Tuesday 11 November ~
Management at West Ham is no easier than at any other club, although until fairly recently it was noticeably different. The club’s 12 managers – by far the smallest number of any comparable club – have had many things in common. Gianfranco Zola is not only the first Italian to manage them (unless you count Luigi Macari), he is also the first other than Macari from outside London or Essex – Ron Greenwood was born in Lancashire and Charlie Paynter in Swindon, but both moved to the capital at an early age.
Most had been connected with West Ham before becoming manager, eight as a player. Many enjoyed extraordinarily long spells in charge – the first manager, Syd King, was there for 30 years, Paynter for 18, Greenwood for 13, John Lyall for 15 and Harry Redknapp for seven. None has won the league, or ever really looked like it, but none has taken the club below the second tier either. Several have been struck by tragic personal circumstances – King killed himself after the club lost patience with his drinking and sacked him, Macari lost his son to suicide, Redknapp was in the car crash that killed his friend Brian Tiler at the 1990 World Cup, Glenn Roeder suffered a brain tumour at 47 and Ted Fenton was killed in a car accident.
Heaven forbid Zola should join that list. But his chances of emulating his predecessors by settling in for the duration at Upton Park look slim indeed. Previous managers may have had to suffer a shortage of money and, at times, ambition, but they never had to worry about the impact of a global financial crisis on the Icelandic banking system. Zola does, and he is probably less than reassured when his chief executive, Scott Duxbury, says the club is “financially sound”. Whether or not Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson survives the dire conditions his businesses have plunged into, West Ham will again face the same conundrum as every other Premier League club: how to find an ownership structure that provides enough capital to make the team competitive, without risking the instability that comes with a cashed-up foreign owner looking for short-term glory.
Stability and patience are two of the things West Ham have done best in the past. The other is developing young players, though usually more for the benefit of other clubs than themselves – England could easily field a team with a majority of West Ham-grown players. Perhaps the Iceland debacle will give them the chance to rediscover some of those traits, at a time when the rest of football is awash with more instability and impatience than ever. It’s unlikely Zola will get the chance to break Syd King’s record, but the club could do worse than letting him stay at least as long as Alan Pardew’s three years. Of course, by that time Freddie Sears will be playing for Man Utd, but if West Ham are back on an even keel, the fans will deal with that as they always have – by cursing and treasuring the uniqueness of their club. Mike Ticher