These are uncomfortable, uncertain times at Upton Park. There has been a lot for West Ham fans to enjoy this season — breaking the 80-points mark, a fresh and often free-scoring team led by a dynamic new manager — but the only achievement that could make the 2011/2012 season anything other than a failure is slipping through their grasp. Promotion has been more of a likelihood than a possibility for so great a part of this season that only now are Hammers having to consider the play-offs with any real seriousness.
West Ham seem almost to have got a little too stuck in that rhythm of trading places that is so particular to the Championship, that when they surrendered the automatic promotion spots to Reading and Southampton a few weeks ago it was a shock to discover that that pair were actually inclined to keep hold of them. It is times like these when the fearful questions begin to crop up once more — what if West Ham don’t get promoted this season? Or the next? Would it be the beginning of a bigger slide?
West Ham were not one of those Premier League teams that budgeted for relegation each season, but since their return to the Championship the transfer policy has largely been lean and prudent. Henri Lansbury, David Bentley and George McCartney were all signed on season-long loans in the summer, while John Carew and Abdoulaye Faye came to the club on free transfers. The £8 million received from Tottenham for Scott Parker will have gone a great deal of the way towards financing the deals for Matty Taylor and Kevin Nolan, while a net spend of around £3 million in January on forwards Ricardo Vaz Te and Nicky Maynard is all you might expect of any team chasing promotion to the Premier League.
However, should this season’s promotion bid fail, even this diligence might not be enough to plug the leaks left by last season’s lack of a contingency plan. The likes of Robert Green, Carlton Cole, Mark Noble, Gary O’Neil, Frederic Piquionne and Papa Bouba Diop are all on contracts paying Premier-League wages, having been retained despite relegation last season. A grave indicator of the magnitude of Cole’s salary came last summer when his proposed transfer to Stoke came unstuck on that very issue. Piquionne has been replaced, and has just returned from a month-long loan at doomed bottom-club Doncaster, while Bouba Diop and O’Neil have managed only 14 league starts apiece as yet. Moreover when Kevin Nolan was bought at the start of this term, the dotted line on which he signed was at the foot of a five-year contract. Said Matty Taylor upon his own signing: “I don't expect to be playing Championship football for more than one season if I am being totally honest.” He is surely not the only one.
It is impossible to say from the outside just how great a gamble the club has taken this season, but it is not unreasonable to speculate that it is on the large side. Obviously having four more years on the contract of a player as potentially vital as Kevin Nolan is a massive positive if West Ham are kicking off a Premier League campaign come August. But if promotion is not achieved then expect to see almost as wholesale a squad turnover as that of a year ago. Just how wholesale, how cheaply the prize assets go for, and the quality of the replacements should give us a much clearer idea of how big West Ham have been gambling.