Roeder pins faith on the few to halt Hammers' slide

Nationwide League: Upton Park side experience harsh realities of relegation as London neighbours plan for controversial move
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The Independent Online

Two turrets flank the entrance to the Boleyn Ground, the regally-named home of West Ham United. If not quite a sporting Camelot, there is no doubt that this citadel has been sacked. Hard cash has been its assailant. The cost of building those turrets is one reason why the most difficult contest the club faces is still to avoid administration. Another is the reality that West Ham, like several of the game's élite, have known nothing but the fat of the Premiership since football was reborn, financially, with the Sky television deal.

A reminder of the satellite company's money is there with a billboard poster on the corner of Castle Street, which leads to the supporters' club, by the side of the ground. It asks, almost gloatingly: Are you ready for the start of the Champions' League? At this moment, for the claret and blue, it could not be further away.

Nevertheless, the Sky cameras will be present today, of course, rubbernecking as West Ham kick off their Nationwide League First Division campaign at Preston North End with the only fit 16 players they have left. The cheque for the honour will be somewhat smaller than that expected to fall the way of Chelsea, Arsenal or even Portsmouth over the coming months - £10,000 is the fee.

Inside the Boleyn Ground, the club's manager, Glenn Roeder, having recovered from a brain tumour but still appearing a little drained, is unsurprisingly talking about life experiences. There is meaning, heartfelt, nervous meaning to his words. And there is a longing, perhaps, for a time when football was not the business it is today.

So he speaks of his own bitter experience - of missing out on promotion with Queen's Park Rangers only to see the guts ripped from the team; of playing in the old Second Division with "greats" such as Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle; of giving 16-year-old David Connolly his league debut and, now, 10 years later, making him the great hope of this traumatic summer.

"A team could go down, but they could maintain probably all their players to give them the best chance possible of bouncing back," Roeder says of past days and his words are those of a man aware of the enormity of his task. He rails, almost forlornly, against the monetary gulf that has opened up between the Premiership and the Football League and it is as if he is staring into an abyss.

Roeder - and the board of directors who have enjoyed the boom years - have been accused of nothing less than trading the heart and soul of a club appropriated, more than many others, by its fans. It is a hard accusation but Trevor Brooking, a director and last season's caretaker manager, warned of the danger last spring.

Nigel Winterburn, newly released and now retired, concurs: "The club has had its heart ripped out and I am wondering whether they will be able to come back into the Premier League. I find it difficult to come to terms with at the moment."

Brooking was even blunter this week, claiming that if players such as Joe Cole had not been sold, the money would have run out by November. The club would have gone bust with debts of...who knows? Perhaps £40m at best, £60m at worst.

The banks, Roeder observes, needed to be satisfied. They are owed £30m-plus for the rebuilding of the ground including those turrets and income from TV alone has dropped by more than £20m. Challenged about the departure of no fewer than 16 players, bringing in revenue of £19m and halving a £33m wage bill, Roeder is unequivocal.

"Make no mistake, make sure you are 100 per cent clear that whoever may be here the same things would have happened," he says referring to his own much-criticised position. "The club made a statement in the last couple of days that said that the selling can now stop. The money they needed to achieve has been achieved and any transfer decision now can be made by the manager. I was aware of what had to be achieved."

But what about the timing, especially as Cole and Frédéric Kanouté went after 17,000 season tickets had been sold? "You would hardly go out and tell everyone about your financial difficulties earlier because if you did you would not achieve the prices," he says. "There are still players at Sunderland who will go back into the Premiership, but they will go back at rock-bottom prices no matter what Sunderland say. We have done our business as far as I am concerned. It has been uncomfortable, but now is the time for me to look forward.'

Except for one matter, of course - Jermain Defoe. Roeder needs to look over his shoulder at Manchester United, or whoever, prowling for his prize asset. If not Defoe, then maybe it will be Michael Carrick or David James. "It is with me now, isn't it?" Roeder says. It may appear strange, however, to, as Roeder says, "gamble" on keeping Defoe in the hope he will lead the side to promotion. It was Defoe, of course, who was the player to, with cruel timing, slap in a transfer request within hours of relegation.

Talks have taken place. Roeder laid down his plans. Defoe asked no questions. The manager says: "You hope that someone makes him see the sense that I am talking or, even better, he sees it himself. It will not do Jermain any harm to stay here for one year. As an individual, you have to make your own mind up and you would hope that a young player as talented as he is would look at his own situation and say: 'maybe it may hold up my career to go'." It is as if, he feels, Defoe owes the club that one season. What Roeder wants now is "straight human beings".

Maybe Defoe will stay. Maybe, alongside Connolly and with Neil Mellor, signed on loan for a year from Liverpool, he will score the goals. Maybe James will remain and Carrick in midfield, supported by the battle-hardened Steve Lomas, 37-year-old Rob Lee and the other new signing, Matthew Etherington. Maybe Roeder will turn around a management record in the First Division which reads just 44 wins in 139 games in charge of Watford and an even worse one at Gillingham before that.

Maybe a spell down one division will allow West Ham to regroup and refinance and put in the relegation clauses in players' contracts that are in place at other clubs such as Bolton, Charlton and Southampton. Maybe.

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