It’s been four years since their controversial move sent shockwaves through a community. The West Ham owners received less for the Boleyn Ground than they spent on Sébastien Haller. And whilst Stratford has hosted fleeting joy, it’s hard to see a way forward for the floundering club. But why has the move which was sold as a dream turned into such a nightmare?
At the time of posting this, West Ham are only three points above the Premier League relegation zone. When the world slammed to a halt in March, it was only goal difference that spared their blushes throughout the lockdown period. Many fans accused them of self-interest when expressing safety concerns around completing the season. And after posting losses of £27.26m in January, their accounts rather soberly concur.
Farewell to the old West Ham in 2016
West Ham’s final game at the Boleyn was a pulsating 3-2 victory over Manchester United. Slaven Bilić likened it to a blockbuster in his post-match interview. Ugly scenes earlier on had seen the visitors’ team coach attacked. But truthfully, even that contributed to the ultimate send-off for the Irons. A raucous atmosphere, a battling comeback as underdogs, a cauldron of emotion, and a little bit of naughtiness.
David de Gea will have felt the home fans breathing down his neck. Residents in surrounding flats will have felt their walls shake when Winston Reid scored the winner. A decent number of them will have had a view of the action. Nathan’s Pie & Mash shop and The Boleyn Tavern will have done a roaring trade, as ever. Reverberations were unmissable, throughout E6 and beyond.
Manchester United’s subsequent FA Cup win saw West Ham sneak through the back door into the Europa League. All they’d need to do was defeat Romanian champions Astra Giurgiu to qualify for the group stage. But unfortunately, history repeated itself as Astra knocked them out in the play-offs for a second season running. The 1-0 defeat at the London Stadium was to be their only competitive European fixture there.
This was six years into a seven-year plan to get the club into the Champions League. According to the owners, their move to the London Stadium would be the final transition. Leicester City romped to a sensational title win whilst the gates at the Boleyn slammed shut. So, who was to say that this new dawn at their football club couldn’t yield the same result?
The wider community impact
One thing that’s for certain is that there were only ever going to be losers in the community. As many as 40 or 50 independent stallholders earned their living from Boleyn matchdays. Neighbouring businesses were adorned in claret and blue: from taxi ranks and cafes to primary schools and builders’ merchants.
West Ham United itself had traditionally been family-run. This was proudly reflected in the surrounding community: it was part of the club’s fabric. Matchday rituals had been passed on through generations, same as the businesses themselves. If you supported the Irons, then these people were part of your family. It was as central to their identity off the pitch as the West Ham Way was on it.
After surviving through four generations, Nathan’s served pie & mash for the final time in 2018. The Boleyn Tavern has been bought by Remarkable Pubs and was undergoing renovation before the lockdown. Walking along East Ham’s High Street on a busy day, you’re lucky if you see one West Ham badge.
My personal perspective
It’s important at this point that I state my personal context. Born and bred in Yorkshire, I’ve lived in London for the last three and a half years. I’ve lived in East Ham for the last two years, within walking distance of the Boleyn. My fiancée’s parents are local to the area and are diehard West Ham fans, as is she. My local is a ‘West Ham pub’, and through working-class roots, I feel a strong affinity with the fanbase.
Much as I’d be devastated if Leeds were to leave Elland Road, the local impact wouldn’t quite be the same. Aside from The Old Peacock pub, there aren’t many businesses who’d severely struggle. Most of the spending is done in Leeds city centre before the short journey out to Beeston. And if the club were to move a couple of miles away, all we’d lose would be the memories.
And that’s what’s so unique about West Ham’s situation. By living in this ‘post-Boleyn’ version of E6, I’ve witnessed first-hand how it’s left a void. As a neutral with a fledgeling and vicarious interest, I fail to see how this hasn’t played its role. It’s more than the aesthetics of Leicester City moving from Filbert Street to the identikit King Power Stadium, for example. It’s a tower of cards that came tumbling down far quicker than anybody could handle.
False dawns in 2019/20
Their maiden season at the London Stadium brought an underwhelming 11th place finish. I say ‘underwhelming’ in the context of what was being promised. But that 2016/17 campaign has only been bettered once, and by one place: under Pellegrini in 2019.
A solid 2-0 win over Manchester United in September indicated that Pellegrini was on course to improve things once again. After six games they were level on points with Leicester in third. Three days later, they were battered 4-0 by Oxford United in the first of eight winless matches. Between Christmas and New Year, Pellegrini was sacked, and David Moyes returned for a second spell.
West Ham’s opening league game at the London Stadium was a 1-0 win over Bournemouth. Moyes’ first game in his current stint saw a 4-0 home win over Bournemouth on New Year’s Day. Sadly, the parallels are clear as day: a false dawn before an excruciating demise.
So, where have they gone wrong on a business level? Pre-2016, the club’s fanbase could be principally defined by two things: a close-knit East London community and the Boleyn. Post-2016, it’s widespread protests against the board in a soulless stadium that simply isn’t West Ham United. But the anti-GSB (Gold, Sullivan & Brady) t-shirts and banners are about more than just the move.
One of the main criticisms levelled at GSB has been a woeful lack of planning. It wasn’t until June 2018 that they appointed a Director of Football in Mario Husillos. He’d worked with Pellegrini at Málaga, and his appointment was one of Pellegrini’s few demands on arriving in Stratford. GSB hoped that a generous cheque book would see the pair assemble squad capable qualifying for the Champions League.
On paper, it was what West Ham’s fans had been crying out for. The reality was an awkward three-way tug of war, with power-mad David Sullivan unwilling to relinquish enough control. Over £100m was spent on flops, and Husillos parted with Pellegrini after 18 months. That Directors of Football usually appoint managers, as opposed to vice versa, was a glaring indication of an outdated approach.
Under a decade of GSB, West Ham have spent over half a billion on transfers. But before Darren Randolph joined for £4m in January, they’d spent less than £10m on goalkeepers in that time. They’ve only spent £16m on full-backs. Lopsided and fragmented, a lack of identity in the stands has left them excruciatingly anonymous on the pitch. There’s only so much that Mark Noble can do on his own.
Where do West Ham go from here?
For over a century, West Ham United was a family-run club in an iconic stadium. After a decade of GSB, they’re an entertainment franchise in a stadium that’s a laughingstock. West Ham’s Favourite Burger Bar is now contactless payments for hot dogs and popcorn. The tenacious Trevor Brooking Stand terrace is now selfies from behind the bubble machine. Robbie Williams has sweated more at the London Stadium than Jack Wilshere has in the last few years.
Having lived through Peter Ridsdale, Ken Bates, GFH, and Massimo Cellino, I know all too well how it feels. GSB’s presence is toxic, and it’s corrosive at every level. I appreciate that all contemporary top flight is football sanitised to an extent. But when a club’s run as dreadfully as this one, it kills the heart and soul.
If GSB sold-up in summer 2020, it wouldn’t solve West Ham’s problems. But I do believe that it’s essential as part of a healing process. The Boleyn is already a block of flats: they’ll never get that back. But they could get their club back, under the right leadership. Pride, purpose, and identity: that’s all a fan can ever ask for.
I’m far from being an expert on West Ham: I’ve made that clear. But from what I can tell, there needs to be a tangible connection to the fanbase threading through the club. A strong presence of Academy players in the first-team squad and a couple of club icons amongst the hierarchy. Heritage and ambition side by side: the West Ham Way for the new generation.
Turbo-speed gentrification sent West Ham kicking and screaming down the shiny new road to Stratford. Their identity fell out of the removal van, and without it, they might struggle to survive.