West Ham United has some problems on and off the pitch, and the reported breakdown of the Kelechi Iheanacho transfer deal isn’t the first example. If things between the backroom staff and the board don’t sort themselves out, it won’t be the final example, either.
Be it manager Slaven Bilic who ended the deal or just a story planted by David Sullivan and David Gold to cover their tails on another failed transfer doesn’t matter. The breakdown in communication and the ineptitude to land a new player, especially a striker, following the free transfer of right back Pablo Zabaleta is inexcusable.
The Hammers languish behind as other clubs, such as Everton and even newly promoted Huddersfield, finish business quickly. The Toffees made quickfire moves for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, defender Michael Keane, midfielder Davy Klassen and West Ham target Henry Onyekuru. Ronald Koeman and Everton planned for next season immediately after losing to Arsenal in late May.
Where was West Ham’s early planning? The club filled a void at right back with Zabaleta, but the buck stops there. Instead, the club is being left in the dust as Everton pushes forwards as a European place challenger while the Hammers glance below and just keep distance with the relegation zone.
Well, I’ve seen before how the board doesn’t always plan well.
Last summer, I covered West Ham’s USA Tour in Seattle, Washington and Cary, North Carolina for Read West Ham in early July. The results on the field weren’t pretty, yet the planning and execution of the trip across the Atlantic were even more dismal.
The Hammers landed with an air of arrogance in one of, if not the, largest soccer markets in America. They assumed everything would work out, between on-pitch performance and off-field marketing goals. In reality, West Ham’s efforts came up short, missing on an opportunity to expand its popularity.
A week earlier I had been in Vancouver, British Columbia. I didn’t know Crystal Palace was coming to town to play MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps. But with signs advertising the match on every lamppost in the city, I knew immediately.
West Ham’s arrival in Seattle, though, was on radio silence. West Ham’s faithful knew the team in the city, but without any marketing to the public, the Hammers surely missed out on gaining new fans. While the club’s official website promised an open training session, the players were tucked away at the Seattle Seahawks’ training facility. Less than 10 fans showed, peering through the lone strip of fence to see onto the field, watching the Hammers mill about in their first training session of the season.
Raphael Spiegel, Adrian, Pedro Obiang and Manuel Lanzini took a sightseeing trip to the Space Needle, so I ran the mile from my lodgings, through downtown Seattle, to meet them at the exits. Me and Taras, a West Ham fan from Ohio, were the only two people to stop the group of trendy-looking footballers.
The game itself was a lackluster affair in front of a bored crowd. The Sounders averaged 42,636 fans at Century Link Stadium in 2016. For the friendly against the Hammers, there was an announced attendance of 38,585. But that number was generous looking at the vacant seats in the stadium. As Matt Pentz wrote for the Seattle Times:
West Ham limped out of the stadium as 3-0 losers. 22-year-old Seattle forward Jordan Morris put two past the Irons after being subbed on in the second half. Bilic didn’t know his name, referring to the goal scorer as “that striker that came on” during his postgame press conference. At this rate, the Hammers would do well to look at the fringe U.S. National Team striker.
A poor performance, plus an injury suffered by center back Doneil Henry, followed in the Hammers’ match against USL side North Carolina FC, then known as the Carolina RailHawks. The 2-2 draw against the American second division team featured much of the same casual performance as the first match in Seattle.
It also lacked any West Ham merchandise, just like in Seattle. From a business sense, expanding name recognition in America makes total sense. But the club missed a key opportunity to make money – something hard to imagine with Gold, Sullivan, and Karren Brady in charge.
Before the Hammers took off for the States, the team released its white away kit and training gear. The new threads could have offered a chance to expand the image of West Ham through fans in a new country, as well as tap into a revenue stream. The top 10 selling club jerseys worldwide in 2016, per the Manchester Evening News, includes four Premier League clubs.
Bayern Munich, the fifth highest seller on the list, visited Portland, Oregon, in 2014 to play the MLS All-Star game. They lost the meaningless match, but it provided fans from another reach of the world access to a top club with fan events and an open training session. You better believe they had jerseys for sale, too.
West Ham appears to cut corners during management, and the USA Tour with its poor execution displayed that first hand.
The Hammers seem to pull the same arrogance (or is it ignorance?) into the transfer market, yet leave with similar results as the match against Seattle. Gold and Sullivan boast about being a London club, but the team is more on Crystal Palace’s level than pushing towards Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham. Renting a large stadium may add prestige in business circles, but truly lost some of the atmosphere players such as Carlos Tevez fed off of.
Two summers in a row, the board began talks with potential signings that, if completed, would have brought the Hammers onto another level. Last year, links to forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Carlos Bacca put fans on cloud nine before deals fell through. The Hammers then gallivanted on a striker pursuit before ending up with forward Jonathan Calleri and winger/striker Andre Ayew.
Unless Bilic, Gold and Sullivan find a solution soon to whatever miscommunication goes on between them, this summer could shake up similarly. Going from Iheanacho and Olivier Giroud in West Ham’s sights to strong links to Andre Gray and Vincent Aboubakar is a way to sell season tickets with large promises, and then save money by building a squad capable of avoiding relegation.
The board needs to go the extra mile for once. The Olympic Stadium’s season ticket allocation has been sold out, and Brady is already planning on extending capacity. But it won’t matter if season tickets are sold out if quality isn’t brought into the side. Otherwise, there’s the risk of a lot of white seats peeking through the claret and blue-clad fans.