Alan Pardew said he never believed in "second season-itis" - the affliction that so often strikes clubs following their first, breakthrough campaign in the Premiership. How wrong he was. The West Ham United manager paid the price for his team's faltering form yesterday, when he was abruptly sacked just a week to the day after Eggert Magnusson officially took over as chairman.
The brutal truth is that having paid £85m to take over West Ham, along with inheriting debts of £22.5m, Magnusson and his backers, principally the Icelandic banker Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, cannot afford for the club to flirt with relegation. It is simply not something they can countenance both in terms of their ambition but, also, and more relevantly, in terms of their finances.
"I am not worried about going down," Magnusson said, sitting in the chairman's boardroom last week. "The players and the manager are far too good." He may well have believed it then. Indeed, he probably did. For one of the messages that the Icelander wanted to get across most forcibly when he was first revealed as a potential bidder for West Ham was his faith in Pardew. "He is important to our plans," Magnusson told The Independent. "I want you to let everyone know that."
But he has changed his mind before. And quickly. Magnusson was invited into a consortium that already existed and wanted to buy West Ham. But when the previous board, led by chairman and the largest shareholder Terence Brown, would not listen to them, Magnusson ditched those around him, reorganised his bid and went alone. Despite his genial appearance, and obvious humour, Magnusson is ruthless and is ruthless for success.
"I've told Alan 'it's your team'," Magnusson also said last week. "It's not for me to tell you which players to play because you are going to be judged on how the team perform. So it's your throat that will be cut if you don't produce results in the long run." That was no joke and even if his spin doctors tried to portray it as such, the message was abundantly clear - Pardew's neck was already on the block and the knives were being sharpened.
It is deeply ironic. After all, Pardew would have been sacked if Kia Joorabchian, the front-runner in the bid to acquire the club, had taken control, which merely highlights the mess that West Ham had got themselves into. How far away now, it seems, that FA Cup final in May when they pushed Liverpool so far and illuminated the world's oldest knockout competition with their vibrant football.
Then Pardew's currency could not have been higher. A bright, innovative, articulate and positive coach - and an English one at that - he had built a team in his image. They were young, hungry and skilful and also finished ninth in the Premiership. Players such as Anton Ferdinand, Marlon Harewood, Matthew Etherington, Danny Gabbidon and the captain, Nigel Reo-Coker, who he had plucked from the downward spiral of MK Dons, and had forced his way into the England World Cup squad. West Ham had the brightest of futures.
But not so long before that, they had the bleakest of prospects. Relegated from the top flight in 2002-03, they were mired in debt, saddled with one of the biggest wage bills but with a demotivated squad. A fire-sale ensued. Indeed, the club narrowly managed to stave off administration. That, in itself, was almost a miracle and earned plaudits from finance experts if not from fans. Out went players such as Jermain Defoe, David James, Joe Cole and Paolo Di Canio. In, also, came Pardew after a messy hiatus in which he was placed on gardening leave by his previous employers, Reading.
He rebuilt the squad and re-built belief. The play-off final was reached, and lost, and the following season West Ham flirted with missing out on promotion and Pardew came extremely close, around Easter, to losing his job. The "Academy of Football" read his T-shirt but it was an academy where the lessons were being ignored. Pardew was not accepted as "true West Ham". Gordon Strachan was lined up as a replacement but only his prevarication, and the bank's refusal to pay up Pardew's contract, prevented a sacking.
Another surprising turn. Reading, Pardew's old club, imploded and the door was opened for West Ham to squeeze into the play-offs. They eventually beat Preston North End in the final to return to the top division. Defeat and, again, Pardew would have faced the sack. "Possibly this has saved Alan his job," said the striker Bobby Zamora, who scored the winning goal at the Millennium Stadium.
It appears that Pardew has always trodden a tightrope, but when he went to the West Ham board in the summer looking to strengthen his squad he was left woefully short. Pardew wanted players such as Steed Malbranque, Luke Young, Pascal Chimbonda, Tranquillo Barnetta and James Milner, £4m-£5m players. He knew he needed more quality to raise the bar. Instead, he had to make do with Jonathan Spector, John Pantsil, Tyrone Mears. He was in the bargain basement. The board believed he had enough to repeat last season's successes.
It is clear now that they were looking to sell and looking to balance the books for that sale. Events, meanwhile, conspired against Pardew. There was the broken ankle to Dean Ashton, a cruel blow for a player so pivotal to his plans and one he had worked on so rigorously over the summer, and then the foisting on him of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Unfit and unsuited to the Premiership, the Argentines were at the wrong club and for the wrong reasons. Pardew is the kind of manager who all but examines the DNA of those he buys and here were two trophy signings that he only knew about 12 hours beforehand.
It stank. And so did West Ham's form. Pardew tried to assimilate the two. He played Tevez on the left, the right and in the middle. It did not work. Last week the striker tried to play a wall pass off an opponent's shins. Pardew was apoplectic. Mascherano was brilliant in training but his biggest contribution on the pitch was to bite Defoe. It seemed surreal and was certainly that when West Ham beat Arsenal with a last-gasp goal - and Pardew almost came to blows with Arsène Wenger. It revealed passion and frustration.
If the final nail was the defeat away to Bolton Wanderers last Saturday, then the writing was on the wall in the midweek home loss to Wigan Athletic. It was to that game that Gudmundsson had come to watch his new acquisition for the first time, along with his friends and advisers. Defeat was not what they expected and afterwards the atmosphere was rancorous. Suddenly, Pardew knew he was in danger. The players were called in to training on Thursday but the manager was shell-shocked.
Earlier in the season the West Ham players had referred to Pardew, behind his back, as the "dead man walking". Their gallows humour has proved all too accurate - although many will now have to face up to their part in his execution.
West Ham's state of play
* LAST SIX RESULTS
9 Dec Bolton 4 West Ham 0
6 Dec West Ham 0 Wigan 2
3 Dec Everton 2 West Ham 0
25 Nov West Ham 1 Sheff Utd 0
18 Nov Chelsea 1 West Ham 0
11 Nov Boro 1 West Ham 0
* NEXT SIX GAMES
17 Dec Man Utd (h)
23 Dec Fulham (a)
26 Dec Portsmouth (h)
30 Dec Man City (h)
1 Jan '07 Reading (a)
6 Jan Brighton (h) (FA Cup)Reuse content