LONDON // Avram Grant's ill-fated reign as the West Ham United manager was close to concluding last night as the club's owners prepared a succession in an attempt to retain Premier League status.
Martin O'Neill is their preferred candidate to replace the Israeli, but is understood to have turned the position down.
West Ham officials moved to deny reports that Grant was to be sacked irrespective of yesterday's 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal and that O'Neill had agreed to succeed him. They did not, though, deny that David Sullivan and David Gold were preparing a change of management.
It is understood that Grant's contract contains a clause allowing the owners to dismiss the manager this month at a reduced level of compensation if the team is in the relegation positions.
Yesterday's defeat kept West Ham at the bottom of the Premier League table - a position they have held for most of Grant's 21 matches in charge.
The board has held discussions with several potential replacements but have failed to agree terms on a contract.
Foremost among those candidates, O'Neill had been considering taking the position until the end of the season on condition of a significant bonus if he kept the team in the Premier League. Yesterday, however, the Irishman told friends that he would not be taking over at Upton Park.
Gold and Sullivan may now turn to Martin Jol. The former Tottenham Hotspur manager is a free agent after leaving Ajax at the end of last year. Jol is keen to work in English football again and still owns a house in London.
Roy Hodgson is also interested in a rapid return to management after his sacking by Liverpool.
Grant's record at West Ham parallels that at Portsmouth, whose relegation he oversaw last season - a strong run in a cup competition - the Carling Cup - drawing attention away from sustained failure in league matches.
There has been strong criticism of the manager's day-to-day handling of the team, with players complaining of Grant's lacklustre approach to man management, the predictable nature of training, and his absence from certain sessions.
At the end of November, the board went over Grant's head to dismiss Zeljko Petrovic, his hand-picked assistant, replacing the Montenegrin with Wally Downes, their own choice of first-team coach. Grant has also been undermined by the actions of Karren Brady, the chief executive, in the current transfer market.
Grant had targeted Steven Sidwell, the Aston Villa midfielder, as a priority reinforcement only for Brady to call Sidwell in the second week of January and tell the player to find a different employer.
Unaware of Brady's actions, Grant subsequently twice contacted Sidwell to instruct him to report for West Ham training, insisting that he controlled transfers at the club. At the end of the week, Sidwell signed for Fulham.
Yesterday Brady used her weekly newspaper column to deny she had hindered Grant's running of the first team. "Despite recent criticism, never in 17 years have I tried to interfere with management or the running of the teams," Brady wrote. "I don't score that kind of OG [own-goal]. But I do believe in airing an opinion."