A meaningless end-of-season match, a pointless edition of “Who are You?”? … Only in the sense that they’re down and we’re safe. Beyond that, Sunderland have masses of pride to play for – we cannot finish lower than 14th but 14th would represent failure – and Steve Bruce’s team should want to preserve their one notable achievement: unbeaten in London. For their part West Ham players have to show their fans they care about restoring the club to the Premier. And we close this season’s series on a high, with the Hammers-supporting writer and broadcaster Iain Dale*, who also runs the West Ham Til I Die blog. He is optimistic about a quick return, sees us as a similar club that will always collapse into dire runs and eulogises the surely departing Scott Parker …
Salut! Sunderland: We knew West Ham would either be down or clinging on by fingertips by the time you play us. That flimsy grip now lost, the worst has come to worst. Will you emulate Newcastle and bounce straight back or be in for a long recovery?
I am optimistic about that. We have some excellent younger players – Noble, Tomkins, Da Costa, Sears, Collison – and there are quite a few more emerging through the youth system. If we can hang on to all of them and build a team around them, I think we’ll do OK. And if we can persuade one or two of the others to stay, like Demba Ba and Thomas Hitzlsperger, then I think we could do incredibly well. But that’s a big if. I remember the clearout that happened last time we went down.
I am sure you recall Tony Gallagher, the Hammers-supporting Daily Telegraph telling us before SAFC v West Ham in December “I still foresee relegation unless there is a change of manager soon” since you repeated the interview at your own site. Did you share his view then and what did you make of the decision to stick with Abram Grant despite continue poor form? Or do you have other theories about the cause of West Ham’s malaise?
I was never a fan of Avram Grant. I didn’t want him in the first place and I went public calling for his sack in December. He was never going to be a success mainly because he couldn’t motivate a blancmange and had no idea about tactics. You want evidence? I think I am right that on four occasions this season we were 2-0 up and went on to lose the match.
How does the likelihood of relegation sit with the move to the Olympic stadium? Were you for or against that in the first place and have events changed your mind?
I am all in favour of a move to the Olympic Stadium. If we want to progress as a club we can’t do that in a stadium with a capacity of 35,000. Simple as that. Yes, my heart would love to stay at Upton Park, but my business head tells me we can’t. I don’t think relegation will matter in that regard, mainly because by 2014 we will hopefully be back in the top flight! We will be able to fill it for some of the games but not for others. I’’m actually very excited about it.
It seems astonishing that a member of a struggling team should win the sportswriters’ Player of the Year award, but is Scott Parker so good that the choice did not surprise you?
He has been an absolute star this season. I would say that in 80 per cent of the matches he has played in he has been our man of the match. That is some record. He has become a Hammers legend and we are all bereft that Sunday will see him wear a West Ham shirt for the last time. How he didn’t get into the England squad until recently is anyone’s guess.
It may have been a result of clumsy wording on the WHU website, but the impression given was that the basic ticket price for our game had been inflated by the importance the outcome could have to your survival. Did Sunderland supporters have a point in expressing dismay at this or is £46 a fair price for a seat in the Boleyn/Upton Park away end?
That’s actually quite cheap. Many tickets are well over £50. The good thing about the move to the Olympic Stadium is that ticket prices will fall substantially.
Were you surprised by our own dreadful run and brush with relegation danger, or did we merely flatter to deceive earlier in the season? Any thoughts on Steve Bruce or, more generally, Sunderland?
Sunderland have always been a team which has a great run of wins and then collapses. A bit like us. We have always quite liked playing you at home as we usually win, but away it’s usually a different matter. Steve Bruce’s problem is that he buys far too many average players who will do a job, but not much more.
Do the likely compositions and order of the top four and bottom three confirm your own beginning-of-season assessment of how things would go?
I genuinely didn’t think we would finish in the bottom three. Even until a few weeks ago I was optimistic. How does a team with so many classy players do that? Answer: terrible manager. I expected Wolves, Wigan and Birmingham to go down, but I think I may have got that wrong! I did better at the other end, as I always felt Chelsea would be playing catchup. They nearly pulled it off, but Man U were too strong.
Probably not the best time to be asked about good memories, but who are the best players you have seen in claret and blue and what have been your greatest occasions as a supporter?
Paolo Di Canio is the greatest West Ham player of my time with a season ticket. The 5-4 victory at home to Bradford was a classic Di Canio performance. The ref refused to give him several penalties so he tried to get Harry Redknapp to sub him. He actually sat down in the centre circle and refused to play on. In the end he did, obviously, and I think went on to score two goals, one a penalty where he wrestled the ball out of the hands of Frank Lampard.
And who should have been allowed nowhere near your colours?
Luis Boa Morte.
Do you have any good, bad or amusing memories of games involving our two clubs, or the players linked with both (including Pop Robson, George McCartney, Don Hutchison, Kieran Richardson and Anton Ferdinand spring to mind but I know there have been others)?
My memories are mainly good as we often seem to beat you. I can’t think of anything specific to be honest. But what on earth have you done to George McCartney? He was a worldbeater when he played for us. Now he seems to have gone off the boil a bit. Is that what Steve Bruce does to players?!
What one measure should West Ham or the footballing authorities take in order to improve any aspect of the game?
They should sell Luis Boa Morte. That would improve my enjoyment of the game no end. Are you listening Steve Bruce?
Will you be at our match, and what do you think will be the score on Sunday. And will you still be going next season?
I will be there, of course. I hope we put out a youthful team and drop all the players who are on loan, who have been such a disappointment. We will win 2-0 and this is the team I’d like to see…
Green, Da Costa, Tomkins, Spence, Spector Sears, Hitzlsperger, Collison, Parker, Ba, Cole
* Iain Dale on Iain Dale: I’m a presenter on LBC Radio and present the evening show every weeknight. I also run Biteback Publishing. In a couple of weeks I have a new book coming out West Ham: When Football Was Football which is an illustrated history of the club. I also run the main West Ham blog West Ham Til I Die.
Interview: Colin Randall