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The Stadium of Fright

FLASHPOINT ... a supporter is ejected by stewards

FLASHPOINT … a supporter is ejected by stewards

Last November, a couple of days before my appointment at Westfield to arrange seats and purchase tickets for a group of six of to the “new” stadium, I received a phone call from our advisor with the idea of prepping us before our appointment. I was informed if I wanted a seat similar to my Band D position on the back row of the Bobby Moore Lower I would be forced to upgrade to Band C for the Olympic Stadium. Although not disgruntled I was, as the saying goes, somewhat less than gruntled and asked where we could sit “for atmosphere” and was told the East Stand. “But”, I replied, “They’re the most expensive seats, they won’t be making any noise”. First silence, then a raucous clanging sound came down the line.

Fast forward 10 months and I’m in the London Stadium and watching to my left as a man is ejected from the ground having refused to sit down. He had been asked by spectators behind him, informed by club letter, asked by stewards, then warned by the same that if he didn’t remain seated he would be thrown out. Yet he insisted on continuing his most fruitless and stupid of protests as he was finally bundled out fists flying. Throughout this scene the entire Bobby Moore Lower Stand were on their feet.

Numerous reports on social media spoke of similar events around the ground, poor and inexperienced stewarding and a lack of segregation from away fans. Many drew the conclusion the London Stadium is not a place they would care to take their children again. If these are as the club insists, merely “teething troubles” then they need to be sorted – and bloody quick. High-handed letters to fans informing them they must sit for licensing purposes in order for the club to squeeze in yet more stroppy customers are some way short of what’s required.

For their part the first thing the club need to do is listen to their paying public. Many of these issues were highlighted following the Bournemouth game yet the only visible response was, as mentioned, a letter to fans. Following yesterday’s game the club continued a confrontational approach by reminding us, as if we didn’t already know, we’ll be banned for life for fighting. More forward thinking might include groups set up with fans, within the club and a more conciliatory tone applied. The owners may believe the new ground is the best thing to happen to the club but the reality is many fans don’t – and an understanding of that feeling wouldn’t appear to have permeated the boardroom.

The club also need to get on to the stadium owners immediately and sort the stewarding. Most of the stewards appear poorly trained, many incapable of making basic decisions and some reportedly antagonistic to fans, furthering an already poor situation. Lines of command need to be established and practices reinforced. The decision not to have police present also looks to be of dubious provenance; we’ve been very fortunate so far our visitors have been Watford and Bournemouth not, say, Tottenham and Manchester United.

Most of all the club never seemed to appreciate the London Stadium being, as its name implies, a stadium not a football ground. It contains football supporters with all their differing realities and not a Taylor Swift concert. The Boleyn Ground consisted of informal but nonetheless fairly strict delineations that harked back to the days of mixed standing and seating. For instance, those who sat in the old East Upper wouldn’t want to relocate to Chav Corner, likewise a representative Bobby Moore Lower attendee would not enjoy life in the Family Enclosure. Regrettably, away from the lower stands behind each goal these differentiations were not made apparent by the club during the ticketing process, a lamentable failure that has led to so much of the current bad feeling.

In a smart move the club recruited Directors from Arsenal who had already experienced a move to oversee our migration under the aegis of Vice-Chairman Karren Brady. Yet it appears her and her committee didn’t understand, or seemingly want to understand West Ham draw their fanbase from a different demographic to the Gunners. Despite (or perhaps because of) being married to a footballer and having spent her entire professional career in the sport Brady envisaged only the new post-96 Sky fan filling the seats at the new ground. Such was her confirmation bias she didn’t for a second imagine relatively lower ticket prices would herald a return from the more traditional, shall we say, unreconstructed supporter. But there they all are as the Sunday papers bear witness.

It is way too late now for many of the necessary changes to be implemented to convert the stadium to a football ground. But as a minimum a Family Enclosure must be reinstated and hang the disruption caused by those who will need to move – their discomfort would be nothing to those currently having to protect terrified kids from punch-ups. Further changes could be made at the end of the season.

By the way, if I didn’t explain the noise coming down my phone line at the beginning of this piece I apologise. It wasn’t external, it was in my own head – and was the sound of alarm bells ringing.

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