West Ham United's new owners and joint-chairmen, David Sullivan and David Gold, have told Gianfranco Zola that he will remain as manager and that there will be money for him to spend in the remaining week-and-a-half of the January transfer window. Gold said that players would have had to be sold had they not taken over the club from its Icelandic owners, and that debts stood at close to £110m. Karren Brady will become vice-chair, working again with Sullivan and Gold as she did at Birmingham City and the chief executive officer, Scott Duxbury, will leave.
Zola has been bravely insisting that even amid the previous financial uncertainty he would be able to keep players like the England internationals Robert Green, Matthew Upson – sold to West Ham by Sullivan's Birmingham in 2007 – Carlton Cole and Scott Parker. With the team only above the Premier League relegation places on goal difference, losing any of them would have been a blow but Gold insisted it would have happened because of what the new owners called the "serious mess of debt".
They have paid £50m for 50 per cent of the club and hope that other potential investors will come forward, including Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian businessman who was a rival bidder. The huge debts include roughly £50m to the banks and over £40m to other clubs. Further investment will be required not only in new players – with no senior striker fit at present, that is a priority – but in the longer term a new ground. Sullivan confirmed that they would like to take over the nearby Olympic Stadium after the 2012 Games, keeping it at its full capacity of 80,000.
He said of Fernandes and other bidders: "I am not quite sure if he looked at the books properly, but if he looked at the books he might have walked away. We will raise more money and, with other people, will dig the club out of the mess it is in." Sullivan is hoping for what he called "a government of national unity in a crisis situation" to help out. He was particularly scornful of one of his predecessors as chairman, Eggert Magnusson, claiming: "I said that West Ham within five years would come to me to solve the problems. I said that the model simply does not work and this man [Magnusson] will bankrupt the club and somebody like me will come to solve the mess. I'm a fair predictor of events. The joke is he actually phoned us up a month or six weeks ago and said he'd like to be involved again. I don't know what the man is thinking or why he thinks a) we need him and b) the fans need him. If he popped up as our new chief executive, people would think we'd gone mad."
The new owners still appeared genuinely shocked by the state of the club's finances. Although involved at Birmingham until selling to Carson Yeung in October, and well aware of some of the madness of modern football finance, he and the Gold brothers originally bought the Midlands club for £1m when it had debts of £3m. West Ham has proved a different kettle of nasty-smelling fish. "The accounts will come out shortly, I'm sure they will show a £40-£50m loss," he said. "The previous year it was £38m."
More positively, he stressed the benefits of local ownership and knowing the club and the area. He has lived in Essex for many years, while Gold actually lived in Green Street, where the ground is situated, and was briefly a West Ham youth player.
"We are fans," Sullivan said. "We are not stupid people. We know what we have done makes no financial sense, but it's West Ham. Some of the poor season ticket holders, what they spend on a season ticket relative to their income is exactly the same. It's the same on a bigger scale. I know what we have done makes no [business] sense, but we wanted to do it. I'd like it to be a family club. A club where everybody is welcome, where supporters have respect for other supporters and gradually we will improve the image of the club." Gold added: "It is that delicate balance, and what we have achieved over the years is we have demonstrated we are not going to do anything mad. We are sensible in our approach, and are measured. That is what we bring to the table."
Striker light: Zola's likely targets
James Beattie (Stoke City) May or may not have put a fall-out with Stoke's manager Tony Pulis behind him. Forceful, almost old-school centre-forward who might welcome a chance with a team playing more football than his current employers.
Nuno Gomes (Benfica) More of a support striker, who would therefore dovetail well with Carlton Cole when the latter returns to fitness. But still has a career scoring record of better than one in three games. At 33, one for the short-term.
Eidur Gudjohnsen (Monaco) Well known to Gianfranco Zola from six years at Chelsea, though hardly the player he was then. Lucrative move to Barcelona followed but he has not succeeded at Monaco and would welcome a return to England – and probably London.
Klaas Jan Huntelaar (Milan) A long shot but a class act. Unhappy with his previous club, Real Madrid, and no more successful in Italy. Took until the end of November to score his first goal and only has three to his name in a dozen games.
Ruud van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid) Prolific at Manchester United and well versed in the demands that English football makes on a striker, the Dutchman needs a move from Madrid and has been linked with Tottenham. His agent was even rumoured to be in London two nights ago.
Sergei Kornilenko (Zenit St Petersburg) Tall 26-year-old Belarus international is admired despite his recent lack of goals for his club. Like Roman Pavlyuchenko, could take time to settle; West Ham may feel they do not have time at present.