Just days before the weekend’s worryingly hostile scenes at the Olympic Stadium, West Ham United were given the opportunity to condemn the threats made to other fans by members of an Inter City Firm-affiliated supporter group the club had met with… and refused. Sources explained that, among other concerns, they didn’t want to inflame the situation.
Saturday instead saw that situation explode.
Really, the refusal to condemn seems like a lack of decisiveness. There also appears a lack of decisiveness in the general running of the club. That is part of why the fans are so angry and protesting against the board, against co-chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold.
What many football figures and West Ham supporters openly describe as “the worst run club in the Premier League” has directly led to one of the worst atmospheres the division has ever seen.
This is by no means to excuse those responsible for the actual aggression that took place on Saturday. That was disgraceful and lamentable. There is no excuse for missiles being thrown, or people feeling intimidated.
The wider protest was still borne of a context of so much pent-up frustration, so much anger.
West Ham supporters were actually supposed to march in protest at the board before the defeat to Burnley, only for it to be postponed, with Newham Council citing “safety”. Underscoring the situation were threats made on Facebook by members of the ICF-affiliated Real West Ham Fans group (Real WHF), specifically towards the West Ham United Independent Supporters Association (WHUISA), who took up the baton on the march when the former cancelled.
Saturday ended up as the outlet for so many, even if it was not in the manner intended.
Karren Brady attempted to argue against a protest march (Getty)
Then again, there’s an element of Greek tragedy to the hierarchy that took West Ham to an Olympic Stadium, in the sense of how so many decisions they’ve taken have had the opposite outcome to what was intended.
West Ham had initially completely refused to meet with the Real WHF group because of their ICF affiliations, only to then go back on that stance because of the public relations repercussions of a 10,000 fan-strong march.
At meetings with a coalition of fan groups, vice-chairman Baroness Karren Brady attempted to argue against marching, ironically pointing to: the potential dividing of supporters; how damaging it could be to the team; how damaging it could be to the employees; and how damaging it could be to sponsors.
The optics of any march would likely have been tame compared to what happened on Saturday, when there was open brawling in the stands and players wrestling with pitch invaders.
Much more relevantly, there was the sight of so many fans turning to where the board were seated, and directly rounding on them. This is what happens when supporters don’t feel listened to, don’t feel acknowledged.
West Ham’s refusals to condemn the Real WHF group, following the willingness to meet with them, felt like the latest in a long line of wishy-washy bad decisions, missteps and controversies that these owners have been involved in.
You can trace the line back to when they first took over the club in 2010. Sullivan openly announced then that the intention was to move to the Olympic Stadium, raising the question of whether an alternative was ever considered, and the plan was that West Ham could avail of the advantage of their London location to become a truly international club and move onto the next level.
That has however encountered two problems. First of all, it has alienated one of the most idiosyncratic fan bases in England. Secondly, there’s the fact that fan base reflects how the club has never quite had that wider appeal, directly affecting that plan.
The West Ham co-owner was confronted by fans (Getty)
The latest accounts show that the first season in the Olympic Stadium brought an increase of a mere £9m in revenue, compared to the last at the Boleyn Ground. Commercial activities only improved by £6.8m, ticket revenue by £1.7m and merchandising by less than £200,000.
That rise would barely lead to the price of a back-up full-back in the modern Premier League market. So much for the move bringing the world-class team in a world-class stadium, as was promised.
The issues with the ground – from the distance to the pitch to basic logistics and the roof, as well as the poor relationship with landlords LLDC – are well documented. The issues with the team are becoming more and more pronounced, as they fall deeper and deeper into trouble.
Then there is the process that goes into which players are signed, let alone who the players are.
There appears to be no plan, no blueprint.
There is a situation whereby a chairman is more involved in transfers than any other club. Then there is the way another Premier League hierarchy – in this case Leicester City with Islam Slimani – refused to sell them a player because of media comments by one of the vice-chairmen, Brady.
Such a situation is part of a spectrum that also saw another public dispute with Sporting Lisbon over whether a bid for William Carvalho was actually put in. There is then the bigger question of how much money the owners have actually put in.
These are also only the most obvious problems, of a club that now seems deeply dysfunctional. It says much that the scandal involving the sacked head of recruitment Tony Henry – for sparking a race row – is now largely forgotten.
West Ham are just a club that go from issue to issue, problem to problem, with that move from one stadium to another almost offering tangible signposts of all this. On Saturday, that stadium saw scenes that felt inevitable for so long.
So, what next?
The board are fortunate that the team have not got a game now for three weeks due to the international break and an FA Cup weekend.
There is nothing fortunate about this whole situation, though, and it’s not going away.
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