West Ham United: loud, proud and … wrong
An ex-colleague for whom I have the highest regard is a strongly active member of the Labour Party and I read her Tweets with great interest. Not so much for details of her personal life – as amusing as they often are – but for the clinical precision with which she will dissect the latest idiocy coming from either Parliamentary or grassroots members. I empathise with her undoubted frustration at believing in a cause so strongly yet being hampered at every turn by disunity, arrogance or stupidity. As trite as it may appear her travails as a political animal mirror mine as a football follower. You see, the truth is I often struggle not to despise people who would no doubt call themselves fellow West Ham supporters.
According to a longitudinal study by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester West Ham season ticket holders are some of the wealthiest around (probably a function of the smallish ground and high demand which has led to relatively expensive ticket prices) yet at the same time among the poorest educated with a low proportion having attended tertiary education compared to other clubs.
As many other fans observe, Hammers are a bit “chavvy” – or to put it another way, working class-made-good. Living as I do in Suffolk the obvious comparison to make is with Ipswich whose supporters tend to be polite, respectful and a lot less raucous. Few self-respecting Irons would be seen dead wearing facepaint or many other symbols of the Sky corporate definition of what it is to follow “footy” even if replica shirts now abound. Town fans are much more volatile in their support – full of bravado when they win the same people disappear upon defeat. Most of all I don’t notice any shared sense of what it is to be a Tractor Boy.
To be West Ham is to be loud, proud and obnoxious. It’s no coincidence one of the most enduring chants over the years has been, “Same old West Ham, taking the piss” Throughout the 70s and 80s the feared ICF (Inter City Firm) came to define the support. Although a mate of mine who ran with them denies any tactical command, “We weren’t organised, we just set our clocks early” there is little doubt the proud boast “30 years undefeated” has some substance.
Contemporary football hooliganism has been all but eradicated but that legacy survives. Unfortunately with a median age over 50 it’s clear the same season ticket holders are still attending with a lost generation of 25-40 year-olds having missed out. Equally regrettably the previous aggression and sense of pride has been turned inwards into a sulky blanket disapproval of easy targets, principally the players and coaching staff. Meaningful protest has been forgotten as fans starved of considered media comment fail to make any connection between events on and off the pitch.
I strongly maintain the best thing about supporting a team, my team, are the people I meet and interact with – they’re the reason I keep going. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the club West Ham supporters seem to invariably choose the wrong option.
Former manager Harry Redknapp was adored by fans despite tactical illiteracy and a hold over then Chairman Terence Brown that allowed him to purchase and sell players not in the best interests of the club but for the betterment of his own bank balance. Admittedly protests were held against Brown – not least during several stormy AGMs. Far more damaging to the club however, were the subsequent Icelandic owners who all but propelled the club into liquidation but were saved any serious disquiet by canny PR. There’s a current revisionist platform that hails Alan Pardew’s reign as manager – particularly as under his stewardship Newcastle are having a good season – but the truth is he was disliked for most of his time at the club too despite taking us to our first domestic final in 25 years.
Although from the same background as the club’s support current co-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold are treated with at best mistrust and worst outright hostility despite being the first owners in the club’s 117 year history to put significant sums of their own money into the club (unfortunately the Icelanders investment turned out to be underwritten by Monopoly money). Current manager Sam Allardyce has the best win record of any manager but appears to be engaging an all-out PR war with his own support.
So it is with unease I view current plans among fan groups to demand a ballot on any proposed move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium in a mirror of the current fashion for TV viewers to ” have their say” in regard to reality shows. Leaving aside arguments over why non-shareholders might believe themselves worthy of representation only the most blinkered could possibly argue against a move on financial grounds. Club revenue will rise and ticket prices drop – hence Orient Chairman Barry Hearn’s antipathy to the move. Players would be more attracted to join the club and the sponsorship profile would rise. For spectators journey times to and from games would be slashed and pre and post-match comfort much improved from the dingy and derelict pubs surrounding Upton Park. Most importantly the increased capacity would enable the club to welcome back the lost fans I speak of.
Objections to the move are ostensibly based on the potential distance from stands to pitch with fans fearful of a diminution of atmosphere. Frankly this is hogwash, the current ground bears no relation to the dark, hostile and intimidating arena I first watched a game from in 1969. I’d suggest the real legitimation – and I’d have a lot more sympathy with this view – is the quite natural fear of change.
Sadly boys and girls, I believe our time is gone and a new generation of support is long overdue. If the club are to maintain traditions perhaps it’s time to ditch ours.