Fallen Hammers teetering on brink of 'Armageddon'
It is a sunny day in London's Docklands in early September 2006 and Carlos Tevez is in a Canary Wharf hotel speaking at a press conference ahead of Argentina's friendly with Brazil at the Emirates.
The world's media is in attendance but the questions are not about the upcoming clash of South America's great football nations but about West Ham United. The signing of Tevez, and his compatriot Javier Mascherano, was a real coup.
With West Ham having only been denied the FA Cup the previous season by Steven Gerrard's heroics, these signings appeared to presage a redevelopment of this most traditional of clubs, a modernisation to reflect that of the steel and glass regeneration of the docks outside. Two months later, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, the Icelandic billionaire, bought the club and the talk was of the Champions League.
Five years on and West Ham's players will walk out on to the pitch of the DW Stadium this afternoon knowing they must beat Wigan to retain even a chance of staying in the Premier League. If they fail, then David Sullivan, the co-owner, believes it will take up to £40m in loans just to keep the club in business. "The fans should know this club is in a worse financial position than any other in the country," he said. In the past he has described the prospect of relegation as "absolutely horrendous -- like Armageddon."
The roots of this crisis can be traced back to that sunny day in September five years ago. The disastrous twists and turns of the Tevez affair have been well documented: West Ham are literally still paying for it (there are apparently two further instalments of the £21m compensation to Sheffield United to come).
The accounts show that in the last four years West Ham paid £51.1m in "exceptional items" -- that means compensation and legal fees, the majority of which related to the Tevez case. That's effectively three seasons' worth of match-day revenue. The global economic collapse was particularly destructive in Iceland: Gudmundsson went bust and with that, West Ham were pushed to the precipice.
In 2006, West Ham made a profit. The team which Alan Pardew led first to promotion then to the FA Cup final had finished ninth. The wage bill was £30.9m. Two years later that wage bill had more than doubled to £63.3m. In the 2008/'09 season they had the eighth highest wage bill in the Premier League. They have made a loss every year since 2006.
There have been some impressive efforts to staunch the flow of cash out of West Ham. The wage bill had been reduced to £50m last season. At the end of this season Kieron Dyer and Matthew Upson are out of contract. If Scott Parker also goes, the three highest earners will be off the wage bill, saving £10m a year. With the Olympic stadium allowing the eventual sale of Upton Park (and bringing higher match-day revenue) there was some hope that the club could be brought back into line.
The problem is that cuts were needed just to get fit for Premier League purpose and to address some of the club's debt (some £35m of loans are due in August). The £48m over four years in parachute payments would take the edge off losing the Sky TV money but there will have to be a drastic cut in wages. A full restructuring of the squad is what's required.
When former Arsenal player Lee Dixon paid a visit to the training ground he described what he saw as "a total shambles". "Players were arguing with each other, others weren't trying, some were sulking," he said. If the players are not working for Grant, then they are as good as down already.
When the players run on to the pitch at Upton Park they run across a slogan hailing West Ham as the academy of football. The club needs to make good on that again.
Sunday Indo Sport