West Ham United and their fans are stuck in a purgatory of success, never quite sure which side of the scale we belong. The delicate balance that drifts from being a club of ill repute, to a club world renowned, swings as heavily as a metronome keeping tempo with the beat of Hammer hearts. So it is to no great surprise that we find ourselves here, once again, pondering this sad state of existence and questioning the very hands that mold our future.
In a time such as this it is vital to remember that Karren Brady, David Gold, and David Sullivan are not West Ham United. They are but today’s caretakers of West Ham United. The fans, the history, the culture of the team live on far longer than any board member. Yet, in a way, their failures are our failures. We let this happen. A systemic botch to keep any promise made going back years, only to never learn our lesson. One could argue there is no recourse as a fan, a notion I whole heartedly disagree with. There is a reason Karren Brady called a meeting of the social minds earlier this year. A devilishly wonderful plan to get the voice of the people on their side, as the chosen mouthpieces would subjugate dissension from the growing crowd of malcontents. The fans hold power and the board knew it would take a momentous effort to make so many changes, in such a short period of time.
The closing of the 2015/2016 season saw spectacular new heights for the East London club. Led by turncoat Dimitri Payet, West Ham United finished higher than they had ever hoped. Yet, even with European aspirations on the rise, there was a lingering sadness. Generations of West Ham supporters who trumpeted through the streets towards the Boleyn Grounds, would no longer do so. Films were made. Photos were posted. Everyone shared their own personal narrative when it came to Upton Park. The culmination of a century’s culture and history was to be snuffed out in a moment, to make room for a single promise:
A European presence.
Stadium of Plight
The idea of West Ham United crawling the pitch of Olympic Stadium actually began in 2001, where Director Chris Manhire made a flippant comment insinuating a Hammer takeover should England be award the 2012 Olympic Games. Fifteen years later, three lawsuits, several arrests, two mayors, multiple petitions, and one salty Tottenham, West Ham United was moving into its new home. The transition was anything but smooth.
David Gold’s vision of a world class, claret and blue laced stadium was near fruition. There was only one problem! Those pesky fans refused to sit during matches, opting to sing and chant instead. Clearly this lot had no idea what was on the line. London Stadium could hold 66,000 fans when converted to a footballing facility. However, because fans refused to sit down, West Ham board were only able to obtain a license that allowed for 57,000 fans. The thought of losing money because of silly footballing culture enraged David Gold who said in a statement to fans, “…sit down if you love West Ham.” As a counterpoint, a new divide began to form under the guise of the mantra, “Stand up if you love West Ham!”
Though, even if you were one of the 57,000 individuals lucky enough to stand or sit, you would still have to contend with dementors haunting the grounds… the stewards. From fighting with stewards to stewards cheering for the visiting side, no deed was thought too evil from their collective minds. It is with little surprise, however, that eight months of incidents had to pass before West Ham United put out new measures to improve fan – steward relations. The idea that adding fifty additional Supporter Liaison Officers would appease the masses was insulting, if not ignorant. Transparency for the sake of transparency isn’t being transparent at all. It’s a façade. The foundation to a masquerade.
One of the main points of this new relations initiative was the hiring of stewards who were a bit more sympathetic to East London, individuals with a bit more empathy. The issue, to me, isn’t the idea that our club caretakers didn’t understand the culture of the club, that happens all the time. Foreign investors buy footballing clubs all the time with little to no understanding of how the club, or their fans, function. The charge that warrants worry is the pseudo presentation the board members give to supporters. David Gold wants you to believe he’s really, Jonny Friendly, your rich uncle who is ready to permeate your life with glory when really, he just wants you to sit down and be quiet.
London Stadium was sold as our ticket to the world stage. The first piece of a very large puzzle that promised to take shape if we were patient enough. We were presented with the border of this puzzle only to realize none of the pieces fit on the inside. Supporters purchased a shell. A half-baked idea that deflated when removed from the oven.
A Player Perspective
In the grand scheme of the triumvirate, player recruitment and transfers fall under the mission statement of David Sullivan. And a grand scheme it was. Names such as Alexandre Lacazette, Michy Bathsuayi, and Carlos Bacca were on the tongues of East Londoners everywhere. Watercoolers around the country bubbled over with talk which £30m striker would join the club of the future. It made sense to fans, didn’t it? We were entering the Europa League with high hopes and wondering how high up the Premier League ladder we would climb in our 2017 campaign. Surely, Dimitri Payet paired with Lacazette would be a fierce storm of which there was no shelter.
Months passed. Players were opting for bigger clubs across the country. Bathsuayi decided Chelsea would be where he made his mark in England. Bacca and Lacazette were resigned to stay with their current clubs. Options were quickly coming off the table. Where would we find this savior that was promised to us? Enter Andre Ayew. We raided Gringotts and slew a dragon for the chance to work with the Ghanaian Pele from Swansea. The 27 year old was to be our marquee signing, along with a loan option for Simone Zaza. The big splash West Ham United’s board promised to make turned out to be a drop in a serene pond, waiting to see how far the ripples would travel.
If these were to be our Hammers of the future, so be it. The fans bought in and season tickets were sold at an alarming rate. The West Ham United store opened at London Stadium and fans flocked to purchase their gear as if a minute longer would find those shelves barren. Forget the Euros, Simone Zaza is still a great forward! We have Payet, Dimitri Payet, we just don’t think you understand! I mean, this is the year Andy Carroll stays healthy and I have a good feeling Ashley Fletcher and Reece Oxford will be allowed to blossom this year.
… three months later …
Out of the Europa League in the most embarrassing of fashion and lost five of our first six matches. The board claimed these results were unacceptable and tried to pin their failings onto Slaven Bilic. Who, for all intents and purposes, is basically collateral damage in this war of footballing attrition.
The transfer policy became instantly clear as our first few results began to take shape. While most clubs in Europe who were on the rise invested in youth and talent, David Gold and David Sullivan invested in safety. No risks were to be taken. A growing fear that their investment might be lost with a demotion to the Championship dictated policy throughout the organization. Everyone, from the top down, were to work tirelessly for one common goal; mediocrity.
Unfortunately, that same attitude was adopted by the players as well.
Ashley Fletcher was sent into roster obscurity. The young Manchester United product saw some flashes of time on the pitch when, to everyone’s great shock, Andy Carroll went down with an injury. And while Fletcher didn’t play poorly, he clearly needed some seasoning. In a way, he looked like Tom Davies of Everton, or even Dele Alli three years ago with Tottenham. The skill and talent were there, beckoning for some experience to be conjured. Sadly, for Ashley, the call would be ignored, as would the player. A few weeks later Fletcher reappeared on the youth team and not seen again.
Reece Oxford suffered the same ill fate as his youthful comrade. Major injuries forced several Hammer center backs out of the starting XI, with Angelo Ogbonna opting for season ending surgery. While most teams would turn to their youth to step up and gain some valuable experience, David Sullivan thought otherwise. Sully travelled all the way to the southern tip of England to bring home 33-year-old Jose Fonte. I like to think Fonte and Reece high fived each other as Oxford made his way to Reading on loan.
Youth became an afterthought for West Ham United. The combined ages of Jose Fonte, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Robert Snodgrass is a depressing 97.
West Ham United’s transfer policy, everyone.
Part Two coming next week...