James Lawton: An open letter to West Ham owner: action speaks so much louder than platitudes
You have to be patient in football but also recognise a lost cause. How was it that you took so long to see you were working from a deck promising doom?
Tuesday 17 May 2011
Dear Mr Sullivan,
You may not deem this the most agreeable time to resurrect the question – though it is freshly vexing – which asked whether you, your co-chairman, David Gold, and your chief executive, Karren Brady, really had either the background or the touch of passable working courtesy to run a team on Hackney Marshes, let alone one of the most widely cherished in these islands.
However, there is another one which springs to mind in the wake of your battlefield dismissal of manager Avram Grant at the moment of relegation at Wigan on Sunday night.
It concerns the imminence of your next open letter to the fans of West Ham.
This is because your last one – which was effectively a lingering death warrant on Grant's predecessor Gianfranco Zola – came more than a year ago and revealed an ignorance of the dynamics of a viable football club. Inevitably, there is now a concern that the lessons of the current disaster will remain unlearnt in the next few critical weeks.
Certainly, the worry was hardly soothed away when your co-chairman appeared on television yesterday with the assurance that the West Ham tradition would be preserved even in these new and difficult circumstances and that one benefit for the first Premier League club officially doomed this season was that you had an extra week to find the right new manager.
But then how would you know who that might be? Gold talked about studying CVs.
CVs, many would say, are items to be perused by committees – including, perhaps, the Premier League one which decides on the right and fitting person credentials of club owners – not the people who are in charge of season-by-season survival at the highest level of club football.
The trouble is, Mr Sullivan, that the performance which provoked in you so much rage, and kept you up all night in your Essex mansion while you penned that letter, has been reproduced at such regular intervals that the subject of chronic underperformance can only be addressed by you again if it is accompanied by some even vaguely plausible answer to another insistent question.
Do you remember what you said after Wolves won 3-1 at Upton Park on 25 March last year? When stripped of high emotion it was that you were drawing a line beyond which the club could never again descend on your watch.
Perhaps a brief refresher might help. "I'm writing this on Wednesday morning," you reported, "I had no sleep last night, having watched the shambolic performance. I was as angry and upset as every supporter in the stadium at the disorganised way we played, allowing Wolves too much space so that they looked more like Manchester United.
"This was the culmination of five defeats, including an appalling performance against Bolton. Individually, we have some very good players but this is not being converted into good performance."
There was no ambiguity about this denouncement. The manager wasn't doing his job properly, a point that was maybe underlined by your decision to show up at the training ground and transmit, rather trenchantly we were told, some of your more profound football insights.
Given the strength of your feelings, presumably shared by the co-chairman and the chief executive, you might have made some intervention. Instead, you sweated out survival, said goodbye to Zola, and appointed Avram Grant.
Perhaps you scrutinised carefully his CV. Or on this occasion maybe not. Had you done so, you might have noted that his track record did not exactly guarantee a dynamic influence. When this became so uncomfortably apparent in his stewardship of your team, you then performed one of the most futile public relations exercises in the history of professional sport. You allowed the name of Martin O'Neill to become firmly entrenched in the minds of West Ham supporters, a stimulating process by any standards, and made Grant one of football's ultimate examples of a dead manager walking. He even threw his scarf to some sympathetic fans.
Of course, the confused fans didn't get an open letter on this occasion. They got some coy obfuscation from Ms Brady in her celebrity newspaper column.
Yesterday your pal Gold insisted that West Ham would carry its proud tradition down the road to the Olympic Stadium. He mentioned the Hammer knights, Geoff Hurst and Trevor Brooking, and the statue of Bobby Moore outside Wembley.
He might also have mentioned the current Footballer of the Year, Scott Parker, who just for a little longer will be marooned among the lost horizons of the Boleyn stadium. Gold was surely a proud witness at the ceremonials in the West End last week because his gold-painted Roller with the personalised number plates occupied a most prominent place at the hotel entrance. It was a reminder that, at least in football, all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
It was a reflection hardly discouraged by the small but rough piece of savagery that ended the reign of Grant, and stripped down what was left of his dignity, in the bowels of the Wigan stadium – a gesture which might have been compounded in its random cruelty had he been driven back to London with his own thoughts, and no doubt regrets, rather than travelling home with the team for the last time, only at the insistence of his players. You cannot buy class, Mr Sullivan, if it isn't available on the shelf but there are certain practical things you can do. You can try to grab hold of some of those things that flew past the head of Lord Sugar, another successful money-maker who discovered at White Hart Lane that even while he was turning a personal profit, as you did at Birmingham City, it is still possible to miss almost entirely the difference between successful business – and winning football.
A different criterion has to be applied. Football is about people, their flaws and strengths, and how you have to live with the former and exploit the latter. You have to have patience, but you also have to recognise a lost cause.
When you saw this in the work of the novice coach Zola you stayed up all night and then expressed your rage. Then you let the cards fall as they might. They came down fortuitously the first time around, but on Sunday night they confirmed a losing run. How was it that you took so long to see you were working from a deck that was promising only doom?
It has to be presumed that by the time the O'Neill flyer floated gently to the ground you had forgotten the rousing climax to your open letter. "Now we need this team to show us their talent, their desire, their passion, their dare."
Where was your daring, Mr Sullivan, when Avram Grant was left to struggle on against his fate and the dwindling chance of West Ham's survival? You also wrote, "It's hard being an owner who is a supporter. I hope for happier times soon. Thank you for sharing the same vision and dreams."
These were platitudes, Mr Sullivan, and they carry as little value in football as they do anywhere else. Sometimes they have to be reinforced by action, the kind taken by your counterpart at West Bromwich Albion, Jeremy Peace.
When the hugely promising work of young coach Roberto di Matteo began to founder, when Albion showed every sign of freefall, Peace, with considerable reluctance, decided he had to move. He saw Roy Hodgson, in spite of his gruelling ordeal at Liverpool, as the man who might fashion survival. It maybe helped that, when Peace took over control at Albion nine years ago, he made a point of picking the brains of experienced football men.
He made an effort to learn, in an unfamiliar world, what you can do – and what you can't. It's maybe not too late to give it a try.
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