You would expect that the appointment of a former Real Madrid manager and Premier League title winner would get West Ham fans’ pulses racing. But even David Sullivan appears to have recognised that suspicion rather than anticipation is the prevailing mood at the London Stadium.
“We hope they agree it is an exciting appointment,” said Sullivan, somewhat more tentatively than many of his previous boasts. Pellegrini undoubtedly possesses the most impressive CV of the five managers Sullivan and David Gold have appointed, but the owners have certainly been made to pay a premium.
Pellegrini, 64, who since being moved aside by Manchester City has spent the last two years managing Hebei China Fortune in the CSL, reportedly returns to England as one of the Premier League’s highest-paid managers.
The Independent suggests it took a £10million-a-year wage packet to tempt the Chilean to East London, while The Sun and The Mirror both report his salary as being closer to £7million. Even taking the lower figure, it puts Pellegrini on a par with Jurgen Klopp and in a higher bracket than Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino.
It is the price Sullivan, Gold and Karren Brady have to pay for running what has apparently become ‘the most dysfunctional club in the Premier League’. Rather than being the catalyst for a Champions League push, the London Stadium move has seen the Hammers sink from Europa League qualifiers to relegation candidates amid a series a protests by fans who have long since realised they have been taken for a ride.
Since those protests came to a head in March when the atmosphere at the former Olympic Stadium went from one of frustration straight to poison, the owners have at least offered the impression of contrition. That 3-0 defeat to Burnley and the aggro that ensued could well be the lowest point – the board certainly hope so – but three months on, despite the arrival of the club’s highest-paid manager, there remains a gaping, unstable void in the West Ham foundations.
Any manager coming into the club would be smart to seek written assurances over what interference is permissible from above. Since he and Gold took control of the Hammers in 2010, Sullivan has not so much crossed the line but set up camp and moved in his family. Almost literally.
Sullivan is even listed as director of football in the club’s accounts and though he denies holding such sway, the evidence suggests he most certainly does. Years after their Premier League rivals saw the benefit of investment in scouting and analytics, both in terms of performance and recruitment, the Hammers have persisted with a far more haphazard approach.
The team was unfit for purpose through the first half of the season while their transfer business has too often reflected the manner in which they conduct it. Their transfer committee consisted of Sullivan, Slaven Bilic and Tony Henry, who between them would rule over players mainly brought to them by agents. Sullivan says Bilic preferred older, proven Premier League players, while he wanted younger talent – “the next Mr Stones, who Everton got for £500,000”. The now-departed Henry’s preferences are well documented.
Between the hapless trio, there has been no plan, no continuity and no strategy. To David Moyes’ credit, he tried to instigate change, despite there being no guarantee over him being around to reap the benefits.
“We’ve put together some plans,” he said in February. “We are going to try to look at it slightly differently. I’m going to be heavily involved in the process, as will be the chairman. I’ve not seen a process here, so I’m going to try something.
“It’s going to come a little bit away from the chairman,” he continued. “The chairman is going to try to stand aside a bit from it.” Three months later, the chairman stood aside from the door and pushed Moyes through.
Moyes had also identified the need to bridge the gap, or rather offer an added layer of insulation between the manager and the boardroom. “It could be a head of football operations, could be a head of recruitment, could be a director of football.”
— West Ham United (@WestHamUtd) May 22, 2018
Sullivan said before Christmas that he was considering such an appointment. “There’s one very good one in the Premier League,” he told The Guardian in December. “I would seriously think about taking him on in due course and I know he would come because he’s approached me.”
Whether that man is Eduardo Macia, Leicester’s head of recruitment who has been linked with the Hammers, we can only guess. But with Pellegrini targeting “four or five” players this summer, the new manager does not have time to waste while Sullivan clings on to his power.
Pellegrini has worked for an over-zealous boss before in Florentino Perez at Real Madrid. The manager was presented with the finest players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso – but they finished his only season at the Bernabeu potless because, as Pellegrini put it: “I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid.”
“They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position,” he continued. “It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won’t be able to do it so well. Perez sold players that I considered important. We didn’t win the Champions League because we didn’t have a squad properly structured to be able to win it.”
Pellegrini will have a say at the London Stadium, but so too in the past have Sullivan’s kids. The new manager needs a buffer in place because until a director of football is appointed, he remains too exposed to the circus that has overseen relegation scraps when the publicly stated ambition upon moving home was the top six and “to feel like a big club… not a tinpot club”. Pellegrini cannot realistically make inroads on either target until West Ham make an appointment even more crucial than his own.