No more Freddie Ljungbergs

They once typified the excesses of modern football, but West Ham are now a much leaner operation – as their dealings in the January transfer window have shown.
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There is a document at West Ham United called the Football Project. It could, alternatively, be entitled the Freddie Ljungberg Legacy as it was drawn up with the fallout from the midfielder's ill-fated, hugely expensive move from Arsenal to Upton Park in mind. Its author is the club's chief executive, Scott Duxbury, and it is the template by which West Ham have rebuilt themselves, overhauling everything from their scouting network, medical facilities – to reduce a crippling injury list – coaching and the way they buy and sell players.

In Duxbury's words, it was an end to the "haphazard way of spending money" and the start of a model of working that would lead to the club being self-sufficient, not reliant on a wealthy benefactor and certainly not – as had been predicted following the Carlos Tevez saga, the financial travails of its owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and the fallout from the departure of manager Alan Curbishley – in the business of conducting a fire sale in the January transfer window. If anything, the window is a relief for West Ham as it means they can provide concrete evidence that they are not in crisis.

Clubs have been circling, with bids and inquiries received for Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Valon Behrami and others. Duxbury insists that the only players that will be allowed to go are those on a list agreed by the manager Gianfranco Zola and the technical director Gianluca Nani, such as Matthew Etherington (who has joined Stoke) and Calum Davenport (whose move to Bolton fell through but is likely to move anyway).

Having said which, Duxbury says they are not afraid to sell. Everyone has a price and Tottenham Hotspur are closing in on the £15m valuation for Bellamy. But he expects Parker and Upson to stay and insists there there is now a crucial difference. West Ham will now sell only when they are ready and point to the record of Manchester United. They are one of the best selling clubs in the world. David Beckham is moved on, but only when they have Cristiano Ronaldo – younger, cheaper, better – to slot in. They sell on their terms and that is West Ham's goal and one of the goals of the Football Project.

The first step was the recruitment of Nani from the Italian club Brescia. Duxbury interviewed Leonardo, Milan's technical director, and Franco Baldini, with the latter declining the role because he was due to become England's general manager following Fabio Capello's appointment. But Baldini recommended Nani. With the Italian on board, West Ham then implemented a plan to reduce their first-team squad to a "core" of 20 players plus goalkeepers, with the reserve team a place for young, up-and-coming talents, rather than older players returning to fitness. The average age of the reserves would be 18 and they would play the same style of football as the first team so they could slot straight in when needed.

To do this required an improved network of scouts and, certainly, a better medical department. Injuries had to be prevented. So West Ham again raided Serie A – this time taking Marco Cesarini and Giorgio Gasparini from Milan's medical lab. The latter is famed for working with Filippo Inzaghi, who overcame serious knee problems and is still playing at the age of 38. It is no coincidence that West Ham's injury record is now vastly improved.

This was all done with Curbishley as manager but when he walked out, claiming he had been undermined over transfers, it did give West Ham the opportunity to recruit a different style of manager. A coach. Duxbury came close to appointing Roberto Donadoni but then, in Rome, met Zola. He read through the Football Project and found it chimed with his own ambition. "He's got an incredible reputation as a winner and he wouldn't do anything to risk that so he agreed to join on the basis of the Football Project," Duxbury said.

"He believed it was the way to achieve success and it's what excites him. What's lost in football is that people think the only way to be successful is to buy great players, but why can't you coach them into great players? Take Freddie Sears and let Zola work with and teach him how to be a striker. If you buy Kaka you defeat the object, you buy success. We want to create it."

To that end, Zola also made clear he didn't want a big squad. The final part of the personnel was the recruitment of Steve Clarke from Chelsea to give Zola support, especially with defensive coaching, and to bring his knowledge of working with Jose Mourinho and add experience. It is why West Ham paid substantial compensation for the Scot.

Duxbury, Nani, Zola and – sometimes – Clarke meet on a daily basis away from Chadwell Heath, West Ham's training ground, to discuss and appraise the squad, what the aims and targets should be. At the training ground, there is no talk of contracts, money, business, just coaching, tactics, fitness. The players know not to ask Zola about contracts and the manager doesn't deal with agents. That business is taken care of by Nani and Duxbury.

West Ham believe their project is working. Performances are better, results improving. "This isn't new," Duxbury said. "What's new is putting together all the different parts with a clear structure – scouting, medical, business, coaching – so that they are separate but work together.

"The club has a bad history of being seen as a selling club. We don't have to sell but we shouldn't be afraid to sell. But only on our terms. You constantly re-evaluate the squad. So if a bid comes in we appraise it: how old is the player, what's his worth, what's his worth to the team, and have we identified a better player in his position? If the answer is yes, then we do it. If no, then we don't. But the final decision rests with the manager."

West Ham may be sold. Gudmundsson is looking for a buyer but he maintains that, despite his financial problems, he doesn't need to sell. And the presentations that are being made, to potential owners, are on the basis of the Football Project continuing.

Case study 1 How not to do it:

After nine years at Arsenal, Freddie Ljungberg signed for West Ham for £1.5m in July 2007 on a four-year contract, in the middle of the former chairman Eggert Magnusson's spending spree. He earned an astonishing £85,000 a week, a significant increase in his Arsenal wages despite being 30 when he was signed. There was also surprise that West Ham paid a fee when it was believed he could leave for free. Ljungberg struggled and made just 25 appearances for West Ham, plagued by injuries and poor form, and was eventually paid off, receiving 50 per cent of the remainder of his contract, which amounted to around £3m. He has since signed for the MLS team Seattle Sounders.

Case study 2 How to do it

The 27-year-old left-back George McCartney had probably his best ever season in the last campaign, playing all 38 Premier League games following his arrival from Sunderland in exchange for Clive Clarke plus £600,000 in the summer of 2006. But he made it clear he wanted to return to Sunderland last August and was eventually sold for £6m. West Ham signed the little-known Congolese defender Herita Ilunga from Toulouse on loan as his replacement. The club were fiercely criticised for the sale of McCartney and arrival of Ilunga. A year younger than McCartney, Ilunga has been a major success and is set to sign a deal, with West Ham taking up an option to buy him for £1.5m in the summer.

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