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Meltdown – on and off the pitch

PAUL DONOVAN gives his take on the ongoing drama at West Ham

WEST HAM United appear to be in a state of meltdown both on and off the pitch.

West Ham’s defeat against Burnley last Saturday sees the team drawn further back into the relegation mire — a situation they appeared to have escaped a few weeks ago.

The situation is still retrievable, with another three wins likely to take the club to safety. Prior to the Burnley game, fans saw that game plus Southampton and Stoke at home as being the most likely route to that goal.

The other games include home matches against both Manchester clubs and away games at Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester.

The most dramatic finale of course could see West Ham having to win their final game at home against Everton, managed by the club’s former boss Sam Allardyce, to stay up.

The dramatic choreography would be perfect, with Allardyce potentially getting revenge, particularly over West Ham’s owners, who did not treat him well in his final months at the club.

This scenario could also see West Ham manager David Moyes relegated by the club where he made his name as a manager. West Ham fans and owners will be hoping though they will be safe long before that final game.

The bad form on the pitch must no doubt be a consequence of the turmoil off the field. There was due to be a march against the club’s owners before the Burnley game but, after meetings with the protest groups concerned, this was called off.

However, the discontent quickly resurfaced in the stadium during the game. The first Burnley goal saw a lone spectator run onto the pitch before being apprehended with the help of captain Mark Noble. Then another came on, set on planting the corner flag on the centre spot. Hardly a pitch invasion — as reported in much of the media.

Where the real protest took place was in front of the directors’ box, where a couple of thousand people quickly assembled. (Much of the media seemed to downplay this far more vociferous and dangerous protest, referring to “a handful” and “a few hundred spectators.”)

The situation looked as though it was likely to get out of hand as more and more spectators filled the confined space. Security staff were nowhere to be seen, with the police sauntering over about 15 minutes after it all started. The aggression of the spectators was palpable with calls for the board to step down. Coins were thrown by some individuals.

The situation was only defused when the owners David Gold and David Sullivan left the directors’ box, leaving former West Ham hero Sir Trevor Brooking to face the fans alone.

The seeds of the fans’ frustration lie in the move to the Olympic Stadium from Upton Park and the failure of the club to invest in the team.

One fan summarised the latter situation well when he spoke of the owners talking in grandiose terms about playing in the Champions League, while running the club like they did Birmingham City when it was in the lower divisions.

The owners have certainly failed to lay out the money required for West Ham to compete in the Premier League. The net spend since the club moved to its new home in August 2016 has been £29 million. Over the past year the club has laid out around £13m.

The decision-making baffles fans, none more so than the failure to sign defenders in the January transfer window. Indeed, while the team have continued to leak goals, experienced defender Jose Fonte has been let go for £5m, while 36-year-old Patrice Evra has been recruited. Three of the back five are the wrong side of 30.

Moyes, who replaced Slaven Bilic in November, has done a good job trying to steady the ship. He has been tactically shrewd with the players at his disposal, moving the club to within reach of safety.

While he said nothing publicly, the manager must have been pretty aghast to see two of his strikers leaving for around £30m, with one raw replacement brought in for £10m from Preston. The club also recruited Joao Mario on loan from Inter Milan.

The move from the old Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium was always going to be difficult, but in order to make it work the club needed to spend big.

If the club had become one competing for the top six, complaints about the stadium would have reached nothing like the present crescendo.

However, in the modern world of football, to achieve such goals requires the owners to trust their managers and spend large amounts of money. The owners of West Ham have done neither.

What it looks like to the fans is that the owners have tied up a nice little deal on the sale of the old ground. The gate receipts have increased substantially, with the average attendance rising from 35,000 to 57,000 at the London Stadium. Meantime, the club is getting more than £100m a season from TV rights. In effect the club has been a cash cow for the owners.

Fans increasingly do not think the owners care about the club. They are only in it for the money. Some also look at what happened to Birmingham City, with the club eventually being sold off to dubious owners.

In terms of club management, which comes under vice-chair Karren Brady, things could also work a lot better. The security problems seen on Saturday reminded many of the teething problems when the club first moved into the stadium. However, security is largely the responsibility of the stadium operators, rather than the football club.

There have been PR nightmares punctuating the owners’ tenure at the club, with the recent drug test failings and racist comments from the now-sacked director of player recruitment Tony Henry damaging West Ham’s reputation recently.

The fans have been particularly irritated to see members of David Sullivan’s family tweeting information about the club out over social media. These type of happenings send the message that the owners see the club as their personal plaything rather than a community-based club with a worldwide following.

There is much that needs to be done to put things right at West Ham. The relationship between owners and fans has broken down, possibly irrevocably. However, as with the situation at Newcastle, where owner Mike Ashley has been trying, without success, to sell the club, shows there are not a lot of buyers out there. The fans are probably stuck with the owners until they decide to call time on the project.

In the short term the aim must be to secure Premiership safety and probably give Moyes a decent long-term contract. He must also be given responsibility for player transfers, with a substantial amount of money being made available.

If things are turned round on the pitch, then the London Stadium might not seem such a bad place. It must be hoped for the sake of the club that it can make the new stadium home because, as anyone who has been down Green Street way recently, knows there is certainly no going back to the old ground.

The logistics of the stadium need improving and PR operation tightened. The owners Gold and Sullivan and their families need to take a step back out of the spotlight. If all of these changes can be made then things should start moving in the right direction for the club. Failure to do so could see the West Ham playing to a half-empty stadium in the Championship.


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