Since West Ham’s move to The London Stadium, tension has come to a head between the fans and the Board. Planned marches led by ex-ICF members were eventually cancelled, leading to pitch invasions and ugly scenes at home against Burnley, when the fans surrounded the Director’s box. West Ham’s owners, David Gold & David Sullivan (and Vice-Chairwoman Karren Brady) have come under fire for not living up to promises made to the fans, which were used to sweeten the deal that saw them sell off Upton Park. Promises of the glitz and glamour of Champions League football, marquee signings and a stadium which was billed to be the club’s ticket to success have not come to fruition, with the club avoiding relegation this season by the skin of their teeth. But why are relations between the fans and Board so strained?
A complete disregard for the club’s heritage and fans
Despite the narrative from the mainstream press, West Ham is by and large a family club. Initially Thames Ironworks, they became West Ham United in 1900 and have largely been supported by the East London’s working class ever since. It would seemingly take something quite severe to fracture such a tightly-knit community. Enter Gold, Sullivan and Brady. Both Davids publicly claimed to be West Ham fans and tried to reassure the fanbase they had the club’s best interests at heart. But their actions certainly haven’t supported this claim. When asked by Trevor Sinclair how the move from Upton Park would impact upon the club’s working class heritage, Brady replied “this stadium offers us a different kind of future.”
The Board have been accused of showing contempt for the club’s heritage. At Upton Park, fans could pay to have a commemorative brick with their own message/name inscribed onto it, built into the brickwork at the ground. During the demolition process of the stadium, however, no efforts were made by the club to salvage them and it was left to fans to recover the bricks themselves. In addition, a Memorial Garden, created to pay tribute to West Ham fans who have sadly passed away, was allowed to become overgrown and neglected. Surely if the Board were, as they claimed, fans of the club, they’d be more attentive and sensitive during the decision-making processes that caused these issues? It was only when the neglect of the Memorial Garden was brought to light a year later by a fan-created action group, that anything was done to rectify the matter.
Prior to the move, the board promised local businesses relying on matchday custom that they wouldn’t suffer, possibly being allowed to carry on operations in Stratford. However, 2 years after the initial promise was made, fan favourite Nathan’s, a pie and mash shop, has recently announced it would be closing its doors. Many attribute this to the club’s move, suggesting that not enough was done to provide continued support to the local community that depended upon income from matchday footfall.
The London Stadium
The promises of a bigger, flashier stadium which were accompanied by claims of European football softened the blow of losing Upton Park. Granted, any stadium would never compare to West Ham’s true home, but the London Stadium spectacularly paled in comparison. They traded a beloved ground, for what I have heard described by West Ham fans as “a soulless athletics ground with some grass plonked in the middle”. Having visited it myself, I am inclined to agree. The only analogy I can think of is having a well-used but trusty Ford KA, but being promised an upgrade to a Porsche. Except when the Porsche arrives, it won’t start and has half the interior missing.
One of the biggest problems fans have with the London Stadium, it seems, is the seating. Firstly, many note the sheer distance from the pitch, which encourages a disconnected, isolated ambience in the ground. Others were concerned about the quality of security and stewarding in the new ground. No Upton Park stewards were kept on initially, and those employed were not football stewards – rather concert stewards chosen by the owners of the ground. This meant they were inexperienced at managing the typically boisterous crowds found at a football game. In fact, some of these ‘stewards’ have even being spotted falling asleep and celebrating goals for visiting teams.
I was at the Burnley game, with a perfect view of the disorder that erupted. What struck me was how poorly managed the situation was. Not only did several fans try to storm the pitch (some succeeded), but swathes surrounded the Directors box in protest of the Board, with some even throwing projectiles. Isn’t it deeply ironic that Sullivan got hit by a coin, as a result of poor security, given that he has ignored its importance for two years? It took far too long to disperse the crowd. Others have mentioned the heavy-handed approach of some stewards, being too punitive when fans stood up during the game. Persistent standing was cited as a reason that the club didn’t obtain a license for the full 66,000 capacity, with David Gold even pleading with fans to “sit down if you love West Ham.” A strange statement for someone claiming to be a fan of the club.
Being run like a circus
During a speech after the final home game at Upton Park, Mark Noble claimed the club was “no longer run like a circus.” This couldn’t be any further from the truth. Conduct on social media seems to be a massive problem for the club, with Sullivan’s teenage son regularly taking to Twitter to divulge team news, transfer stories and berate players. David Gold has also used social media to argue with fans and berate youth players. In an interview with the Guardian, Sullivan revealed how his sons begged him not to sign Robert Snodgrass and Jose Fonte – whilst they were still at the club.
This just goes to show, you can buy a big stadium and make promises until you’re blue in the face. Any attempts to rebrand and sanitise the club’s image will be a waste of time if you can’t even get basic online PR right. It was also revealed that Sullivan used the club to avoid paying £700k of tax. Add to this the claim that Gold, Sullivan and Brady also financially benefited from the sale of Upton Park, to be redeveloped into housing, and it’s easy to see why many fans believe that the Board have very little interest, unless it benefits them financially.
Caught up in delusions of grandeur, the Board just don’t seem to understand that a big stadium doesn’t magically entice world-class players and trophies. It usually happens the other way around. Look at Chelsea – they have waited 14 years since being taken over and lifted from relative mediocrity into a team that has won everything, before they redeveloped Stamford Bridge. Over-ambition has damaged the credibility of the West Ham board, and I fear no amount of empty promises will likely be enough to get their sceptical and long-suffering fans back on side.