Has West Ham’s spate of football ‘hooliganism’ been wildly exaggerated?
West Ham’s transition to life at their new home, the ‘London Stadium’, has been far from routine. A set of disappointing results- coupled with a series of logistical teething problems- have left a significant number of Hammers fans feeling a certain degree of animosity towards their club.
Such anger was all too apparent during last weekend’s dismal 4-2 capitulation at the hands of cross-city rivals Watford. West Ham threw away a comfortable lead to leave them struggling at the foot of the Premier League table. Yet beyond the footballing result, incidents away from the field of play were far more symptomatic of a stadium move that has been beset by a number of early problems.
Far from anomalous, the disorder among fans and stewards has been a regular occurrence during West Ham’s home games this season, but an issue that seemingly came to a head last weekend. A full investigation has been launched into apparent confrontations between West Ham fans, stewards and opposing fans. It was even reported by some sources that fans had even begun to fight among themselves.
The club have reacted quickly and strongly to condemn the behaviour. In a statement, the club explained:
“West Ham unreservedly condemn the behaviour of the individuals involved in incidents during (Saturday’s) fixture against Watford. While these isolated incidents were quickly brought under control, this behaviour has no place in football and West Ham will work tirelessly to eradicate such incidents.”
West Ham said it is prepared to request the courts serve banning orders on disruptive fans. This is obviously quite a sweeping position for the club to take, but would it not have been more useful to understand the root cause of the issues first?
It would be naïve to suggest that persistent standing during football matches has been eradicated; in fact it is still commonplace among the most ardent supporters of any football club. It was the norm in some sections of Upton Park as it is at almost any Premier League football ground. From experience most stewards have an understanding of such dynamics and actively manage the situation rather than directly confront it (often resulting in a rather hilarious adult game of musical chairs).
From my point of view this is the most sensible policy in light of current laws (the debate around safe standing goes beyond the realms of this particular article). In fact, most grounds have an unwritten rule as to where one can stand and where, should you be happier to, you can sit comfortably for the duration of the game. This should never be a question of how someone should watch a game, more an acceptance that there exists a choice and that it should be managed in a way that suits all.
The clear issue at West Ham’s new London Stadium is that such segregation fails to exist. The re-allocation has led to a mix of fans from a variety of backgrounds that invariably creates friction and conflict, something that the club should be taking a degree of responsibility for.
The Guardian interviewed the editor of the Knees up Mother Brown website, Graeme Howlett, who gave an interesting account of the problems afflicting the club:
“The way it’s going, someone is going to end up seriously hurt, it’s dangerous. We’ve got so many accounts of fans trading blows, people having to dive on their kids to protect them. The two big problems are probably that the migration from Upton Park was not handled as well as it could have been and the second is that there is no family enclosure.”
For someone looking in from the outside (and it would be useful to get the West Ham take on this as well), it seems like a classic case of a modern football club wildly condemning their own without fully grasping the crux of the issues at hand. Fundamentally policing won’t alleviate the problems, because that is a mere sticking plaster to the wound; the club needs to grasp the internal politics that exist and have continued to exist throughout West Ham’s rich history at Upton Park. Karren Brady and co may be looking to transform this club into a modern sporting corporation, but in so doing they would be well advised to consider that which has gone before and the way that sensitivities need to be managed to ensure that any transition is a fruitful one.
I could be accused of the same generalised assessments, but as a neutral it seems far more likely that Hammers fans have been hard done by here and that a degree of sympathy and sensitivity should be applied to the current situation.
While violence should be condemned in any guise, have the criminalities been overplayed?
What do you think?