Will the real West Ham crowd please stand up. Not literally, of course, or you will be asked to sit down again by the stewards (sorry, the Supporter Liaison Officers). But you know what I mean – are we still the kind of supporters who believe we are there to make a difference, or do we now have to wait for the players to do something special before we make a significant contribution to the atmosphere?
For 10 glorious minutes aft er Andy Carroll’s breathtaking goal against Crystal Palace the new stadium actually felt like the home of the West Ham United I first fell in love with more than 50 years ago. Th e place was rocking. Th at said, the first half felt like a funeral. Which left me wondering if Manuel Lanzini would have made the gut-busting run from the edge of our area to score the magnificent third goal that rounded off the club’s best result at the London Stadium if the place had been as muted in the 90th minute as it was in the first 45
And, let’s be brutally honest here, if you can’t get excited aft er a goal like Carroll’s you really shouldn’t be watching live football in the first place. Th e Palace game marked the end of a difficult week for West Ham, brought about by the message from a certain Frenchman who we will shall call No 27 that he no longer wished to play in claret and blue. Th e natural reaction of every trueborn Hammer was to give him a simple message which, in French, translates as baisez-vous (I know No 27’s English isn’t that good, so I thought I’d make it easier for him).
There were some attempts to rewrite the No 27 song, but it was generally decided the best way to make our feelings known was to pledge our support for Slaven Bilic, who had shown such dignity aft er being stabbed in the back by the man whose international career he had revived. As Super Slav’s claret and blue army, we should have vociferously backed him from the first whistle, yet every attempt to get the chant going withered on the vine before Carroll’s wonder-goal. I doubt we would have been so shy and retiring at the Boleyn Ground.
Okay, I accept Upton Park wasn’t a cauldron of noise every game – introducing all-seating and moving the stands further from the pitch saw to that. But there is no denying the crowd played its part more then than it does now. Our last league game prior to the Palace fixture was, of course, against Man Utd. As it turned out, we were playing Man U and Mike Dean, which made life extra difficult – not least when Sofiane Feghouli was wrongly sent off after 15 minutes.
The hated Manchester United under lights; a diabolical refereeing decision from a diabolical referee; a magnificent performance from the 10 men who sought to overturn the injustice: it all should have meant thunderous support coming from the stands. It would have done at the Boleyn Ground, yet the sound in London Stadium never once reached the level that makes your scalp tingle.
It is no coincidence that results and performances at home this season have been disappointing so far. As I see it, our role as supporters is threefold: (1) energise our players; (2) intimidate the opposition and (3) ‘persuade’ the officials to give us the benefit of the doubt in close-call decisions.
That is not done by sitting in silence – yet too often this year that is exactly what has happened, giving the away side an advantage that we could and should be denying them. What has brought about this significant change – and can anything be done to rectify the problem?
According to a piece by Daily Mail journalist Martin Samuel – which was controversially posted on the West Ham official website and then taken down after a number of complaints (including one from Blowing Bubbles) – it has nothing to do with the move to Stratford. ‘Sadly, the stadium has now become an excuse for failure,’ he writes. ‘This has to change if West Ham are not to plunge headlong into catastrophe. Buying poorly in the summer has more to do with West Ham’s poor form this season than concrete.’
I’ve no idea how often Mr Samuel gets to see West Ham play, or where he sits when he does. But his perceptions are very different from my view of things, loftily perched as I am in the back row of the East Stand. There are people all around the ground who want to lend their voices to the West Ham cause, but they are often isolated. The way season tickets were sold meant that groups who had formed at Upton Park – often over many years – were unable to migrate to the London Stadium together. As a result, those who want to make a racket throughout a game have been separated.
It was the vocal areas such as the Bobby Moore Lower and Chav Corner that, even during the duller moments on the pitch, gave the Old Place a background soundtrack – and then offered the rest of the stadium a chance to raise the roof when the football merited it. Without them, the crowd at the London Stadium has become a choir without its conductor. The problem was made worse by the Plus Two policy, which enabled many supporters who would not otherwise have bought a season ticket to do so.
The newbies sitting near me might be enthusiastic singers, but they’re never in their seats long enough for anyone to find out. Arrive 10 minutes late, head for the bar 10 minutes before the interval, and don’t bother to come back for the second half – a strange routine but one that is taking place with increasing regularity. Perhaps these are the ‘tourists’ the club was so keen to attract. Then there are the children, bless ’em. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids – but they don’t add a lot to the atmosphere.
Especially when they are bored out of their brains, as so many of the younger ones clearly are. And you can forget about parking them in a family enclosure. The club now has 10,000 season ticket holders aged 16 or under. With at least one parent each, that’s not an enclosure – it’s an entire stand. If we are to regularly create the sort of atmosphere that actually gives us home advantage everyone needs to play their part.
The players can make a huge difference by performing well, of course. But the club could make a huge contribution by addressing the issues that have isolated those who want to sing. There needs to be a major re-allocation of season tickets that brings vocal supporters together and puts the £99 seats – which in many cases aren’t used by the children for whom they were supposedly bought – in the back rows. A serious attempt to persuade the Premier League to sanction safe standing wouldn’t go amiss, either. Please, Lady Brady, give us the chance to once again be proud to be loud.