Sport Soccer

Saturday 17 March 2018

East End is nigh for Hammers but spirit of the Blitz lingers on

Dion Fanning

I f the world ended yesterday, as widely predicted, then I suspect this will have had an impact on sales. Unless you picked up a street edition on Saturday night, you may not even be reading this. But I will go on for the many people who never read the Sunday Independent but seem to know exactly what's in the paper, and on what page, every week. Even Armageddon won't stop them.

Obviously the end of the world is a time to re-evaluate life's priorities -- am I spending too much time on Twitter? Should I watch The Apprentice or Masterchef instead? Is there anything that can dent the French nation's self-regard? Will the apocalypse mean the end for Mumford or at least his sons? If it does, can some good be said to have come of the Rapture?

The day of judgement is an uncomfortable time but there are those who offer hope that the end of days does not have to mean the end.

In the build-up to last Sunday's game at Wigan, West Ham United's co-owner David Sullivan warned, not for the first time, that relegation would mean 'Armageddon' for the club. Sullivan has been banging on about Armageddon for some time. He warned Birmingham supporters two years ago that their club was heading for Armageddon if they didn't get promoted.

"If we don't meet with success, people had better prepare for Armageddon. We will have no choice but to sell some players if we don't get promoted because we will not put the financial well-being of the club at risk by trying to sustain an unrealistic financial dream."

Happily, Birmingham were promoted, Sullivan and David Gold sold Birmingham and have gone on to fulfil their lifetime ambition by predicting Armageddon at their boyhood club.

"It'll be Armageddon if we go down," Sullivan said last season. "It'll be worse than what's gone on at Newcastle. I can't believe the contracts I've inherited. Every position is overpaid, whether in administration or on the playing side."

Sullivan acted quickly when West Ham avoided relegation and Armageddon by firing Gianfranco Zola last season, thus ensuring it wouldn't happen again.

He had his concerns about appointing Avram Grant as he was worried he wasn't particularly funny.

"In fact, he's got a very dry sense of humour," Sullivan then announced to much relief, before adding, to even greater hilarity, that Grant was armed "with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of football. Wonderful. He tells jokes and stories. He's led a full life and he's learned from that".

Grant has certainly learned something. He is, perhaps, the greatest success story in the history of the Premier League, if you define success as achieving a lot more than your talents should allow.

Sources close to him and his wife Tzofit were quoted last week explaining the difficulties he faced. "He found no joy," she said, although Grant has always given the impression that he has found joy an elusive and maybe wholly unnecessary companion.

Grant, or a source close to him, was still displaying that dry wit when it was explained he had envisaged turning West Ham into a 'mini-Arsenal' and, in their ability to throw away leads, he can claim to have been wholly successful.

As West Ham threw away another lead at the DW Stadium and Carlton Cole missed a chance which made Robbie Keane's squandering the week before look like one of those glorious, majestic misses of Pele in the 1970 World Cup, it seemed that the end was nigh, for West Ham fans at least.

Grant was fired in the tunnel, an act of macho bravado on the owners' part that couldn't prevent the gathering storm. But they are a resilient lot in the East End. They withstood the Blitz and they showed fortitude this time too. Within 24 hours of Armageddon, the most redoubtable supporters were gathering for a slap-up meal "up West" where they had paid 300 quid a head for the honour of mixing with Frederic Piquionne and Winston Reid.

Just as newspapers were suggesting that West Ham would have to embrace the Newcastle model of slashing the wage bill after relegation, the club was quick to demonstrate that there are many aspects of the Newcastle model they can embrace. When Djemba Ba supposedly said he was "too tired" to sign an autograph for a fan -- something he denied later -- there was a bit of a ruck.

In disaster movies, this is always one of the signs that something terrible is about to happen. Hostility between two groups breaks out before everyone is united in the fight for survival. Having already lost their bid for survival, West Ham didn't have much need for the unity.

Sullivan ended the week saying that Armageddon may have a been a bit too strong. If the real thing did occur yesterday perhaps it will prevent him being so alarmist in the future.

Instead he complained about the fans' attitude towards owners, pointing out that he had signed Benni McCarthy last season when Zola said his signing would keep them in the Premier League. Fans, Sullivan complained, then criticised McCarthy as a waste of money.

McCarthy had little to do with West Ham staying up. Zola must have done something but not enough to save his job. Perhaps he paid for not incorporating McCarthy into the team or not being as funny as his impish public personality suggests.

Humour couldn't save Grant. Armageddon, or something like it, has come to West Ham. They will persevere, look forward to the move into the Olympic stadium and take their lead from Newcastle where things always turn out well. They say they're looking for a British manager, as if that was the problem, but they also note that Paolo Di Canio is about to enter English management. Maybe Armageddon hasn't happened yet.

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