From today's Times, an astonishingly accurate piece from a highly unlikely source:
West Ham United fans deserve a stadium fit for football
henry winter, chief football writer
There’s no place like home and the London Stadium is no place like home. Just look at the name: West Ham United are proud East End, not tourist-board “London” shoehorned into the crest to help day-trippers. Just look at the ground’s configuration: designed for happy-clappy athletic meetings, not the passion play that is football.
Just listen to the West Ham fans, the sensible majority, not the few hundred shamefully sending scared kids running for sanctuary in the away dugout, or coin-throwing cowards forfeiting the right to debate, but the proper West Ham faithful frustrated by a stadium patently not fit for football purpose, as well as their obvious disconnect with the board.
A deserved game behind closed doors might make the owners think of their own mistakes. The chaos engulfing a famous old club and an unloved rented residence is what happens when boards put egos before supporters.
Just look at what Juventus did when they constructed their atmospheric new home: they appointed an architect in Gino Zavanella who understood the tifosi, who throughout his career working on arenas promised to put “the fan at the centre of a stadium project” and guaranteed proximity to the pitch, which he delivered fully in Turin. Fans at the centre.
Just listen to what the distinguished Basle-based architects Herzog & de Meuron pitched in its successful design for Bayern Munich’s splendid Allianz Arena: “As in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, spectators sit right next to where the action takes place . . . each of the three tiers is as close as possible to the playing field.” Fans next to the action. These draughtsmen had an emotional contract with supporters and actually cared to think of their match-going experience, their sightlines and what constitutes their home. These architects were guided by the premise forgotten by too many of those in charge that football without fans is nothing.
Fans’ match-day needs and logistics were scandalously low on priorities of the ill-fated Stratford project as the awkward conversion from athletics to football was made. It was always going to be an emotional wrench when West Ham vacated Upton Park; all those
match-day routines gone, all those associations with famous moments severed.
Now they are in limbo and it hurts. Many did accept the need to move for modern, commercial reasons, and they were sold a dream by the board who then did not confront the configurational inadequacies of the Olympic stadium. West Ham fans were also deceived by politicians, such as Boris Johnson, juggling individual agendas and the collective problem of what to do with the Olympic stadium after the 2012 London Games.
An aside here, but Johnson’s involvement in football is invariably catastrophic, from not knowing the difference between rugby and football tackles in a charity match to backing
ill-judged World Cup bids (get the government to invest money in grass roots first). Somebody please keep Johnson out of football.
But back to proper football people. Everybody should really have listened to Daniel Levy, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman. They should have torn down the Olympic stadium, saying thanks for the memories but you’re only important for a fortnight every four years, and built a real football stadium there, applying the Zavanella and Herzog approach of fans at the centre. Shakespeare’s spirit in Stratford — now there’s a headline.
They need to move. West Ham are tied in to a lengthy annual tenancy of £2.5 million (£1.5 million in the Championship), so extricating themselves from the so-called “deal of the century” will be complicated, but that is why they employ expensive lawyers and they can argue with some conviction that they have been short-changed by the stadium owners and the authorities.
The stewarding is poor, and even the tabard types at Crufts reacted quicker to insurgents at the weekend. The police were alarmingly slow too. It’s not as though the West Ham fans hadn’t been fulminating and raising about the possibility of protest in the previous fortnight.
They can put up as many pictures of Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds and Sir Trevor Brooking as they like but the Olympic stadium will still not feel like home, a football home. The location is not the problem, for all the fuss about treks from the station around a shopping centre, because the only distance that matters is the distance from the pitch. And it’s too far.
Since Saturday’s pitch invasions and protest against the board, many have argued cogently that West Ham’s predicament runs far deeper than the stadium. They are undeniably engulfed in the perfect storm of on-field and off-field issues of an indifferent team, a manager in David Moyes who doesn’t imbue confidence with his comments or tactics, and the unfulfilled declarations of the co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold.
They are inhibited by some horrendous recruitment, such as purchasing Andy Carroll when everyone else waved his injury record in the air and screamed “buyer beware”. They prevaricated over William Carvalho last summer, just the type of powerful, disciplined holding midfield player they crave.
The board balked at the cost, supposedly £40 million, for a widely respected Portugal player who won Euro 2016, and bowed out, muttering about injury issues with a player who is now 25 years old and three games short of 250 appearances for club and country. West Ham’s board can be very small-minded at times.
Their sympathisers proclaim that the owners’ largesse is evidenced by having the eighth largest wage bill in the Premier League, but the club should really wear this as a badge of shame; they are clearly not as cute at recruitment or negotiation as they think they are. And why exactly did they offload James Tomkins for £10 million? Crystal Palace are struggling but Tomkins has been decent.
On Saturday, Sean Dyche’s players outfought and outplayed Moyes’s, so let’s dismiss all the nonsense about demonstrations being responsible for West Ham’s defeat. The visitors led by the time of the pitch invasions.
Let’s acknowledge more the contrast. Burnley sit bottom of the Premier League wages list but seventh in the table that counts. They were hungrier, better organised and overseen by a better manager in Dyche. As a club as well as a team, Burnley are better run than West Ham.
No wonder the fans are protesting. Some who ally themselves to a legitimate anti-board campaign are simply adrenaline-chasers, boredom-banishers and thugs, but the majority aren’t. Even the pitch invader who attempted to plant a corner flag in the centre-spot — an obvious echo of the fan protests against the club’s controversial bond scheme in the early 1990s — bore the mournful look of a supporter pushed beyond despair.
The West Ham captain, Mark Noble, a touchstone for the game’s soundest principles, grappled with another pitch invader and then spoke mournfully about the club’s predicament, and how he actually understood some of the fans’ vexations if not their means of expressing them. Mournfulness defined the image of Brooking sitting alone in the directors’ box after Sullivan and Gold had retreated to escape the coins launched their way.
Such sights and sounds of deep mournfulness are not what West Ham are about; they have traditionally been a family, dysfunctional occasionally, but united. That fan with the flag, that man with the armband and that knight forlorn in the smart seats are actually on the same side.
It is three weeks until the club’s next home game, against Southampton, which by rights should be played behind closed doors because of the reprehensible acts of some. A protest march is planned, or “stroll” as it is being called to avoid detection, so the club, and football, face another day of shame unless the FA is strong and makes the game played behind closed doors.
There was daft talk yesterday of imposing a fine on West Ham, laughable really given the wealth of top clubs, and another reality in all this is that the FA lacks a leadership able to gather all parties together and at least mediate, if not sort the mess.
The truth remains that the London Stadium is the primary cause and lightning rod for disaffection. It embodies much of what the fans are railing against: gentrification and the attempted cleansing of the old support. It resembles commerce first, support second.
Until it is ripped down and rebuilt as a football stadium, the problem remains and the politicians won’t countenance that. West Ham have to face biting the bullet, absorbing the financial cost and finding a new home, a home fit for football.