Ken Jones: Business decision to lose players means West Ham also lose fans' trust

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The Independent Football

A great deal of sympathy is held out here for the supporters of West Ham United. I mean, what's the point in holding a season ticket at Upton Park when the prospect of a quick return to the Premiership is disappearing along with players whose presence persuaded bookmakers to make the East London club favourites for promotion?

Ordinarily, I am inclined to let football, as an industry, shift for itself. I have enough problems without worrying about who's up against it in the swirl of mismanagement and unsustainable ambition. But this is ridiculous. When Joe Cole followed the rookie full-back Glen Johnson to the Chelsea gold-field this week, the Portsmouth and former West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, said: "It's unbelievable that my old club have sold off so many players. How can they now hope to get back to the Premiership? If they do get back up, what are they going to do when they get there?"

Redknapp thinks it's a shame. A better word is betrayal. It is only a short while since West Ham announced that relegation would not lead to a "fire sale". Implicit in the announcement was a promise that every effort would be made to retain the services of outstanding young players. If, as you have to suspect, West Ham were aware that serious financial problems would make that promise difficult to keep, why was it ever made?

A friend who has supported West Ham for 50 years without seeing them once mount a serious challenge for a League Championship (even in the heady days of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Johnny Byrne they never climbed higher than sixth in the old First Division) feels that his allegiance is being stretched to the limit. "I'll still be there but my trust in the club has gone," he said. "All our supporters, everyone who bought a season ticket must feel the same. I simply refuse to believe that the club ever believed it possible to keep the team together so I have to think they weren't telling the truth."

Looking back on the summer's events, namely the departure of Cole, Johnson, Freddie Kanouté, Trevor Sinclair and Gary Breen, the majority of West Ham supporters would, I think, say the collapse of their faith need not have happened and that they didn't expect it to happen in their lifetime. If so, it is loose thinking on their part.

Once West Ham slipped out of the Premiership they should have guessed what was coming. Immediately, it was that West Ham would find it extremely difficult, probably impossible, to avoid the grim prospect of falling into administration without reducing costs through the release and sale of players.

As time goes on, and we are able to watch startling developments in the game, most obviously Roman Abramovich's attempt to buy success at Chelsea, the last vestiges of conservatism in English football fade before our eyes. For example, West Ham's problems stem in part from ground improvements at a cost of £30m. Other notable clubs have reached beyond their means and ended up in a similar predicament.

If football fans have acquired some sense of the game's economic realities, it may amount to a rather glum acceptance that the old hopes and dreams come a poor second to solvency. I was mentioning this to another friend, a lifelong Charlton supporter, the other day. "I know that we are never going to win the Premiership," he said. "The top clubs, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle and now maybe Chelsea have got that locked up. What I am buying is an opportunity to see those clubs, the thought that we might beat them once in a while, perhaps win a cup or get into Europe. My expectations were once a lot higher, but those days are gone forever."

Nevertheless, Charlton's admirable stability must fire up envy in West Ham supporters. They have a club but no longer a team. Will further thunderbolts be released on them before the new season gets under way? Will Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe follow Cole and Johnson out of the door?

It's a sorry tale. Football is not businessmen sitting around the negotiating table, serenading each other with stockmarket prose. Football is excitement, anticipation, having a team to follow. Whatever the financial imperatives, West Ham have failed miserably to fulfil that obligation.