West Ham supporters the world over had smiles as wide as an Olympic running track when referee Jonathan Moss blew the final whistle to cement our 3-0 demolition of Southampton. Suddenly, relegation looked a lot less likely than it had after the previous home game. What’s more, we had been served up a performance to be proud of.
But, off the pitch, the tensions that sparked such ugly scenes three weeks earlier were still simmering away as the two main supporter groups who had talked about a protest march before the Burnley game separately went about their business – albeit in rather different ways. Before that crucial encounter with Southampton, a group which began life as the Real West Ham Fans Action Group (aka RWHFAG) and then renamed itself Real West Ham Fans staged a short march from Stratford station to the London Stadium, loudly calling on the board to sack itself and demanding to know where the money had gone.
Meanwhile, the West Ham United Independent Supporters’ Association (WHUISA) was meeting in a nearby café debating its next course of action in rather more measured tones. With abbreviations such as WHUISA and RWHFAG to make sense of it’s easy to think you’ve stumbled into an East End episode of Countdown. Only the stakes are considerably higher.
Joint-owner David Sullivan has met representatives of both groups and demonstrated that he’s prepared to do business with WHUISA. The man at the helm of the Independent Supporters’ Association is Mark Walker. Aged 35, he is married with two young children and lives in the Woodford area. He worked for the Labour Party for 10 years before moving to a public relations company. More to the point, he is a dedicated West Ham fan who follows the Hammers home and away – at least he did, until he was advised to stop going to games for his own safety.
WHUISA was formed in 2013 and is sanctioned by the Football Supporters’ Federation, which gives it the authority to talk to organisations such as the Premier League and the Met Police when necessary. Walker was one of the early members. He says: ‘I wanted to get more involved last season, I was frustrated at how the match-day experience was turning out and as I had a campaigning background I thought I could help. So I stood for office.’
After nearly two seasons at our new home, no-one can pretend that the move from Upton Park has been trouble-free. A growing number of fans are looking to WHUISA to help resolve the problems – membership has trebled in recent weeks – but it’s a tough ask. Can Mark Walker persuade the owners to make going to watch West Ham at the London Stadium more enjoyable for us all? I wanted to find out:
BW: Mark, it is becoming increasingly clear that many supporters no longer have any faith in the owners. You met David Sullivan face-to-face. Do you think he understands the fans’ frustrations?
MW: Honestly, I think he does, how could he not? But I’m not sure what can be done to rebuild that faith. He is open-minded to ideas, like our suggestion of a proper elected fan on the board, and there is a difference between the man and the myth. This is going to sound like a crazy thing to say but I think the club might be better off if he was more involved in its day-to-day running. Without naming names I think a lot of issues are caused by how the club is run by other members of the board.
BW: The WHUISA has passed a vote of no confidence in the owners and is planning a series of protests. What exactly are you trying to achieve?
MW: The WHUISA position has always been Pro Fan, not Anti Board. However, it was felt by the membership that there now has to be a clearer definition of where we stand as an association. We are still keen to work with the board, but we now want to make sure they start to deliver on the promises they have made.
BW: What sort of campaign have you got in mind?
MW: As always, it will be guided by our membership. But the thinking is a series of smaller, more targeted campaigns similar to those carried out at Charlton and Liverpool. And some of us want to try to repair the fractures within our support. I have been on the front line of that and if I’m prepared to put that behind me, my hope is that some other groups will do the same, but that’s up to them.
BW: There are a number of fan groups, many of which came together in an effort to bring about change. That alliance split publicly and acrimoniously. Why can’t the different factions work together?
MW: I think they can, I hope they can, but there has to be trust and respect for other people and other views. It’s not helped in the social media era where often a lie goes around the world while the truth is still tying up its shoes. Hopefully groups will come together, particularly when there are issues that we all agree need to change. If we can work with supporters of Chelsea – and, dare I say it, Spurs – to lobby Sky and the Premier League, we should be able to unite as a fan base.
BW: Is it true that you received threats of physical violence from members of other fan groups?
MW: Sadly, it is. Accusations were made about me and my political beliefs and that they were reflected by the whole of WHUISA. People who don’t like the Mayor, or the Labour Party, were very aggressive towards me and still are to this day. The ironic thing is, my views are closer to Cameron than Corbyn and I have many critics in the Labour Party for still being a Blairite.
BW: If there is to be just one group representing supporters’ interests, why should it be yours?
MW: Because we are advocates more than representatives – all the big decisions are made by our members. Even the questions we put to David Sullivan were voted on by our members, the most popular ones we asked. We would never attend a meeting we couldn’t report back on and records of all our meetings are available on the WHUISA website. WHUISA belongs to supporters and the committee is re-elected once a year. The best way to have the loudest voice is to be part of WHUISA.
BW: Were you in favour of the move from Upton Park?
MW: No – 100% not. I felt the ground was an integral part of our DNA. There was something special about that place. Lots of things change in our lives – jobs, partners etc – so you need somewhere you can return to week after week. The Boleyn Ground was where I had stood with my granddad and then in turn my son. I felt it was too much to give up and none of the reasons given I felt justified the sacrifice.
BW: Following the move, the club set up the Supporters’ Advisory Board as a forum to discuss fans’ concerns. It has been suggested that we should have a supporter or former player on the board instead. How would that work?
MW: It’s a massive step for the club and though it happens further down the football pyramid it’s unheard of in the top flight. As I said, David Sullivan is open-minded and we will set up a working group of WHUISA and non-WHUISA members to consider the proposal. Will the final candidate be elected by the fans or do the fans draw up a shortlist and let the club decide? How long would they be allowed to serve? How are they made accountable to the supporters? Lots of questions – it’s an exciting debate.
BW: Some of us believe the only way to improve the stadium is to bring in the bulldozers and start from scratch. That isn’t going to happen, of course. So what improvements would you like to see?
MW: Because of the complexity of the deal there is little the club can do. The regulations imply that seats have to be covered and even if you do move them forward you are simply creating a bigger void between the upper and lower tier. Personally, I would like us to build a new purpose-built stadium out on the land by the river in Dagenham, combine it with some flats and a new train station. A boy has to be allowed to dream.
BW: You, along with other fan groups, were planning a protest march before the Burnley game. Many people felt that if the march had taken place we wouldn’t have then had people on the pitch and a major protest inside the ground – both of which may yet still have disastrous consequences for the club. How do you feel about the idea of life bans for the protestors?
MW: I have to be careful what I say because there is still a legal case but I think blanket life bans don’t help relations. Each has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. In no way do I, or WHUISA, condone illegal behavior such as throwing missiles. But some of the people banned are WHUISA members and we will work with them and support them if it’s appropriate.
BW: After the Burnley game, you were invited to meet David Sullivan and his son Jack to discuss the growing rift between the owners and the fans. What can you tell us about that meeting?
MW: David reached out to us. We were happy to meet him because we had struggled to get meetings with the club on various issues, most recently ticketing. There were a hundred and one things the committee wanted to say but it’s not our association and that’s why we got the members to decide the questions. I was full of anger – about giving up Upton Park, about Stratford, about the team. But I want a constant dialogue between the club and WHUISA and needed to make sure that this was the first chapter rather than a one-off. The meeting took place at his home and he was frank. We made it clear that we would report everything that was said and that members would still meet before the Southampton game to discuss the way forward.
BW: Apart from the off-the-pitch problems, did you touch on footballing matters at all? We can all see the team needs to be improved in just about every area. Has Mr Sullivan got a plan to deal with that?
MW: The strategy is that a director of football will arrive to become a middle-man between the board and the manager. This process has begun, but will depend on where we finish this season. There will also be a greater scouting network. My concern is anyone with the latest game of FIFA knows where the best players are: it’s how big your chequebook is, not how big your scouting network is. Ultimately, the frustration the majority of fans feel is down to the lack of investment in the squad. It will be hard for David Sullivan to put that right without acquiring additional funding.
BW: It’s pretty clear that there’s no love lost between London Mayor Sadiq Khan and West Ham United. Is that a major factor in our present troubles, or simply a way for the owners to pass the buck?
MW: The deal was signed by a Tory Mayor and we now have a Labour one. The stadium is a burden on the taxpayer as it was never designed to be used as it is now. Unless the stadium is sold to West Ham, and it would be a brave politician to do that given the level of public money invested, it will remain a political issue. As fans, we can’t take a position on our own ideological grounds. West Ham may end up paying more rent but that shouldn’t come without concessions to make the ground more like a home. We have to be pragmatic and not get drawn into the political rhetoric. As a fan base we are a massive stakeholder in the future of the stadium and through the club we need to have a strong voice in this debate. Personally, I think David Sullivan should have a bigger role in this area as there is now too much bad blood around Karren Brady.
BW: I’ve seen allegations that you are some kind of stooge for Mr Khan. Is that true?
MW: Ha ha! I worked hard like many other Labour Party members to get Sadiq elected and I’m very proud to have him as the Mayor of London. But the fact is my sons’ names are on a brick outside the London Stadium, not City Hall.
BW: It’s been reported that a disabled supporter was asked to move before the Southampton game so protective barriers could be put up in front of the directors’ box. Is that the sort of thing you take up with the club?
MW: Of course – and we did. We were happy to help get the supporter in question a good outcome for the rest of the season. That’s exactly what WHUISA is for.
BW: What else does WHUISA do?
MW: We want to be a critical friend to the club. To have open and constant dialogue so we can best represent our members. We have no agenda as our wishes change all the time. It might be the Champions Place Stones one day or the away allocation at Arsenal the next – it’s whatever our members deem to be the priority. And, because we are affiliated to the FSF, we are able to sit down with whomever we need to sit down with to do the best for supporters of our great football club.
BW: If anyone wants to join, what do they have to do – and what do they get as a member?
MW: Membership is just £1 and if you join now it will be valid until the end of next season. You can join for a suggested donation of £3 and get a badge (both available at whuisa.org/join). You get a vote on everything and anyone who has six weeks’ membership can stand for election to the committee. A pound isn’t a lot but it’s symbolic, we’re not a forum or a Facebook page. We want to engage and make things better for supporters.
BW: Finally, the 64,000-dollar question: where does the club go from here?
MW: Dagenham? Failing that we need to regroup over the summer and work out what we all agree needs to change and if that is deliverable. WHUISA will be lobbying hard for the introduction of a fan on the board, plus whatever else our members deem to be the priority. We don’t just want to be a protest movement, we want to be there to complain about the price of tea and the difficulties of being an away supporter at Newcastle in calmer times.
Brian Williams is the author of the best-selling Nearly Reach The Sky. His new book, Home From Home is out now.