West Ham 'have learned from problems of the past'

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The Independent Football

Four times Scott Duxbury prefixes the words West Ham with "new". "It is a new West Ham," he says. "And we need people to realise that we're not a club in crisis." A place in the First Division play-offs secured and the fallen giant, that sold its soul, that betrayed its fans, its heritage - choose whichever hard-bitten accusation you wish - has come out fighting.

Duxbury, and fellow directors, were at the game against Wigan Athletic at which West Ham secured a tilt at the Premiership. "There was a banner I had never seen before which read 'United we stand'. To me that sums up what we're about," he says. "We are a united football club."

It is admirable stuff. But there are thorny questions. Such as the fire-sale which followed last May's traumatic demotion. Reeling off the names is bewildering: Cole, Johnson, Sinclair, Kanouté, James and Defoe. It brought in £26m, it slashed a wage bill surpassed by just six clubs. It avoided the threat of administration.

Duxbury contends it had to be done. "It was crucial we achieved a strong financial footing as soon as possible," he says. "It's well documented the players we've lost - who we've had to sell. They were good players and there's no doubting that's the true cost of relegation but by ensuring we were financially secure and taking the measures that we did we could keep good, established players as well." Duxbury adds: "We wanted to retain some players. Jermain Defoe. It was his choice that he wanted to go."

But why not, goes the argument, retain them all and fulfil predictions of automatic promotion? "Supporters understand that players have to be sold. I'm convinced that they realise that when you've been relegated, and lose £20m [in television money], you have to take the appropriate action. You can't keep all your players on huge contracts." That, he says, would have been a "gamble". "We may as well have gone down to Ladbrokes."

A sports lawyer, he is an embodiment of the new spirit. Aged 32, he joined the board in January, three years after he joined the club, and remains company secretary as well as a director. His brief is two-fold: negotiating player contracts and developing the commercial side. He is central to West Ham's future.

"We are a Premiership operation and we will make sure we return to the Premiership," he says, "not just in the sense that we will compete, but everything about this club is geared towards a Premiership club." It is why the criticisms made by Whistle - the fans' pressure group which has compiled 180 questions, wants to replace the board and alleges debts of £50m - have been met head on. Legal action looms. West Ham's debt is £33m, down from £45m. "Perfectly manageable," says Duxbury and, for a relegated club, it has been a unique feat of financial housekeeping. "We were prudent. We are secure, our debt has been reduced and we are in a position to deal with that. The playing squad we've assembled, the wages we pay. All are perfectly viable with [current] revenues."

But it was not just about "balancing the books". It was about "ambition", a new start. His zeal is matched by that of the manager, Alan Pardew. "We realised he was, in essence, the man to create the new West Ham," Duxbury adds. Initiatives spring from Duxbury, who is off to Shanghai to forge links with universities, and he talks warmly of the West Ham "brand", comparing it, in heritage, with Manchester United. The boys of '66 and all that. "And then there's the Academy and the reputation for creating exciting young English players," he says. Who then leave? "Let's not kid ourselves, that was happening in the Premiership also," Duxbury adds. The aim is to stop it happening at all. "We have to make sure West Ham is that bigger club."

And so Pardew has assembled a squad which is going to get "better and better". Other young players want to join, Duxbury says. Given the huge changes - "Alan's taken the squad apart and put it back together" - a place in the play-offs is a remarkable achievement. If they go up, more money will be available. "Alan certainly hasn't bought First Division players," he says.

Mistakes - a lack of communication - have been made. "We've made difficult decisions to make sure the club prospers," he says. "And that's why it almost seems like a revolution. Mistakes were made, but every business and football club does that. What separates the successful from the non-successful is that you learn." Relegation, he says, means clubs have to show "their mettle". West Ham believes it has done.

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