Sunday, January 17, 2010


Talks over the future ownership of West Ham United were on a knife-edge on Friday night with Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes and former Birmingham City co-owner David Sullivan vying for control of the Premier League club.

Sources close to the banks conducting the deal suggested that Fernandes, who was in intensive talks all day with lawyers and financiers, was "90 per cent there" in terms of concluding the sale and taking over.

Talks continued late into the night and an announcement may come on Saturday or Monday. It will be that extra 10 per cent that will, however, concern West Ham supporters who have agonised over their club's future.

Fernandes, the owner and chief executive of Air Asia and a lifelong West Ham supporter, is not the only bidder, of course, and detailed negotiations have continued with Sullivan who, according to sources, was also close. Both parties completed due diligence and had the necessary paperwork to support their bids ratified, having made their presentations at the start of the week.

Telegraph Sport also understands that it is not just the future of West Ham that is being decided but also that of manager Gianfranco Zola. If Sullivan gains control it is believed that he will seek to replace the Italian with Mark Hughes, who was sacked by Manchester City just before Christmas. Fernandes, the favourite, is fully supportive of Zola, who is deeply concerned about his future.

Beyond Fernandes and Sullivan – the two front-runners – there are other parties with Massimo Cellino, the president of the Italian club Cagliari, continuing to assert that he has made the best offer to CB Holding, the company that owns West Ham.

However, it is understood that further talks will take place with Cellino only if a deal cannot be agreed with Fernandes or Sullivan. It is also believed that Cellino would sack Zola, even though he finished his playing career at Cagliari. There are concerns as to whether Cellino would pass the Premier League's fit and proper person test after his involvement in a fraud case.

The Intermarket Group, a finance company which has sought investors, retains an interest and, at one stage this week, claimed it was the preferred bidder but this has been dismissed by sources at CB Holding and West Ham, although they do not rule them out should other offers fail and they provide proof of funds.

Key to Fernandes's plan, it is understood, is having full control so he can proved a stronger platform for the future of the club. There have been concerns about the level of debt – £38 million plus the £20 million due to Sheffield United over the Carlos Tévez affair – and, more pressingly, the terms under which the debt has been negotiated. None of these problems though are insurmountable.

Nevertheless, all bidders have been frustrated by over the stance taken by CB Holding and the five banks who are owed money by the club – Straumur, Glitner, Standard Bank, Lloyds-TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland – who are trying to drive as hard a bargain as possible before they transfer ownership.

Sullivan has proposed taking an initial 51 per cent stake, with a controlling interest and an option to buy out Straumur and the other creditors who are owed money following the collapse of the business empire of former owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson.

Fernandes made a similar proposal with, it is believed, slightly better financial terms but, according to sources involved, it has since been suggested he wants to conduct a full buy-out now to give West Ham a better footing.

There has been a rising sense of desperation at West Ham over the ownership issue with Zola unable to strengthen his squad until fresh investment is found or who is in control is decided. Hopefully that is now reaching its endgame.