West Ham Left Staring at the Drop as Brady Bunch Spark Anger in Stands
When West Ham write to one of their season-ticket holders to tell him that his recent pitch-side protest against David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady contained provocative messaging that was “deliberately intended to incite” his fellow supporters, one retort is that nobody has done more to inflame tensions at the London Stadium than the unpopular trio in the boardroom.
After all it is not Cameron Robson’s fault that West Ham are nowhere near realising the ambition Brady outlined three years before the move from Upton Park to a soulless bowl in 2016. The vice-chair’s vision was “a world-class stadium with a world-class team” and it is not an exaggeration to say that West Ham have failed woefully on both counts, bearing in mind the only reason supporters might struggle to assess their team’s third relegation battle in four seasons is because the view in Stratford is ruined by the running track surrounding the London Stadium pitch.
Robson’s offence was comparatively small fry, unveiling an anti-board T-shirt while volunteering as a flag bearer before last month’s home defeat by Liverpool, and the 23-year-old’s subsequent ban from West Ham’s games for the rest of the season has riled a disenchanted fanbase.
It is another bad PR move from a club already at odds with the media and the problem for Gold, Sullivan and Brady is that Robson’s supposedly provocative message – “GSB Out” – is cutting through. Hammers United, an increasingly prominent fan group, organised a static protest in the Olympic Park before last month’s 1-1 home draw with Everton and further demonstrations are planned for the trip to Liverpool on 24 February and the visit from Southampton on 29 February.
In West Ham’s defence any protest inside the stadium recalls the disorder that marred their home defeat by Burnley in March 2018. As the Gold and Sullivan ownership enters its second decade, however, dissent is rising and the London club is on the ropes on and off the pitch. This past week the 83-year-old Gold spoke about growing up in poverty opposite the club’s former home at Upton Park and denied there are plans to sell up, despite rumours of interest in a club thought to be valued at £500m at least. Sullivan, meanwhile, has spoken about leaving his sons, Jack and Dave Jr, in charge when he retires.
Gold, always good at the sentimental side, added that he has never taken a salary from West Ham. There is, however, the interest Sullivan and Gold charge on the loans they made to the club in January 2010. West Ham’s latest accounts show the pair were paid a combined £2.9m in interest in August 2019 and that a further £1m went to GGI International, a company related to Gold. As of 31 May 2019 the combined balance of unsecured loans advanced by Sullivan and Gold amounted to £45m. As for Brady, her salary rose to £1.136m.
Supporters fail to see the justification for Brady’s level of pay and the discontent has unnerved Sullivan, who was considering staying away from Sundays now-postponed match against Manchester City. While Gold lacks clout, Sullivan holds the power; and the recent negative coverage has taken a heavy toll on the club’s majority shareholder. The 71-year-old is hurting. He went on holiday after last weekend’s 3-3 draw with Brighton, a result that left West Ham in the bottom three of the Premier League.
Sullivan thought the “high-calibre appointment” of Manuel Pellegrini on a three-year contract worth £7m a year in the summer of 2018 would lift West Ham to the next level. But while the former Manchester City manager finished 10th last year, cracks appeared this season. Pellegrini was not regarded as a motivator by his players and the Chilean’s dismissal at the end of December was followed by the appointment of David Moyes, who returned 19 months after Sullivan decided he was not good enough.
Relegation would lead to “serious financial consequences”, according to accounts revealing a pre-tax £28.8m loss in the last financial year. That was attributed to expenditure on wages, transfers and training facilities. The club points to a £214.4m net spend on signings in the last four years.
But while West Ham have broken their transfer record in each of the past four summers, the challenge is to spend wisely. The £45m forward Sébastien Haller has struggled this season and what those accounts show is that West Ham, who aim to solve the London Stadium’s structural issues by squaring off the stands behind the goal and bringing them closer to the pitch in the summer, are not making enough in player sales.
They are not regarded as a progressive club when it comes to recruitment and, while people who have worked for Sullivan believe he wants the best for West Ham, some do not think he has a coherent vision for the future. One former executive describes him as an expert at Championship level, before adding that Sullivan is too old school to succeed in the Premier League.
Sullivan loves being involved in the search for players. But in February 2018, shortly after Tony Henry was fired as head of recruitment after making inappropriate comments about African players, Sullivan stepped back. He said there would be a bigger focus on analytics and that a director of football would be appointed.
Yet while Sullivan wanted to lure the Spaniard Eduardo Macià away from Leicester, Pellegrini wanted the Argentinian Mario Husillos. An upside-down situation unfolded, in which the manager brought in his own director of football. Sullivan remained involved and lost faith in Husillos after the free transfer of the error-prone Spanish goalkeeper Roberto. Other dud signings include Jack Wilshere, who is out until May after a hernia operation, and Carlos Sánchez, who earns £65,000 a week and has started three league games since his move in the summer of 2018.
The scouting department was stripped back when Husillos and Pellegrini left. Sullivan was active during the January transfer window, with favoured agents helping out, and Moyes has spoken about the need for the club to target younger players. In fairness West Ham ended the window well, strengthening their midfield with the capture of Tomas Soucek on an initial loan and adding energy to their attack with the £22m signing of Jarrod Bowen from Hull.
But structural improvements are required. It remains to be seen whether Sullivan appoints another director of football in the summer and the club have rejected claims that the training facilities are in a poor state. West Ham point out that £10m has been spent on the Rush Green and Chadwell Heath sites. Yet Leicester City, third in the league, are spending £100m on their new training ground.
For all that Brady trumpets the success of the move to Stratford, supporters doubt her regard for West Ham’s heritage and do not feel she wants to listen to their concerns. The official supporters’ board is derided by fans, who view it as an impediment to dissent. Hammers United and the West Ham United Independent Supporters’ Association have refused to join the OSB at a meeting with Brady and Sullivan scheduled for 25 February.
Brady has long been urged from within the club to give up her controversial Sun column but she will not budge, even though comments in it about Leicester’s then owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, are said to have cost West Ham the chance to sign Islam Slimani two years ago. Brady has also called critics of the London Stadium “malcontents and keyboard warriors”, said the signing of Robert Snodgrass “wasn’t exactly a triumph”, taken aim at former West Ham players, questioned the character of players at other clubs and even raised doubts about Aston Villa’s signings last summer. None of this improves West Ham’s image or their relations with other clubs. It is a classless way to behave but even Sullivan, who is no stranger to unhelpful public statements, cannot stop Brady writing it.
“The Brady-Sullivan dynamic is a problem,” one source says, describing two headstrong figures struggling to work alongside each other constructively.
It is a mess and the anger has been building ever since West Ham became anchor tenants at the London Stadium on an annual rent of £2.5m.
“Sold a dream and given a nightmare,” is the common complaint from supporters and at this point it looks as if Sullivan was wrong when he said in December 2017 that the move would not “change our lives”. West Ham are closer to the Championship than the Champions League and that is why the protests are going to get only louder.
The Guardian Sport