(N43) West Ham - will they survive? - Sports Guardian; 30th April 2011

Goodbye Parker, Upson, Cole. Hello £40m black hole
- what the drop means for West Ham - by Jamie Jackson

Relegation from the Premier League would lead to squad break-up and financial crisis

Manchester City, Blackburn. Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland are all that now stand between West Ham United and oblivion. Six years after Alan Pardew guided the East End club back into the Premier League, Avram Grant has four games to prise his side off the bottom of the table, starting with tomorrow's Eastlands meeting with Roberto Mancini's team.

Plunge into the Championship and a financial shadow will darken over the club. West Ham have around £80m of debt and will become tenants of the Olympic Stadium at Stratford for the start of the 2014-15 season, legal challenges allowing. Balancing the books will be far trickier in the proposed 60,000-seat stadium without the £45m a-year TV money from the Premier League, despite what the club and the Olympic Park Legacy Company may claim. Without Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal as visitors, it seems unlikely that in the Championship they could lift this season's average attendance of 33,000 to 60,000.

Asked how nervous he is regarding the challenge of staying up Grant says:
"It's money time now. We need to be at our best. This is the money time." David Sullivan, the co-owner, is clear about the financial consequences if his club sink. He says: "There would be a £40m hole in our cash flow which would have to be met by myself and [co-owner] David Gold."

If West Ham are relegated it will be the beginning of the end for an underachieving squad. Sullivan again questioned the players' commitment this week, rating their prospects of staying up at only "25%". Scott Parker, West Ham’s only star turn this campaign, is exempted from this criticism. But he would be sold to raise cash, though relegation would slice his value from around £15m to £10m. The midfielder would certainly be followed by many more, among them Carlton Cole, Robert Green, Mark Noble, Demba Ba, plus Thomas Hitzlsperger, the out-of-contract Matthew Upson and the loan signings Victor Obinna, Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane.

These are all seasoned enough performers to suggest West Ham should not be two points from safety, and Julian Dicks, the former West Ham left-back, is clear where the blame lies.

"It is down to the players," he says. "I have seen an improvement for certain games but it's not been continuous."

This has been the tale since Gold and Sullivan bought the club last January. After Gianfranco Zola managed to avoid the drop but was sacked last summer, Grant took over, only to suffer a whispering campaign against him.

"I blame the manager because I've always said the most important person at a club is him," Tony Cottee, the former West Ham striker, says. "I was extremely disappointed with Avram Grant's appointment."

On the opening day West Ham left Villa Park having lost 3-0, and a turbulent eight months began. Standing 18th then, Grant and his troops had to wait nearly five more months for the table to show they were above the relegation zone.

Ahead of the visit of Wigan on 27 November West Ham were bottom, so the club designated the match a make-or-break "save our season" encounter. A 3-1 win followed but they remained 20th. When a ' Freddie Sears strike confirmed a 2-0 win at Wolves on New Year's day, Grant's mantra that fortunes would improve had a glimmer of credence.

Yet matters on and off the pitch were about to worsen for him. On 8 January Karren Brady, the vice-chairman, used her Saturday newspaper column to reveal that the deal to sign Steve Sidwell from Aston Villa was vetoed by her, not the manager, who then had to deal with awkward questions regarding this intervention. A week later West Ham were bottom, following a 5-0 reverse at Newcastle United, and Arsenal were due in east London.

That morning, reports claimed that Grant would be sacked whatever the result, with Martin O'Neill lined up to replace him. The owners were forced into denials and the sense of turbulence surrounding the club was heightened by the rumours. Arsenal defeated West Ham 3-0 but somehow Grant clung on. Cottee again: "The owners deserve credit for rescuing West Ham when they did as the club would have gone bankrupt. But since then they've made mistakes including the handling of the Martin O'Neill situation. If they'd sacked Avram Grant first they'd have got Martin."

Since that farrago, West Ham have escaped the dreaded drop zone for only a fortnight in March. Now, four defeats from their past four outings - West Ham's poorest sequence since the campaign's opening - have them once more in trouble.

"The ramifications of relegation don't bear thinking about," Cottee says. "They're £80m in debt [and] pay a fortune' in wages. The top ones would leave, the younger players would be vulnerable to the bigger clubs: exactly what happened in 2003 when the club was relegated. And, they move to the new stadium in 2014."

If West Ham overcome the legal challenges by Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient they will have to invest at least £95m in Stratford. This includes a £40m loan from Newham council, extending the debt to £120m. The OPLC says it has assurances that relegation Would not affect the club's ability to take over the stadium, and Ian Tomkins, the club's Olympic Stadium director, says: "The business plan has been modelled on different scenarios. The stadium is not only about West Ham United - concerts, potential naming rights, there's a whole range of [financial] opportunities.

"It is about taking West Ham United to the next level, breaking out of what can become an almost cyclical pattern of staying up and then the threat of relegation."
Grant is still hopeful he can arrest the pattern now, and start building a firm base over the summer, with Premier League status intact. He says: "I like this stage of the season because you see the real character, the real players."

Jamie Jackson

Olympic Stadium

There are doubts over West Ham United's ability to fill the Olympic Stadium

Five unanswered questions
about the Olympic Stadium move

Over what time frame will the Newham loan be repaid?
West Ham's partner, Newham council, has controversially loaned £40m to the joint venture that will operate the stadium and charge the club rent. West Ham have said only that they will repay the loan as quickly as possible but have not said over what time frame.

Will the multi-use business plan payoff?
Each of the partners (including Live Nation, Essex County Cricket Club and UK Athletics) has been guaranteed a specific number of days under a calendar drawn up as part of the submission to the Olympic Park Legacy Company. UK Athletics has been guaranteed at least 20 days but has already admitted that there are not any events, apart from the world athletics championships, that will attract more than a few thousand spectators.

When will the lease be signed?
The OPLC and West Ham say negotiations over the final lease are continuing as planned but lawyers say they will not be able to sign it until the judicial review challenges issued by Spurs and Orient have been heard. Barry Hearn, the Orient owner, believes that could take 18 months. Originally, the OPLC and West Ham had hoped to have the lease signed by the end of the financial year and are already a month past that deadline. Depending on how long the legal battle drags on, plans to begin the £95m conversion project straight after the Games, in time for the 2014-15 season, could be at risk. That could have implications for the OPLC’s wider regeneration master plan.

What is the detail of the west Ham business plan?
West Ham are in effect underwriting the non-profit making elements of the plan - UK Athletics, community use etc. The dub insists that even on Championship forecasts it can easily meet the terms of the loan, which is underwritten by both owners, while continuing to pay down debt and compete for players. But there is no more detail beyond that in the public domain, beyond the vague promises of David Gold and David Sullivan.

"The ramifications of relegation don't bear thinking about. The club is already £80m in debt"

Scott Parker West Ham

The midfielder Scott Parker is one of a number of leading players who will leave West Ham if they are relegated

Photograph: Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Will they be able to fill the stadium?
Whether the club are in the Premier League or not, there remains a question mark over whether West Ham will be able to fill the stadium once any initial burst of enthusiasm has passed. They claim that the improved transport links and the allure of the Olympic Park will grow their fan base. They also claim that retractable seats will bring fans closer to the action, but some stadium designers question how that can be done. And given that they plan to give away 6,000 tickets for each match to local schoolchildren and have vowed that families will gain entry for the same price as a single existing ticket at Upton Park, they may struggle to keep those promises while bringing in enough revenue to compete on and off the pitch.

Owen Gibson

Sports Guardian; 30th April 2011

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1/5/2011 Last updated 1/5/2011