Stephen Cross, of the Hammers United supporters’ club, on why he and others will protest against the board on Saturday.
Next-level football: that was the dream West Ham fans were sold when we were asked to leave Upton Park. That was the rhetoric the board spun to convince us to swap our spiritual home for the London Stadium. We were shown a grand vision of the future, one featuring a world-class team playing in a world-class stadium, and it caused us to make the move with an open mind.
But after four years in Stratford we are still waiting for the world-class West Ham to emerge. The club has proven incapable of delivering on its promises and many supporters have lost faith with the owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, and the vice-chairman, Karren Brady. We said goodbye to our history for nothing and that is why we protested before last month’s home game against Everton, it is why we protested at Liverpool on Monday night and it is why we are protesting before Saturday’s visit from Southampton.
Hammers United was created as an independent supporters’ group almost a year ago – our membership stands at almost 12,500 – and our initial aim was not to force the board out. It was to seek a constructive dialogue with the club. Yet the board have repeatedly refused to engage and our members now want them out.
It has very little to do with league position, even though there has not been much to celebrate since Gold and Sullivan bought West Ham 10 years ago. Our issue is that there seems to be a focus on the commercialisation of the brand over the needs of supporters.
Take the matchday experience. One of the romances of going to the Boleyn Ground was walking through the streets, going past the vendors and meeting in the pubs; everyone coming together as one. Those little football rituals have been lost. Now you walk through a shopping centre. As for the supposed world-class transport links, trains in and out of Stratford are often a nightmare.
Not as bad as the stadium, though. When we first saw it in the sunshine in August 2016, it looked impressive from the outside. Then you get closer and realise it is not designed for football. It is an athletics arena and there are areas that simply look unfinished. People in corporate hospitality are looking down at scaffolding and the facilities on the concourses are poor. The price for a pie and a pint is extortionate.
We see many day-trippers turn up for games and others dipping in and out. Tickets might be owned but the stadium is never full. We have no singing section and have lost our home advantage. The stadium is soulless and while supporters have made an effort to get behind the team, the atmosphere seems to be all but gone. The connection is fading.
The distance from the pitch doesn’t help. When we were looking at possible protests, someone suggested that we emulate Charlton’s fans by throwing soft toys or tennis balls on to the pitch. I had to point out that not many of our supporters have the Olympic standard throw required to throw something over the running track.
There is, of course, a chance for progress to be made should the club engage with Hammers United, which is affiliated to the Football Supporters’ Association. But that has never been on the cards. They only want to deal with the Official Supporters’ Board, which is a club construct. Our members do not recognise the OSB, whose ineffectiveness is best summed up by their representatives hearing about last season’s season-ticket rises only when they saw the press release.
This week an OSB meeting, which we declined to attend, was postponed until May to allow democratic elections to be introduced. Why do West Ham feel the need to be involved in democratic elections for a supporters’ group? There is simply no desire to speak to anyone independent. We cannot ask why Sullivan and Gold charge interest on the loans they gave the club. We cannot ask why Brady has seen her pay go up to £1.136m a year.
So we protest. On Monday we released black balloons and held up banners in the away end at Anfield and anyone who thinks that dissent will harm performances only had to look at the players almost nicking a point. The demonstration brought some of the feeling back and on Saturday we will take a casual stroll down the Greenway, which starts in Plaistow and runs up to the stadium. We will protest peacefully and then we will support the team.
Stephen Cross is the Hammers United joint secretary