The dragon awaits
Saturday 6 November 2010 has been a date long marked in David Gold’s diary; his first return to Birmingham City since he and David Sullivan sold the club to Carson Yeung just over a year ago. That the pair travel there with West Ham United – which they bought two months after leaving St Andrew’s – bottom of the Premier League only adds to the occasion.
“I was at Birmingham for 16 years and made many friends there, I even know dozens of the fans by name,” says Gold. “Birmingham’s result is one I still look out for, but we go there fighting for our lives and looking to win the game.”
Sat in the directors’ box, Gold and Sullivan will be absorbed by what takes place on the pitch tomorrow, but for the former there will be much else to take in. A year has passed but Gold remains bitter about the manner in which he left Birmingham, having arrived in March 1993 and overseen the club’s rise from the third tier to the Premier League.
Gold had, after all, planned on staying after the £81.5m takeover was completed, with Yeung offering him an honorary post only for it to be revoked. The board has put that down to financial liabilities left at Birmingham by the previous owners, and their subsequent recruitment to Upton Park of the managing director Karren Brady – matters which eventually led to an out-of-court settlement – but for Gold, the episode was personal.
“I was 100% sure I was going to be given a position so for there to be a change of mind was devastating,” he says. “The acrimony is with Peter Pannu [Birmingham’s vice-chairman] and Sammy Yu [a former member of the board] as I don’t think Carson [Yeung] was part of the decision to remove me from the board.
“They’ve never spoken to me directly but Pannu claimed in an article that I was too elderly to be involved at the club. I found that disgusting and insulting.” How, then, will Gold react if he crosses paths with Pannu tomorrow? “I’m a big boy, I’ll shake his hand. But will I invite him out for dinner? No.”
How the home fans react to seeing Gold and Sullivan again is of interest given the anger they displayed against the pair following Birmingham’s relegation to the Championship in May 2008, but for the owners all that matters is a West Ham win.
After seeing the club just survive last season, the owners decided in the summer to replace Gianfranco Zola as the manager with Avram Grant. Yet the team have won only once in 10 league games since, albeit having reached the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup.
Gold and Sullivan’s handling of Zola came under criticism, most notably from the Italian himself, but the former has no regrets about the decision they took. “When we arrived [in January] the morale of the club was horrendous and while we liked Franco he didn’t have the qualities we wanted,” Gold says. “A change was needed and apart from the position we’re in the manager is doing a good job.”
Nevertheless, there is a hesitant pause as Gold assesses how long Grant can keep his job should results fail to improve. “We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it,” is his eventual message.
For now it is Birmingham who occupy his mind and tomorrow he will hope for a less stressful return to the West Midlands than three months ago, when he came under physical attack after West Ham’s 3-0 defeat at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. “It was horrendous,” says the 73-year-old. “I was leaving the ground when this mother of a boy in a wheelchair waved me down. I told my driver to stop, got out of the car and had a picture taken with them. I then got back in to drive off, but we hit a red light by this pub, and it was full of Villa fans.
“Most of them were waving and smiling, but then this guy carrying a bottle came charging over with the most extreme ferocity I’ve ever seen. He hurled the bottle at the car and it smashed into a thousand pieces. Then another guy came over with a pint glass and did the same. They then started kicking the car and tried to get in. Luckily, it had locked itself but I was fearing for my safety. These thugs looked like they wanted to cause serious harm.”
All in all it has been a trying time for the man who grew up gazing at Upton Park from his home at 442 Green Street, but there is plenty to be optimistic about with West Ham’s £115m debts slowly being cleared and plans for them to take over the 2012 Olympic Stadium progressing.
“Owning this club has proved difficult, but I have no regrets,” Gold says. “Things could change dramatically if we beat Birmingham. It’s a huge game for the club, and for myself.”