Friday, January 14, 2011

Can Gold & Sullivan thrive at West Ham?

The Davids, Gold and Sullivan, have been involved in English football for several years now. In partnership they bought out the controlling stake in Birmingham City FC in 1993 after both independently made their fortunes, the adult movie business prime among their earners.

After protracted back and forth with Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, The Davids sold Birmingham City in 2009, with Sullivan citing a lack of support from the Birmingham Council and from fans as major reasons for their departure. The pair then returned to their East End roots, purchasing 50% of West Ham United, the club both had supported as boys. Upon completing the purchase they then expressed their surprise at the levels of unreported debt at the club.

The Davids have a highly visible public profile. Both are successful businessmen and when asked, will spout opinion on their asset - the football club. According to the ESPN Soccernet podcast, when one journalist approached press time without a story, he would just call David Sullivan and all would be well. Of course as owners, they are entitled to comment upon the health of their asset but football matters have long been considered taboo for non-football executives, a line that they've crossed repeatedly over the past few years. Last season as Gianfranco Zola's tenure as West Ham manager very publicly wound down, it seemed one David was forever refusing to guarantee Zola his position while the other would appear more supportive.

Their immediate subordinate is Karren Brady, who the pair appointed as Managing Director of Birmingham City in 1993. Then only twenty-three and the first woman in such a position in the top flight of English football, Brady has parlayed her undoubted ability and business nous into considerable fame, attracting awards as diverse as recognitions from the Queen, to being voted one of FHM's Sexiest Women of the Year. She's another high-profile type, writing newspaper columns and serving as Alan Sugar's assistant in the UK version of The Apprentice. Brady, now the Vice-Chairman of West Ham, is known in the business as a "sacker" - though the stats don't really back that up, with Birmingham City only having four permanent bosses on her watch.

Can such a visible and vocal triumvirate promote long-term success at a West Ham? Outspoken opponents of the debt level in English football, The Davids are fiscally responsible but have also spent on the transfer market, meaning thrift isn't their ultimate watchword. No doubt their business acumen is keenly tuned but during their time at West Ham they've been guilty of speaking before seeing the full ramifications of their words. Though the situation is unquestionably fraught with a precipitous fiscal position, manager Avram Grant has been in the gun for several weeks as a young Hammers squad sits in the relegation zone, with a recent run of four wins from seven unable to bring about the dreaded "Vote of Confidence".

With such an unstable club, don't such public comments just undermine a manager's credibility and control within the club? If meetings are held, as reported, on a near-weekly basis to discuss a manager's future then surely players are less likely to respond to a dead man walking? And with The Davids and Karren refusing to promote stability - deliberately or not - in the club by supporting or firing the gaffer, then levels of indecision rise to an almost criminal level. Like most people, players value certainty when it comes to their future lives and careers. Fear of this future doesn't allow anyone to perform to their best.

The issue isn't if The Davids can run a football club - that was proved during their time in the Second City. The issue is whether they are aware that their public profile could be damaging the club's chances of Premiership survival, and and if so, are they are willing to sacrifice their right to speech if it aids the club's chances? They should heed the example of Newcastle United's achievements when a formerly bombastic board shut their mouths and allowed a quieter manager space to operate.

Life with The Davids and Karren is always interesting. For the foreseeable future, it should remain so.

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