One step forward and two steps back? Darron Kirkby wonders where West Ham are going next

West Ham’s promotion killed off supporters’ hopes that somebody would buy chairman Terence Brown’s 38 per cent share in the club. Despite his low profile, Brown has become one of the least popular chairmen in football during his 12 years in charge. The atmosphere at the Boleyn Ground has been poisonous since relegation two years ago with the crowd all too eager to barrack either Brown or manager Alan Pardew when things go wrong. The latter’s insistence on playing people out of position and his questionable tactics have even led to the crowd singing “We are the West Ham claret and blue army”, omitting his name.

The Brown Out campaign culminated in April, when 1,500 supporters gathered in the main stand after a 3-0 victory over Coventry to chant for 45 minutes for his resignation. It was inevitable that fans’ unrest would lead to takeover speculation. The first consortium linked with a potential buyout was fronted by popular ex-Hammer Tony Cottee. When the story broke in March, Cottee, who was reportedly being backed by a group of West Ham-supporting businessmen, was quick to say that he didn’t want to undermine the stuttering promotion bid. But the media bandwagon swung into action, and the fans were soon anticipating an old boys’ reunion, with Cottee as chairman, Iain Dowie as manager and Alvin Martin and Tony Gale joining the coaching staff. Although no official approach was made, Cottee was sacked as a matchday host and columnist in the club magazine.

Next to have their hat thrown into the ring were Birmingham City owner David Sullivan, who lives in the West Ham heartland of Chigwell, and ex-bookmaker and Hammers fan Michael Tabor. There was also speculation that Sullivan’s co-owners at Birmingham, the East End-born Gold brothers, were looking to invest in their favourite team. A surreal note was sounded at the end of May when it was reported that the club was being targeted by the “Roman Abramovich of Iran”, oil tycoon Kia Joorbachian, who apparently studied at a college in Mile End. Offers were set to materialise from one quarter or another if the club had failed in the play-offs. And then Bobby Zamora popped up and ruined everything.

When they were relegated in May 2003, West Ham were the 17th largest club in Europe in terms of income. In June this year, five ex-Hammers lined up for England against Colombia – it would have been seven had Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard been on the tour. It is accepted that relegated teams have to make savings, but no other club has felt compelled to launch into a fire sale of such proportions. Since Ferdinand left for Leeds in November 2000, the departures of Lampard, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Jermain Defoe, Freddie Kanouté, Michael Carrick, Trevor Sinclair and David James have brought in almost £60 million. Despite having earned more than £30m from the sale of Lampard and Ferdinand (and spent little of the proceeds), and with average crowds of more than 30,000, the club claimed debts of £48m when they were relegated. The redevelopment of the ground was obviously expensive, but other clubs have had to fund new stadiums. Even after the sale of big earners such as Paolo di Canio and Lee Bowyer, the debts are still about £25m.

In an attempt to appease supporters, Brown has recently admitted to some “catastrophic bloody cock-ups”. He added: “The biggest mistake we made was complacency. We didn’t dream we could go down.” Brown has assured fans that if the club are relegated again, players’ wages will be adjusted accordingly. Meanwhile, Pardew has been promised £20m to spend, although that includes signing-on fees and wages. But with several senior players having already left the club, including a couple on inflated Premiership contracts, the outlay by the end of July was negligible and had certainly not brought in the quality to keep West Ham in the top flight for more than a season. 

Season ticket sales are on course to break the 20,000 mark for the first time. Although they won’t be admitting it in public, many of those fans won’t be too disappointed if the club go down again this season. West Ham have been taking two steps back to take one step forward for far too long.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month

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