As Bad As Things Got: West Ham United, 29th February, 2020
On the 29th February 2020, 2,500 West Ham United supporters marched along Newham Greenway to the London Stadium in protest at the ownership of their football club. The GSB Out complaints haven’t completely stopped over the course of the lockdown, but they have been muted somewhat by perhaps the biggest transformation that any club has experienced over the last twelve months.
West Ham United are currently in 5th place in the Premier League. On the morning of the protest, which took place ahead of their game against Southampton, they were in 18th place in the Premier League, having failed to win any of their previous seven matches. As if to spite them, the team beat Southampton that day, but a defeat at Arsenal and in their first two matches after the resumption reset the familiar cloud that had been hanging over the club.
On the 1st July, though, something changed. West Ham beat Chelsea 3-2 with Andriy Yarmolenko scoring the winning goal with two minutes to play, and since then they’ve been turbo-charged. They only lost one of their last seven matches of last season, and although this season started slowly, with a horror show on the opening day at home to Newcastle and a narrow loss at Arsenal, they’ve only lost 6 out of 27 Premier League matches .
As things stand, there are nine games of the season left to play, and West Ham United are two points off a Champions League place and what would be the second highest final league position in the entire history of the club. When fans return to Premier League matches, it wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprising if the London Stadium was one the most transformed, in terms of its atmosphere.
This is the 20th in this series, and what is very striking about West Ham United is how placid the club has been, for so much of the time. They’ve periodic spells outside the top flight throughout their history – from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, and in the late 1970s, late 1980s, and a couple of times this century. They’ve won the FA Cup three times (once – the last time – from the Second Division, in 1980) and a European trophy (the Cup Winners Cup, in 1965). This wasn’t the first time that there’s been protests at West Ham. Readers of a certain age may remember the protests against the club’s bond scheme – which wanted to supporters to pay hundreds of pounds for the ‘right’ to buy their season ticket in one seat for 150 years – which took place throughout the second half of the 1991/92 season.
During a match against Everton in February 1992 a supporter got on the pitch, took a corner flag, planted it in the centre of the pitch and just sat down there. The protest was repeated during a Premier League match against Burnley in 2018. The 1992 protests worked. The bond scheme was abandoned, with just 1,000 of the 19,000 that had been made available having been sold. But, much as supporters were right to be angry at the behaviour of their board in 1992, their protests didn’t represent an existential crisis for the club itself, as had happened at other, West Ham United have been a fairly happy football club for much of their history.
Those protests just over a year ago, however, didn’t come from nowhere. This protest was the culmination of an underwhelming decade on the pitch and enormous change away from it. The Boleyn Ground, a ground with which the supporters had a huge affiliation, has gone, and its replacement, The London Stadium, has for many not really become home, yet.
But West Ham United supporters aren’t stupid. They were sold, whether implicitly or explicitly, a dream. For match-going fans, there could be no replacing The Boleyn Ground, for all its flaws. The area in which it was located was a huge part of their identity, but the trade-off was a tempting one. If they could sell the new stadium out, and even with season tickets modestly priced – their cheapest 2019/20 season ticket was £320, the cheapest season ticket in the Premier League and almost a third the cost of the cheapest available at Arsenal, the most expensive – the higher profile of the club would attract better players, bringing opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible in their former home.
The 2010s were not a successful decade for West Ham United. They started it by finishing bottom of the Premier League, were promoted back via the play-offs after a season away, and have spent most of the rest of the decade in the lower reaches of the Premier League. They’ve only finished above halfway in table once – 7th place, in 2016 – and haven’t even had the consolation of a cup win or two. In cup competitions, that FA Cup win in 1980 remains their last, while their best performance remains losing to Liverpool after a replay, the following year. A club which had just five managers between 1902 and 1989 has had as many over the last ten years, and one of those is in his second spell there.
It’s just over three and a half miles from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium, but for supporters the psychological distance has been considerably greater. They initially had competition from Tottenham Hotspur, who were having difficulties getting the planning permission they wanted to build a new stadium nearer to home, but West Ham’s bid for the stadium was the more obvious, especially after they scaled back their initial plans for a 66,000 capacity multi-purpose stadium.
The Olympic Park Legacy Company confirmed their decision unanimously in February 2011, and after applications for judicial reviews from Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient were rejected (the matter concerning Leyton Orient ended up in the House of Lords, where neither party particularly covered themselves in glory, resulting in Lord Harris telling the two clubs to “stop squabbling like children”, work began on converting The London Stadium into a venue fit to host Premier League football. The club played their first home match there at the start of the 2016/17 season.
In the four full seasons since they moved into the London Stadium, though, West Ham United have only finished in 11th, 13th, 16th and 10th place in the Premier League. This season – the one without fans present – has been the outlier, and prior to this season questions were certainly been asked about the direction the club had taken. Many supporters were unhappy with the London Stadium as a venue. Unlike the Boleyn Ground, where the stands were very close to the pitch, at the London Stadium that distance is considerably greater, and the reduction in noise and atmosphere has been noticeable. It’s finally now been done up in the club’s colours, but it’s not home.
Within a few weeks, expressions of dissatisfaction were starting to get louder. The pitch was too far from the stands. It was soulless. By the end of their second season, it was more or less t that aken for granted that West Ham’s supporters were suffering from a degree of buyers remorse, or at least a very deep loss at having switched venues. As the team continued to stumble on the pitch, the stands became increasingly restless. In February 2020, one of the club’s flag-wavers was sacked after wearing a t-shirt with “GSB Out” printed on it. Everything was building to the aftermath of that demonstration just over a year ago.
But then, of course, everything changed.
The last 12 months have been damaging for almost all clubs, ruinous for some, and may yet prove to be too much for a few. On the pitch at least, though, West Ham United have flourished more than most. The return of David Moyes started slowly, but over the course of the last year he’s become the David Moyes that we recognise from the first decade of this century. Cannily using the transfer market whilst organising his team into a shape that fits the players and building consistent over-achievement was what he achieved for much of his time with Everton, and the fact that he failed to get a tune out of Manchester United has been consistently re-considered the further in time that we’ve got from it. No-one, it turned out, was going to get much of a tune out of Manchester United in 2013.
But how will this impact upon the atmosphere around the club when fans do finally return to grounds? We presume this will be at some point this year, even if not this season, but much may come to rest on how the team is performing at the point that this happens. It’s a cheap joke to say that West Ham’s players might be playing a bit better because they’re not subjected to 90 minute long soundtrack, of silence and booing, any more, but so startling has been the transformation that is starts to become a valid point. The benefits of the move might be seen inimproved financials, which have enabled the signing of such players as Felipe Anderson for £36m and Sebastien Haller for £45m.
But such is the calcification of the Premier League that, should West Ham United qualify for European football next season – and, as mentioned above, they are still in a strong position for a place in next season’s Champions League – the team will have over-achieved on a level that feels close to winning the FA Cup from the Second Division in 1980. Would a full London Stadium feel a little more like a bear pit? Presumably. Would this make it start to feel more like home? Debatable.
Because it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes stadium moves just… don’t work out. Juventus moved into the Stadio delle Alpe after the 1990 World Cup, but the stadium was a disaster for the club. The stadium was was in a bad location. It had a redundant athletics track, which could never be used for major events because it didn’t have a warming up track. The rent was high, and the fans hated it. As early as 1994, the club was investigating sites for a new stadium of their own, as attendances plummetted from a high of 51,832 for the 1991/92 season to 25,987 for their last season there, in 2005/06. City rivals – and for the last few decades juniors – Torino’s average attendance was almost as high, at 24,995. They moved to Torino’s Stadio Olimpico in 2006, and then to the Allianz Arena in 2011.
West Ham United’s future may well end up looking something like that should they end up unable to call the London Stadium home and change owners, and optimistic West Ham supporters – very optimistic – might point to the fact that Juventus won seven Serie A titles during the time that they were at the Stadio delle Alpi. And yes, comparisons between West Ham United and Juventus, a club that has won 36 domestic league titles, might seem somewhat overstated, but the similarities between the two clubs’ stadium moves are certainly striking, with arguably the biggest differences being that West Ham’s owners do not seem overly concerned at the massive changes to the match day experience, and that West Ham attendances did hold up despite an underwhelming start to life in their new home.
So the question that matters with regard to West Ham United is whether this season’s improvement is a flash in the pan or not. In 1986, when they finished in their highest ever league position of 3rd in the First Division, it was. They were relegated, three years later. Football, however, has changed a lot since then, and Champions League qualification come the end of this season has the potential to be the transformative event that fans were promised when they moved into the London Stadium in the first place. As we’ve seen with Leicester City, it only takes one surprisingly good season, if managed properly by a club’s senior management, to transform it. But do West Ham’s supporters trust GSB in the same way that Leicester’s supporters trust their club’s Thai owners? We’ll start to find out, when crowds return to matches, just how many bridges GSB have burned over the last four or five years.