They said we were yesterday’s people, nostalgics, unwilling to take a leap of imagination. That we only looked backwards, not forwards. They claimed that what they were doing would guarantee a bigger and brighter future. We said they were trampling on our history, identity and community, and our home, not for the interests they were purporting to serve, but really for a quick buck. We predicted that they were leading us to disaster.
Last Friday night was a disaster.
In the end it didn’t matter what we thought. The 35,000 of us who paid very good money every couple of weeks to support a football team that we considered ours, in a football ground located at the heart of a vibrant, living and breathing community, a place that many of us have been turning up to watch for decades, were not consulted in any meaningful way about giving all of this up. We were subjected to a brainwashing campaign that the Moonies would have been proud of, and in the end the deals were done over all our heads. The curse of “Modern Football”.
That’s why disasters like last Friday night happened.
West Ham played their last game at Upton Park, on 10 May 2016, in a football stadium where so many precious memories were created and implanted for life. That night the stadium was filled to the rafters. The crowd roared, the whole place trembled and exploded into ecstasy, as we won our final game there 3-2 against the mighty Manchester United, who were desperate for all three points, and who led 2-1 with just 15 minutes to go.
We used to go to Upton Park for excitement, entertainment, to experience all manner of emotions, and to see our team occasionally upset expectations and deliver a knock-out blow to one of the high and mighty “big” clubs.
Last Friday night all we felt was pain and embarrassment.
That evening back in May, though, when we stuffed Manchester United, we shouted, we celebrated, we laughed, and then we cried as we said goodbye to the markets and pubs, the cafes and shops of Green Street, knowing that we would be watching our next games at a huge soulless stadium, not even built for football, where we would sit far from the pitch, in a totally sterile environment completely lacking in any atmosphere. As I sat over a meal in Brick Lane with friends and discussed our options on the new season-ticket prices for the place we didn’t want to go to, we joked about having to add a supplementary cost because we would need to buy binoculars to see the pitch.
A few weeks ago I sat there, in “The London Stadium”, apparently West Ham’s new “home”. A few seats down from me is a guy who actually brings binoculars. At the old home ground you knew the moment the players were coming on to the pitch, even if you weren’t looking, because of the roar that went up, the exuberant shouting and chanting. Here you are still free to shout and chant but it floats away with the wind. It is so quiet.
On this particular day in December I watched West Ham lose 5-1 to Arsenal. Many fans had already headed home before Arsenal got their fourth and fifth goals. In the equivalent fixture last year, at Upton Park, with a roaring crowd near enough to breathe down the team’s neck, willing the team on, we came back from 2-0 down, despite playing well, to lead 3-2 but were pegged back to 3-3 at the finish. We knew that we the fans were part of that comeback. Opposing teams used to fear the crowd at Upton Park, not as a physical threat but they feared our capacity to make the place a cauldron of noise that lifted and inspired our team to exert themselves to the full. The players felt accountable to us. And the relationship was reciprocal. When certain players scored they would run to a part of the ground to wave or give a thumbs up to some particular fans – family, friends – that they could pick out in the crowd. It was that intimate. That’s all gone now.
And we are not treated as fans any more. We are customers, clients.
Last Friday night we managed to go one worse than the 5-1 mauling by Arsenal. We lost 5-0 at home – at home – to Manchester City. They are a top club but last year when we played them with almost the same players in our team, We beat them 2-1 away form home and drew 2-2 in a pulsating game at Upton Park where City got a late equaliser.
Fortunately I wasn’t at the game last Friday night. West Ham’s season tickets don’t cover cup games, and after the mauling by Arsenal and some fairly lacklustre performances since then (even in games where we have scraped victory), me and my fellow sufferers did not feel motivated enough to buy tickets for this one. We watched it in the pub, which, unlike the stadium, did have atmosphere (although the three tables combined nearby of locals who were going through their drunken repertoire of 70s anthems did grate a little bit).
For just over 30 minutes West Ham competed well, but then we gave away a soft penalty, missed a simple chance to equalise very soon afterwards, and then conceded two sloppy goals before half time. We sat shell-shocked and more thoroughly depressed as each goal went in. The second half just dished up more of the same. Unlike many of the crowd who actually went there on a cold wet night, we stayed to the end in the relative comfort of the pub.
But the pain doesn’t go away. And part of that pain is not just the five goals we conceded, not just knowing that this could not have happened at Upton Park, but our knowledge that this whole situation was a disaster waiting to happen, that we were steamrollered into. We weren’t complicit. We argued against it where we could. I railed against the plans in the fanzine, Over Land and Sea. But we feel complicit. We couldn’t really get our voices heard. A few well connected moneybags running the club could do what they wanted with this community and its prize asset, its home, which incidentally, was sold off to a property company specialising in luxury flats. If you are going to shit on the struggling community that has sustained the club for more than 100 years, then why not do it big-time?
The propaganda is still unrelentingly poured out. I visited the club’s website and read what one of our Chairs, David Sullivan, had to say about last Friday night’s debacle. Would he say “Sorry”? Would he say “We are arranging for you to have your money back”? No. He said: “We simply have to concede that last night’s performance was just not good enough… However, it was excellent to see so many young faces there and… a 57,000 capacity crowd at London Stadium…for a match on a Friday night, live on BBC One, just two weeks after Christmas. It is something that not many other clubs in the country can boast.”
We could see that crowd on TV – heading for the exits well before the game ended.
A few days from now I will stop thinking about last night’s game, like I’ve stopped thinking about the Arsenal game from a few weeks back, but the more serious damage has been done and cannot now be undone. I will always check West Ham’s results, still use my West Ham bath towel, and probably go to the odd game next year, but I very much doubt I will be renewing my season ticket. And from the conversations I have heard around me when I have gone to the matches this year, I know there will be many other refuseniks. Their greed has completely trumped our need.
I know that not all of you reading this are Hammers fans, so if you see your club heading down this road, learn from us, and take desperate measures to stop it if you can, while you can.