Pages

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Slow, Dissolving Dream

"What's left for you and me?
I ask that question rhetorically"
- Alvvays, "In Undertow"


McNulty!

The West Ham board have been doing stupid things. It's The H List bat signal.

I am, I suspect, quite a long way behind the rest of you, but I have stumbled upon something that has rather simplified my life. Much like the brilliant, multi faceted Showtime drama "The Affair", this required alternate viewpoints and an ability to stop seeing only one side of the story, but after a decade of smashing my head fruitlessly against the wall of Sullivanism I have finally seen the light.

For those of you who have read The H List for a while, you will know that I have spent years battling against the way West Ham has been run. Why, I pondered, would a football club that has ambitions to break into the Champions League be managed this way? What logic was driving the baffling sequence of decisions that have been the hallmark of this decade of ownership? What, assuming you weren't a blackmail victim, would convince you that signing Carlos Sanchez was a good idea?

My repeated conclusion has been fairly straightforward; the people in charge of West Ham don't know what they are doing.

And, in fairness, the results have tended to back that up.

But after a while, I began to slightly question my logic. People do not tend to make billions while being idiots. They are certainly capable of poor decisions, but they aren't generally stupid. Now, there is the wrinkle that our owners made their fortunes in an unusual way. The requirements of making lots of money from porn are not exactly the same as those in manufacturing or finance. Sullivan and Gold didn't need a genius design, or fossil fuels or a whizz bang trading algorithim or anything unique like that. No, they simply needed to be prepared to operate in a murkier part of society than others had been prepared to do before them. They needed sharp elbows, a different take than wider society on sex, and a willingness to flirt with the laws of the day. I make no judgement about any of that, but it's also true that once they had that cash they then stuck most of into property and let market forces do the rest.

So those skills don't really translate to running a wider, more traditional business. Filming and selling hardcore pornography doesn't require business acumen so much as having a different view on prurience to the vast majority of the country. 

And so here we are in 2019 with West Ham having lost more Premier Leagues matches this decade than anyone else, and the club is still run and operated in exactly the same way it has been since Gold and Sullivan arrived in January 2010. And the club have duly finished the decade exactly where they started it - 17th in the Premier League, facing relegation and with no discernible plan for the future.

So with that in mind I just couldn't see the point of writing this column any more. How many ways can you say the same thing before it ceases to have any meaning?

Of course, following West Ham in the Olympic Stadium era has been an even more frustrating experience than any of us could have imagined. Rather than catapulting the club on to greater heights, it has instead become a test of strength. How much do you really love West Ham? Enough to give up the vast majority of the things you used to enjoy about football to continue watching them? Do you want to watch the same shit football but just from further away? Well, unbuckle and despise the ride because that's what you're doing.

And so my analysis of the club's owners still seemed pretty sound; they don't know what they're doing. I'm right, aren't I? Consider the league finishes of the club under the ownership of Terry Brown and then under David Sullivan:


Terry BrownFinishDavid SullivanFinish
1992-932nd (Div 1)2009-1017th
1993-9413th2010-1120th (Relegated)
1994-9514th2011-123rd (Championship)
1995-9610th2012-1310th
1996-9714th2013-1413th
1997-988th2014-1512th
1998-995th2015-167th
1999-009th2016-1711th
2000-0115th2017-1813th
2001-027th2018-1910th
2002-0318th (Relegated)
2003-044th (Championship)
2004-056th (Championship)
2005-069th

Five of the top six West Ham Premier League finishes happened under Terry Brown. So yeah, how good can you really be when you're demonstrably worse than a caravan park owner who thought we once got relegated because it was our turn. I say again (and again and again) - they don't know what they're doing.

Right?

But that just didn't sit easily with me. Wealthy people aren't always smart, and smart people aren't always wealthy, but unless you inherit your money the truth is that billionaires are likely to be smarter than the average bear.

So, what if my analysis was fine, but I was simply asking the wrong question?

"Why do they keep failing?" is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and "because they don't know what they're doing" is a very reasonable answer. But then I was hit by a notion not unlike Morrissey's double decker bus...

What if they're not failing?
What if this is fine?

What if the things that you want for West Ham are not the same as the owners?

And that, my friends, was when it all began to make a lot more sense. We had made the mistake of assuming that success for them was the same as success for us. And with every misplaced pass, every abysmal signing and every short term bodge job it came became ever more clear that this was simply not the case.


***

"I thought it started as a daydream
But I'm not dreaming anymore"
Mattiel, "Keep the Change"


Same

Firstly, I want you to click on this link and read the attached story, for it is key to everything I am about to posit.

For those of you with the work rate of a West Ham wide player, let me summarise. This link tells the story of how investment firm Silver Lake recently purchased a 10% stake in Manchester City's parent company for $500m. For those paying attention at the back, that values Manchester City at a cool $5bn. Now, this might seem as relevant to West Ham as the stock price of Waitrose to your local second hand car dealership, but sadly it's not.

Booming valuations of sports franchises have a knock on effect, and an astronomical valuation like this has the consequence of helping to raise the price of teams like West Ham. It matters not that City are run by an oil rich state and we are being run into the ground by snake oil salesmen - we occupy broadly the same real estate and that is all that matters. Call it trickle down economics, or call it a symbol of how fucked up the world is, but you can probably value West Ham somewhere around $500m nowadays assuming - and this is the kicker - that they remain a Premier League club.

And thus I began to view West Ham a little differently.

Us fans may pore over u23 score lines, scout Belgian central midfielders on YouTube and look longingly to the Bundesliga for a sexy young saviour, but the sad truth is that none of that matters. West Ham is not a club with aspirations about floating - West Ham is a club determined not to drown.

Now let me be clear about what I mean by this because I think this could be prettily easily construed as me suggesting that the owners are asset strippers or uninterested leeches, and I don't think that's really true. I believe that David Sullivan and David Gold would like West Ham to be successful, and I can even allow myself to be convinced that as supporters they feel the highs and lows just as we do. 

But their primary driver is simple; in summer 2021 the club can be sold without any of the proceeds needing to be repaid to the public purse. (*) Assuming that West Ham are still a Premier League club at that point and that $500m valuation holds, then Sullivan and Gold will be free to sell up and bank the kind of profit that one does not usually see when you flog an asset based in a leased building, constructed to last a fortnight.

So while I accept there is a nice spot in the Venn diagram where the things we want overlap with the owners, we can stop kidding ourselves about the wider dream. We aren't going to see £100m plans for training facilities or substantial investment in a new scouting and analytics set up, or a tonne of money being thrown at the women's team, because these things just cost money and depress the amount of the money the owners will trouser in a sale. You don't stick long term expenditure projects on a balance sheet when you're preparing to sell up. 

I don't doubt for a moment that the owners would like West Ham to be successful but that is a secondary consideration to avoiding relegation. Champions League football would be a wonderful boon to the valuation of the club, but it's a very long shot. As such, you are seeing a football club run more to avoid finishing 18th rather than with the intention of finishing 6th. And I have found that once I started viewing things through that prism, it all made a lot more sense.

Sullivan has always been prepared to spend money - and let me be clear here when I say that this is primarily because it's the clubs money and not his - but there has been a distinct lack of any kind of cohesive plan in any of it. Think of the endless words written on this site crying out for strategy, forward thinking purchases, better facilities, investment in the marginal things that might eke out the odd point here and there and then remember that the club is valued the same whether we finish 14th or 9th.

It's not that they don't care - they just don't care about what we care about.


***

"Anybody with a worried mind, could never forgive the sight
Of wicked snakes inside a place, you thought was dignified"
- Vampire Weekend, "Harmony Hall"


Just a fabulous group of people

I suspect a decent number of you are wondering what took me so long. This is all probably fairly obvious stuff. 

Perhaps I always realised this too but never wanted to admit it to myself. But let's be clear, the realisation that your football club isn't primarily concerned with winning football games is actually quite a hard thing to type in black and white. 

It is the end of the slow, dissolving dream that moving to Stratford was done to enhance the fortunes of the club, and instead is the realisation of a long gestating nightmare that the club can sit and fester until a buyer can be found who has the cash and wherewithal to try and do anything other than just exist. 

You see, all of those articles and those conversations and arguments about who to buy and sell were all had in good faith. They were all held by fans assuming that the owners were wanting the same thing as them. And while I don't doubt that Jack Sullivan really does love West Ham, and that David Gold would really like us to beat Palace instead of allowing Jordan Fucking Ayew to waltz through our defence, they have a hundred million reasons not to demand change.

The visit of Leicester was, in many ways, the perfect send off to this decade for West Ham. Here is a club who have climbed through the divisions, won the league, made a Champions League quarter final, weathered the death of their owner and most recently sold their best player for £80m while replacing him with a home grown kid and simultaneously improving their squad. They have plans for a monumental training ground and can attract top managers because it is seen as a premier place to work. They are, by any definition the antithesis of West Ham.

The owner of StatsBomb wrote this Twitter thread on Friday and while I broadly agree with him, he really should be using Leicester and not Liverpool to illustrate his point. But the wider issue that he correctly identifies is that the Premier League will leave teams like West Ham behind. We have survived so long because of our relatively higher income, and the general stupidity of those around us. In a couple of years that advantage will be gone, and while we may survive this year the writing is certainly on the wall for the near future. The current iteration of West Ham has the same bright future as the gramophone.


But I digress.

So, we play Leicester in the final game of the decade at 5.30 on a Saturday evening. The game isn't televised but kicks off late to allow Westfield shoppers to spend their cash in the daytime. You and me can wait. West Ham were, by pure coincidence, away on Boxing Day once again.

Our best player is Michail Antonio, who made such an impact when he arrived in 2015 that David Gold was tricked into tweeting a picture of him with a missing persons report. Having settled in, he was then used by the fans favourite manager of the decade - Slaven Bilic - as a right back, and fucked our only chance of ever making the Champions League.

Years later, he is by some distance the most effective player in a team featuring four £20m+ signings, and without him we look like Destiny's Child sans Beyonce. He starts on the bench here having crashed a £200k Lamborghini into someone's house on Christmas Day, while dressed as a snowman.

And that, my friends, is pretty much the only three paragraphs you will ever need to explain your support of West Ham to a non believer. 


Not even close to being the biggest car crash of this Christmas

So Leicester arrive, play their reserves and beat us so comfortably that Manuel Pellegrini just gives up and lets some small children in the seats behind him make the substitutions. The crowning moment came in the second half when Issa Diop produced a piece of defending that looked suspiciously like when I play my kids at FIFA and I press all the wrong buttons and my player does a goal celebration instead of a sliding tackle.

And after all that, and since the time I started writing this piece, Pellegrini was sacked.

***

"Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know then what a drag it is to see you"
- Bob Dylan "Positively Fourth Street"

He will, one assumes, be followed by David Moyes, who ought to have been given greater consideration two summers ago and we will begin the now customary annual bailing of water in the hope of making it through to the summer where we can, ahem, rebuild.

People will be upset about Moyes and see it as a regressive, uninspired choice without putting the pieces together that this is a regressive, uninspiring club. The team is listless and without direction because the club is too. There is no culture of success or excellence anywhere at West Ham and that is reflected in everything that happens at the club. There is a reason that every interaction with supporters is seen as transactional; there is a reason that kids don't want to go the to Stadium; there is a reason that the Academy doesn't produce good players. The culture is one of abject mediocrity that even hard working, dedicated employees cannot transcend. It hangs over the club like a shroud and is Karren Brady's great bequeathment to us. Not bad for someone who is hardly ever here.

Managers have to be paid outrageously to come, because they must work within the restrictions laid down by the Board. No long term planning, no vision and nothing to harm the balance sheet. For this privilege Pellegrini took home £8m a year, and it's why I have no sympathy for him. He came back from a retirement in China and changed absolutely nothing about the club. He took that money and shut up about what was needed for West Ham. He deserves nothing and can't piss off soon enough, what with his main achievement being to transform Sebastian Haller from pretty good to Priti Patel.

And in that vein, why do we think so many of our players clearly don't give a shit about West Ham? What linked Payet, Arnautovic, Diame, Sakho, Hernandez, Carroll et al was that they all fundamentally understood that they were playing for a club with no ambition. And thus, when the chance came for them to better themselves or enrich their fortunes they took it. And I don't blame them one bit. We paid Javier Hernandez more than Harry Kane, but look at what Spurs were able to offer their player. It is no wonder that the team so frequently look like they'd rather be anywhere else than here. After all, so would half the crowd.

So Moyes will come, and this time he will have more leverage and I suspect that he may wrest a little more control away from Sullivan. I don't have any particular issue with appointing Moyes as he has a vision and some semblance of an idea about how to build a stumbling club. And frankly, who do people think would be better who would realistically come? Frankly the appointment of Moyes or Chris Hughton or Danny Cowley is all a bit moot. Nobody is going to be able to thrive under these circumstances.

Either way, I think it's likely that Moyes will be paid an eyewatering amount and given a contract up to that magic 2021 date and then everything will be reassessed. Yet more treading water and frantically hoping not to drown, and all the while ensuring that the balance sheet is kept pristine.

In some ways I don't even really blame Sullivan and Gold for their stance. They have, correctly in my view, decided that success in English football would require an amount of cash and intellectual heft that they do not have. Young players with resale value require scouting, higher transfer fees outlaid on less sure things, and giving up control to others. Sullivan won't do that, and instead prefers to sign the likes of Yarmolenko or Hernandez because he thinks he knows what he is getting for a shorter, controlled period of time. In much the same way as Mike Ashley, the owners are simply sitting in and waiting for someone else to come and make the investment that they cannot.

But what an impact that is having on the club. This is starting to feel terminal. Everywhere I look there are empty seats and apathy is starting to take the deepest root I have ever seen amongst our support. I still feel there will be one more Burnley incident before the whole thing goes full Wimbledon, but it's not an exaggeration to say that "I just don't care any more" feels like the new refrain from the terraces. Maybe it's me, and a reflection of my own ennui, but I don't think so. Fans aren't stupid and watching a club be transparently run for the benefit of two individuals has poisoned the experience. And that stadium. That fucking stadium.

My own view is that fans have been extraordinarily patient with these owners, and far too willing to forget old mistakes in the face of a brand new fixture list and a couple of sunny pre season friendlies. But that's a part of the great set of lies we mid-table fans must tell ourselves. We have to pretend that these new signings are the ones, or that the chairman really is trying to produce a younger, faster team even as he extends Pablo Zabaleta's contract, because otherwise what is the point?

Well, once again we're forced to ask that question - what is the point? Nobody believes in the slow dissolving dream anymore, and we can't go back to what we had before. I don't have the answer but I'm happier now I don't have to try and pretend that the club are trying to win. Moyes is fine because it doesn't matter who they appoint. It's all about drifting and listless nothingness. It's about hanging on until something better comes along. It's the fading and dying of dreams.

Happy New Year everyone.

(*) This article contains a link to a City AM piece that incorrectly states that the earliest date at which the club can be sold without a slice going to the public purse is 2021. This date is actually 2023 (thanks to Mark Inskipp on KUMB for picking this up). It doesn't change my thoughts about any of the above - it's just a longer period of purgatory for us. 

15 comments:

  1. Excellent article and probably 90% true, which is pretty high when compared to most other articles about the club.
    Appointing Moyes suits both the club (reasonably cheap and available)and Moyes (desperate for a job). A lot of fans won't be happy about him comng in but, then again, most fans thought Pellegrini was a great appointment. Just shows how much we know!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Brilliant article. As a Norwich fan, it makes me so glad even just for the fact that our owners give a shit about Norwich.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brian1:07 PM

    Nailed it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent article. I believe this reflects the clubs aim, and even suspect that this has been the case since before the two D's took control.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous5:10 PM

    Spot on apart from the bit about Gold and Sullivan peddling hard core pornography, it was soft core packaged as hard core. As I recall one aggrieved punter even tried to sue them under the Trades Description act.
    They've applied the same principle to their ownership of West Ham, constant struggle to survive packaged as striving for the next level.
    Why change a winning formula?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ask the Blues. .. Sullivan is bad news.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent write up and almost nails everything with some exceptions.
    It makes an assumption that the value of club will more or less stay relatively consistent as long as we stay in the Premier League.
    I think this underestimates the devaluation factors of:
    1. An expensive playing squad where player values could well be falling rapidly in a continuously failing climate.
    2. Lack of any kind of coherent footballing strategy in place. For a "football" club this is a glaring omission and one that any prospective buyer would use to good negotiating effect.
    3. A totally disenfranchised, angry and apathetic support base. Who knows how broken the relationship between club and supporter will be by the time that Sullivan sells up (if he does). Again though, this is a huge factor that cannot be underestimated.
    4. A home venue that's "moderately" liked at best.

    All of the above will have a very significant bearing on the club's market value. I'm not sure how much Sullivan understands all of this.......which indeed may well explain his lack of attention to detail in such matters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good points that crossed my mind too. This is I believe where Brady is deemed (by them at least) employed to fulfil her crucial role (can't see what else she brings) of controlling the message. In an environment where the concept as outlined in the article, is to achieve as much as possible on as little as possible outlay you need the manipulative and marketing bullshittery of the likes of a Brady to pull it off in such a plan (Cummings lite). It's all about fire fighting and suppression of negativity the inevitable hiccups create, though they of course totally under estimated unsurprisingly, the extent of all that, beyond the initial move, caused, at least in part due to the unexpected progress of average teams in general the last decade through focused investment and clear, calculated professional management. This focused their own mediocrity by comparison especially when the season's favorite to be relegated won the League, breaking the percieved supremacy of the untouchable elite. They thought a bit of investment and manipulation of the figures before the move would quell negativity and allow them to coast towards relative stability if little real chance of anything more. Big miscalculation in various ways by out of depth owners as it turned out but no going back now. The troubles 18mths ago seriously threatened the very aspects you mention and their responses clearly revealed their fears that their plan would colapse. The answer? They combined spending around 3 years of spend in one Summer with overt attempts as they did so to suppress & split fan organisations & add stricter controls to the stadium environment hoping to again coast through the remaining years without more clashes damaging their dream putting off potential buyers.

      They employed Pellers to give an air of professionalism & expectation when his legs were in truth planted in quicksand, hoping he'd be high profile enough, with that illusionary, to sustain the lowest level necessary to both placate the fans & suggest progress restoring the coasting plan. Its failed, more fire fighting so in real desperation it's back to Moyes who likely demanded more change than Pellers ever did when he was previously discarded. Yes Brady the grand manipulator has been busy.

      Its always been that wacky balance act, knowing they can't create an environment that truly covers the problems you point out, but can't miss an opportunity, so we get in its place the gamble they can exert enough control to restrict, manipulate & hide the downside enough to get away with it, to still make the final killing they desire even if the respect & boosted profile they crave (let alone fan love that many still give them) has long gone out of the window along the way. The most cynical part is that they are happy to, if they can't convince or emasculate them, shred the devoted fans as quickly as they can replace them with wannabes and tourists. A servile if large audience will likely not put off any new owner it's not harmed Man City but its still no doubt their major gamble now to reesta lish a level that just keeps that audience happy & hopeful enough to get them to 2023. The message will no doubt under Moyes be the fans expertations were unreasonable rather than it being their own and top ten being the 3 year plan not Champions League blah, blah, blah with the eventual sales talk being about leaving the club in a great condition for the next owners to do all that they initially claimed they would do in the hope that should that new owner eventually succeed, history will rewrite their own story, or as with Brum if it doesn't come to pass, it will be our fault for wanting them gone & careful what you wish for. I'm sure Brady is already rewriting both versions of this future history.

      Delete
  8. Anonymous8:51 AM

    This is pretty much what I have been thinking recently. We as fans look at West Ham with emotion, which is not in line with the owners. Their primary driver is money, with the success of the football club on the pitch playing second fiddle. To make money in the seedy world of porn, you have to not give shit about the very people that are making you the money and that is the same at West Ham. They dont care if we are disgruntled, or if we put a few negative tweets out there, they care only that the balance sheet is healthy and they keep increasing their net worth year on year. Once you step outside the bubble and realise that this is the case then it all makes sense, not that this brings any kind of joy. South Bank (@CragSloakes)

    ReplyDelete
  9. You have perfectly brought together all the arguments, thoughts and insights I have wrestled with and struggled to combine into a coherent whole over recent years. Done my work for me and overall the best response I have so far read anywhere to the likes of those be it amongst the fanbase or in the media (are you listening Jim Whyte) who still for whatever form of delusion they suffer from, still defend these vultures who run our club.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Best analysis I’ve read as to where we are. Steve Law

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great piece of writing

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great post. The thing I don’t get is why they appointed Pellegrini at all. Moyes was a safer and cheaper option and would surely have suited their ambitions better .

    ReplyDelete
  13. Haven't even read this yet but I'm so excited it's back

    ReplyDelete