West Ham United – now a good proposition

ONE of the most enjoyable aspects of the 2021-22 season has been the form of West Ham United and their positive momentum under manager David Moyes. They are currently in the Champions League slots, but such has been the unpredictable nature of West Ham’s history that nobody is getting too carried away about the immediate prospects of the east London club. The Hammers, despite their colourful history, have a relatively empty trophy cabinet – three FA Cups (1964, 1975 and 1980) and a European Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph in 1965. It has been over 40 years since their last success.

When the club moved to the former Olympic stadium, there were mixed feelings. It was easy to agree with the club’s grandees that the relocation could prove to be the catalyst for success, but many of their fans didn’t necessarily agree. They liked the homely, outdated and very urban Boleyn Ground, a football ground that had a certain kind of atmosphere and ticked all the boxes in terms of the image of the traditional stadium. But the Boleyn Ground was limited and would never have allowed the club to become the sort of modern institution that some of their London rivals had evolved into.

Naturally, change wasn’t accepted by everyone, especially legacy fans that felt comfortable among the intimate, back streets around Upton Park. From day one, the audience was split, but West Ham also had around 25,000 extra fans watching them, many of whom were new generation supporters. There’s no doubt the stadium was not the ideal venue, but it would surely gradually become more like home for the club’s fans, would it not?

While the fans were less than happy with the club’s owners for disposing of the family treasure, the Sullivan-Gold regime, in 2020-21, West Ham seemed to find some stability and their final placing of sixth was their best top flight finish since 1998-99, thus qualifying for the UEFA Europa League, their ninth European campaign.

The ability to draw almost 60,000 to the London stadium and the club’s proximity now to central London and the City of London, makes West Ham a much more attractive club to investors and businesses than they were a decade ago. The pandemic has hit West Ham worse than some of their peers. In 2019-20, their turnover, at £ 140 million, was 27% down and their net loss more than. Doubled to £ 65.3 million. The club curbed expenses by more than £ 3 million, including a 6% cut in wages. Despite this, West Ham’s wage-to-income ratio was an alarming 91%, some 20 percentage points up on 2018-19 and the highest in the Premier League. However, bearing in mind the damage caused by the pandemic, the ratio would have been 73% in normal circumstances. 

David Sullivan and David Gold have been looking for fresh investment in the club and they may have found it in the form of Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky. He’s a dispassionate businessman who has stakes in Sparta Prague, French newspaper Le Monde and Sainsbury. His hard-nosed approach has earned him the nickname of the “Czech Sphinx”. 

There’s talk of Kretinsky paying £ 150 million for a 27% stake in West Ham, a deal that would effectively value the club at between £ 600 and £ 700 million. Sullivan and Gold have already rejected would-be buyers, notably the private equity firm PAI Capital. Whether a partial sale would herald the start of the current board exiting remains to be seen, but this may not come until 2023, the expiry of the clause demanding any profit from selling a stake in the club has to be shared with the London Legacy Development Corporation.

Should the sale of 27% take place, it will introduce a fresh dynamic to the ownership of West Ham. Sullivan and Gold own 51.5% and 35% respectively, with Tripp Smith, a director of Blackstone, owning 10%. 

On the pitch, West Ham moved into the bracket that is now confronting the so-called “big six”, although both Arsenal and Tottenham are now clinging on to the shirt-tails of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool. West Ham and Leicester are the challenger clubs and are enjoying European football this season, while Tottenham have had to settle for Conference League football and Arsenal are completely out of the picture.

West Ham have the potential to be a regular European contender and can also leverage their position in London to grow their financial platform. Any club with almost 60,000 people coming through the gate on a regular basis has to have a chance. The future could be very bright in Stratford.

Newcastle United’s new owners may have to be patient

POOR OLD Steve Bruce went through the entire portfolio of emotions on the day Newcastle bounced up and down in anticipation. At times, he resembled an exhausted marathon runner. 

Bruce’s future was one of the major themes of every preview, commentary and review of a game that highlighted just how poor Newcastle United’s current team is. For much of the game, they made ragged Spurs look decent but were let off the hook by the fact the north Londoners are very average and past their Pochettino peak. A better side would have walloped the Toon by 5-1 or something along those lines.

Up in the stand, the Saudi regime sat with their oversized scarves draped around their necks, looking uncomfortable and a little out of their comfort zone. Before the game, a van drove around the St. James’ Park area with a reminder that the Saudi rulers may be linked to the murder of a leading journalist. “Fake news,” said one supporter, attempting to kid himself that all is well. “This has nothing to do with politics, it’s football. We’ve got the money and the future is great,” said another loyal Newcastle fan. 

Inside the ground, the noise was intense, the banners disjointed, but this was the how it was meant to be, the start of a new era, one without the unpopular Mike Ashley. However much the fans try and ignore the people in the posh seats, the link between Newcastle United and Saudi Arabia will become something of a running sore over the coming months. 

This isn’t Abramovich at Chelsea, not even Qatar at PSG or Abu Dhabi at City, it is something altogether more worrying and a little disturbing. Not so much because of who has taken them over, but because of the hysterical reaction of so many who seem happy to ignore what Saudi Arabia has stood for. 

You could argue fans of Chelsea and City have always cared little for the origins of Roman’s wealth or any human rights issues involving Abu Dhabi, but the sheer joy expressed by the Newcastle fans prompts you to fidget a little. After a grim period, you cannot blame them for being excessively happy, but comparing an owner with a poor communications record and a prudent approach to business with a state that beheads people and kills journalists is not really a fair fight. The world is now too small to be ambivalent about the events taking place in a faraway land. 

Unless somebody sprinkles something magical over St. James’ Park, Newcastle’s owners may have to be content with a relegation fight this season, so any transformational rebirth on the pitch may have to wait. They cannot really start spending on new talent until January and even then, they may be looking for people who can grind out results to save the club’s Premier status. 

As for the players they currently have in their ranks, who are they trying to impress and are they on their way out anyway? From a motivational perspective, how many will be deemed fit for purpose for a new manager?

If Newcastle can now be compared to Chelsea, City and PSG, an influx of talent will accompany the new manager, unless the paymasters decide to give Bruce an extended run. At Chelsea, Abramovich’s entourage gave Claudio Ranieri a year, in which he took Chelsea to runners-up spot and the semi-finals of the Premier League. We now know from experience this level of performance was never going to give the popular Ranieri more time, and besides, they had already lined-up José Mourinho. You had to admire Ranieri for the way he carried on against a backdrop of speculation from day one about his replacement.

Manchester City had Mark Hughes in charge when the middle east money arrived and he had 18 months before being shown the door. While Chelsea won trophies in Abramovich + 1, City had to wait longer for their first silverware in the form of the FA Cup in 2010-11 and another year for the Premier. 

Hiring your own carefully-chosen people is something that has become very prevalent in the corporate world, so much so that when a new boss arrives, legacy staff become very nervous about their futures. Football is no different – hence, everyone expects Bruce to go. Goodness knows who will be his replacement, but it will be somebody from the catalogue of blue-chip managers, individuals who know what temporary jobs are all about and accept the terms and conditions of contemporary football management. Steve Bruce, an honest broker with a track record of almost 2,000 games as player and coach, has always been more Allardyce than Allegri and it is the latter the new owners will undoubtedly demand, but let’s hope they treat Bruce with due respect.

At the moment, it looks like “new regime, old problems” for Newcastle United, although they have one or two players who will surely become part of the new team that will emerge over the coming year. They are going to need at least 11 local heroes, although the reinforcements are likely to come from everywhere other than Tyneside. Talking of local heroes, though, the club’s medical staff acted heroically in helping to save the life of a stricken fan who needed urgent treatment.

But how long will it take to make Newcastle United into a trophy-winning club again? Many people have tried in the past: Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Rafa Benitez – the list of big names is impressive, but none have managed to plant major silverware on the boardroom table. The last time it happened was in 1969 when Joe Harvey’s team won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, but domestically, you have to go back to 1955 and legendary striker Jackie Milburn. It has been a long wait, so a couple of years won’t make much difference, although the new owners will surely disagree. For decades, Newcastle’s fans have been expectant and frantic for success, but now they have stakeholders who will be insisting on something happening sooner rather than later. Who will exercise the greatest patience going forward?