Ten years of Gold and Sullivan – Fortune remains hiding

Michael Lee

At the end of the previous decade, the 10-year challenge swept social media. By encouraging people to post pictures of themselves at decade’s beginning and end, the trend invited users to portray the perception of personal progression and growth over the 2010s to their followers.

For supporters of West Ham United, one telling screenshot of the Premier League table from December 2009 and December 2019 revealed an identical scenario familiar to Hammers fans everywhere – marooned at the wrong end of the table, hopes of a push for Europe dashed and fears of a ruinous relegation enhanced – that brings to mind the world’s most dispiriting game of Snap.

Enter David Gold and David Sullivan. January 2020 marked ten years since they took over the club. On the face of it, it seems a fairly typical West Ham decade – one relegation, one promotion, a handful of European appearances (extinguished two years running by part-time Romanian outfit Astra Giurgiu) and the familiar mix of mid-table finishes and flirtations with relegation underpinned by farce, mediocrity and occasional brilliance.

While the arrival of the Davids arguably saved West Ham from a Portsmouth-style financial Armageddon (the 2008 financial crash wiped out the wealth of the club’s Icelandic owners), their subsequent actions have been questionable. Before season-ticket renewal time in June, rumours of big-money moves for household names are widespread. The frequent reality has been signings like Jack Wilshere on three-year contracts direct to the treatment room. No coherent recruitment strategy has been in place, with the sight of the owner’s teenage son relaying transfer news on Twitter becoming a regular head stretcher. West Ham employ five scouts in Europe – Southampton employ over fifty to scrutinise future signings.

The search for a prolific goal-scorer has reached ironic levels of hilarity – when Benni McCarthy (11 appearances, 0 goals) called Karren Brady ‘the devil with tits’, her retort that at least she ‘should have some’ perfectly encapsulated its level of success. It was also, by some distance, Brady’s best moment with the club.

Managers have come and gone, seemingly appointed on their difference from the previous incumbent. Any club that lurches from David Moyes, to Manuel Pellegrini and back to David Moyes in the space of eighteen months cannot credibly claim to have any long-term plan in place. All this has cemented the image of West Ham amongst neutral supporters as a laughing stock and a target of ridicule.

More poignantly, this was also the decade that saw the club leave its beloved Upton Park home for the refurbished Olympic Stadium. To say this has proven controversial would be an understatement on par with suggesting that Boris Johnson can be economical with the truth. The decision has split the fanbase between resigned apathy and outright hostility.

Within weeks, disorder had broken out between groups of West Ham supporters in the stands. In 2018, a league match against Burnley was marked by mass protest, multiple pitch invasions and the sight of Trevor Brooking holding back the tears while sat alone in the director’s box. Before every domestic cup draw many fans wish to play Millwall at home – in the belief the ensuing riots would demolish the stadium.

While clubs such as Juventus and Espanyol have left unloved venues for purpose-built football stadia, any such backtracking is years beyond the current regime. Instead, a claret carpet was laid around the pitch to much fanfare in April 2019. If this was a task on The Apprentice, Karren Brady would almost certainly be fired.

Some have claimed the opportunity to move into a 60,000-seat stadium was too good an opportunity to miss. In fact, with Premier League clubs largely financed by television revenue, ground capacity has increasingly little effect on the potential success of a team beyond demonstrating the size of its fanbase. For those sold on the move by claims it would take West Ham to the mythical ‘next level’, the resulting comedown has increased negativity towards the owners.

This has led many to believe West Ham would have been better off staying put. In spite of outdated transport links and a declining atmosphere since the removal of its terracing, Upton Park still retained the capacity to create an intimidating environment which allowed the team to beat more vaunted opponents.

Alongside this, my personal belief is that many supporters were ultimately content with their lot. After all, what is football if not an opportunity to release pent-up frustrations? Despite allegations of delusion, West Ham fans are not traditionally hard to impress. Ninety-nine percent accept they will never win the league, especially in football’s modern climate. Instead, most would settle for a position in mid-table, prioritising the cup competitions while playing attacking football.

Despite fleeting seasons under Alan Pardew and Slaven Bilic, this has not consistently been the case since Harry Redknapp was in the dugout and the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard wore the claret and blue. It can be argued the club has never fully recovered from relegation in 2003, which saw a string of past, present and future England internationals depart.

However, imbued with a natural sense of gallows humour familiar to fans of clubs without their own noodle partner, West Ham supporters can cope with the frequent disappointment of their team on the field.

It remains natural to retain hope in the face of all available evidence. Doing so makes us human and can act as life’s most effective defence mechanism. By tapping into this emotion, Gold and Sullivan have been able to portray themselves as authentic supporters acting in the best interests of West Ham, while making decisions that move the club further away from its goals.

With an incoherent transfer strategy, driving an unpopular stadium move and attempts to mould the club into a poor imitation of Arsenal or Chelsea, it is my belief that Gold and Sullivan’s decade at West Ham will be remembered with regret, anger and bitterness.

Dashed hope comes with the territory of supporting West Ham. Gold and Sullivan have ensured the club have lost much more than that.