When Avram Grant tossed his "lucky" claret and blue scarf to the crowd after West Ham United's 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal in January, it was seen as the last act of a man condemned to the sack.
Grant's farewell gesture at the turn of the year came amid rampant speculation that he was about to be dismissed and replaced by Martin O'Neill. However, the former Aston Villa manager rebuffed the club's approaches, and Grant has remained in charge. Somehow.
Four months on and West Ham are still bottom of the Premier League, relegation is looming, and Grant has survived, however unlikely that might have seemed in January. He remains the team's dignified, if unloved, leader.
An internet poll on a popular West Ham fans' website yesterday showed nine out of 10 supporters want Grant replaced. They will get their wish. Privately it is understood the Israeli has accepted that he will be sacked in the summer, irrespective of whether West Ham stay in the Premier League or not. Once again it is open season about who will succeed him. O'Neill has again been mentioned, as has his protégé Paul Lambert at Norwich City. Queen's Park Rangers' Neil Warnock's name cropped up yesterday.
It all adds up to the perception that Grant, who took Portsmouth down a year ago, is a doomed man, even though West Ham still have a fighting chance of avoiding the drop into the Championship.
Two months ago, West Ham were out of the bottom three, playing their best football of the season with back-to-back league wins over Liverpool (3-1) and Stoke City (3-0). Yet having hauled themselves out of the mire, they have now sunk deep back into it, earning just one point from six games since. The news yesterday that their inspiration from midfield, Scott Parker, is still struggling with his Achilles injury and may miss Saturday's hugely important home game with Blackburn Rovers only adds to the sense of impending doom. His dynamic displays are the main reason West Ham are not relegated already.
Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, the Hammers' fifth loss in a row, was depressingly predictable, and while it will not ultimately decide whether they stay up or not, it demonstrated the depths to which this great club have sunk. Not the football but the non-appearance of the board. The absence of co-owner David Gold, who is undergoing treatment for cholangitis and septicaemia, is understandable. But the failure of his fellow co-owner David Sullivan and the club's vice-chairman Karren Brady to travel to Eastlands for the game, leaving instead a pocket of empty seats in the City directors' box, sent out a message of surrender at a time when strong leadership was required.
Sullivan's reasoning that he could not influence the result of the game and could watch it live on TV instead has infuriated supporters, particularly the 1,100 who did make the trip up to Manchester to support their team.
The "no-show" at City followed Sullivan's comments last week that West Ham have only a 25 per cent chance of staying up. "There is still a 25 to 30 per cent chance we won't be [relegated]. We have to be realistic. The bookmakers put our chances at 28 per cent and you have to accept that," Sullivan said before the City defeat. He also questioned whether certain players who are out of contract this summer have the stomach for the fight.
"I'm sure a few of the players are already looking at where they will be next season – their contracts are up, they'll be off," Sullivan said. Those players include England defender Matthew Upson, Danny Gabbidon, Jonathan Spector and Kieron Dyer, while Robbie Keane, Wayne Bridge and Victor Obinna are on loan.
Sullivan has so far been silent on the subject of Grant's future, his fingers having been burnt by the fiasco of January, when boardroom leaks about O'Neill's possible appointment ensured it never happened. West Ham are aware they do not want to scare off any potential candidates, although it may be too late for that.
Relegation would potentially be catastrophic. Last December, Sullivan said: "We inherited £110m of debt and that is now down to £80m. But the repercussions of relegation would be a financial disaster." He has since said he and Gold, who between them own 62 per cent of West Ham, would put in around £40m to keep the club afloat should it be relegated.
The goal then would be to follow the Newcastle blueprint, of returning to the top flight at the first attempt but also reducing their £50m-a-year wage bill. The stakes, however, are mind-boggling as West Ham are committed to spending £95m converting the Olympic Stadium in Stratford to a football ground before they can move in two years after the 2012 Games. They are to borrow £40m from Newham Council and £35m from the Olympic Park Legacy Company, and have to find the remaining £20m from somewhere else. Relegation has allegedly been factored into the costing, but not prolonged absence from the Premier League.
Oblivion beckons but West Ham, under the guidance of Grant, still have a chance. The manager has remained optimistic throughout, to the point where his Monday postings on the club website, in which he desperately cites the reasons to be positive, have become a parody of themselves.
It all boils down to three games – at home to Blackburn, followed by Wigan Athletic away and then Sunderland at home on the last day of the season. Win them and Grant's final website posting could at least be positive with good reason.
Upbeat or blinkered?
Avram Grant has resolutely looked on the bright side during a troubled season:
"We are in a difficult fight but I am sure we will succeed. My players played with passion and energy." After 0-0 draw with Blackpool in November
"I was happy with the response of the players. The players looked like they wanted to succeed." Following 3-0 defeat at Liverpool in November
"We were in it at the beginning then gave away sloppy goals. At 3-0 we tried to do something, but they then made it 4-0 and it wasn't easy." Following 5-0 defeat against Newcastle in January
"We started OK and then they scored. This should give us energy and make us stronger for our next game." After 3-0 reverse at Bolton last month
* Grant has spent 66 of the football seasons' last 70 weeks in the relegation zone: Portsmouth 7 Oct 2009 – 21 May 2010, 31 weeks out of, and 31 inside, the bottom three (includes director of football spell).
* From 3 June 2010 to present, West Ham have spent 35 weeks out of, and 39 inside, the bottom three.
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