Arsenal’s equivalent of the EastEnd
Silver and gold everywhere. David Sullivan walks proudly among his glimmering pots, touching them lovingly and telling stories of their acquisition. Correct, this is not West Ham’s trophy room. Sullivan owns Britain’s biggest collection of Victorian horse racing trophies, wonderfully intricate designs, once awarded for races like the Ascot Cup, the Grand National and the Goodwood Cup.
He owns 15. Maybe 16. ‘I don’t even count this one,’ he says, reaching for the 1954 Royal Hunt Cup. It is terribly plain compared to the prize for winning the same race a century earlier, which boasts several well-antlered silver stags atop a hardwood base. It is the size of a microwave oven and acts as the centrepiece of the room.
West Ham co-owner David Sullivan
Horseracing is one of Sullivan’s passions. Bookshelves in his office are crammed floor to ceiling with racing literature and racing art decorates the walls. He owns racehorses, too. Four years ago, David Junior, named after Sullivan’s son, won the Group One Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown but these days West Ham’s co-owner is in the grip of another obsession.
‘We’ve got some new horses and we’re trying to find some West Ham names,’ he says. ‘We wanted to call one The Hammer but we can’t, there’s already been one. We tried Claret and Blue but that’s gone. We could try Claret ‘n’ Blue. Look out for a two-year-old running soon with a West Ham name. It will win.’
Sullivan and his business partner David Gold bought 50 per cent of West Ham for around £50million in January and earlier this week paid £8m for another 10 per cent.
They recently sacked manager Gianfranco Zola having narrowly avoided relegation and will next week unveil Avram Grant as the new boss before embarking upon what they hope will prove a busy summer of business in the transfer market.
‘It’s virtually a done deal and it’s almost certainly Avram Grant,’ says Sullivan. ‘We believe in going with experience and Avram has 34 years’ experience.
‘I like him very much. He’s completely the opposite of what I imagined. I imagined a dour, boring, serious man with no humour. In fact he’s got a very dry sense of humour with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of football. Wonderful. He tells jokes and stories. He’s led a full life and he’s learned from that.
‘He will get a four-year contract but we won’t judge him for two or three years, by then we’ll see if he’s as good as we think he is. He will inherit a very unbalanced team and it will take time to sort out with the limited resources we have and the inflated transfer fees and wages.
‘We interviewed three or four others. One said he would come but wanted £7m in wages for him and his staff. Another said he’d come but would want a minimum transfer budget of £40m. And another was thinking of coming until he had an offer from elsewhere that was too good to refuse.
‘Avram is the man for the job. A superb candidate with a very good record. What he did at Chelsea was under-rated. The team were going backwards when he took over and he almost won the Champions League and the Premier League.
‘He did very well at Portsmouth. He wasn’t there from the start of the season, he inherited a team which was ripped apart underneath him, he had points deducted, but he got them to the FA Cup final. With his points-per-game they would have stayed up.’
David Sullivan’s palatial home in Essex
Sullivan enjoys statistics. His Sky Sports Yearbook is never far from his grasp. The West Ham page is marked with a scrap of a florescent pink Post-it note for easy access. He delves in to illustrate how Matthew Upson has barely missed a game in recent seasons and to prove the opposite is true of Kieron Dyer.
In his garden, overlooking a deer sanctuary, Sullivan turns to admire his home. ‘I think it looks nice from this angle,’ he says. ‘People think it looks like Buckingham Palace but I don’t. That wasn’t the intention. I always wanted a Georgian mansion like in Gone With the Wind.’
Birch Hall has 14 bedrooms, tennis courts, two swimming pools, an indoor bowling alley and a Japanese garden. There are two football goals and an old ball where Sullivan’s two sons enjoy a kickabout. He picks up the ball and kicks into the air. It skews off in an impossible direction. He laughs and says: ‘David Gold used to be a very good player.’
The mansion was built 18 years ago after Sullivan bought the previous property and flattened it. Back inside his office, he rummages through files in a cupboard and retrieves photos of the old house to prove it deserved to be demolished. He’s right, it was ugly.
‘Everyone wants to be popular,’ says Sullivan. ‘But sometimes you have to do things that are for good rather than popularity. Hard decisions have to be made.
David Sullivan and the family silverware
‘In life, popular decisions are not always the best decisions. You have to decide if you want to do the best for your club or if you want to be popular. Me? I want to do the best for the club and I hope over time people will see that, nine times out of 10, I’ll be right. But nobody’s right all the time.’
The subject is up for discussion as Sullivan has recently sacked Zola, accusing him of breaching his contract by openly criticising the board’s effort to sign a player (Graham Dorrans from West Bromwich Albion) behind his back. Zola is fighting the decision.
‘It’s a legal matter,’ says Sullivan. ‘All I can say is that I hope and expect it can be resolved amicably in the next couple of weeks. I’d like to thank him for the job he did, he worked under very difficult circumstances, and wish him all the best for the future.
Former Portsmouth boss Avram Grant
‘I’m a person who looks forward not backwards and I’ll never really comment on his time as manager at West Ham because I think it’s wrong. It’s time to look forward.’
For Zola to be fired for speaking out seems ironic, given that Sullivan has not been shy of criticising the manager and his players. The co-owner even posted his fury on the club website after a 3-1 defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
‘I don’t think it was controversial,’ he insists. ‘That was just an awful performance. You have to tell people how you feel. In the next match they played Stoke and lost to a bit of magic by Ricardo Fuller. That could have gone either way but Wolves was a whitewash.
‘Burnley away was another appalling performance. Our teams fly to all these games and stay in five-star hotels. We might as well have gone on the bus and stayed in a Travelodge. Would we have played any worse?’
Sullivan accepts he can be impulsive and outspoken but denies a charge of deliberately undermining Zola. ‘I’ve always been very supportive of managers,’ he insists. ‘I think it’s a bad mistake to make managerial changes in mid-season. Hull, Burnley and Portsmouth changed managers in mid-season and all were relegated.
‘I believe Mr Zola had every entitlement to remain manager for the season. He wanted me to buy Benni McCarthy, I bought Benni McCarthy. That was the one player he wanted to sign and I signed him.
‘Benni McCarthy’s body-fat measurement is 24.2 per cent. Mine is 25.4 per cent. Benni McCarthy is nearly as fat as me. I try to do aerobics in the morning but I’m 61 years old.
‘He’s the one West Ham player I want to go to the World Cup because he might come back fitter.
‘Franck Queudrue once came back to Birmingham at 18 per cent but I’ve never known any footballer over 20 per cent. He got so out of shape. He came to us overweight and got injured and gradually it got worse.
‘I don’t know at what point this becomes a breach of contract. It probably doesn’t. But Frankie Dettori starves himself to get to the right weight. Usain Bolt wouldn’t be the Olympic 100metre champion if he put on a stone.
‘It is not unreasonable to keep to a diet when you’re a professional sportsman. It ought to be a breach of contract.
‘I know it’s the wrong thing to say but I hope none of our England players go to the World Cup. I’d like them to have a nice break in the summer and be ready for next season.
‘I was elated when Carlton Cole wasn’t picked because he’s got legs which have taken a lot of grief and a good break is what he needs. He’s a bit like Ledley King, he’s got a recurring problem but properly managed he can play with it.
David Sullivan salutes
‘He might struggle to play two games a week but he’s playing 30 games a season, every season. Whether he can play 45 I don’t know. But every game for England is a game less for West Ham.’
Visitors to Sullivan’s home step through the door to be confronted by a lifesize waxwork of a butler. Waiting outside Sullivan’s office, you are not alone. There is another waxwork, a bespectacled old man, waiting too.
Amid the sparkling racing trophies, hundreds of framed family photographs, a grand piano and a collection of rocking horses, they add an eerie fairground atmosphere to the pale, palatial decor.
A gnome at David Sullivan’s home
Working at his desk with the door wide open, Sullivan shouts an apology for keeping us waiting but we’re early. He hates lateness. He is wearing a West Ham shirt with his name printed across the shoulders. No number. He doesn’t always work in club colours, he says, but club business takes up most of his working life at the moment, so it’s appropriate. I’m more hands on than some because I realise managers are fallible,’ says Sullivan. ‘I realise managers are not gods. I realise actually I’ve probably got as much experience as they’ve got.
‘I’m not a great player but some of the best managers have not been great players. I’ve had 18 years’ experience of running football clubs in the Championship and the Premier League. I’ve watched thousands of games and until I find a manager who I have 100 per cent belief in his judgment, I have to have some involvement. Otherwise I’m not doing my job.
‘If I was chairman of Arsenal, I’d probably leave it to Arsene Wenger because he’s proven season after season to have done a wonderful job. What’s he’s achieved with the money he’s spent is quite remarkable.
‘Arsenal is our model. Myself, Avram, David Gold and Karren Brady would love to turn West Ham into the Arsenal of east London. The team, the club, there’s so much right there. It’s so well run.
‘We’ll talk and make joint decisions but the ultimate decision will be Avram’s. He will pick 95 per cent of the transfers. Maybe one in 20, I might beg a favour and say I really fancy somebody and get him to take a player on my head and maybe one in 20 I’ll veto one of his because over the years I’ve seen managers buy players they really shouldn’t have bought.’
Sullivan stands on his doorstep, flanked by a pair of claret and blue gnomes. ‘Look at them, they don’t even match,’ he chuckles, as he waves goodbye.
Good luck Avram, it will not be boring.