1. Precocious Preview
There have been some momentous happenings in the world of football since our deceptive demolition of Blackburn Rovers a week ago last Saturday, none of which have revolved around West Bromwich Albion. Therefore, in a break from tradition (apart from when I did the same thing last week), this preview will be kept short.
Saturday’s upcoming trip to The Hawthorns constitutes one of those games in which we should ruthlessly strive for all three points.
West Brom finished top of The Championship last season and were deservedly promoted having played an attack-minded brand of football which saw them finish the season with a goal difference of +33, fifteen goals more than nearest rivals Hull City(?).
Last season’s Championship was one of the most closely fought in years with The Baggies claiming the title by a mere two points from runners-up Stoke City. Some saw this as a sign that the general standard of English football’s second tier had risen, when in fact the opposite was true. There was not one stand out side in last year’s former 2nd Division – not a Newcastle, Sunderland or West Ham of days gone by who towered over the rest come May, thereby giving themselves every chance of survival in the top flight.
The realisation of these lessened standards have caused many onlookers to surmise that this year’s new crop stand more of a chance than usual of being immediately banished from the Premiership. In a pre-emptive move anticipating their shortcomings, Stoke City, Hull City(?) and West Brom have spent more money in the off-season combined than any of the previous newly-promoted sides.
West Brom’s most noteworthy signings were those of the poor man’s Robert Green, Scott Carson from Liverpool (£3.25m), Luke Moore from Aston Villa (£3m) and Spanish playmaker Borja Valero from Real Mallorca (£4.7m). They have outlaid close to £20million in all but would do well to maintain their attacking, passing style of last year without running the risk of being routinely found out by superior opposition.
This dilemma begs the same question that we ourselves have pondered for many a month – is it better to fail in fine style and go out with a bit of swagger, or cling to survival at the cost of any and all aesthetic, hoping that one day you too could be Bolton Wanderers?
At least this weekend we have the added security that should we find ourselves a goal or two behind in the closing stages, a simple 10-yard gentle pass to Scott Carson should see him spoon it dramatically into his own net.
2. Shifting Sands
Even though unrelated to West Brom and not considered part of the preview, there is still much to write about.
Just prior to this whole management merry-go-round blowing up in our collective faces, the big news was of Manchester City’s takeover by the Abu-Dhabi United Group (ADUG). While this may seem at first glance to be just another in a series of recent big money takeovers, it is on an altogether different scale and as such deserves a closer look.
Manchester City find themselves the random beneficiaries of a nation’s quest for regional sporting supremacy, the lucky swines. As one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi currently plays sporting second fiddle to their less powerful and astoundingly, relatively poor neighbour, Dubai.
Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim announced the takeover with much fanfare, proclaiming his intention to make City “bigger than Real Madrid or Manchester United”. But despite his own vast personal wealth, Al-Fahim is merely the frontman for the operation with the strings being pulled by the catchily named Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Sheikh Mansour is a member of the incredibly wealthy Abu Dhabi Royal Family and should they ever find themselves short of a bob or two, he also had the foresight to marry the daughter of the ruler of Dubai. You’re unlikely to see him at East Ham station trying to scrape together enough change for a Travelcard and a Dixy Chicken value meal.
As the capital of the UAE, the ruling Al Nahyan family feel that Abu Dhabi should embody the sporting centre of the Middle East and have set their sights and significant wealth to that end. For example, they have recently procured an F1 Grand Prix for 2009 and bought City for a paltry £200million as a way into the most lucrative and popular football league in the world.
The numbers involved are nothing short of staggering. They make Roman Abramovich look like, well, me.
As an illustration, Abramovich’s net worth is said to be around £12billion. ADUG recently announced a single construction project in Dubai worth £34billion. The wealth of the Al Nahyan family is estimated at around £560billion. Every time the price of a barrel of oil rises by a single dollar, Abu Dhabi’s wealth increases by $280million a day.
The Al Nahyan family know that its oil reserves are finite and are looking to diversify their economy in preparation for the eventual prolonged dry spell. With that in mind they have recently bought a 12% stake in Ferrari and purchased the iconic Chrysler Building in New York City, but they see this sporting revolution as a major part of their post-oil world.
Despite ADUG’s reported resolve, the whole selection process could have gone a number of ways. Several clubs were looked at prior to the purchase of Man City: Arsenal’s Board are known to not be willing to sell to anyone, Liverpool were deemed poor value thanks to their need for a new stadium and Newcastle were quoted at £400million (hah!)
Whilst showy frontman Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim has given the impression of bolshy excess, the real moneymen have a more reasoned outlook. It is rumoured that since Al-Fahim’s outlandish claims of buying Cristiano Ronaldo for £134million, Sheikh Mansour has ordered him quiet for fear of ADUG looking like rich, obtuse chancers – a sign that over time they want to be taken seriously and seen as genuine players.
And this is our window in which to strike.
For all their unfathomable wealth, City’s new owners are still relatively wet behind the ears when it comes to the machinations of football business. If we can get our new best mate, the principled Kia Joorabchian, into a room with Al-Fahim then maybe, just maybe we can offload Luis Boa Morte for a cool £48billion.
So, the Big Four will either become the Big Five or one of the current Four will find themselves starved of the Champions League funding that has been so instrumental in underpinning their place among Europe’s elite, the (soon-to-be) poor things.
What has any of this got to do with West Ham? Well, every comparable club that leaps out of reach leaves us fighting over a yet smaller piece of the pie and one step closer to the drop.
3. A Feast Of Football? Let’s All Gorge-on-Zola
A little over a week since Curbishley departed and his new replacement has been confirmed as Gianfranco Zola, the former Italian midfield dynamo who could fit in your top pocket.
Despite the stirring and coherent arguments of this blog to see Slaven Bilic instated, the Board have opted for the diminutive Zola as the man to lead the Club into our next spell of barren underachievement punctuated by the occasional oasis of adrenaline.
Prior to the official unveiling, many established names were being touted as prospective appointees and it is noteworthy that the managerial position at West Ham would not have been so readily linked with so many prominent names two or three years ago.
Bilic was the early favourite among both fans and the Board and was keen to take the role so long as he could combine it with his Croatia responsibilities until being able to exploit a clause in his contract enabling him to come to Upton Park full-time from January. This proved unacceptable to the Board, but I’m not so sure it couldn’t have panned out well for us in the long term.
Gerard Houllier, Roberto Mancini and John Collins came and went and Michael Laudrup was also mentioned, although he chose to take up the reins at Spartak Moscow before the Board were able to speak to him. I was a little disappointed that Laudrup was not considered sooner and more thoroughly. Having achieved considerable success as a manager in his native Denmark, he has done a commendable job with a comparable Spanish side in Getafe, taking them to the final of the Copa Del Rey, and is known to be an advocate of attacking football.
A surprise early frontrunner was former Italy manager Roberto Donadoni. Donadoni eventually ruled himself out of the running prior to any official announcement being made, which sounds to me like an attempt to avoid any more embarrassment at not being first choice for a mid-table Premiership team having recently managed the World Champions.
I heard a rumour last week that it was all but a done deal with Donadoni (there’s a mouthful), and my initial reaction was one of being distinctly underwhelmed. I saw nothing in Italy during Euro 2008 to stir the soul and with a less talented bunch at his disposal, I couldn’t see how Donadoni’s trademark Italian style of sturdy defence coupled with long spells of concise, considered possession could work in a squad boasting the likes of Calum Davenport, Nigel Quashie and Luis ‘I do what for a living?’ Boa Morte.
Zola’s appointment was certainly a tough one to predict when all this hoopla began, but I think it’s important to get behind him from the start. I’ve already heard a few Hammers fans lamenting the fact that he has strong Chelsea connections, which is just plain foolish. Like it or not, some of the finest talent in world football will find themselves at Stamford Bridge in years to come and to veto the lot of them on that basis is a nonsense.
Despite his affiliations, Zola is a universally liked football personality with the winning combination of an affable nature, undeniable class as a player and ‘cheeky monkey’ looks. He was one of the handful of original worthy foreign imports who forged the Premier League into the success it has become along with Cantona, Bergkamp, DiCanio, Ginola and Marco Boogers. Even in a blue shirt, Zola was the kind of inoffensive and special player that you had to hold your hands up to.
As untested as he may be in club management, I am quietly pleased with his appointment and have liked the things I have read of his management philosophy. Zola will certainly be the kind of boss who the players will immediately respect as they all know deep down that he could still do a better job than any of them.
Steve Clarke is rumoured as favourite to be his number 2 although Chelsea have today refused both Clarke’s resignation and West Ham the chance of speaking to him. As Zola’s Italy U21 coaching buddy Pierluigi Casiraghi has ruled himself out, from my perspective it’s tailor-made for Paolo DiCanio to step in and wreak his own brand of deputising, nihilistic mayhem. You know we’d all love it!
For the first time since our pre-2007/'08 enthusiasm was crushed within 5 minutes of the first half of the first game of the season, I am actually excited about the future - and with no real basis.
So let’s give Gianfranco a fair crack of the whip and try to give it ‘til at least halftime on Saturday before chanting “Zola out!”
4. Captain Meathead
John Terry was kind enough to give his slitty-eyed approval of Zola’s appointment, remarking that it would be the perfect place for him to hone his skills and gain the necessary experience to one day become Chelsea manager, as if we’re their feeder club.
Managerially speaking. We all know we are player-wise.
Of course, Terry infamously initially refused to sign a bumper contract over the absence of a clause allowing him to go straight into the manager’s chair at Stamford Bridge upon retiring as a player - as if that meathead knows how to do anything other than get kicked in the face or spunk the most important spot-kick of his life.
His presumptive arrogance really got my goat so, John, if someone’s kind enough to read this to you – go fuck yourself.
At the time of going to press, news broke that club sponsors XL have today gone into administration. Just as I buy the new kit with their failed moniker emblazoned all over it.
It makes you long for the days of trustworthy sponsors such as Dagenham Motors or BAC Windows…
6. And Lastly…
Anyone see that Soccer Aid claptrap on ITV at the weekend? Basically a few old pro’s played alongside and against a load of nobodies in aid of charity. It was largely missable, but I was tickled at one stage.
When I wasn’t throwing up at ITV’s routinely saccharine football coverage or cheering DiCanio’s lovely goal, for once in his life the usually infuriating Clive Tyldesley unknowingly out did himself:
*adopt Tyldesley’s overly serious commentary tone*
“Jaap Stam, forward to DiCanio. Lovely from DiCanio, who feeds Luis Figo. Figo… running at Craig David.”