Ah, the autumn of 2003, with imitation Russian hats for sale on Fulham Broadway amidst gathering hope that plucky “Chelski”, bankrolled by glamorous Russian gazillionaire Roman Abramovich, were going finally to break open the Arsenal – Manchester United deadlock. In the three years since then the loudest criticism the Chelsea owner has had to endure has been that the traditional big boys can’t keep up. A few voices have stubbornly alleged darkness in Abramovich’s past, but on the whole he’s been welcomed into the English game as the endearing outsider who rescued the pauper princes of the Kings Road, which must leave West Ham United fans a bit bewildered at the number of commentators rushing to demand an inspection by the Pied Piper of the new investment poised to revolutionise their club.
Nobody knows yet exactly where the proposed take over money would come from, but almost everyone outside the immediate West Ham family seems to believe it will all end in tears. Meanwhile, the Upton Park faithful, used to being able to portray themselves as everybody’s favourite underdog, are torn between the glee of anticipation and acute discomfort at the sudden prospect of swimming alongside the big sharks.
By the time Abramovich arrived Chelsea supporters were long used to welcoming the likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, but the Hammers' heritage is their Academy. Chelsea bought in world cup winners, but West Ham had grown their own long before and despite having to sell half an England team in recent years the philosophy of the current promotion winners and cup finalists is still one of careful purchases blended with home grown talent. The arrival of two high-profile South Americans would have seemed less jarring at any of London’s other Premiership clubs.
Manager Alan Pardew was quick to point out that such sudden bounty was not necessarily all for the good. A vital feature of West Ham’s recent success has been the team spirit at the club. Now key men like Matthew Etherington, Nigel Reo-Coker and Premiership leading goalscorer Bobby Zamora are looking over their shoulders and, after a promising start, the side has claimed only one goal and one draw in their last three outings.
Photo via somma1977's Flickr stream.
Football history in the capital supports the idea that dramatic transfer coups are destabilising. In 1996 Millwall proudly unveiled Russian internationals Sergei Yuran and Vassili Kulkov only to be overjoyed to see the back of them five months later, their failure on the pitch matched by stories of excessive drinking and bad attitude off it. European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen joined second division Charlton from Barcelona in 1982 with the idea that increased crowds and sponsorship would pay his wages, but three months later this hadn’t materialised and he was having to be persuaded to board the team bus bound for a 7-1 defeat at Burnley shortly before the club had to sell him. Ricky Villa’s winner in the 1981 cup final is legend now amongst Tottenham fans but three years earlier their team got off to a wretched start as it tried desperately to accommodate him and fellow Argentinian Osvaldo Ardiles, while West Ham fans will hardly need reminding of Florin Raducioiou’s trip to Harvey Nicholls and Marco Boogers’s fondness for caravans.
Pardew was reassured by contract terms that tie Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to the club at least for the remainder of this season, so there is some time for everyone to make the necessary adjustments, but he also expressed the hope that any takeover would be completed soon, raising the prospect of further disruption with yet more stellar names arriving in January. By the start of next season West Ham’s starting eleven might be barely recognisable from the team that were moments away from cup glory in May.
The most interesting question is, would anybody care? Would West Ham fans raised on the heroic deeds of Moore, Bonds, Brooking and Devonshire happily abandon that for a crack at Champions League football and the Premiership title? Recent evidence suggests that the two things that will cause a mutiny in your supporter base are borrowing heavily to fund the takeover (Manchester United) and moving the ground significantly from its origins (Wimbledon). A mooted move to the 2012 Olympic stadium seems unlikely to alienate Hammers fans, but uncertainty about the financial backing and the exact terms by which Tevez and Mascherano come to be in the East End is making them jittery.
A straightforward explanation is less than likely. Many takeovers remain shrouded in mystery and the true picture can be near impossible to piece together. Even now, few people know what really happened at Leeds over the last few years, though it is true that players such as Danny Mills and Michael Duberry were acquired on a sale and lease back arrangement organised by Ray Ranson, one of the defenders left in Villa’s wake at Wembley. Whatever the differences between that and the deal for the two Argentinians, early perceptions of arrangements where agencies outside football have a significant interest in a player’s value appear lukewarm at best while rumours abound that Tevez and Mascherano, originally lauded at previous club Corinthians in Brazil, left a struggling team under a cloud.
West Ham fans are familiar with what happens if success doesn’t arrive and selling becomes imperative. Pardew joined a second tier club still recovering from a widespread squad dismantling, but was able to return it to the big time in a manner the club’s supporters could recognise. He’s wary, but genuinely excited by the opportunity to reach for the highest level that significant new investment would bring. The fans won’t get a say in whether or not that happens, but could vote with their feet if they objected.
After years of freedom to join in with those scoffing at Chelsea’s route to the very top are they willing to swallow their pride and join them in the jet set or will AFC West Ham soon be a fixture on the lower league circuit? As clubs race to acquire super-wealthy benefactors would you care where the money came from if the penalty was being left behind?