Filed: Tuesday, 27th March 2007
By: Graeme Howlett
It' s a beautiful warm, spring day in East London. Green Street reverberates to the sound of reggae emanating from the busy market as I follow that oft-trodden path from Upton Park tube station to the Boleyn Ground.
It's distinctly cooler inside the (fully air conditioned) ground as I'm ushered from reception to boardroom in anticipation of my meeting with Hammers impresario Eggert Magnusson. Getting the interview itself had been something of a result; several times previously KUMB had asked Magnusson's predecessor, Terry Brown, to grant us half an hour or so of his time; each time those requests were met by a polite but firm 'no'.
But things are noticeably different at West Ham United these days, and when approached recently Eggert Magnusson had no such reservations. Some moments after I have been ushered into the boardroom to wait for our new Chairman - where I try to put the trophies, that line all four walls, to games (and surprisingly, there's a whole bunch) - Magnusson enters, flanked by club website editor Danny Francis.
After the introductions are complete Danny proceeds to spill milk all over the table, and almost all over the iRiver with which I'm recording our chat. He insists it was purely accidental, I (briefly) suspect a heinous attempt at sabotage - but it's all immaterial as Eggert saves the day by plucking the unfortunate recorder out of harms way.
So with all settled - and KUMB's recorder wiped clean of any traces of the white stuff - our interview begins.
KUMB: First off Eggert, thank you for giving us your time - it's much appreciated. I'd like to start by asking you how you came to be at West Ham, and look at your career in the years leading up to that.
You were made president of Valur Reykjavik in 1984 at the age of 37. That's quite a young age to be in such a lofty position; did you play for the club before that?
EM: Yes. That was the start, and maybe four years before that I was Chairman and involved in the running of the club, like here at West Ham.
KUMB: You stayed at Valur in that role until 1989 and became president of the Icelandic FA after that?
EM: When I became president of the Icelandic FA I stepped down as Chairman of Valur because you cannot combine the roles. I was still Chairman there when I was elected.
KUMB: And that's a position you held until this year?
KUMB: Were you sad to step down?
EM: Oh you know, it was a big part of my life for the last 20 years. But I couldn't keep doing that with West Ham so ...
KUMB: You've been involved with UEFA but you've since resigned from your position; you've also been on the Licenced Match Agents panel, the Fair Play Committee and you've helped to promote women's football?
EM: Most of my time before I came on UEFA's Executive Committee I was a member of the club committee which was a very important committee because it takes care of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. I was sitting there most of the time - so there's something missing there!
KUMB: Sadly we can only get so much information off the internet!
EM: I was sitting with people like David Dein [Arsenal], Gigli of Juventus, Galliani of Milan; you know, a lot of big names. It was a very interesting post.
KUMB: On women's football, obviously we have ladies team's here at West Ham. I think our ladies have been doing very well - Danny [Francis] will know more about this than me, but I think they've won a couple of titles recently. Is that something you'd like to see given more exposure?
EM: To be completely honest I know nothing about the connection between West Ham United and West Ham United ladies but I think they are going to visit me very soon. When I became president of the Icelandic FA there was no women's team - now we have five national teams. I have supported that wholeheartedly all my time, and I think it's a very important part of football. I think the main growth area in world football today is in women's football, so I will support it as much as I can.
KUMB: Well that takes us neatly up to last year when you became involved with West Ham. The first and most obvious question is this - why West Ham?
EM: Sometimes things happen very quickly, there are a lot of surprises in life. A year ago I wasn't even thinking about being Chairman of West Ham. But suddenly I heard that West Ham was for sale, and that some people were trying to buy the club.
I wanted to know a little bit more about West Ham as a business - I knew a lot about West Ham the football club, the academy and the history. I'd known a lot about West Ham since the early 1960s; I don't have to repeat all the names! So I spent some time here in London with a bank, then I spent more time, and more time, and became more interested.
I'm a fighter, I want to be a winner and I also wanted to win this race. I found out that the fan base is very strong - that was one of the factors that led me to buy the club.
KUMB: So a culmination of a number of reasons.
EM: Yeah. For a long period of time I thought I had no chance, but finally ...
KUMB: How long was it between your initial interest and the takeover itself?
EM: It was probably a little more than two months.
KUMB: So it really was the situation that you read the news, saw that West Ham were up for sale and thought 'I fancy a bit of that'?
EM: Yes. I was in London because I had an apartment here as I was travelling a lot with UEFA and FIFA. So it was nice to have a base here. I was in London when I read about this and became interested; this was probably early-September.
KUMB: You mentioned the fan-base; what would you say it is about the West Ham supporters that makes them different from any other club?
EM: They're very loyal, they stand behind the team - but they also want us to play good football. Winning alone is not enough. Most of all I have been very encouraged how positive they have been with all these problems we have had - and there have been a lot of problems. But you always want a solid backing behind you.
KUMB: What are your first memories of West Ham? Obviously you've mentioned the World Cup triumvirate in previous interviews.
EM: No, it was before that. I knew about Martin Peters and Bobby Moore obviously; Geoff Hurst. What was it '64, '65?
KUMB: The '65 Cup Winners Cup?
EM: Yeah, the great game of '65 when we beat Munich. In Europe, West Ham are known for their good football; although they may not always win the honours they are the team that plays good football and produces a lot of talent.
KUMB: Was there much exposure to European football at the time in Iceland?
EM: Well it was about that time that we started to watch games on television. Not live, but we got one or two games every week. But I used to read all kinds of magazines and what have you, because I was football mad.
KUMB: So you would have been what 17, 18 at the time?
EM: Yeah. But I'd been interested and playing all my life.
KUMB: Moving on to the here and now; what are your immediate plans for The Boleyn Ground?
EM: It's no secret that we are looking at another site to build a new stadium. We started discussions with the Olympic authorities regarding the Olympic stadium, but I wasn't optimistic that that would happen. Obviously we didn't want a running track - we want a football ground.
KUMB: And a running track was something they were insisting on?
EM: Of course. There might have been some ways to work with that - if you take the Stade De France model, or something like that, which covers the track. But I think that their idea was so far from our idea that it would have always been difficult to find a way forward. So we have been looking at another site on which to build a pure football stadium, and that's what I hope will happen in the next three or four years.
KUMB: The Parcel Force site?
EM: I cannot comment on that.
KUMB: Fair enough. So there's no immediate plans for The Boleyn Ground? You won't be extending the East Stand in the interim?
EM: No, not if this is happening.
KUMB: How far down the line are you with that? Are you positive that it will be a goer in the next few years?
EM: Yes, I'm positive. We need a bigger stadium. If we start getting good results then I think we can fill a 60,000 stadium as Arsenal are doing every game now - we have the fan base to do that. We need a stadium with more hospitality and the possibility to sell more corporate seats, which a successful club needs.
I think that in future you will see the teams who survive in the Premiership have to have a certain size of stadium - and also manage to fill that stadium. Because in the Premier League you are paying more and more wages to the players, so it will get more and more difficult for teams who don't come up to that standard to stay in the Premier League, to maintain their status. I see this in every other country in Europe.
KUMB: You don't envisage any problems in filling a 60,000 stadium? A West Ham side in the Premiership could fill that?
EM: I'm sure about that. Built on a little bit more success, also. You have to have a successful team, but you also have to have the finance in place and when you look at the income at the Emirates compared to Upton Park today there is a huge difference.
KUMB: Obviously West Ham United has always been at the core of the local community, and has always had a traditional working-class fan-base. Now we seem to be moving away from that in football in general, as we see a lot more corporate support. Is that necessary in order to take this club to the next level?
EM: We need that, but it's a mixture. We still need the people that are the core supporters to be there but for sure, corporate seating and hospitality makes extra money. We are a little bit slow here in England to adopt that; in Germany they have been doing it for some years with great success. We are just looking at the Emirates Stadium wondering what possibilities we have there, you know.
We're closer to the City here than the Emirates, and I think there's a lot of potential. There's no question about that.
KUMB:A recent survey showed that only 8% of Premier League season ticket holders are under 16. We've had the KFAQ games with the previous administration; do you have any plans to encourage the younger supporters back into the ground?
EM: To be honest this is something that we've not looked at yet. For the immediate future we are looking at next year and what have you. But it's an important point you're raising there because we need to educate young people to come to the games.
KUMB: And to make it more affordable?
EM: Yeah. But this goes back to what we were discussing previously with hospitality and corporate support. The average salary of a West Ham supporter who comes to the games here is second highest in the league - it's just below Chelsea, and I think it's around £60,000 per year.
KUMB: I must be in the wrong job!
EM: No, I'm just telling you how things have changed! Because when you look at the area here, [most of] our supporters don't come from this area any more. So this has totally changed.
KUMB: Is this something you looked at when considering new sites? Moving out of the local area?
EM: No, no.
KUMB: It had to be here in East London?
EM: Yeah. I think we should be here, close to Upton Park, West Ham - this is our area, our home. Docklands has changed, at Canary Wharf you have luxury apartments now - so it's all coming closer. With the changes that will come with the Olympics I think that in the next ten years, this area will change totally. I'm sure about that.
KUMB: There's a campaign in one of the national newspapers with regards to season ticket pricing - do you think ours are fairly evenly-balanced?
EM: I think so.
KUMB: Do you think you will be looking to either increase or reduce those next year?
EM: It's not something we've looked into thoroughly, but we will be doing that soon. I see no reason to reduce them, I think they are evenly balanced. At Upton Park we have capacity for every game.
I think this is more politics though. I don't like the discussions that have been in the papers with some politicians that are trying to make themselves popular, speaking about business they know nothing about. I don't know how quick they are at doing things in Parliament but I think they should stick to that and let others mind their own business!
I think there are many mistakes made there though, so sorry - but I think it's not for politicians to speak of. It's not as if they know the business, or what's behind it. I think there are other reasons maybe that you don't have a full-house at Blackburn, for example. If you take Blackburn, they have a small population and also Bolton, Wigan - I don't know how many Premier club sides you have there.
DF: But they're reducing prices because they want to fill their stadiums.
EM: Obviously, and to get the support. So that's a different aspect, you know.
KUMB: Would you say that West Ham are fairly unique in that we have a huge catchment area?
EM: Yeah. We are on our own in East London, and there's Essex, and so on.
KUMB: Let me ask you about your future plans; what would you say your ambitions are for West Ham United as a football club?
EM: As I've said from the beginning, I can see in a few years time that we have built success with West Ham as a business, with a new stadium and what have you. But we will have a team here that is always fighting for the top honours.
KUMB: So you see the club challenging the top clubs and playing Champions League football?
EM: No question about that.
KUMB: What sort of time-frame are you looking at?
EM: Give me at least five years, and from then on. From five to ten years time.
KUMB: So within ten years you envisage us up with the Liverpools, the Chelseas ...
EM: No question about that. No question.
KUMB: You're obviously committed for the long-term. You were 60 last month and that period will take you to 70; do you think you'll ever stop working?
EM: I hope not! At the moment I am very fit - I run a lot, as you need to be fit. But I cannot see myself retiring; I might sometimes in the future take a little bit more of a back seat role but I love to be involved.
KUMB: You're clearly enjoying life.
EM: As we said earlier, football has been a big part of my life. So to be on the UEFA Executive Committee, to be involved with FIFA, to travel around for football, to see the best games from the best seats - it's not work for me! So I'm always surprised when my colleagues say 'I'm so tired of all this', you know ... for me it's my life.