There was something interesting about West Ham’s dramatic 4-3 victory over Huddersfield on March 16th. It was arguably one of the best Premier League games this season, with goals galore, a super sub, a late winner and plenty of drama. Looking at the crowd, however, you probably wouldn’t have guessed it.
Even Javier Hernandez’s late game heroics were met with nothing more than a brief cheer and a round of applause. On the face of it it didn’t look so bad, but on Match of the Day that evening the atmosphere was easily eclipsed by a half-empty Turf Moor as the relegation-threatened hosts entertained the rebuilding Leicester City. Even the tiny Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth seemed to create more excitement.
When you consider West Ham have been one of the better Premier League sides this season and have one of the largest attendance figures, it doesn’t add up – but, if you look back on the developments at West Ham over the past few years a coherent story does start to emerge.
You have to ask yourself one question – what are West Ham United? Whatever you think of the club’s identity, chances are it ended with the move to the London Stadium in 2016. Upton Park? Gone. The iconic badge with castle and hammers? Gone. The strong East London connection? If you count a stretch of the city regenerated and sanitised for the 2012 Olympics, then maybe that still exists, but at a stretch.
The only real holdover are the lyrics to ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, but the obligatory pre-match stream produced by touchline bubble machines struggles to make an impression in the cavernous London Stadium.
So what do you have in its place? Well, the new stadium has been a very visible source of controversy. The chaos surrounding their initial move has been quickly forgotten thanks to the vastly-underrated Manuel Pellegrini’s work on the pitch, but it’s worth remembering how disliked and disorganised the stadium was initially.
Furthermore, does the stadium feel like a home for football? The obvious issue is the distance that still exists between pitch and seats, something that apparently was meant to have been resolved by now, but the issues run deeper than just that.
Look at the seats themselves, they still bear the jagged pattern that the London Olympics had. They’ve added some claret and blue, yes, but the sea of white means it still doesn’t feel like West Ham’s stadium.
And look at the stadium exterior – it’s the Olympic Park. Isolated from its ‘spiritual’ borough, you don’t feel like you’re in enemy territory, you feel like you’re at a sporting carnival. Even the huge billboard on the stadium exterior displays player stats for both teams like it’s hosting Gabon vs. New Zealand at the Olympics for a totally unaware audience.
But then maybe that’s the point. Look at how West Ham have branded themselves since their relocation. The new badge? It’s plain and simple, almost like a generic badge from a video game without a licence. The details and elements of the old badge are gone, and in its place a simple shield, a pair of Hammers, the team name, and the new addition of ‘London’ beneath it.
Let’s not forget the stadium itself – universally known to everyone as just ‘The Olympic Stadium’, West Ham decided to christen it the ‘London Stadium’ upon moving it.
Amusing though it is to fans given West Ham aren’t even the premier team in London let alone the only one, this coupled with their rebrand does betray their intentions.
West Ham’s owners are trying to turn them into a franchise, one with huge worldwide marketing potential. They’re exploiting the global appeal of London as a destination to try and draw in interest, something they can now do thanks to the vastly-increased stadium capacity the London Stadium provides.
Between that and their historically middling status in the league, West Ham will be the easiest Premier League ticket to get in town. Indeed, a cursory glance at Twitter or Instagram on a matchday will show you plenty of foreign fans and families, kitted out in West Ham gear and/or half-and-half scarves, sharing the pictures from their first soccer game inbetween snaps of Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace.
West Ham are trying to associate themselves with London. Not the London of Londoners, but the London of the tourist – Grenadier Guards, Afternoon Tea, Sherlock Holmes. They want to be the British equivalent of the New York Yankees, an image you can slap on a baseball cap and sell to someone thousands of miles away as a fashion item.
Not to be too disparaging towards tourists – they are entitled to attend football matches even if they don’t know the exact ins-and-outs of the game. However, legitimate ire should be directed at a West Ham board that has thrown out the club’s identity at a crucial time.
The swell in one-time visitors to the Premier League has caused problems for many clubs, but for the ‘Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools’ of this world there is still a semblance of order. There is still fan organisation- The Stretford End is still ‘the Stretford End’; The Kop is still ‘the Kop’.
West Ham United, however, have abandoned the organisation of Upton Park to move to an unfamiliar new stadium, then immediately set about marketing that stadium as a tourist attraction. The result is no fan organisation, the die-hards of the Trevor Brooking Stand separated across the vast stadium.
If fans can’t get together they can’t make noise in an already huge stadium like the London Stadium it’s never going to end well. The fact that a good chunk of the crowd are just there for the novelty is simply the icing on the cake.
This is not an indictment of West Ham fans or the tourists who go to games, but a greedy board. They sold out the taxpayer to move to London Stadium, and have now sold out the club they claim to be acting in the best interests of in order to cash in on the tourist money.
West Ham were once the pride of East London. Now they are nothing more than a forced brand for the entirety of a city, happy to toss out all reality, identity and fanbase for the sake of selling an extra bobble hat in Nashville.
Is this the future of football? Who knows, but with Arsenal and West Ham developing bad reputations for their new stadiums, Tottenham about to open their new ground, and Chelsea looking keenly towards a future out of Stamford Bridge, there’s a worrying sign that London’s Premier League football scene could be losing its soul for good.