West Ham United, Life, The Universe, and Everything
As the players lined the centre circle and the crowd opposite the television cameras arranged themselves into a mural which spelt out the words “MOORE 6” behind them at the London Stadium yesterday afternoon, it might have been persuasive to think that David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady had dodged a bullet. Perhaps the memorial for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of their finest ever player, West Ham United would find a way of coming together in the middle of a time during which it appears from the outside as though the club is coming apart at the seams.
Indeed, West Ham’s first half performance against Burnley yesterday afternoon hinted that relegation from the Premier League doesn’t necessarily have to be the foregone conclusion that many are already expecting from this team come the end of the season. The ultimate question facing any club in the bottom half of the Premier League season has been “Are there three teams in the Premier League worse than yours?”, and the answer in the case of West Ham is “probably, yes.” Much has been made of the fact that the team remains just three points above the relegation places, but at half-time yesterday afternoon, with West Ham having shaded the best chances and the score still goalless, things didn’t look so disastrous.
Events around the London Stadium have, however, reached the point at which the specifics regarding what happens on the pitch are somewhat more tangential than they might otherwise be. The infighting within the club has taken on an existential air over the course of the season. The specifics of whether someone might be half a yard offside at any given moments or whether it’s time for Joe Hart to end his glove sponsorship deal with Teflon seem less important at West Ham than they do at many other Premier League clubs. The rest of English football has become little more than a mass episode of Gogglebox, in which millions of people sit on their sofas, pens at the ready to judge referess on every single decision that they make. At West Ham United, however, things have moved in a very different direction. At West Ham United, recent events seem to be posing greater questions of life, the universe, and everything.
There was little sense, as the players emerged for the second half, that the tensions hanging over the club had lifted much with a not entirely calamitous first half performance. What happened next will have surprised very few observers. Burnley may have been bang out of form of late, but the home defence was feeling in a particularly welcoming mood, and so it was that television viewers watching Match Of The Day last night were treated to the spectacularly onomatopoeic juxtaposition of the team hopelessly imploding on the pitch as some of the worst stewarding ever seen in the Premier League allowed hundreds of furious supporters get in front of the directors box until a point was reached at which the safety of the targets of their ire could no longer be guaranteed.
It is, of course, almost impossible to have any sympathy whatsoever with the owners of the club over the events of yesterday afternoon. The peculiar events of last week, in which the West Ham United Independent Supporters Association *WHUISA), registered with the Football Supporters Federation, were usurped as the official voice of a planned demonstration by another group with clear links to a hooligan firm, who then held a meeting with the club, issued a list of considerably tamer “demands” of the club and then called off the protest despite the fact that many of those who had begun to follow it on social media still wanted to express their anger at the way in which the club is being run. Throw in a handful of threats that seemed to be based on political allegiances that have little to do with the current state of West Ham United, and we have the perfect recipe for the scenes seem at the London Stadium yesterday afternoon.
The owners of the club have done little to disavow observers of the idea that they are attempting to play a dangerous game of divide and rule within the club’s support. There has been absolute silence from the club on the subject of a campaign of online abuse targeted at the chair of the WHUISA by a “rival fan group”, and it is hardly surprising that, when the club’s owners give every indication of acting in a manner very befitting of today’s horribly toxic political environment, there will be disturbances in the stands during matches. The behaviour of the owners of the club since the possibility of moving to the London Stadium has been pretty negligent in several senses, but over the last couple of weeks they have truly stepped up a level in terms of their dereliction of duty towards the majority of the club’s supporters, and if they felt scared at all yesterday afternoon it can only be considered that, whilst nobody would support threats being made against them – it would be nice if the entire world could take a few steps back from issuing death threats for a while – they are ultimately the architects of whatever fear may have passed through their minds yesterday afternoon.
On an afternoon of images that came to be flashed around the world, though, perhaps two represent what West Ham supporters are fighting for more than anything else. Firstly, there was the tribute to Bobby Moore that took place before the match began. Moore’s influence continues to hang over the club as an ideal of what West Ham United should mean, and rightly so. The other, however, has a more melancholy air about it. This match was being screened live around the world, and with two or three minutes left to play the television cameras panned to a shot of Sir Trevor Brooking, sitting alone and somewhat ashen-faced, surveying the wreckage of what is starting to feel like just another Saturday afternoon at the London Stadium. Whatever must have been going through his head as these scenes played out before his very eyes?
Let’s be absolutely clear that the buck for the well of protest that has been building up over the course of months around the club and which exploded yesterday stops with its owners. They arrived at West Ham United quite possibly with dreams of glory for the club but also with, it has certainly felt, pound signs in their eyes. The move from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium – which, let us not forget, they were considered fabulously lucky to get on the terms that they did, even if there are precisely no supporters looking on enviously at this move nowadays – couldn’t really have been handled much worse than it was, whilst investment into the playing side of the club has looked somewhere between terribly coordinated and utterly incomprehensible over the last two or three years. Giving the impression of seeking to pit supporters against supporters over the last couple of weeks – and whether they meant to do or not almost becomes an irrelevance when fans are fighting amongst each other during matches, as has happened more than once at the London Stadium this season – is categorically not a strong a look, and the Premier League itself might well be forgiven for calling the owners in to explain what the hell exactly has been going on there of late.
The events of yesterday afternoon didn’t take place in a vacuum, and whilst it’s easy for talking heads to get upset with supporters ruining the Premier League Spectacle with their inconvenient anger at the way in which their club is being run, such chin-stroking often comes to feel like the vapid brainspurts of those who simply cannot understand the supporters’ mindset because they so seldom have to pay through the nose for the pleasure of witnessing the desecration of their club up close and personal. This is a matter of identity, and one doesn’t have to either approve or disapprove of the methods by which those who took matters into their own hands did to understand their motivations for doing so. And the truth of the matter is that no matter how broken West Ham United may be at the moment, a considerable amount of the damage done might be undone should Gold, Sullivan and Brady get the hell out of that club. Whether they’ll be able to without making the fortune that we might assume them to have promised themselves, of course, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the protests will contine, the sense of decay surrounding West Ham United will continue to grow, and Sir Trevor Brooking will continue to sit in the stand, wondering how the hell it all came to this.