It’s impossible not to feel sympathy with Alan Pardew, sacked by West Ham yesterday. It was never a comfortable berth for this talented manager, and with the exception of a short period last season when his side were playing the best football outside the top four, he has had to live with calls for his head throughout his time there. He joined them only three years ago, when they were a disjointed and failing Football League club on the way down – he leaves them with a talented team built cheaply and astonishingly quickly, a team who – but for some falsely-rewarded Gerrard grandstanding – would have won the FA Cup. He’d even won them European football.
In the first ninety years of their history, West Ham had only five managers. They’ve had another five in the last sixteen years. And here comes the sixth.
This is a prime example of a situation in which it’s hard to blame the manager. For most of this season, he’s had a takeover bid hanging over his head whose prime mover promised to fire him on day one of the new regime. One of his principal players, Yossi Benayoun, was close to members of that attempted take-over, as were the two Argentinian imports Mascherano and Tevez. His captain, Nigel Reo-Coker, is reported to be fed up at West Ham – and that shows another problem facing Pardew: his very success has reminded his players, or certain of his players, that there are bigger, “better” clubs that they “should” be playing for – and that the prizes West Ham can offer are not worth fighting for. There’s not really a lot Pardew could do about that – and he’s not the first manager to face the problem (it struck Brian Clough on at least two occasions, 1970-1 being the prime exhibit). Beyond magicking West Ham into Real Madrid, or dropping all of his best players – he had no options.
Player hubris, and that other kind of financial hubris that the game’s increasing prosperity is attracting in from outside business, have done for Pardew, and this situation does not reflect in any way on his qualities as a coach. The Charlton fans who are calling for Pardew to be appointed at the Valley pronto are right. If that happens, and there is no hint of it at present, they may well be getting the better half of the deal.
The rumour is that Alan Curbishley is the man, on the grounds of his success at Charlton (and a moment’s silence, please, for all of those Charlton fans who, on 6-0-6 and the internet, said that “Curbs” had had his day and now it was time for the club to kick on) and Curbishley’s unconcealed enthusiasm for the club. Sven Goran Ericksson, according to reports this morning, has been told that he is not a candidate.
So, having ruled out one of Europe’s most successful club and international coaches, West Ham are appointing a man who is a former player and a club supporter who – given time and forgiven relegation – brought Charlton to something almost, but not quite, approaching the Jimmy Seed glory years. These are worth recalling in this context: in 25 years from 1932 to 1957, Charlton won promotion to the First Division (1936), finished 2nd in the First Division (1937), 4th (1938) and 3rd (1939). In those last years before World War II, they were the most consistent team in the country. Their crowd numbers averaged over 40,000 over a season, something only 11 clubs have ever achieved, and their stadium was the country’s biggest. During the War, Charlton won the “War” Cup and appeared in other finals, before appearing in a proper FA Cup Final as losers in 1946 and winners in 1947.
Curbishley’s achievement was to take the ruins that such a club had been reduced to by 30 years of bad management and make of it a decent sustainable small club. It’s a revival of a sort, helped by the fact that Charlton’s time as one of the genuinely strong English clubs has vanished into a memory hole.
What he’s facing now is something completely different. His previous relegation battle had little of the armageddon overtones the new television deal have added to the psyche of the bottom three this year. At least he faced it with his own players. West Ham’s players – some of them aren’t even really West Ham’s – aren’t of his choosing and may well not be of his own mind. Given Curbishley’s preference for persuading uncultured, unintelligent players to produce cultured, intelligent football, rather than rat-in-a-bag fighting killerball, he has to snap his new team into that top-half mode immediately, with concomitant results, or… and one wonders how long he’ll be given if things don’t get better from the very beginning.
What’s frustrating about the whole situation is that West Ham are always on the verge of building a tremendous side. Just when things are starting to go well – everything falls apart. Add Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Jermaine Defoe and Frank Lampard to their current squad and – it hardly needs to be said, does it?
This particular implosion is all the more upsetting for it having been preceded by genuine success without any of those stellar old boys. It is solely the result of the destructive pull of new money. I’m reminded of nights in front of a computer watching Hale-Bopp disintegrate before plunging into Jupiter never to be seen again. It’s supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it, when huge investment arrives? because now we can compete with the Chelseas.. but listen as hard as you like, there’s no enthusiasm for it at West Ham – or at Liverpool, or at Everton, or even at Newcastle.
I’m ending with a prediction. Pardew’s sacking is the start of a very unstable period at the top of the English club game. We are not going to be able to recognise a significant number of clubs as “themselves” for a few years – and DC United, AFC Wimbledon, are going to find themselves company. It’ll settle down in the end – after all, our club game survived two world wars, scandal, football hooliganism and years of financial drought. That unregarded inner strength will pull it through this, and, as ever, the properly-run clubs with sane boards and effective managers will trump the gold-rush teams. Just watch what happens to Chelsea when Mourinho leaves.