By Trevor Haylett
It was a ball played in from the left that was put away tidily by the centre-forward to give his team the lead. In many ways it was a routine, unspectacular goal from Bobby Zamora except that in this case it earned his club, West Ham United FC, a prize reputed to be worth in the region of €50m.
The play-off match for the final promotion place into the Premiership traditionally brings the curtain down on the English domestic season. In their Annual Review of Football Finance, the accounting firm Deloitte characterise the Championship play-off final as 'the richest game on earth'. For the pot of gold available to the winners at the end of 90 minutes no other fixture can rival it and West Ham’s reward for reclaiming the Premiership place they lost two seasons ago compares favourably for example with the reward Liverpool FC banked for winning the UEFA Champions League last month.
This season's play-off at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, which followed the 46-game regulation season and then two play-off semi-final ties, went the way of West Ham a year after they had suffered the disappointment of losing out to Crystal Palace FC on the same stage with the gravy train heading for the Premier League tantalisingly within reach.
Preston North End FC were the side to miss out this time but many would argue that West Ham's need for victory was greater because relegation had proved a calamity for the east London club, ushering in a dark period of mounting debt and escalating player sales.
Dropping out of the top flight is a blow for every club but its ramifications were particularly heartfelt at Upton Park because they had recently undertaken extensive ground redevelopment and had a high wage bill. At a reported €49.18m per annum it was the sixth highest in the Premiership at that time.
The debts were said to be as high as €89.42m and it was no surprise when the club immediately began to cash in its assets, Glen Johnson and Joe Cole moving to Chelsea FC to join former team-mate Frank Lampard who had made the same switch two summers before. David James and Trevor Sinclair both went to Manchester City FC while Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick later joined Frédéric Kanouté - one of the first to check out at Upton Park - at Tottenham Hotspur FC. The relegation fire sale realised €46.35m. In contrast just €2.83m was spent on new recruits.
The sales were not universally popular, increasing calls for the resignation of removal of chairman Terence Brown. It did not help the mood of some West Ham fans that so many former West Ham graduates, like Manchester United FC’s Rio Ferdinand, have gone on to thrive with England. It is possible to conceive a current England XI comprising seven former Hammers.
Two difficult years
None the less, the pressure on manager Alan Pardew, who took over from Glenn Roeder following relegation, remained high. Although he took his pared-down side into the play-offs in his first season in command, many thought he was lucky to survive in the job following the defeat against Crystal Palace.
Spending not selling
At the second time of asking Pardew has given the West Ham faithful what they have been craving for and now, thanks to 'the richest game on earth' and that Zamora strike, he can look forward to the luxury of spending rather than selling this summer.
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