There are two sides to every story. Sometimes there are even three. It is perhaps ironic that in this big-money, big-name age that the deadline day sale of a competent yet unspectacular left-back from Belfast was what finally forced Alan Curbishley to quit as West Ham manager.
But the George McCartney story is a complicated one. As is the West Ham story. And although Curbishley may have over-reacted, it appears, in his claims that he was fatally undermined it is undeniable that his relationship with the club's board – who were considering replacing him in any case – became so strained that he walked.
West Ham rejected a £4.5m bid from Sunderland for McCartney in July. Soon afterwards, the 27-year-old signed a new contract with the club adamant he was not for sale. Curbishley believed that was the end of the matter and so did West Ham. Instead McCartney, a volatile character, returned over the weekend with a written transfer request citing personal reasons – his wife, Elaine, has failed to settle in London and their relationship had become strained – for his desire to go. West Ham reluctantly agreed and Sunderland came in with a £6m offer for someone who they sold for only £1m two years ago.
It appeared compassionate and good business – a relief for West Ham and McCartney. Yet the timing, amid claims that West Ham were conducting a fire sale and with the transfer window closing, was terrible. They tried to get Chelsea's Paulo Ferreira but the Portuguese refused to move. Eventually they signed Herita Ilunga from Toulouse – hardly the kind of player Curbishley will have heard of.
The misunderstanding, disagreement or, as Curbishley put it, "point of principle" was at the heart of his problems at West Ham. While technical director Gianluca Nani was scouring Europe for imaginative recruits such as Lazio's Valon Behrami, Curbishley wanted to sign 32-year-old Ben Thatcher. While Curbishley felt he needed strength and depth, the board was looking to cut the wage bill. While Curbishley prayed for the return of Craig Bellamy from injury, the board pondered why Julien Faubert looked so lost.
When he took over at West Ham 21 months ago, after Alan Pardew's sacking, Curbishley admitted to being "quite emotional". It's been emotional ever since. It appeared a good fit. Perhaps too good. After all, Curbishley, a local boy, had played for the club, and established 15 solid and successful years as a manager.
Yet even on the day he was approached to take over Curbishley had misgivings. He had spoken about the need to get out of the comfort zone at Charlton Athletic, had been left bruised when he was interviewed for the England job, and needed the challenge. But he was worried – about going back to West Ham and worried that he did not really know the new Icelandic owners or the board. Curbishley never left those concerns behind.
He always felt, as one club insider put it yesterday, "uncomfortable in his own skin" at Upton Park where, it must be remembered, his playing career wasn't the happiest. And the fans never really took to him, which was another of his initial reservations.
Curbishley was chosen because, with West Ham desperately fighting relegation and with a chairman, Eggert Magnusson, who, to be frank, was out of his depth, they needed a safe pair of hands. And Curbishley was just the kind of methodical, doughty manager who could grind West Ham out of trouble. He was never the man to take them where they eventually wanted to be – European football, Champions League, whatever was deemed possible then – but he would ensure a period of continuity.
Despite the whispers last season, when West Ham had a season of calm – finishing a credible 10th – following the astonishing drama of the previous campaign, the board and owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson remained fully behind him. It was only towards the end of the campaign that serious doubts started to creep in and they grew quickly over the summer. Sure there had always been concerns about the unadventurous football that Curbishley wanted to play but the board accepted the reasons for that were partly to do with an horrendous injury list.
At the same time West Ham's board was dealing with the huge over-spending of Magnusson, which was one of the main reasons why he was ousted as chairman. Difficult decisions needed to be taken. A board meeting took place at the start of the summer in which finance director Nick Igoe said there could not be another spending spree. Some players would have to go. West Ham – crucially – maintain that after that meeting, which Curbishley attended, every name discussed, such as Bobby Zamora, was agreed with him.
At the same time West Ham were undergoing a major overhaul of their infrastructure. That started with the appointment of Nani from the Italian club Brescia and it was part of his role to fill in the blanks that Curbishley admitted existed in his knowledge of the world transfer market. West Ham also drew up plans for a new training ground at Rush Green and completely revamped their medical facilities. The claim is that Curbishley, who brought a whole team of people with him from Charlton, did not show much interest in any of this.
The cracks became wider. The club was furious at the way Curbishley talked about the sale of Anton Ferdinand, who had refused to sign a new contract that would have paid him £35,000-a-week. Having rejected the deal, Curbishley was consulted and asked if Ferdinand could be sold. He agreed. The board were then horrified to hear Curbishley say that "the decision was taken out off my hands". His future may have been also but, instead, Curbishley acted.
Curbishley at Upton Park
Took over in December 2006, replacing Alan Pardew.
Record: P 71/W 29/D 14/L 28/Win %: 40.85%
Biggest buys: Craig Bellamy (£7.5m, Liverpool), Scott Parker (£7m, Newcastle), Kieron Dyer (£6m, Newcastle)
Total Spent: £51.5m
Biggest sales: Anton Ferdinand (£8m, Sunderland), Nigel Reo-Coker (£7.5m, Aston Villa), George McCartney (£6m, Sunderland)
Total Received: £40.6m
High points: Double over Manchester United during first season at club, the second win securing top-flight survival.
Low points: Losing 6-0 at Reading and 1-0 at home to Watford. £5.5m fine over Tevez and Mascherano deals.Reuse content