PAI in the Sky

Tell me you're a West Ham fan without telling me you're a West Ham fan. So goes the Twitter meme and so goes this column.

“The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity.
Look, it's a sheep in wolf's clothing”
– Rilo Kiley, “It’s A Hit”


We win 4-2 at Newcastle on the opening day of the season, and I’m here writing about a takeover bid by a group who wrote their own Q&A and still seemed surprised by some of the questions.

Embed from Getty Images
PAI Capital's Nasib Piriyev and friends


When news broke of the proposed takeover by PAI Capital in July, it was greeted with a mix of scepticism and delirium. There are after all, a huge number of fans at the club who despise the current owners and preface all commentary about them with the #GSBOUT hashtag. Those fans, it seems, are perfectly willing to overlook an introductory set of statements that includes confirmation that Interpol no longer have a warrant out for someone connected to the bid. We’ve all been there, in fairness.

The fact that the PAI bid is coming from a group is a bit unsettling in itself, considering that “consortium” is Latin for “wealthy enough to have opinions, but not wealthy enough to afford anything on their own” which creates a mental image of a set of owners with no coherent plan, at loggerheads over the future of the club, being rapidly outflanked by more modern rivals. Hmm, plus ca change you may say, but unfortunately it’s not enough to arrive at a football club and have the central plank of your offer be “At least we’re not the current guys”.

Unfortunately, everything about the PAI Capital bid seems to scream exactly this. When frontman Philip Beard went on Talksport last week he did so with the apparent intention of “being a better communicator”, before answering the questions of Jim White and Simon Jordan with all the confidence of Guy Goma, the man who turned up at the BBC to interview for a job in IT and was accidentally put on BBC News 24 for a live discussion about the ramifications of a court case on downloading music.



“Well Simon, I think our models will work”


Consider this particular masterclass in corporate doublespeak.

Philip Beard: And you know that, you owned a football club and when I go to games, on a side issue just briefly, what a weekend of sport that was.

Watching Brentford play Arsenal and the passion of the fans, the passion of the players, the passion of the manager, the great picture of him going up to that little girl or boy after was outstanding.

So communication is really important, I watched New Zealand play Australia, what a game that was and then the football on Saturday over the weekend was also outstanding.

Jim White: Of course culminating on Sunday with West Ham United going to Newcastle away.

Philip Beard: And finishing off with one of the best days of test match cricket I have seen.


Yes, communication is really important.

***

“What are you like? You've had a right life
And taken a long ride, but oh what a cost”
– Richard Hawley, “Born Under A Bad Sign”

Perhaps I am being unfair. Let’s revisit.

The first prominent cheerleader for the bid was Tom Skinner, famous for being a former contestant on The Apprentice, selling pillows and yelling “Bosh!” very loudly at inopportune moments. Alongside him are the Ferdinand brothers and Tony Cottee. Tom tells us that the addition of Cottee provides “some much needed reassurance for us fans” as if a West Ham fan nervous about their open heart surgery would feel better at the sight of Alan Devonshire gowning up with the surgeon.

Cottee has previously hitched his wagon to the stars of various takeover bids, none of which succeeded and has zero experience of running a football club. He claims he isn’t being paid to lend his name to PAI Capital but will instead take a role if they are successful. Even if he wasn’t, I’m not sure why scoring hundreds of goals for a football club qualifies him to determine the credibility of a business plan or the provenance of a consortium's funds.

As for Rio and Anton, I take a different view to the majority here. Many are upset with Rio continuing to view West Ham as a stepping stone to bigger things, but I consider that pretty reasonable. We are a stepping stone, and this was Rio’s experience and the experience of all his team mates. And when he got to Manchester United he saw that was a stepping stone for Cristiano Ronaldo too. Because, in reality, all clubs are selling clubs and we perhaps ought to be acknowledging that the hallmark of the Sullivan era is that we have been absent from this type of discussion, not because of some steely resolve or financial savviness but because we simply haven’t had any players good enough to be sold on.

So, when Rio urges Declan Rice to move on it is aggravating but a straightforward reality. The bigger question is why would Ferdinand be associating himself with a takeover deal at all? Well, if you’re ever in doubt about why a person is doing anything, I’d urge you not to stray too far from considering what is in it for them.

Rio and Anton are connected to New Era Global Sports Management Limited. It doesn’t strike me as too far-fetched that some former players involved in mentoring players through an agency would see a closer connection to prospective owners of a Premier League club as a good thing. It has been a nicely lucrative connection for Will Salthouse, after all.

Digging deeper into the nothingness that Beard put forth during his memorable skewering by Jordan, it’s harder still to discern exactly what PAI are proposing which is materially different to Gold and Sullivan. They have notably talked about the Olympic legacy, remarkably honing in on one of the few things about the stadium that West Ham fans absolutely do not care about, and some vague suggestions that the LLDC haven’t been able to monetise the Olympic Park well enough. Now, if I was going to start looking to extract more revenue out of the Olympic Stadium I suspect I would start by figuring out how much more money I could start charging the 50,000 people who go there every other week to watch West Ham. The depressing reality of football takeovers is that they always start with promises of concerts and events and nebulous other assorted ideas about revenue generation and always end with higher season ticket prices. Bosh!

In listening to the interview, I noted only three meaningful things that Beard was able to put forth. First, the funds available for strengthening the team will be very dependent upon what they pay to acquire the club, which is giving me strong “if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it” vibes. Secondly, there was a throwaway comment that PAI will be paying cash and not leveraging the club with debt in the style of Manchester United or Burnley. This, alone, was a positive.

And lastly, PAI will run but not own the stadium and surrounding area. This is pretty key as it suggests that any dreams we may have of new owners buying the ground and levelling it to bring us within the same London borough as the pitch will have to be quashed. Instead it means that PAI will take the crushingly loss making area off the hands of the LLDC and will attempt to leverage more money from this in support of the team. At this point I have to wonder why, if this was so easy, West Ham haven’t just done this already.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the entire thing is the set of answers given by lead PAI Managing Partner Nasib Piriyev when asked a load of questions by noted PR strategist Dominic Mohan on the PAI website. This was a Q&A in the same way that jokes told on Mock The Week are improvised, and Piriyev still managed to make no sense.

His kid-on the-streets-of-Baku story somehow involved falling in love with West Ham having seen Hurst, Moore and Peters with the World Cup despite not having been born until the Eighties, then failing to ever see us at Upton Park because he couldn’t get a ticket while at the same time suggesting it was ludicrous to move to the Olympic Stadium when we couldn’t even fill Upton Park. I’m no specialist in this stuff, but if your press releases make less sense than the plot of Tenet, it might be time to hire at least one person who has met a football fan.

***

“How do you stay in that tower?
How do you reckon your own power?
How does the wheel not turn hour on hour on hour?”
– Big Red Machine, “Phoenix”

It is interesting to me that none of the momentum behind PAI Capital is related to anything positive about the bid itself, but instead focuses solely on the fact that they aren’t Gold and Sullivan. It is a proposal to fundamentally change the future of the club based solely on who they aren’t rather than who they are.

This, really, is the crux of the entire thing and the fault line that PAI are hoping to exploit. Their basic premise is that anyone would be better than Sullivan and Gold, and are trying to weaponise a volatile fanbase to fall in behind them on that basis. There is a supreme irony here in that they have already seen that the current owners aren’t too fussy about who they sell to, which is precisely what West Ham fans ought to be considering before declaring that the grass is always, surely, greener.

For those who have selective amnesia Carson Yeung – or “Carson Yeung release date” to give him his full Google title - remains the permanent monument to the stupidity of assuming that anyone wanting to buy a football club must surely be a serious businessman. There is a reason that the regulatory black hole of professional football routinely attracts charlatans and grifters of all stripes.

None of this ought to be read as an impassioned defence of Gold and Sullivan, who routinely drive me to distraction in how they run the club. There are very few owners who could take a team to sixth in the Premier League in spite of themselves. But the simplistic, stupid notion that any nodding dog with a head would be better than them is asinine.



“We could probably take a few more Afghan refugees, General”


In 2016 I reconciled myself to the fact that there would never be a worse Prime Minister in my lifetime than David Cameron. Then, Theresa May arrived and stared confusedly at the bar before laying it flat on the ground. Fair enough, I thought. But lo, along came Boris Johnson with his digging equipment and he is currently so far below the bar that the only possible way I could see things being worse would be if General Zod was in charge, and even then I’d be forced to concede that at least his colleagues were capable of doing something. The lesson is that it is always possible to be worse than the worst. We see it every day in society, and we see it in industries far more rigorously vetted and scrutinised than football, where the sole requirement to be a Fit and Proper Person is to have a head.

Perhaps PAI Capital will surprise me and conduct their remaining business swiftly and quietly and then unveil a far reaching plan to modernise and professionalise the elements of the club structure which need it (so, all of it). I also don’t dismiss them because their backers are from Azerbaijan, not least because the best owners in the Premier League are clearly the Thai Srivaddhanaprabha family at Leicester. I dismiss them because thus far everything they have done has been slightly less professional than the time the Roy family tried to buy Hibs and accidentally bought Hearts in Succession.

If I may retreat to cliche very briefly, it’s sensible to be careful what you wish for. Otherwise you might suddenly find your new owner is sashaying around in a confusingly sexy binbag.

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