Gutted: West Ham ownership leaves club feeling hopeless

West Ham United
Pikrepo/Creative Commons

Gutted, angry and sad. That was the message shared on Twitter by longtime West Ham United captain Mark Noble shortly after the announcement of 22-year-old forward Grady Diangana’s sale to West Bromwich Albion for a reported 18 million pounds.

Gutted, angry and sad. Noble, referred to endearingly by Hammers fans as “Mr. West Ham,” could not have said it any better.

Diangana, who spent last season in the Championship on loan to the Hawthorns, grew up at West Ham, joining the club’s youth team at the age of 12. His time under former West Ham manager Slaven Bilic in the West Midlands was supposed to be temporary: a chance to play consistent first-team soccer for a season before returning to London’s east end. The pacy winger went on to exceed expectations, recording eight goals and seven assists over the course of 30 league game appearances.

West Ham fans, players and especially manager David Moyes, who in January stated his intent to build a team of “young, attractive, hungry players who are saying, ‘We’re going to make West Ham better,’ ” were understandably eager to see Diangana return and fight for a first-team position with veteran players Michail Antonio, Andriy Yarmolenko, Jarrod Bowen and Felipe Anderson. Perhaps the added competition would be the spark to ignite Anderson, who, since joining the Hammers in 2018, has failed to live up to his 35 million-pound price tag. Or maybe Diangana would be the next homegrown hero to give the club hope for better days.

It’s worth mentioning here that after the club narrowly escaped relegation to the Championship last season, hope at West Ham is practically nonexistent. In a poll of Premier League club fans conducted by The Athletic last week, West Ham posted the lowest “Hope-O-Meter” score of all 20 current club fanbases. Only 8.8% of West Ham fans said they are feeling optimistic about the upcoming season. The next least-hopeful club? Newly promoted West Bromwich Albion, with a score of 37.8%.

And so, a homegrown player with potential, flash and, most importantly, a hunger to prove himself was set to rejoin a team in desperate need of good news. What went wrong?

The short answer has something to do with finances and the apparent lack of transfer funds. The club reported a pretax loss of 28.2 million pounds recently. That loss, paired with a bloated wage bill and financial struggles resulting from COVID-19 precautions, means that even after a 30 million-pound investment from the owners over the summer, the club’s ownership felt that it had to sell a player before it could buy.

The longer answer involves the apparent failures of the club’s leadership: CEO Karren Brady and joint owners David Gold and David Sullivan. Gold and Sullivan took control of the club back in January 2010. The former owners had pushed the club to the brink of financial ruin. But when the two lifelong West Ham fans arrived, they made it abundantly clear that their decision had nothing to do with making money and everything to do with saving a club, a community from destruction.

“It makes no commercial sense for anyone to buy this club,” Sullivan said at a news conference early in his tenure. “We’ve bought this as fans, we’ve bought this as supporters — not from a business point of view.”

At the time, when the club was deeply in debt, one might have easily believed them. But 10 years later, with the club sitting at 17th on the list of most valuable soccer clubs in the world, a move to a new 60,000-capacity stadium that costs a measly 2.5 million pounds per year in rent and massive increases in match-day, commercial and broadcast revenue, it is possible that this ostensible act of philanthropy was a savvy business decision, too. And yet, after a decade of relatively high revenue and financial stability, West Ham continues to flounder near the bottom of the table, fending off small clubs such as Burnley and Brighton and Hove Albion for survival.

Especially frustrating for the Claret and Blue Army is the team’s continued mediocrity even after moving in 2016 to the London Stadium, an athletic stadium that was built to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The move from Upton Park to the London Stadium was supposed to improve match-day revenue and attract investment, providing owners with the funds to invest in the squad and stop being, as Brady called it in a column published in The Sun in January, a “yo-yo team”: a volatile team incapable of consistently finishing campaigns in the top half of the table.

In a 2013 poll by SMG YouGov, 85% of Hammers fans said they were in favor of leaving Upton Park, the team’s home of 112 years. But most of those fans said their support was based on the promise that it would provide ownership with the adequate resources to invest in the squad. The money could help the lesser-known London club join the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal among the London elite.

But after another uninspiring campaign battling relegation, that dream seems as far away as the pitch is from the stands at the London Stadium, which features a nine-lane running track that makes using binoculars while sitting in the stands a good idea, if not a must. West Ham’s home since 1904 is demolished, its new home is a soulless bowl, its team is struggling to stay in the Premier League and there’s an apparent lack of funds to improve the squad. These are reasons enough for anger. Diangana’s sale was the final straw.

Gutted is right.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].