Watching Match of the Day on Saturday night, we were treated to some of the most bizarre scenes I have ever witnessed in watching a football match. Four isolated pitch invasions at the London Stadium, including one protestor who had removed the corner flag and tried to plant it on the centre spot in an apparent homage to a previous protest about the West Ham Bond scheme back in 1992. This was followed by an aggrieved mob surrounding the director’s box and calling for the owners to get out of the club.
While no right-minded football supporter, or indeed human being, would condone pitch invasions and the creation of a dangerous environment through the intimidating behaviour that we had hoped had been eradicated from our grounds; it is difficult to condemn the West Ham fans for being so aggrieved with the way that the club is being run that they felt they simply had to vent their feelings in some manner.
The game against Burnley on Saturday had been earmarked by supporter groups for a protest march against the board and ownership but this was subsequently called off after apparently successful talks with the club. What happened on Saturday suggests that while there was deemed to be no need for an organised protest, frustration and disenchantment remain rife amongst the fans.
Many clubs across the leagues may look at West Ham and wonder what all the fuss is about? On the face of it the move to the new stadium for which it was widely reported the club’s contribution was minimal, should be the platform on which the club could start to build towards a brighter future and position itself, if not amongst the financially-determined Big Six (read Rich Six), certainly at a level just below. Instead it is difficult to see any difference between how the club is being run and financed now compared to the last season at the much-missed Boleyn Ground.
Add in the frustration over transport, sightlines, distance from the pitch, the apparently soulless atmosphere and the general unsuitability of a stadium that was perfect as an athletics venue for London 2012, but remains completely inappropriate as a venue for football despite the eye-watering adaptation costs; and it is plain to understand why the Hammers support might wonder why they ever left their spiritual home.
Even ahead of the stadium move the club’s owners David Gold and David Sullivan infamously outlined a ten point plan in which they promised the fans that they would strive to: i) appoint the right manager, ii) sign new players, iii) invest more in the academy, iv) clear the debt, v) freeze season ticket prices for renewals, vi) build the status and image of the club, vii) make it enjoyable to come and watch, viii) get closer to the community, ix) go for the Olympic Stadium, and x) listen to supporters.
While I am not a West Ham supporter, having lived in the heart of the East End of London for the past 15 years I do have something of an affinity and empathy for this traditionally-rooted club, and it strikes me that the fans have been sold a lie.
Since their grand proclamation, made prior to the appointment of the less than popular Avram Grant, the club is now on its fourth manager none of whom, with the possible exception of Slaven Bilic for that honeymoon last season at the Boleyn Ground, could really be seen as the ‘right manager’. Grant took the Hammers down, Sam Allardyce came in on a needs-must basis but never truly won over the fans, Bilic ended up being ignominiously sacked and it would be fair to say that the appointment of current incumbent Moyes was greeted with apathy at best.
Increasingly the Premier League hierarchy and positions in the table are defined by the amount spent on the playing staff, while certainly a number of signings have been made by West Ham the reported net transfer spend of £30 million this summer does not seem to represent sufficient outlay to deliver the Champions League football that the ownership purported to be the ambition underlying the stadium move. Especially when considered in the context that their one true diamond of a player, Dimitri Payet, was allowed to pack his bags and return to Marseille midway through last season. The most recent raft of additions to the squad seems to be a mixed bag of players not necessarily wanted elsewhere, rather than part of a coherent strategy to build an improved squad.
Historically tagged the ‘Academy of Football’, West Ham fans have always been proud of the way that the club has developed talent over the generations. Even beyond the World Cup winning legends of 1966, one need only think of recent Premier League stars such as: Ferdinand, Lampard, Carrick and Joe Cole to appreciate the production line that used to come out of East London. Nowadays captain Mark Noble is the only home-grown player and West Ham fans might justifiably point to an erosion of their identity now that the club brings in players from all corners of the globe.
The debt held by the club has certainly been reduced as revealed in the recent accounts, although it could be argued that due to the staggering sums coming into the Premier League from the TV rights on top of the increased revenue streams from a bigger stadium, this was inevitable.
Perhaps the only promises that Gold and Sullivan have truly delivered upon are the move to the Olympic Stadium itself and keeping ticket prices affordable to encourage take-up in their new home. Judging by the scenes from Saturday afternoon it would be impossible to argue that they have enhanced the status and image of the club and got closer to their new community; it certainly didn’t strike this particular viewer as being an experience that was ‘enjoyable to come and watch’ delivered by an ownership that ‘listens to supporters’.
While it might be easy to point the finger at West Ham supporters and accuse them of protesting unjustifiably, certainly in comparison to supporters of clubs whose megalomaniac owners have put the supporters through much worse, think Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Leyton Orient to name but three; should they really be denounced for trying to stand up for the interests of their club?