West Ham pay for Grant indecision
The DW Stadium
Avram Grant was shown no mercy in the air or on the ground as his reign as West Ham United manager ended moments after their relegation from the Premier League.
As the Hammers were in the process of losing a two-goal lead at Wigan en route to a defeat that concluded a six-year stay in English football's top tier, a light aircraft circled above the DW Stadium trailing a banner that read: "Avram Grant - Millwall Legend".
The fly-past was a brutal touch in Grant's last game in charge as his 11-month tenure was brought to a close shortly after 90 minutes of pure footballing theatre.
His sacking puts him in the dock for a season of managerial folly at Upton Park but he will not stand alone when the inquest gets under way and West Ham survey the wreckage that always surrounds the drop into the Championship.
Grant barely got beyond the players' tunnel before he knew his time was over. He conducted his post-match media briefing close to tears and in a faltering voice, knowing his fate was sealed.
"It's the saddest day since I started in football almost 40 years ago," said the former Chelsea and Portsmouth boss, who was summoned to an office at the DW Stadium and given the bad news by West Ham co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold, along with vice-chairman Karren Brady.
"I cannot say it in words. I am very, very sad, especially for the supporters and the people in the club. Football is a game of results. My job was to keep the team in the Premier League and I failed. I wanted to make these great fans happy and I couldn't do it."
Grant was afforded a last gesture of loyalty from his players when they insisted he should fly home with them, rather than take a private car back to London.
West Ham, it is now painfully obvious, broke the bad news to Grant approximately four months too late. It was clear in January, when he seemingly threw his Hammers scarf to supporters in a farewell gesture at the end of the Upton Park defeat against Arsenal and sights were set on Martin O'Neill, that faith in the 56-year-old Israeli was lost and his appointment as successor to Gianfranco Zola last summer had been a mistake.
West Bromwich Albion's sacking of Roberto di Matteo and appointment of Roy Hodgson in the same month seemed harsh in the extreme, while West Ham's decision to stick with Grant looked like a marriage of inconvenience until season's end. A study of their respective positions today proves which club was right.
Gold, someone who does have a genuine feel for West Ham amid the chaos and confusion of this season, took to his Twitter feed to express his thoughts. "This is undoubtedly the worst moment in all the years I've been supporting West Ham and of course I wish I'd done things differently.
"I honestly believed with the players we brought in in January and the imminent return of Hitzlsperger, we had done enough to pull clear of danger," he wrote.
This may not spare him, or indeed Sullivan and Brady, the ire of West Ham's supporters when they say farewell to a desperate campaign at Upton Park next Sunday. Gold and Sullivan took control of the club in dire financial circumstances - a fact that should not be ignored in the interests of context and balance - but this will not be remembered in the mournful surroundings of Green Street.
Grant's last fling as manager was symptomatic of a season in which West Ham have cast aside 22 points from winning positions - and a Carling Cup semi-final at Birmingham City was lost after a healthy lead had been established.
In that game, Grant was slow to react to the introduction of the giant Nikola Zigic, hardly a surprise tactical package, while in the match at Wigan the momentum swung away from the Hammers after the double introduction of Connor Sammon and Victor Moses at half-time.
West Ham's fans exchanged gallows humour for songs of hope after two goals from Demba Ba revived their survival ambitions, but once Charles N'Zogbia pulled one back for Wigan early in the second half, there was a grim inevitability about Sammon's equaliser and Robert Green's latest horror show that gave N'Zogbia the stoppage-time winner.
Grant took responsibility but laced this with a rose-tinted view of West Ham's performances this season that stands little scrutiny. His wildly misplaced optimism, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, was fatally flawed.
He had a valid point about the poor timing of Scott Parker's Achilles tendon injury but history tells us very few teams are unlucky to be relegated - and this was not a hard luck story. It was a deserved demise.
With few exceptions, Footballer of the Year Scott Parker being a glowing one, Grant failed to get the best out of a squad that should have been good enough to avoid the drop. The manager must take the blame for this but the players should not escape responsibility either and their collapse in the face of Wigan pressure on Sunday was a sample of the sort of work that leads to relegation.
West Ham's fans turned some fruity four-letter fire on Grant as the credits rolled at Wigan on Sunday but he seemed genuinely overcome with sadness at how events had turned out and departed with dignity.
Tales of Grant's lack of inspiration on the training ground and in the dressing room have become commonplace as the season has progressed, while the arrival of Wally Downes as coach failed to stem the tide.
Gold and Sullivan must make the right choice for Grant's successor if West Ham are going to bounce back next season - photo: PA
Grant, who suffered relegation with Portsmouth despite taking them to the FA Cup final last season, was the wrong man for the job and now the grim reckoning must begin on and off the field.
Sullivan claimed last week that the club is "in a worse financial position than any other in the country" and revealed that loans of between £20m and £40m may need to be injected in the event of relegation.
It may also be a source of regret to Sullivan that so rarely talked up the team this season. His failure, along with the Gold and Brady, to attend the defeat at Manchester City sent out ominous signals when he explained: 'Watching our poor away performances week after week and not having the ability to influence things has impacted on us."
Brady, in particular, should be credited for claiming the keys to the Olympic Stadium as West Ham's next home - but it is accommodation that looks nowhere near as attractive when viewed from the Championship. The notion of starting life in new surroundings and not being in the Premier League is close to unthinkable.
It is imperative West Ham return to the Premier League quickly but they will have to do it without Footballer of the Year Parker, who is now certain to leave, with Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool in the queue, and goalkeeper Green, who looks destined for Aston Villa.
Mark Noble will also be a target as the vultures circle, Matthew Upson, a spent force this season, is out of contract, while expensive loan recruits Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane will be sent back to Manchester City and Spurs.
Signings of the calibre of Winston Reid, Pablo Barrera and Tal Ben Haim reflected badly on the club's whole recruitment structure. The new arrivals failed to flourish and West Ham are now likely to rely on the young brigade of James Tomkins, Jack Collison, Zavon Hines and Freddie Sears.
And then there is the small matter of a successor to Grant to be considered.
O'Neill is highly unlikely to wish to restart his managerial career in the Championship, while QPR's Neil Warnock, a promotion past master, ruled himself out on Sunday by declaring he was staying with Rangers, having steered them to the Premier League. It's the same situation for Norwich City's Paul Lambert.
Former England coach Steve McClaren has been seen regularly on the circuit as a pundit recently and is likely to come under consideration, while Sam Allardyce was linked with West Ham in January when Grant's future was a matter for debate.
Grant may have gone but the big decisions are only just starting for those in charge at West Ham United as they plan for life outside English football's elite.