London (AFP) – While historic Upton Park is being reduced to rubble by demolition workers, just across east London the price of progress seems painfully high to the West Ham fans engaged in a struggle for their club’s soul.
Just five months ago West Ham waved farewell to Upton Park, their home for 112 years, and headed into a bright and lucrative future in their new and bigger London Stadium.
Becoming the main tenants at the former Olympic Stadium had been a gruelling process, but West Ham’s hierarchy felt the politicking and legal wrangles would be worthwhile if the increased revenue helped transform their underachieving club into a major force.
Determined to fill the stadium, season-ticket prices were slashed to a cheapest mark of £289 ($359, 320 euros) for adults, in comparison to Upton Park’s lowest range of £600, and business was booming at the box office ahead of the new Premier League season.
West Ham’s number of season-ticket holders doubled to over 50,000, close to stadium capacity, but while co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold counted the cash, the streets around their new home have become paved with blood rather than gold.
Traditionally drawing their support from the working-classes who grew up in the tough districts around Upton Park, West Ham’s change of address was expected to repeat the trend of crowd gentrification seen at Arsenal and Chelsea.
Once feared in the 1980s for their large number of hooligans, Chelsea’s fanbase underwent a remarkable change when higher ticket prices saw many old-school supporters usurped by the middle classes, who saw the modern game as a fashionable addition to their lifestyle.
– Explosive mix –
West Ham had serious problems with their “Inter-City Firm” of hooligans for many years as well, but rather than keep out the undesirable elements, the cheap tickets and larger stadium have allowed a way back in for some of the club’s more volatile followers and a new breed keen to follow in their violent footsteps.
Adding to the explosive mix, fans who stood throughout matches at Upton Park have quickly become frustrated by the club and local council’s desire to ensure they stay sitting in their new abode.
Continuing to flout the rule, those supporters have turned violent when confronted by stewards or other fans, often those with children whose view of the match is impeded by the standing.
Compounding the problem is a security debacle which means police are only on duty outside because there isn’t a radio system in the stadium which would allow officers to communicate.
West Ham have pushed for a police presence inside the ground but it is the responsibility of stadium owners E20 to meet the cost.
As yet more fighting marred West Ham’s most recent home game, against Middlesbrough, including reports of a visiting fan being stabbed and another hit with a bottle, the Hammers faithful responded with chants of “We should have stayed at the Boleyn (Upton Park)” and “Stratford’s a s***hole, we want to go home.”
Fans say the atmosphere is also flat at the stadium, in contrast to Upton Park, which could be one of the more raucous in the Premier League.
Added to the poisonous mix is the team’s woeful start to the season and they have won just once in seven games this term.
– Iron Men –
Despite the mounting problems West Ham’s owners remain adamant their relocation has been justified.
“There are some great stadiums in this country but there is only one Olympic stadium and it’s ours and it has really had a dynamic impact on the things that we can do,” West Ham chief executive Karren Brady said.
“We have very limited outside debt and in terms of brand values are ranked 15th, we were 115th when I joined. We are now 20th in the Deloitte money league.
“Our trajectory is admired across the world, we have the largest amount of season tickets of any London club and a capacity that will grow to 65,000.”
Brady’s comments served only to antagonise West Ham diehards further — “as a normal working man’s football club West Ham are finished” and “Karren Brady sold the soul of West Ham” were among the complaints on social media.
But Brady and company remain so bullish they are planning to make a film documenting the move.
“We’re making a movie called Iron Men. It’s about the transition of the values and the history of West Ham supporters from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium,” Brady said.
On current evidence, even Hollywood’s finest script writers might struggle to produce an uplifting end to that tale.
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