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Oct 3, 2006

Takeover talk ruining Hammers harmony

As history indicates, coups have a tendency to be bloody. But when West Ham thought they had stolen a march on the established European elite by recruiting Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano it appeared to be a bloodless triumph.

Happier times were envisaged at Upton Park. Now, amid uncertainty about their future and with their fortunes declining on the pitch, West Ham supporters could be entitled to be worried about a very different type of coup.

Briefly Premiership leaders in August and playing the brand of entertaining football that earned them admirers last year, West Ham are now six games without a win and five without a goal. These are hardly the expected statistics for a side who have signed one of the world's most coveted strikers.

They are, however, an indication of the fragility of harmony and morale in the dressing room. Manager Alan Pardew has been at pains to explain that the arrival of the two Argentineans, rather than the players themselves, has been disruptive. Nonetheless, West Ham are a distracted team in seeming discord.

While a decline in results is easily attributable to injuries to crucial players at either end of the pitch (notably Anton Ferdinand and Dean Ashton), to view the collective malaise as coincidental may be naïve.

An attempt to revert to the familiar against his former club Reading saw Pardew drop Mascherano for Hayden Mullins. The midfield anchor man, sacrificed after West Ham's surprise swoop, is thought to be particularly close to captain Nigel Reo-Coker, with whom he combined so well on the pitch last season.

But in an attempt to accommodate the Argentineans, Pardew had tweaked the formula that brought him success; despite an instinctive preference for 4-4-2, he had switched to 4-3-3. It had the dual benefit of providing Mascherano, who sits deeper than Mullins, with more company in midfield and selecting more of his six strikers. But it was to the detriment of the wingers Matthew Etherington and Yossi Benayoun, hitherto vital.

Indeed, in one sense, Ashton's ankle injury has made Pardew's selection simpler, meaning he only has had to perm two or three of five forwards. In another, it has removed the focal point of his attack, the club record signing who provided the foil to pacier partners. While Tevez's talent dwarfs Ashton's, the man from Crewe (and not Corinthians) can be regarded as their most important attacker.

And while any squad with six strikers is intrinsically imbalanced, Pardew cannot be blamed for this. He has admitted his major target in transfer deadline week was Steed Malbranque. Together with his earlier summer dealings, it would have furnished West Ham with still more youth, pace and vitality, the qualities that took them to the FA Cup final and the top 10 of the Premiership, and greater strength in depth.

Additions like Carlton Cole, Tyrone Mears and Jonathan Spector complied to Pardew's template for signings; the solitary exception, Lee Bowyer, made an outstanding debut to vindicate his former team-mate's judgment.

Then two players were foisted on Pardew, amid suspicions West Ham are acting as an incubator for wealthier clubs to introduce Tevez and Mascherano when their acclimatisation to European football is more advanced. Their gifts are undoubted but in one respect, West Ham rode roughshod over 15 months of planning since Pardew won promotion to the Premiership.

Pardew would not be human if he were to remain unaffected by the off-field dealings; fears for his own position are legitimate for a man whose progressive approach has marked him out as one of the brightest managerial prospects in Britain.

And yet it is right to exonerate, as Pardew has done, Tevez and Mascherano.

Deprived of a pre-season with their new team-mates, they have yet to reach peak physical condition. Moreover, there are plenty of precedents of imports taking time to adjust to the particular demands of the Premiership. Across London, it has taken time, but Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Kolo Toure and Alexander Hleb have done that, although none excelled in his first few weeks.

Lofty reputations and a shroud of mystery about their funding distinguishes the West Ham duo from the majority of arrivals. In this, the role of Kia Joorabchian, public face of the MSI consortium and potential partner in a buyout, is yet to be fully explained. Without greater transparency, it cannot yet be welcomed.

While Terence Brown has scarcely been the most popular of chairmen, his regime may be more altruistic than the alternatives. The peculiarities of politics, history and geography may prompt a bid from the Israeli Eli Papouchado. West Ham could offer a unique opportunity for prospective investors to profit: should they be able to relocate to the 80,000 stadium in Stratford after London hosts the 2012 Olympics, it would enable them to sell Upton Park.

The ludicrous price of real estate in the capital would make that a lucrative prospect and Papouchado, another contact of the mysterious Joorabchian, appears to have greater interest in that than, say, the battle between Mears, Spector and John Paintsil for the right-back spot.

Any potential takeover can induce an outbreak of nerves from football managers, suddenly unsure of their own position. Given recent events at West Ham, Pardew may be especially concerned.

Given their prominent role in the history of English football, nostalgia is an essential ingredient of West Ham. Pardew himself could be forgiven for thinking fondly of happier, simpler times - about two months ago.