Martin Warrillow warns West Ham fans of what to expect now that Birmingham City's former owners are in charge of their club
It was the jacket that did it. The spectacularly naff claret-coloured jacket David Sullivan was wearing when he swanned into Upton Park having, as he put it, “defied commercial and financial sense” by buying West Ham United despite their reported £110 million debts.
Sullivan’s obviously been to the tailors, you see. He used to have an equally naff royal blue jacket when he and his partners in the West Ham deal, David and Ralph Gold, were owners of Birmingham City. It would come out of the back of the wardrobe whenever Sullivan wanted to convince long-suffering Blues fans that he really did have the club’s interests at heart or on those rare occasions when the club was within touching distance of being successful.
Then it was the quotes. He said something similar about the commercial and financial sense of the deal when rescuing Blues from the receivers for £1m in 1993. The club was comatose, he was going to breathe new life into it with the help of his managing director, one Karren Brady. The club was going places. It is true that Sullivan and Brady breathed new life into the club, but that was hardly difficult as there was very little there in the first place. Just over 11,000 supporters watched the new regime’s first game, at home to Oxford United, the ground was crumbling and the club was perceived by everyone in the West Midlands, other than its most loyal supporters, as a basket case.
The ground has indeed been tarted up and the club’s promotional and marketing effort is at least up to date. However, after five permanent managers and two sets of caretakers in 14 seasons, the club was still showing little sign of doing other than bouncing between Premier League and Championship before the recent takeover by Carson Yeung.
Hammers fans also need to get used to their new ownership’s propensity for self-publicity. Brady, of course, is a walking, talking advertising vehicle. With her regular television appearances, her columns in the Sun and Birmingham Mail, her tendency to outrageous statements, she did at least raise Blues’ off-field profile.
But many fans felt that a lot of it was un-helpful – like Garry Cook’s recent ridiculous announcements from Manchester City – it was meat and drink to those on the other side of Birmingham at Villa Park. Football fans in the West Midlands know an awful lot of songs about Karren – and not all of them are nice.
Gold and Sullivan were often equally keen on the sounds of their own voices. Throughout their reign, I worked as a sub-editor on the sports desk of the Birmingham Post and if our sportswriters couldn’t contact the manager on any given day, the second (almost always successful) port of call was the ever-quotable co-owners.
It was dreamland for our reporters but it hardly gave the impression of a club where the manager was in complete control of the message. Too often, Blues were the Karren ’n’ Dave Show. It may or may not be instructive that since the understated Yeung completed his takeover, manager Alex McLeish and his players look like a team reborn.
And although Sullivan has made no bones about the fact that he and the Golds are lifelong Hammers fans (he often claimed that was the only reason that Blues fans never took to him), they probably need to be ready for the occasional spat. Sullivan, in particular, occasionally used to threaten to leave and one wonders how long he’ll be willing to handle the reported debts.
It’s interesting, too, that he’s already angling for West Ham to move into the Olympic Stadium after 2012 and has suggested turning Upton Park into an athletics venue. Here’s Sullivan, quoted in the Post in 2008, talking about long-stalled proposals to build a City of Birmingham Stadium as a base for a Commonwealth Games bid. “Birmingham needs a City of Birmingham Stadium. Villa Park is not good enough or big enough for the World Cup or the Commonwealth Games. We [the club] want to be central to the scheme, we are happy for it to go ahead and happy to be an anchor tenant.” I bet he was – and I bet he still is – now he’s in east London. Meanwhile, Villa Park has been chosen as one of the grounds for England’s 2018 World Cup bid.
So hang on Hammers fans, it’s going to be an interesting ride. It will never be less than entertaining (off the field, not necessarily on it). Whether it will be good for your club in the long term is a wholly different matter.
From WSC 277 March 2010