It has only taken a few weeks for the gloss to come off the new London Stadium at Stratford with a perfect storm of setbacks – a poor performance on the pitch, trouble in the stands and a clash between new and old cultures.
As West Ham manager Slaven Bilic predicted, it would just take a good run of strong performances for the club and its supporters to settle into their new home – and the opposite is also true.
With a feelgood factor in short supply after Watford’s 4-2 win in Stratford, focus turns to disquiet among the supporters.
The issue of standing fans has never been properly addressed and led to allegations of fighting, with punches thrown.
Some pockets of supporters have decided to stand throughout, almost as an act of rebellion against the orders of the club. Others stand persistently, blocking the view of those behind and creating tension. Others claim a heavy-handed reaction to standing briefly when there’s goalmouth action, for example.
Often those affected are young fans who can’t see and whose parents then become involved in confrontation with the transgressors. Some youngsters were led away in tears on Saturday, frightened by the violence.
Supporters say that the stewarding adds fuel to the fire. It is the stadium operators themselves – LS185 – that supply the stewards and there were accusations of both too much interference and a refusal to become involve. This provides a green light for troublemakers to target away fans as well.
The nightmare scenario for the club is losing the lustre of the new era, losing the hardcore fans who want a traditional football environment and the new breed of fans who want to enjoy a Premier League experience.
West Ham fan Barry Cox, 36, said: “There were people climbing over barriers, throwing punches and stewards said they couldn’t physically get involved. A safety group eventually came running in.
“When we left the ground, we saw elderly Watford fans running away. If that was Tottenham or Chelsea, people would have got seriously hurt.”
Future matches will have a larger buffer zone between home and away fans and West Ham is holding emergency meetings with the operators to resolve the problem that is not likely to go away.
Co-chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold as well as vice-chairman Karren Brady who oversaw the transition have appealed for calm but also threatened life bans to trouble makers. Already 10 have been banned for offences in previous matches.
It is a core purpose of the new stadium that it creates a family-friendly, trouble-free environment as part of the mission to make West Ham a global brand. In addition, 6,000 sets are currently out of use until the licensing authorities are content that the club and the operators are in control.
Don't feel at home
Against Bournemouth some fans found there were no seats so they sat on the bare concrete watching a game seemingly far in the distance. This has become a metaphor for the early-day hiccups – a core group of West Ham fans simply don’t feel at home at the new Stadium – and don’t feel welcome.
In a statement, the club said: “West Ham United unreservedly condemn the behaviour of the individuals involved in incidents during today’s fixture against Watford.
“While these isolated incidents were quickly brought under control, this behaviour has no place in football and West Ham United will work tirelessly to eradicate such incidents.
“We are currently undertaking an immediate full review with all stakeholders. This includes police, stadium landlord and operator LS185, who are responsible for appointing and managing stewards and security, to ensure we eradicate such incidents moving forward.
Our policy on this behaviour remains one of zero tolerance and we will work with the police and other stakeholders to identify the individuals involved. Once identified, they will be banned from attending any West Ham United fixture for life and we will request the courts serve banning orders to prevent these individuals attending any football.”
Meanwhile the Football Association will investigate the crowd trouble and the club is looking to create more organic seating, where family groups can stay together – although that relies, to some degree, on the release of new seats.
Mr Gold said on Sunday: “I want to assure everyone that the club is working flat out to solve the sitting/standing issue.”
As the game reached its disappointing end, the performance had gone some way to diffusing the tension. Many fans had left early, leaving the Stadium half empty.
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