by Florida John
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Cast your mind back now. Marcus Gayle has just hit a thumping header past Peter Schmichel. The Holmsdale end is going wild. The Sky TV cameras record the scene. 30 minutes later and we were in the 5th round of the cup. Everything was good in the WFC garden. 5th in the league, awaiting a league cup semi-final and advancing on the FA cup. Warren Barton in the Sky studio singles out one Terry Burton for this current success. So where did it all go wrong?
Well I’m not going to tell you. The fall from grace in just 3 years is a complicated as the Kennedy assassination. So lets look at how this came about from different angles. As each one has a plot of its own.
As you will remember Sam Hammam was Supremo on that night. Now think about the time, what could be better. Sky money was running in. The club was receiving some great publicity. The possibility of silverware and even a coveted European place was within our grasp. This was the season after Dublin had been finally killed off. Hammam always had his own agenda. Compare the rather coy TV interviews of the late 80’s to the strutting cockerel (pun intended) of the 90’s. Remember his first real public outburst was to want to merge us with CP. He soon found this the quickest way to get doggie doos through the front door.
Alas luck was on his side. Along came the Taylor report, and we were off to Selhurst before you could say “merger by stealth”. He had to compromise a little, instead of one team merged at one stadium, he got, two teams at one stadium. Near enough. But he wanted more. Much more once he caught sight of the Sky TV treasure chest. As a result of moving to Selhurst our fan base reduced in the early 90’s. What with the growing riches of the newly formed Premier league, and an up and coming boom in football attendance. Sam was left on the start line. As a business (sic) man he knew the answer, find a market position where you can get big gates. Marketing was all that was needed. Price, product, people and place. Price well, that would take care of its self, product, he had the Premier League on show, people, he had a team that was beginning to shine, but they were in the wrong place.
Would he care for the existing supporter? Why should he? Why worry about 10,000 in London, when there would be 50,000 waiting in Dublin? So the Dublin scheme was born. Back to 1997, Dublin was dead, mostly due to football legislation. As for the protests, I doubt if he cared.
Hammam was at the crossroads. To him WFC was a Goose that was holding back the Golden Egg. The time came to cut out for what he could. Sell up. Enter the Norwegians.
So in came R+G , now don’t for one minute think that they don’t have similar motives. When Hammam sold his crock of gold to them, I am quite sure that they were not doing it out of pity for a few fans that followed a club with no stadium. No, No, No they, I’m sure have similar designs on putting their snouts in the Sky TV trough. We must have been the cheapest Premier club available at the time. And so an easy way, into those potential millions. Still I believe they have at least got a different strategy to the Lebanese megalomaniac.
As two very successful businessmen, the behaviour of R+G has been strange to say the least. Firstly to take 80% of the club and then leave the original owner (now with 20% of the club) in charge is strange, especially of such powerful businessmen. Now here I think they had a vision. Firstly, everything was going well and their riches could fund buying players to finally push the club into Europe. Also, to close the ever increasing gap, on the likes of Chelsi. I believe they had a bit more of a vision than that. Our premier league status and Sky TV was the most seductive part about us. While at Molde media attention was somewhat less, as well as somewhat less lucrative! Even though getting to the Champions league is far easier for Molde. With Europe in mind, do you find it significant that we were having one of our most successful seasons, post Dublin. Not at all. Suddenly we were not selling players, like we used to. Even paying a bit more to get some. The Sky broadcast of the Man U game projects us as “now big time” and “on the verge of Europe”. In short Hammam made us desirable to buyers as possible before selling.
We now know more of the plans of R+G. Plans may well have changed, I still firmly believe that they had (or still have) a vision of a Norwegian team in the English Premier league, a sort of Dublin in reverse. Much is said about the appointment of Olsen (was it R+G or was it Hammam). I don’t know but I can hardly see them falling over themselves to stop it. After all he had a good reputation (not in my eyes, by the way). With this in mind the seeds of change were sown.
The night of the Man U game was billed as Alex Ferguson against Joe Kinnear. Put another way the top manager in the English game, with huge resources, against a man who was being put as, as good as Ferguson and had only limited resources. To me the longer Kinnear stayed the harder it was going to become to separate him from the job. The further he got past the 3 to 4 year mark the more stale he seamed to become. While we now played more pretty football, the spine of the side had long gone. The 7-1 battering at Villa two years earlier was the moment in time we saw that passing. [sorry to butt in – I think that the 7-1 was passed as a “one off” at the time and we were told it was never going to happen again – SW19] The Sky stats of that Man U game tell a disturbing story. 10 shots against Man U’s 20, and so on. We really just got lucky that night. How often was it happening. The paintwork still looked glossy, but the wood underneath was rotten. The teams around us were also spending more and more on players.
The wheels finally fell off the 96/97 season, at the Highbury Semi-final, though by then we were really struggling even to finish the season. To quote Vinny Jones’ biography, “Wimbledon of all teams sitting on a coach having been 90 minutes from Wembley and not able to get upset about losing”. 97/98 came and went, and so came the 98/99 season. Once again the club flirted with Europe. Only for us to end with our backsides in a sling.
So in came Egil Olsen (here comes the hate mail). Once again results (at the start) were rather fortunate. Watford was a false dawn (the winning goal was a fluke). Olsen was handed a side in decay, to be fair. He was also thrown into a world where footballers behave more and more like Hollywood stars than athletes. Here is where I believe Hammam had a hand in the appointment of Olsen. Olsen was cheap, have a few ideas that looked good at the time, rather than go for a manager who would stand up to spoilt brats. Can you imagine Jason Euell having such a nice time with John Gregory or Martin O’Neill, neither do I. Like his paymasters, Olsen underestimated the shark-infested waters of the Premier league. It is well know I did not like him [no shit – SW19], I will say no more. The shifting sands of change were well and truly on the move.
THE BOSMAN RULING
Ever considered the effect on clubs, of the Bosman Ruling. Look at us now; we have more than a few players who are past their best on long contracts. Where a few years ago 2 or 3-year contracts were the norm. Now we get a 5-year contract handed out as a minimum to any player. If they lose form after 2 years, which a lot do, then the club is left paying for some donkey to piss it up for the remaining 2 â€“ 3 years of their contract. The effects on players is potentially devastating, where does a clapped out 28 year old player go who has relied on a 5 year contract, half of which was spent on the piss, when he lost form? I thought the Bosman Ruling was supposed to protect players (any resemblance to Andy Roberts is purely intentional). We were starting to get a large squad, now 25% of our squad is unsaleable and we are just paying their wages until their contracts run out. When they will take a Bosman move to Scunthorpe.
THE PLAYING STAFF
So here we were on another glory night at Selhurst. What player in the world does not relish the chance to beat Manchester United. Sure there was team spirit, the win bonuses were rolling in, rave reviews in the press, TV coverage and a chance of a crack at the very silverware you have trained all your life for. Only a few weeks later it was all to end in failure, in fact failure after failure. How would you feel if that was you, in your job. Instead of occasionally being seen smiling on the TV with some piece of silverware, you are always the player walking off with his head down. While others do the lap of honour.
To their credit the team stood up, and in the 98/99 started to get close to that dream again. As luck would have it the whole season boiled down to a series of five games against Spurtz. Timing plays its part here. On the eve of the start of the series, we broke our transfer record and bought John Hartson from West Ham. Well in fact we smashed it to little pieces. Nobody will forget that day. It looked like we were really joining the race for honours. Like the transfer of Fash in 1986, we were going for broke, to push the club into uncharted waters. To me the timing, of the transfer, was as poor as Asprilla’s to Newcastle. By the end of February our season was over, our league position deteriorated to the point of near relegation. The warning signs were there, but so many egos and business interests were pulling in different directions nobody saw the iceberg ahead. Egil Olsen. He suited Hammam, R+G, the fans tired of the Joe Kinnear show and himself.
I believe the players subconsciously saw the dreams of what the press and the management were building them up to were becoming unattainable. A sort of team depression set in, and as the results of the 1999/2000 got worse, the strength to find results just disappeared. Some sought transfers, some sought solace in booze, some blamed the manager, some blamed the system, some blamed the owners, some feared Norwegian players coming in to replace them, some listened to their agents, some blame players as “too thick” and some did all of these. The last grains of sand slipped through the timer on WFC’s stay in the Premier league.
MR BAKKE ARRIVES
December arrived, and so did Mr. Bakke, tasked by R+G to audit the WFC business. Immediately Hammam was in the press behaving like a kid who is caught with his hand in the sweet jar (â€¦â€¦ well till actually). By the end of January, a team having a transitional season is now in a nosedive. The whirlwind of Mr. Bakke’s report turns to the Mother of all storms. Fueling this is a very bitter Sam Hammam. By the time of the Derby away game we could still save our selves. Then one dramatic turning points our nose nearer the Earth.
THE HARTSON TRANSFER SAGA
Obviously the reading of Mr. Bakkes report in Oslo did not go down well. Hammam was shown the door (believe it another way if you want). Team morale is reduced further after a 4-0 drubbing by a Derby team who were hardly at the top of their game. This is topped off with the news that John Hartson is off to Spurtz. Days after R+G said nobody was leaving. The rest is history. Save to say that Hammam was the one pulling the plug on you, me, the team, and the manager. [I will make my last interjection here. It is apparent – and is apparently proveable in court – that at half-time at Derby, SH sat in the dressing room, refused to leave – despite all the players getting the hump because of the JH transfer – and subsequently Drillo was unable to give his teamtalk. Like FL John, I believe this was our major turning point of the season – SW19]
We are the poor sods who had to live through this lot. The people who are not large enough in numbers to have allowed Hammam to build a “big” club. The people who paid out hard earned money week in week out, only to be rewarded with a season of shite. After seasons of accepting second best, at somebody else’s stadium (I know Selhurst and Stadium don’t fit together easily).
Most people had begun to live in the malaise of Selhurst, a sort of twilight world, brightened by the Premier league. Fans went through the same sort of in fighting as the players (though most just resorted to booze, and I don’t think any decided to employ an agent!). I for one could see no way out in March. I think most felt that way. There was some kind of resort to blindly hoping for the best, the bickering stopped and gave way to blind all out support. In some hope that we could make up for the lack of harmony on the pitch, (and in the boardroom). We stayed faithful whilst all around fought their power struggles.
When I heard that Bradford were ahead, I knew our number was up. We had never really fought a relegation battle. All our chickens came home to roost at once. As Marian Pahars cut in all that was left was to savour the minutes that remained. At least the supporters left Southampton with some credit. All the above characters have had to reassess since May 14. Except Hammam, still that is someone else’s problem now.
R+G know now that they have to deal with an English club, I firmly believe they will get us that ground, but their vision of the future has changed. The management is now with Terry Burton, singled out for praise on that night in 1997. The players have changed; the squad is changing (with one inevitable exception). We the fans are more united now, and now believe that R+G will lead us back to the Promised Land (i.e. SW19). Maybe even Johnny Hartson might stay a score a hatful! Maybe the next time we play Man U, we will compete with them on even terms and not as a hollow faÃ§ade.