West Ham was supposed to have hit the jackpot with its relocation to the Olympic Stadium.
Getting the keys to a 60,000-seater arena in a deal largely funded by the British taxpayer opened up new horizons for the Premier League club. Here was an opportunity to increase its match-day capacity, spread its name and global appeal, and attract both new investors and top players to its new home that was the centerpiece of the London Olympics in 2012.
The dream move, however, isn’t going according to plan — and it’s not just down to the poor results on the field in domestic and European competition.
Off the pitch, West Ham’s image has taken a hit because of crowd trouble that has marred the team’s games at its new home, notably on Saturday in the Premier League match against Watford.
West Ham supporters fought among themselves and clashed with stewards and opposition fans in ugly scenes that saw 10 people ejected from the stadium. Eyewitnesses said children were in tears as they saw fans fighting near them, and some parents called radio phone-ins to say they were contemplating not returning to the stadium until they had guarantees there would be no more violence.
One of the issues is that some fans are unhappy at not being able to stand while watching the games in the all-seater ground, like they could at Upton Park — West Ham’s home stadium for 112 years that it vacated at the end of last season. These fans are said to be unhappy at stewards telling them to sit down.
There are also segregation problems, with tensions apparently raised because hard-core fans have been mixed with new supporters or visitors attracted to West Ham matches because of cheaper and more available tickets. There are question marks, too, over the quality and levels of stewarding between the stands separating the two sets of fans.
West Ham undertook an investigation into the crowd problems, saying on Monday it has taken action “including the relocation of young children and families from areas where the fans are more vociferous, and the issuing of season-long bans for supporters engaging in anti-social behavior.” It also said it intends to congregate “like-minded” fans in areas.
The club, which doesn’t control the security in the Olympic Stadium, also requested that the stadium’s owners, E20, guarantee a police presence at future matches. That request was rejected on Tuesday, with London police saying there wasn’t a “satisfactory radio system” for officers to use in the ground. Police said this issue was highlighted in 2014 but that a system has not been installed.
There were reports of minor trouble at West Ham’s previous two home games — against Bournemouth in the Premier League and Astra Giurgiu in Europa League qualifying.
West Ham lost 1-0 to Astra Giurgiu, and therefore failed to advance to the Europa League group stage, and also lost 4-2 to Watford after going two goals ahead. Frustration at the team’s performances — West Ham has lost three of its four league games so far — unfamiliarity with the new stadium, and perhaps a yearning for the old days at atmospheric Upton Park could also be behind the discontent.
West Ham was known for having an organized group of hostile supporters called the “Inter City Firm,” active mostly in the 1970s and ’80s and at away games. The movie “Green Street,” released in 2005, was based on the group. Behavior among West Ham fans significantly improved in recent years, although there has been isolated incidents, including at the club’s last game at Upton Park in May when the Manchester United team bus was attacked.
There were no arrests after the Watford game, according to West Ham, but there’s a concern about the more high-risk home games coming up this season, like for example against London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham, and also Manchester United on Jan. 2.