sounding like long overdue music to fans’ ears.

However, with the fifth anniversary of Magnusson’s acquisition mere months away, the Hammers now find themselves in the unenviable process of recovering from relegation and rebuilding the morale and spirit of a wounded team. Where did it all go wrong for West Ham?

On the November 26, 2006, when Magnusson was confirmed as the new chairman, the Hammers were 15th in the Premiership, having already been knocked out of the UEFA and Carling cups and with three wins from the first 13 games. A 1-0 home victory over Sheffield United marked the takeover and seemingly a bright new era under Icelandic control, but this was followed by a 15-game run which only saw one win, a 1-0 defeat of eventual champions Manchester United following the appointment of Alan Curblishley as manager in December. The Hammers would not taste Premier League victory again until the March 17, 2007, when they, somewhat controversially, defeated Blackburn 2-1. This success would spark a run of seven wins in nine matches to see West Ham avoid dropping into the murky abyss of the Championship at the expense of Sheffield United.

It appeared that West Ham had done the impossible and Eggert could now knuckle down to achieving his aspirations for the club he would invest so much money into.

Perhaps this was the first signal of West Ham’s downfall. Alan Curblishley certainly was able to spot talented players at a reasonable price, but with serious injury concerns based around many of the major signings in 2007 (Keiron Dyer only made 30 appearances for West Ham between 2007 and 2011, despite being their highest earner at £83,000 a week) it is still widely debated if the Curblishley era was a success.

Hammers fans would be forgiven for believing that Magnusson was staying true to his word, with former Champions League regulars Keiron Dyer, Freddie Ljungberg, Craig Bellamy and Scott Parker joining along with England internationals Matthew Upson and Dean Ashton committing their futures to the club. For a team that had flirted with relegation only the season before, it was a welcome sign of intent from the board.

West Ham would go on to have a consistent campaign during the 2007/08 season, finishing 10th having spent the majority of the term in the top half. However, a dark shadow was spreading itself across Chadwell Heath, more specifically the West Ham medical room. Keiron Dyer and Craig Bellamy had both picked up long-term injuries, and neither would feature heavily for the Irons during the remainder of their spells at the club. A bad run of injuries was something that would become correlated with West Ham, who always appeared to struggle for fit players. But the progress the club had made in one season was the positive indication the supporters craved, especially as there had not been any real threat of a relegation battle. In short, the team was moving forward. Eggert’s vision was becoming a reality. Or so it appeared.

The turn of the season saw only one addition, Valon Behrami, as the purse strings were tightened at West Ham. The board expressed serious concern at the signings from the season before, with Ljungberg having the remaining years on his contract brought out. Keiron Dyer was still out injured having suffered a double leg break 12 months before in only his second appearances, while Craig Bellamy was returning to the team after going from injury to injury in the previous campaign. This concern spread to the fans, after Alan Curbishley walked away from the manager’s position in September 2008. The board had sold Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney to Sunderland without the manager’s consent, which has prompted the former Charlton boss to consider his future with the club. West Ham looked in disarray, and with a board that was going to interfere in club transfers, would anyone really want to take over the helm?

Gianfranco Zola became the first foreign West Ham manager when he was unveiled in September 2008. Any concerns supporters had been calmed following the appointment of assistant manager, and Zola’s close friend, Steve Clarke a week later.

The managerial team of Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke won their first two league games in charge (3-1 against Newcastle and 1-2 against Fulham) and West Ham supporters were becoming more and more excited at the young duo’s impact at the Boleyn Ground. But things, once again, began to go downhill.

Following the win over Fulham, West Ham went on a run which saw them win once in 12 games (0-1 against Sunderland), claim only seven points and end up only one place above the relegation zone at Christmas. The Irons failed to secure any points in October and seemed to be unable to adapt to the type of play that Zola and Clarke wanted. Although the team did earn credible draws away at Chelsea and Liverpool during that period of 12 games, the fact that the team only scored five goals in that spell suggested that the idea of attractive, flowing football, which Zola seemed to desperately want from his players, was not the style the team was destined for.

Although the team picked up form during the second half of the season, there was much speculation about West Ham’s financial future, and many star players were linked with moves away from Upton Park. One player that did leave was Craig Bellamy, who forced a transfer to Manchester City, in a move where West Ham received £14 million. There was much concern when Zola failed to purchase a replacement for Bellamy, instead investing in 19-year-old German Savio Nsereko, who proved to be ineffective in his six-month spell at the club.  

Following the sale of Bellamy, it was highly probably that West Ham would not be able to score the necessary goals to qualify for Europe. However a large number of goals were not necessary, as the West Ham defence had a stunning second half of the season and conceded minimum goals. Although West Ham ultimately missed out on Europe they still finished a respectable ninth place in the league, which was the joint highest finish they had earned so far in this spell in the Premiership. Once again, West Ham appeared to be moving forward.

The club’s fortunes took a turn for the worst, however, when the global recession saw the collapse of the Icelandic banks, meaning that West Ham was reportedly close to administration. The club was saved following the take-over by CB Holdings, but transfer funding was scarce. The Irons only permanent signing, Alessandro Diamanti, was financed by new sponsor SBOBET while the club lost two key defenders, Lucas Neill and James Collins. Zola’s desire to sign a new striker led to Collins’ exit to Aston Villa and the loss of the Welshman was one that contributed to the leaky defence and eventual downfall of the club.

The gap at centre back meant that the Hammers conceded easy goals, and this was apparent with only one win in their first 11 games, an away win over Wolverhampton Wanderers which came on the first day of the new season.

Off the field, the club became stable in January 2010 following the takeover by West Ham fans David Gold and David Sullivan. The former Birmingham City chairmen purchased a 51 per cent stake in the club to take over majority control, which assured the Irons’ long-term financial security. The new owners were quick to support manager Zola’s wishes at the end of the winter transfer window, signing Benni McCarthy, Mido and Ilan to bolster a weakened strike force which was further hindered following the retirement of long-term injured striker Dean Ashton. However, West Ham would only survive relegation by the skin of their teeth, with a 3-2 win over fellow strugglers Wigan ultimately sealing Premier League football at the beginning of May.

Once again though, off the field antics would ultimately overshadow the performances on it. Gold and Sullivan appeared to like the media coverage and were quick to criticise team performances, with Sullivan famously branding the team “shambolic” and “pathetic” following a 3-1 home defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers. These words further alienated the manager from his new bosses and Zola would later warn the chairmen that their words could do more damage than good to the team’s morale. Perhaps a sign that Zola’s time at West Ham would be coming to an end was reports that the board had made a bid for West Brom midfielder Graham Dorrans without consulting the Italian.

Unsurprisingly, after a season where West Ham finished 17th, Gianfranco found himself relieved of his duties. While many West Ham fans understood the situation, many more were outraged at the treatment of the Italian legend. He had been publicly blasted and humiliated by his own board, who in turn were rapidly being turned on by the West Ham faithful. Even more concerning was the appointment of Israeli Avram Grant as the new manager, who had taken Portsmouth down.

Fans could be forgiven for not jumping for joy at the appointment of the former Chelsea boss, whose calm demeanour could be mistaken for an uncaring and impassionate attitude. Being soft spoken and showing emotionless expressions was not what was expected of Grant, with the loyal West Ham support preferring to see passion from their managers, as Zola and Curblishley had portrayed in recent seasons. Gold and Sullivan had promised to back their new manager in the transfer windows and they were true to their word with 12 players being signed over the season including Robbie Keane, Wayne Bridge and Thomas Hitzleperger.

However, a weak defence would ultimately seal West Ham’s fate as they were condemned to relegation after conceding a 2-0 advantage to lose 3-2 to Wigan on the penultimate day of the 2010/11 season. It had been a campaign with minimal cheer for the Hammers with a 4-0 victory over Manchester United in the Carling Cup and a 3-1 win over Liverpool in the Premiership being small highlights in an abysmal season.

Fans would struggle to decide who was to blame for the relegation, with the players, the manager and the board all in the firing line. However, it was Grant who paid the price, being sacked from his position a measly hour after West Ham’s relegation was confirmed.

It was a poor and twisted fate for the team that had shown so much grit, determination and promise. Only two seasons before had the club been pushing for a place in the Europa league and seemed like pushing on with Eggert Magnusson’s vision. But the Champions League is now a million miles off for the Irons, with the club now preparing itself for the battle in the Championship.

With the five-year plan that was initially installed by Magnusson failing, fans are left pondering where it all went wrong. What was the turning point in West Ham’s five seasons that turned them from Europe contenders to relegation? Was it the change of owners? With no money and then the instalment of the two Davids, surely an unstable ship was to blame for the loss of the club’s Premier League status? Or was it the managers? By hiring a young and inexperienced coach in Gianfranco Zola, then giving the job to Grant, who had never been considered the right choice, was the club pushing itself into relegation? Or could the fall from grace be blamed on the players, who were accused of showing no passion or fight and gave up leads far too easily in the final season?

With the club now set to play football in the second tier of English football, how long will West Ham fans have to wait for the next time a West Ham owner proclaims that the Irons could play their game in the most elite of competitions?

Article written by Mitch Waddon

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Colin Illingworth



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