Express meets Sullivan
ARGUING about the past at Birmingham can wait. So can debating West Ham’s future. It is the London club’s present peril that David Sullivan is determined to address.
“We really can’t get relegated,” he said, putting today’s match at St Andrews into the only context he cares about.
Sullivan andbusiness partner David Gold were Birmingham’s owners for 16 tumultuous years before selling up 11 months ago, and return for the first time today as joint chairmen of the Hammers.
There is so much acrimony that Birmingham have banned Gold from the ground. But West Ham’s position at the bottom of the Premier League is what concerns Sullivan, causing him to lose sleep.
He said: “I wake up 10 times during the night thinking about where we are in the table and the problems we have got and how I can solve them. I think of nothing else. David is the same and Karren Brady is the same.”
Brady, Lord Sugar’s new sidekick in The Apprentice on TV, became football’s First Lady when Sullivan and Gold made her Birmingham’s managing director at the age of 23.
Now Sullivan and Gold are joint-chairmen of West Ham and Brady is vice-chair – but it has not all gone as planned.
“We are just shell-shocked about where we are in the table because we think we are a better team than that,” he said. “I don’t think we are a top side or anything, but we think we are better than where we are.
“But, after 10 games, maybe the table doesn’t lie. Maybe we are just kidding ourselves.” So, wholesale changes are likely. Sullivan said: “In five or six games, if we take stock and say, ‘We are a relegation side’, then in January we have to bring people in.
“We will have to find the money from somewhere – sell a few, buy a few, shake the pack up. If the hand we have got hasn’t delivered enough points in the first half of the season, then we have to change our hand.”
How safe is Avram Grant? On this subject, Sullivan cites the Birmingham model, where only four managers were appointed over 16 seasons.
“We have a history of standing by our managers because that is the moral thing to do and because, statistically, it is no more successful changing your manager than it is sticking it out.”
He has heard the rumours about Grant’s inability to inspire the players, but rebuts them bullishly.
“I don’t see any sign whatsoever that he haslost the dressing room,” said Sullivan.
“You couldn’t have had much more effort from the players than they produced at Arsenal [where they lost to a late goal last week].
“When we played Chelsea, all the Chelsea players came up and hugged him afterwards. And when we wanted Frederic Piquionne and Tal Ben Haim, players who had been with Avram at Portsmouth, they both took salary drops to be with him again. So, over time, players love him.”
Even if West Ham survive, there will be a cull of big earners in the summer.
“Some players are on too much money,” said Sullivan. “I don’t blame them for that but they wouldn’t get as much elsewhere. Some of them will be out of contract at the end of the season, so we will get them off our books or back on at more reasonable money.
“We have improved things slightly here. We are probably £85million in debt instead of £110m. We have slashed the overheads by £4m or £5m a year. So gradually we are getting things better – but you just do not get rid of a £110m debt overnight.”
That debt was the legacy of the profl igacy of the previous Icelandic owners – and nobody doubts the need for prudence now.
But, then, similarly sensible husbandry at Birmingham made Sullivan and Co unpopular.
It did not help that they made no secret of their support for West Ham. Or that Sullivan said he was tired of commuting to St Andrews from his home in Epping Forest. Then, after selling the club to Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, there was a war of words about what Yeung said the accounts revealed and about what Gold said he had been promised.
But there is one indisputable fact. The club that Sullivan and Co will arrive at today is simply unrecognisable from the one they bought in March 1993. “We took over a dilapidated ground, a team at the bottom of the Championship and bailiffs arriving by the hour to seize possessions,” he said.
“The toilets were literally brick walls that you could pee against. The training ground had been flogged off and the players trained at nearby social clubs.
“We took a club that was in rack and ruin and left it structurally sound and with a great manager. We also found them a very good owner – and the new people have not done it through debt.
“Our last eight seasons were six in the Premier League and two winning promotion to it. But I was probably my own worst enemy because I was always honest with people.
“I said, ‘I won’t be here for ever. I have come to do a job and will move on when I think I have taken the club as far as I can and I have found someone who can do a better job than me’.
“But whatever you do at a football club is never enough for the supporters.”
That final statement is palpably true, just as the squabble about who promised what is a shabby epitaph for what Sullivan and Co achieved at Birmingham.
But he has something more imperative on his mind right now. West Ham need saving.