Ultimately, it was a fitting end to Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure. The comedy of errors served up by his West Ham side in the prelude to Demerai Gray’s fatal strike an appropriate metaphor for the club’s season thus far.
The 66-year old, a Premier League champion just over five years ago, could only watch on helplessly as Issa Diop, last summer linked with Manchester United, allowed Ayoze Pérez to stroll past him, before releasing the quick-footed Gray, with neither the covering Carlos Sánchez nor Fabian Balbuena seemingly prudent enough to track his run in behind and prevent Leicester taking a 1-2 lead at a flat Olympic Stadium.
Off the ball, Diop was even kind enough to bundle over Kelechi Iheanacho, just in case Leicester had needed a Plan B. Shortly after the final whistle, with the Hammers sitting just one precarious point above the relegation zone, Pellegrini would be dismissed.
Yet the Chilean’s departure has done little to alleviate the smell of discontent that been oozing from East London’s gutters for over a decade. Whilst the end of his embattled spell was as lifeless as it was abject, there remains a sense that the club’s problems may not all lie at the door of the man with major trophies in four different countries, that there is something further afoot.
At West Ham, the fish rots from the head. Co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold inherited, in their own words, a “car crash” of a football club in 2010, following the bankruptcy of former owner Björgólfur Guðmundsson.
Since their arrival, the pair have never failed to shy away from talk about their “passion” for the club, notably revealing shortly after their takeover that the £50million price tag they had paid had been overly generous, and only made due to their emotional attachment to the Hammers.
Both men have also been particularly brazen in outlining their lofty ambitions, with Sullivan boldly claiming in 2015 that he would be “disappointed if we don’t join the so-called top six within the next five years.”
As that five years rolls around, however, and West Ham, mired in the midst of a relegation battle, appoint their fourth manager in three seasons, the delusion of Sullivan’s words are laid increasingly bare. Nine years after returning to the Premier League, the club have recorded just a single finish above 10th place, with their frequent lower mid-table positioning highlighting how just how rarely they have threatened genuine progress.
Progress, apparently, remains difficult without vision or direction, and there is nothing in West Ham’s recent history to suggest that Sullivan and Gold have any of either. Passion and emotional attachment, it would seem, struggle to supersede lamentable transfer policy and absent long-term planning.
The London Stadium, and Boleyn Ground before it, are riddled with the ghosts of Sullivan and Gold’s decade-long horror show of signings. Since their arrival, West Ham have presided over a strict philosophy of bringing in a combination of big-name, big-money players and former stars at the twilight of their careers, often at the expense of the club’s academy prospects.
In recent seasons, the likes of Patrice Evra, Alex Song, Simone Zaza, Nenê, André Ayew, Marouane Chamakh, Robbie Keane and Răzvan Rat have all come through the door to produce deeply underwhelming spells at the club. The list goes on. Since 2010, West Ham have signed an alarming 41 different forwards, only six of whom have yet taken their goal tallies into double figures, whilst spending over £250million since 2016 alone.
Set against a comical backdrop Gold commenting on how it is “virtually impossible” to play academy prospects in elite-level football, the club have seemingly managed to push away a number of precocious talents, including the once much-lauded Reece Oxford, still the club’s youngest ever player, now plying his trade in the Bundesliga.
Oxford is far from alone in his plight. In recent seasons, West Ham have seen the departures of once highly-rated prospects such as Toni Martinez to Portugal’s Famalicão, Reece Burke to Hull City and Marcus Browne Middlesbrough, all whilst the Hammers continue to perennially underperform. The result of this is a squad of expensively assembled players, who, with notable exceptions in the forms of Messrs.
Mark Noble, Declan Rice, Łukasz Fabiański and Michail Antonio, have failed to show any heart or ability to work as a collective. This is a squad with talent but without a soul, abundant in flair but lacklustre in grit and spirit. A decade’s worth of overindulgence in expensive, inorganic products has clogged West Ham arteries and weakened its beating heart.
Things are a little better on the managerial front. The club’s most recent move, to re-appoint David Moyes in replacement of Pellegrini, is indicative of both the lack of ambition and structure the hierarchy have shown in recent years.
Moyes, returning to the Hammers 18 months after the culmination after his last stint at the club, which ended with a credible turnaround to their season following what had been a disappointing start to the season under Slaven Bilić, is nonetheless a particularly bland appointment for club who, however absurdly, have for almost a decade been trying to market themselves as attempting to close the gap to the Premier League’s “big teams”.
The 56-year-old arrives with his reputation heavily tarnished following failed spells at each of Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland, with his previous time at the Hammers a scant morsel of consolation to a career which never managed to take off following his departure from Everton in 2013. Even more concerning, however, is the irrational lack of direction Moyes’ reappointment demonstrates.
Since the departure of Sam Allardyce in 2015, West Ham have chopped aimlessly between managers with completely contrasting styles and outlooks for the club. First came the dynamic Bilić, an appointment designed for the long-term, to carefully build a dynasty at the club playing the Croat’s possession-based approach. When this unraveled, the hierarchy turned to Moyes, brought in as a firefighter, with a view purely to save West Ham’s season using his reactive, often bordering on negative philosophy, a world away from his predecessor’s tactical idealism.
Following Moyes’ departure, the powers that be opted for Pellegrini, seen as a relatively safe pair of hands that could oversee a period steady progress playing the same brand of attacking football that had earned him success at the Etihad Stadium, but, at 64, hardly a long-term fix. Now, with the Chilean gone, the club have returned to Moyes, only this time on a longer-term basis.
A full 180° turn, back to an approach they had abandoned just a year and a half previously. The West Ham Sat Nav, it would appear, has malfunctioned, lurching the club from one direction to another, with little idea of the final destination. At most clubs, such a lack of consistency or direction with surely be alarming. At The London Stadium, it has simply become the norm.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that even such a fervent fanbase have become so disillusioned with proceedings in the boardroom. Few can blame them. The biggest failing of the Sullivan and Gold era has perhaps been their total alienation of the ardent supporters who continue to suffer under their ownership. The mismanaged move to the old Olympic Stadium has been greeted with accusations of the club become overly commercialized, with their new home lacking any of the feeling or emotion of Boleyn Ground.
Factor in the extortionate prices charged for fan hospitality packages, often the highest in the Premier League, and the indignation running through the club’s core supporter base becomes even more understandable. The slogan “Sold a dream, given a nightmare” has frequently been bandied around by supporter groups in summary of their feeling towards Sullivan and Gold. Last year, the directors were forced to call an emergency meeting following increased protests against their management, the culmination of which was club captain Mark Noble throwing an incandescent pitch invader to the ground midway through a home match against Burnley.
In many ways, it is remarkable how two men who care deeply enough about the club to overpay for its purchase to the tune of millions of pounds have managed to so effectively isolate themselves from its fans. This is a club too aloof in its leadership, too supine in its character, and too often in anarchy.
Of course, the blame for the club’s current run of particularly poor form cannot be solely attributed to its problems amongst the hierarchy. There is little doubt that Pellegrini lacked authority amongst his players, less of a case of losing the dressing room than never quite having it in the first place.
Likewise, it is difficult to trace the team’s persistent inability to defend set-pieces back to Sullivan or Gold, nor legislate for injuries to the likes of Fabiański or Manuel Lanzini. Fans will also take encouragement from the 4-0 defeat of Bournemouth in Moyes’ first game back, followed by a hard-fought 0-2 victory at Gillingham in the FA Cup.
At West Ham, however, it may be foolish to become too optimistic about anything too quickly. If the last decade has shown anything, it is that signs of progress in East London are all too often short-lived, quickly dowsed by mismanagement in the boardroom. This is a club that has spent the last decade locked in purgatory with little sign of redemption. They now begin another chapter in their recent history in search of any form of leadership from the top of the club. The time for someone to step up is long overdue.