West Ham’s owners must bear responsibility for Saturday’s uprising

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 12, 2018

On a Tuesday night in May, a group of local heroes will be greeted rapturously at the London Stadium, and cheered off at the end of their performance by a crowd left wanting more. But until the Rolling Stones’ “No Filter” tour takes its bow, any prospects of hero worship at West Ham’s home register close to absolute zero.

To be a Premier League club next season, West Ham need points from their five remaining matches at the London, but home is where the hatred lies. With a Premier League investigation looming over the Saturday scenes that shamed the club during a 3-0 loss to Burnley, then a stadium ban for supporters might actually end up favouring David Moyes’ failing team.

Distrust and dissatisfaction have been the overriding emotions since the club left Upton Park in the summer of 2016 and Saturday’s explosion into the pitch invasions and confrontations of players that made back – and front-page news was an inevitable, if depressing boiling over of resentments.

According to a terse statement released in the aftermath, the club is “committed to taking decisive and appropriate action”. That would make a change. Having taken the epochal step of moving from Green Street to Stratford, botch upon blunder has followed, rendering West Ham a laughing stock in the process.

Moving to a new stadium did not have to be so painful. This season’s Premier League features ten clubs who have abandoned historic homes to move into modernity. These days, backward glances to places like Swansea’s Vetch Field, Huddersfield’s Leeds Road or Stoke’s Victoria Ground are reserved for the Bovril brigade. Clubs had to move on. Even Arsenal and now Tottenham, London’s traditional biggest clubs, accepted the need for change.

West Ham, though, took their different, fateful, cheaper path. Upton Park was aged, decrepit, headed for the knacker’s yard, but its replacement had to be comfortable and an improvement on what went before. The London Stadium, including its transport links, none of which are particularly convenient, has been an upgrade only in the sense of increasing attendance figures.

Only Manchester City of those relocated clubs moved to a stadium built for something else, the 2002 Commonwealth Games, but have been able to make Eastlands their home by having the funds and direction to do so. West Ham moved to the former Olympic Stadium as tenants paying peppercorn rent of £2.5m per annum, while assuming not nearly enough responsibility for its upkeep.

The lax stewarding that allowed pitch invaders to reach the field of play and, in a couple of cases, make an escape, is provided by stadium operators LS158, who made a noticeably defensive and garbled statement on Saturday evening. Meanwhile, landlord E20 Stadium LLP, is in financial trouble, having failed to command enough revenue from its tenants.

Blame is being issued on all sides, yet not accepted. This time, though, West Ham’s owners must bear the brunt. It turns out that associating with activist groups headed by former hooligans is not such a bright idea. The PR disaster of having that exposed was followed by Saturday’s matchday marauders reminding of the era where such characters made their fearsome reputations.

After that courting of former members of the “Inter City Firm”, a pre-match protest march was cancelled, a development causing civil war between competing factions, including threats of violence that were taken seriously by their recipients, but if the intention had been to reduce embarrassment, it blew up in their faces. Literally so, in fact.

Co-owner David Sullivan’s glasses took a glancing blow from a flying coin, while son David Sullivan Jr looked visibly shaken in the London Stadium directors’ box by the baying mob calling for the head of his father, co-chairman David Gold and vice-chairman Baroness Brady. While those execs took a hurried leave of Stratford in chauffeur-driven cars, Sir Trevor Brooking stayed put until the end, his stoicism remarkable given the circumstances.

Sullivan Sr’s Saturday evening complaint that security had not been tight enough was deeply ironic considering the multiple safety problems the general, paying public have endured since the stadium’s opening. As Sullivan, Gold and Brady, usually so visible in the media, went to ground on Sunday, it was left to “Sir Trev” to sift through the wreckage. “The stewards were quite young and really couldn’t deal with the aggression that they were faced with,” he said, pinpointing the folly of employing minimum-wage third-party employees as protection.

Saturday’s insurrection happened in the same week the club had announced a £43.5m profit for the year ending May 2017, suggesting funds are there to improve the stadium’s infrastructure and management. Injecting cash is a step West Ham must take, no matter the supposed bureaucratic assault course that changing arrangements would apparently require. To now offer to meet those costs, as is widely reported, would be an act of belated realisation that the stadium’s cheap rent and underfunded management was the falsest of economies.

Doing things on the cheap is not acceptable given the figures to hand. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire has forensically pricked the public image of the co-chairmen as benevolent owners by sifting through those accounts, highlighting that “Gold and Sullivan have charged the club £14,875,000 in interest on loans (of £45m) since 2011/12”, where the “owner-lenders” of Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Brighton etc do not charge such tariffs on their lending.”

Whoever takes the club forward, from transfer policy to back-office management to security, West Ham requires far better stewardship if it is not to head down to the elephant’s graveyard of former establishment clubs that the Football League has become. Burnley was merely the latest demonstration of a club and stadium where a “will this do?” attitude has pervaded for far too long.

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