We will all be familiar with the movie cliché where the hero dives through the rapidly closing door just as they are about to be trapped and abandoned to their fate. That is West Ham’s approach to the transfer window. Whether by accident or design all business will once again be at the last possible minute, a month’s worth of opportunity condensed into the final few hours.
There are contrasting views to the root cause of our transfers inactivity. Is it Dithering Dave or Scrooge Mc’Sullivan to blame? Or is it simply a feature of the January window? After all, relatively little business has been done so far, with the exception of Newcastle, Watford, and Villa.
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Window Slams Shut
There are few clues as to what is really going on. In some respects that is a good thing, although it is also frustrating. Not so long ago, the club had more leaks than a Welsh allotment, but these have all but dried up. What’s left is pure speculation. I’m sure there is activity, but activity is not the same as progress.
An absence of information does nothing to stop the steady stream of bogus transfer stories to be found online. Pundits, reliable journalists and in-the-knows are never short of rumours linking the Hammers to the latest beast, powerhouse, or wonderkid. Internet traffic and advertising revenues must be booming. For the sake of sanity it is best to treat such stories as entertainment rather than information.
No doubt football transfers are a more complex matter than many of us supporters realise. For a simplified view I will consider what may have been going on at West Ham into targets, availability, and finance.
We all have our own ideas as to what is needed to improve the West Ham squad in preparation for the remaining months of the season. It would be a fair bet that many of our wishlists would include, with varying levels of priority: a striker, left back, centre back and perhaps a more dynamic option in attacking midfield. Three or four new players would seem to the average of the supporters I have spoken to.
It is also probable that David Moyes has similar ideas. When the best options from the bench are Yarmolenko, Fredericks and Masuaku, it does not indicate a squad capable of a credible top four challenge. Hopefully, Moyes will have been working alongside Rob Newman, the clubs head of recruitment, on scouring and scouting the football world to come up with a list of potential and realistically affordable targets.
In an ideal world, Newman would also have an eye on the future. Next generation younger players who can provide continuity and succession for the club. It is a model that Moyes has previously said he would like to follow. Yet it looks out of reach at present when what is needed are players who can contribute immediately, not in six or twelve months’ time. Moyes has had mixed success on that front. Soucek, Coufal, Zouma, Lingard (during his loan) and Bowen mostly hit the ground running. Benrahma, Vlasic and Kral have needed time to settle in or have never finally got there.
It might be obvious but just because we fancy buying a player doesn’t mean he is will be available. The club may not be prepared to sell, particularly in the middle of the season, or late in the window when finding a replacement is even more difficult. Alternatively, the player might not fancy moving to West Ham, London, or England. Received wisdom is that money is the biggest motivator for footballers, but it is not necessarily the only one. Some will be happy to stay where they are or prefer the guarantee of regular game time.
Budgets and Finance
Nowadays transfer negotiations are the preserve of the Board. In bygone days, managers may have been heavily involved in ‘talks’ but that is no longer the case. Calls for Moyes to ‘sort it out’ are well wide of the mark. He may be fussy about undertaking due diligence on player’s character but it is not his responsibility to seal the deal.
The working assumption is that despite changes to the ownership structure it is still Del Boy Sullivan (and his agents) who lead negotiations, in consultation with the other directors. The success of negotiations are ultimately in his hands and down to how effectively he deals with representatives of the selling clubs and the various agents involved. There is plenty of scope for things to go wrong, and many ways to scupper a deal while looking as though you are trying.
The finer details of transfer fees, the schedule of payments, players wages, contract terms, agent commissions, image rights, and so on, all require agreement. Unless a club is desperate to sell, the closer it gets to the deadline, the more power gravitates towards the seller and player. It feels a huge gamble to leave matters so late.
There is much talk in the media about transfer budgets and war chests – usually linked to the headline transfer fee paid. In reality, with fees paid in instalments and all of the other costly add-ons involved, a specific budget is largely hypothetical. The limitation is more likely to be down to cash flow issues. Net spends make interesting media comparisons but play only a small part in how a club approaches player dealing.
Sullivan has a reputation for submitting low-ball offers – the type that are never going to be accepted – and has recently developed a liking for loans with an option to buy. No surprise that these tactics are not so popular with (and may alienate) selling clubs. The buck really stops with him and his fellow directors. They have said cash is available, they now need to put it where their mouths are and come up with serious offers for the players the manager has identified.
What Might Happen?
Honestly, I haven’t a clue. Probably something will, but most likely we will be disappointed by it. It is an unusual situation that West Ham find themselves in. The right investment could mean a rare and achievable opportunity to earn a Champions League place, either by league position or through the Europa League. But it would come with a hefty price tag, even if bringing in three or four players by Monday night is feasible. It could be a mixture of loans and purchases.
Failure to invest might well lead to the season petering out as injuries and fatigue take their toll. This increases the probability of losing key players (Rice and Bowen) in the summer. January is usually considered a bad time to splash the cash but the consequences of not spending could be significant. For a club in the Premier League not to have cover in key positions (notably, striker and left back) is staggering. If another window goes by without those gaps being filled it would send a clear message on ambition – and would be a clear case of negligence.
What we don’t want to hear is that you tried but couldn’t get any deals over the line. Just do it!