Has any club in the Premier League had their identity compromised as badly as West Ham United? The tragedy unfolding in the east end is not that the team might be relegated. They have survived that fate on half a dozen occasions. The sadness for supporters is that they find it hard to recognise the institution they grew up loving.
They can expect no respite from the battle against the drop on Sunday against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. David Moyes will need to work miracles to eke out more than a handful of points in a nightmarish seven-game run between now and mid-April. Pep Guardiola’s City are likely to increase the gloom for West Ham.
The two clubs have much in common. They have strong fanbases but traditionally have been in the second rank of English football’s big sides.
David Gold and David Sullivan, the West Ham owners, dreamt of following the City template: relocating from a famous old ground to an athletics stadium on the cheap and attracting a hugely wealthy buyer. That is where the paths diverge. Abu Dhabi money made City one of the game’s elite teams. No one in the right mind would buy West Ham at the moment.
The Etihad is not Maine Road and Middle Eastern cash has transformed City but it has not broken the umbilical cord between the fans and the club. If anything, backers of Guardiola’s side have become more zealous than before, championing their rather questionable owners with unquestioning loyalty against accusations of ‘sportswashing’.
West Ham supporters have turned on Gold and Sullivan. In the latest, tragicomic incident, a fan had his season-ticket revoked for wearing a tee-shirt attacking the board while acting as a pitchside flagwaver before the 2-0 defeat by Liverpool. The message said ‘GSB Out’ and referenced Gold, Sullivan and their vice-chairman Karren Brady. It was definitely provocative, given that the standard-bearer for revolt had volunteered to parade a club-authorised banner in a bid to generate atmosphere.
The Boleyn Ground never needed any rabble rousing to build the noise. The move from Upton Park to Stratford four years ago was a watershed in West Ham’s history. It was a mere three miles west but philosophically it might have been another dimension. The club was transplanted from the earthy, rugged habitat where it had grown and prospered for more than a century into the antiseptic environment created for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Gold and Sullivan managed to convince the majority of supporters that, to make the next step, it was crucial to leave the ramshackle, cramped and homely Boleyn and set up home in what was rebranded as the London Stadium. The fans were led to believe it was the path to a better future.
The east end has had its share of silver-tongued hucksters over the years. This is the area that produced the cliché of the sharp-witted Cockney, the persuasive barrow boy. They have a reputation for being tough, cynical and hard to fool. That may be the most painful component of what has happened: they fell for Gold and Sullivan’s shonky sales pitch.
After the Commonwealth Games, the City of Manchester Stadium was adapted for football. City spent £30 million converting the venue. The Etihad is not the most uplifting arena in the Premier League but it serves its purpose. The London Stadium does not. Football feels like an alien game inside a structure built for other sports. At the Boleyn, the crowd was so close they frightened opponents. Now, they are as distant as the memory of atmosphere at a West Ham match.
The club have said that they will put in extra seats next season to bring supporters nearer to the pitch but it is almost too late. This sort of work should have been completed before their first game.
The logic of the move from Upton Park seems clear. In theory, it should have made West Ham more attractive to buyers. The entire image of the club was spruced up with a view to foreign investment. The badge was revamped and the word ‘London’ added to aid international recognition. All it achieved was to distance supporters from their heritage.
The deal for the London Stadium seemed too good to be true. Rent of £2.5m per season was irresistible for Gold and Sullivan but they misjudged the situation. A club without their own ground is not attractive to potential buyers and, unlike the 2000s when City moved, there are few prospective investors willing to pump money into football.
At some point West Ham will probably have to build a new home. The costs involved in constructing a new ground can have huge long-term ramifications – just ask Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Everything about Stratford is wrong from a supporters’ perspective. It is a joyless experience approaching the place and even the much-vaunted transport links have not made arriving and leaving much easier than a visit to the Boleyn. If West Ham go down the hard core that remain loyal despite the indignities heaped on them by the owners will be scattered about the vast empty bowl.
The fans will protest but Gold, Sullivan and Brady have proved themselves immune to criticism. Their choice of managers and player recruitment have been questionable to say the least but there is a sense that supporters could live with defeat and disappointment on the pitch. What they cannot stand is having their identity taken away.
City may tear them apart on the pitch tomorrow but West Ham’s owners are stripping the culture away from the club. That will do more lasting damage than any relegation.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies