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Why West Ham’s fan debacle happened, and what may happen next

Heavy defeat on the pitch, spontaneous anti-board protests off (and on) it

West Ham United v Burnley - Premier League
“They think it’s all over...”
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

‘Whitecaps’ is one of my favourite episodes of The Sopranos and contains surely one of the most compelling scenes in TV drama history. Having secretly known of his affairs for years, Tony’s wife Carmela receives a drunken call from a former mistress of his. At the end of season four, she finally confronts him and the two engage in an emotional, fiery argument.

The scene is a masterclass in acting, with James Gandolfini brilliant as ever. But it is Edie Falco who defines it, her facial expression, tone and demeanour communicating a woman who finally sees the light, her back broken by the final straw. Carmela is bold enough to finally confront her husband about his deceit. Her attack on Tony conveys the kind of desperate, hysterical anger reserved only for those we love deeply, and the performance also subtlety portrays the self-loathing of allowing herself to tolerate his behaviour her entire life, and her devastation at not being good enough for him.

The ‘Whitecaps’ argument was also placed so delicately within the show, early enough within the season finale to leave for equally brilliant follow-up scenes, where Tony and Carmela are forced to face the aftermath and begin to pick up the pieces of their broken relationship, wondering if there’s anything left to salvage.

Saturday’s game at the London Stadium, in which West Ham collapsed to an appalling 3-0 defeat to a small-town team on a low budget (no disrespect meant to Burnley here – I’ll explain more later) reminded me of this scene because this weekend West Ham had their ‘Whitecaps’ moment. Discontent with the board and management of the club has been growing at increasing pace, only ever prevented from surfacing by the faint hope that it might get better one day. Against Burnley, everything finally came to a head, with a cancelled protest march organised for before the game chief among many catalysts for an eruption of fan anger.

I’ll come on to events off the pitch later. This is a hot topic and people have very strong views about it, which can make it difficult to makes sense of the other side of the coin. We run a massive risk of spitting this club irreparably if we do not respect each other’s opinion, which is only ever voiced in the best interest of the club.

Outsiders are probably wondering why West Ham fans are so upset. The simple truth, which I will attempt to expand upon during my interpretation of events this weekend, is that our board have exchanged our home of a hundred years for a soulless, lifeless athletics stadium, on the empty promise that they would use it to transform our fortunes, attract world class players and make us better. As it currently stands, the team is getting worse and worse, locked in its second consecutive relegation battle, and our misfortunes on the pitch can be traced immediately to an ownership which is hands-on yet cannot be trusted to deliver sustainable success of any sort, with little evidence that their amateurish management of club affairs will get better any time soon. Some fans think the heart and soul of the club they love has been ripped from it.

I’ll start with the match. We needed a reaction after two awful performances against Liverpool and Swansea, and this was a game in which we needed to show intent, intensity and put the opposition, who had far less to play for than us, under pressure.

Upon their arrival, David Moyes’ and Stuart Pearce’s back five impressed me a lot. I was pleased with the way in which we quickly turned into a team who was able to finally communicate and defend effectively. But that’s something very different from expecting it to be a permanent solution. A back five away to Man City, or even at home to Arsenal, is one thing. But we shouldn’t be deploying the same tactics away to the best team in the country as we do in crucial home games against our rivals.

Yet again here Moyes was bafflingly negative, which was all the more frustrating in a game where we really ought to have taken the initiative and played on the front foot. Burnley started with one striker and showed no intention at all to attack in the first half. This was entirely predictable. Why did we need a back five?

It meant that there was no drive or intensity about our attack. Marko Arnautovic was pitifully isolated and isn’t really a lone striker anyway. On paper we lined up with a front three. But two of those – Manuel Lanzini and Joao Mario – are midfielders, meaning this was essentially a 5-4-1 formation. In a must-win game. At home. Against Burnley. And we didn’t score – what a surprise!

Of course, it could all (and I mean all) have been so different had Joao Mario struck his first-half volley a little less hard, or had Lanzini scored what was a glorious chance when put clean through against the keeper. If Lanzini is really going to become the type of player who could attract the attention of bigger clubs, he needs to put chances like that away. Forwards in Europe’s top sides score one-on-ones like that as a matter of routine, and it shows Lanzini still has some way to go. But to say these were the only two good chances we had all game offer a damning indictment of Moyes’ tactics and the team’s performance.

While we had the better of the first half, the tale of the second, simply put, was that one team and manager made adjustments and improved, and the other didn’t. Around fifteen minutes into the second half Burnley brought on Chris Wood for Jeff Hendrick and the game changed in an instant.

Again, this should have come as no surprise to the supposedly meticulous Moyes. Burnley make this change every week. Yet, head-scratchingly, in a kind of Rinus Michels’ textbook of defensive formation in reverse, Moyes has already chosen this as his moment to push Antonio further up the pitch and revert to a back four – from three centre-backs against one striker to two-on-two.

West Ham United v Burnley - Premier League
West Ham’s right back. Hang on... left wing back. No, winger. Striker. Goalkeeper? It’s one way of keeping costs down, I suppose.
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

I return to this idea that this back five, while usually solid, is not always fit for purpose depending on the opposition. It allowed Moyes to stop the bleeding and (presumably) work on more sustainable tactics. He has had ages to develop and implement a workable back four in games like this. There is absolutely no excuse for him or our players that as soon as we revert to a four – a fundamental of the coaching manuals of English football for decades – we completely implode.

The first goal was pathetic all round, our four defenders inexcusably stretched across the entire width of the pitch and allowing frighteningly open spaces for Burnley to run into. (Compare this to Mourinho’s set-up against Liverpool, his narrow back-line allowing no space and his midfielders covering the wide areas when needed.)

The second and third goals were nearly as awful to watch. Adrián has had his fair share of trouble recently but on this season’s full evidence I would always prefer him to Joe Hart. Remember that for a goalkeeper it is not just about the saves and the handling. The organisation of the defence plays just as important a role in the defence. Adrián may not be perfect but he has an inkling of spatial awareness and pushes his defenders out when they drop too deep. Meanwhile Hart seems never to have learned how to step off his goal-line. The second goal was, at least in part, down to his willingness to allow his defenders to drop back into his six-yard box without sensing danger. On a season of evidence it seems that Hart’s ability to communicate with his defenders extends only so far as shouting ‘AWAY!’ when the ball comes near the goal. Burnley’s third was unfortunate but it is the sort of error that has followed Hart around for a long time now.

I did find it amusing to see Moyes bring on Hernandez at 2-0 – as if this was going to be the stroke of tactical genius to turn the game back in our favour, without realising the damage had already been done and the introduction of the Mexican should have come much sooner. Moyes needs to realise much sooner when things are not going right and change them rather than just waiting for the inevitable. And to think the manager told the BBC after the game that he thought we PLAYED WELL...

While I’m on Hernandez, just when he finally seemed to have confidence and found his graft and work ethic, he got dropped, sacrificed for defensive function (in two games where we conceded eight goals). We have taken a huge step backwards recently and his defensive tactics have played no small part in that. Protest or no protest, Moyes got it badly wrong and it cost us dearly here.

For what it’s worth, I still think we’ll stay up. One the one hand, we will hopefully be lucky enough to have three sides worse than us in the division this season. But I also think that Moyes has got a turnaround performance in him. We’ve still got big opportunities at home against Southampton, Stoke and Everton and these are the sorts of games I see us scraping a 1-0 when we most need to.

But isn’t this all so painfully familiar – so painfully Bilic? Indeed, I had thought that Moyes was starting to build a side that knew how to organise itself, and attack and defend as a team. There were more than hints of this against Watford, Huddersfield and Stoke. But our attack for the last month has borne all the hallmarks of Bilic-ball at its worst. A completely lop-sided team, square pegs in left wing-back holes. Give the ball to the attackers and hope they randomly do something. No plan. No method. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – if ever were a phrase to encapsulate a football club, it’s this. We are a mess.

West Ham United v Burnley - Premier League
“Go and win the game for me. What do you mean it’s 2-0?”
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

I repeat: we cannot let what happened off the pitch deflect from this unforgivably inept performance, the culmination of self-proclaimed Director of Football David Sullivan’s utter mismanagement of the squad and club affairs.

Sullivan is the reason our defense is old, slow and not fit for purpose. He is the reason we don’t have any viable fast, wide players apart from Antonio (who can’t even play there because he has to fill in up-front or at right-back). He is the reason we sign players at random without having much of a clue where they’re going to fit in. He is the reason that, as soon as the inevitable injury crisis hits, the lack of depth is so laughable that we often look Championship standard when not full-strength. He is also where the buck stops that the academy consistently fails to produce first-team players (with Declan Rice looking every inch the diamond in the rough).

This discontentment with the board has been growing for a while, exacerbated by a perceived lack of investment in the club and a stadium which is not fit for purpose, and far from the home fans were told they would be getting when they were lured into giving up their home of a hundred years without a quibble. It has definitely grown at a rapid rate this season. The more time goes by, and the more shambolic transfer windows pass, the more evidence there is to suggest the owners are not fit to run the club properly.

With all that said, a huge catalyst for the galvanising of such collective anger among fans towards the board has been the organisation of a protest march, due to take place before the Burnley game. The Real West Ham Fans Action Group were at the forefront of organising the march, having impressively garnered the support of thousands in taking what was set to be the largest organised action during my lifetime as a fan.

At the end of last week the protest was suddenly cancelled. I don’t want to take sides and get involved with internal politics. So long as we behave with respect and decency, we should treat each other as West Ham fans first and foremost, regardless of our opinions on the board or whatever else. We also have to respect those who devote their free time to campaigning for a better football club for the rest of us.

But there’s no doubt that the Saturday’s farcical scenes satisfied an appetite for action cultivated and then vacated by the protest organisers. I feel like this group mobilised a large fan movement with legitimate cause, pulled out suddenly with the board having offered little by way of concession, and left thousands of fans with a desire to finally take part in a collective protest but with no means or outlet to do so.

It’s absolutely not their fault this has happened – they were right to air their grievances with the board in the first place – but it offers a reason why thousands of fans, denied their pre-match protest, acted in this way. And so here we are. In the absence of an organised, off-field march, we were left with a spontaneous, disorganised, potentially dangerous in-house one to fill its void.

West Ham United v Burnley - Premier League
One fan recreates one of the defining moments in the history of his football club’s ground, the passing of the Olympic torch.
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Given that we have so much to unite us in criticism of the board, it does sadden me that we have jeopardised the legitimacy of the cause with in-fighting. It seems to have permeated through the club, and non-affiliated fans are also starting to run the risk of dividing each other and the club. Whatever our views on ‘Board Out’, we must respect the opposite view. We all care about West Ham.

I would also disagree with the pitch invasions and, to some extent, the aggressive nature of the fans confronting the directors’ box. It shouldn’t need saying: if you run out on to the pitch – whatever your intention and motivation – you look like a fool. You do nothing to promote your cause and lose credibility for your opinions. Mark Noble’s tussle with a pitch-invader may not be his finest hour either, but I will not criticise a man who carries himself as an ambassador for the club with honour and dignity.

It’s really a terrible look for us, and frustrating because it will surely be used as an excuse for the board to strengthen their position against the ‘yobs’ at the club. They’ve already got their celebrity mates like Alan Sugar (if anyone knows about managing a well-supported club into mediocrity, it’s him) sticking up for them and the actions of a few have given them the excuse they need to open their mouths.

I also think there was a worrying mob-mentality to the fans beneath the directors that I want no association with. When tempers run high we still have to respect others. There were some reports of assault and we should not be pushing past each other, putting children in harm’s way and launching missiles just to have our opinion heard.

That aside, I am fully with the fans on this. What does not disappoint me about the fan base is exercising the right to protest, and what I will not agree with is the idea that the fan disgruntlement was responsible for the team’s underperformance.

West Ham United v Burnley - Premier League
West Ham predictably undone by Burnley’s simple tactical switch and commitment to a gameplan
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Of course the dreadful stewarding played its part in making this a bigger issue than it needed to be. Again, this is typical of the move to the new stadium, with the owners more than willing at the time to pay a cheap deal for security. Fans have been concerned about this since day one and the owners have shown time and again they’re not interested. While I don’t remotely applaud Sullivan reportedly being hit by a coin, the irony of moaning about the lack of stewarding and protection cannot be lost on a man who has neglected the responsibility to properly address it for nearly two years.

In reality English football and English owners have it lucky these days. In other countries fan protests are much more vociferous in matters of club affairs and even politics. To take Germany as an example (having lived there so therefore having some claim to a little more than ignorant speculation), they have a range of hot debates going on right now among fans. You have fans stopping games to voice their protests against coming Monday night games in the Bundesliga (how long have we griped and moaned about that here?), 50+1 protests which get to the heart of the relationship between fans and clubs, a fourth-tier team fighting against the authorities for the right to its anti-Nazi stance and only last week fans of Hamburg – a team on the verge of its first ever Bundesliga relegation – stopping a game against local rivals Bremen by launching fireworks in desperation at how pathetic their team is. Hamburg are a fairly docile bunch compared to others too.

OK, so fireworks is too far, but surely in England we should actively support and encourage protest. In this Premier League, Sky-dominated world in which fans have no control, no voice, no say, we should never be criticised for attempting to stand up for our club.

If we’re going to do this in a credible and meaningful way, rather than pinching corner flags I think we need to decide once and for all exactly what we are protesting against and what we want. For example: protest at the lack of investment all you like, but do also respect that the board has spent money each season – we have broken our transfer record four times under Gold and Sullivan and doubled our wage bill within two seasons. Surely the bigger gripe is that Sullivan has used the club as his hubristic experiment, making up transfer strategy as he goes along. Were our record signings – Matt Jarvis, Andy Carroll, Andre Ayew – worth it? The investment has been there, but we have been dreadfully wasteful with transfers and wages and that is why our squad is as weak as it currently is.

We shouldn’t forget either that the board dithered before sacking Slaven Bilic, which cost us a strong start to the season with a presentable set of fixtures. Their solution was to appoint David Moyes, the man who had just taken Sunderland down the year before. While I still think we have just about improved under Moyes, we would have had a much better set of candidates had we opted to appoint in the summer. But this board’s not too good at the sensible.

We need a properly qualified Director of Football. We need one now, not at the end of the season. Otherwise, yet again, we will be several steps behind all the other clubs in the search for the best talent and best value. We need investment in a scouting network. We need supporters to be represented and enfranchised to actually influence board level decisions. This needs to be done with the co-operation and unity of a range of currently disorganised supporter groups. We need answers for the state of the club’s finances, in particular the rates of interest charged on the club loans and the sale of the Boleyn to be properly invested in the club. We need to do something about the London Stadium.

If Gold, Sullivan and Brady can’t deliver any of this, then they need to be the ‘proper fans’ they claim to be and find someone who will.

Announcement on future of the Olympic Stadium
David Sullivan at the top table
Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images

I appreciate the last wish is going to be futile and impractical. It does make me wonder where all this anger and vitriol was when we were still at the Boleyn. I suppose many of those who were upset – like some I know – gave up their ticket when we left Upton Park. Let’s also remember the context of that final year – the year Payet was so good as to give us all the hope that we were actually on the verge of something.

Everything surrounding the way the club’s owners delivered the move is a disgrace. The stadium is empty and soulless, and it is too simple to just say the fans need time to make it a home.

And while there’s not a lot that can be said or done to change it, it needs to be understood that West Ham fans are unhappy about this. At a time when matchday revenues and ticket sales have never meant so little to fans (Sullivan admitted himself this week that last year’s books would have looked similar had we stayed), if we were going to be the same disorganised team fighting a relegation battle, why not stay at Upton Park?

But given our stadium, given the healthy state of our finances, given the promises to invest and attract “world class players”, it is quite laughable that we’re still getting turned over by Swansea and Burnley. I often get criticised by those I talk to that we should be looking at Tottenham as a model, in the way that the attention to detail that goes into every facet of the club contributes to a team with a direction and identity, able to compete with the big boys on a budget not dissimilar from ours. As I write this, they are completing a clinical away victory to solidify their position in fourth.

On yesterday’s evidence I was wrong. Tottenham are too distant. We should be looking to Burnley as a model: a mid-table team who get big results time and again because they’re committed, organised and play with a plan. Is this what you had in mind, Mr. Sullivan? Looking enviously at Burnley?

This is the West Ham way, you may say. We get close, but fall short. We snap defeat from the jaws of victory. While we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to pretend we’re automatically entitled to beat a side like Burnley – we at least have the right to expect better than this, and to hold those running the club to account for their failures, especially when the whole reason we left our home is to supposedly be a much better team.

Of course, we all may very well be missing the bigger picture. Maybe the club will be able to look one day upon these days as teething problems, and the club may one day feel properly at home. I’m happy to admit I may be wrong – but again I ask the question: what evidence is there that our board are fit to deliver this? For me, anyway, the bigger picture is the place the club holds within its community, its relationship with the people, our pride in belonging, supporting. Right now, we are at breaking point, like Tony and Carmela. The longer this goes on, the more fans will turn their backs.

As a final thought, I won’t accept any suggestion (as it has been put in some quarters) that the fan protest in any way disrespects the memory of Bobby Moore. It’s absolutely right that his memory should be honoured and clubs should always acknowledge their heroes, with history so intrinsically linked to a club’s community and identity. Yet I can’t help but feel a degree of cynicism towards the memorial offered this weekend. We only heard about it when the protest had escalated to the board’s attention and feel that the board tried to use it as a way of burying their bad news.

It’s a shame if this is true, because for all of Gold and Sullivan’s faults we must remember that they were the only ones who gave Bobby a job at a time when the club disgustingly shunned him. I do find it ironic in the extreme how willing the club is these days to make money off his name.

The Sopranos’ ‘Whitecaps’ even in its name offers parallels to West Ham’s dire predicament. The title refers to a seaside house Tony is trying to buy for Carmela, and Mr. Soprano needs to use all his negotiating prowess to purchase the property, to be used as an investment. “Whose idea was Whitecaps?” responds Tony to Carmela’s accusations of lacking love and care for her.

His wife’s retort got to the heart of the empty, selfishly-motivated gesture. “Just a bigger version of an emerald ring...” She could finally see through him.