We stand on a threshold. Whether you like it or not West Ham United is changing. The financial appeal of a London club that is so well supported for one with such a relatively small amount of success is undisputable. I have to believe that our owners are acting in reasonable faith. They are ultimately business folk, but with far more connection to their (our) club than the majority of the increasingly faceless dictatorial types that govern many of the great pillars of our football leagues. Before you condemn them, take a look around you at the farcical affairs at Portsmouth, Hull, Cardiff and Newcastle to name but a few. Are you really prepared to risk severing this club entirely from its past for the possible ‘golden ticket’ of a Sheik or Sultan’s billions? As we creep towards a seemingly inevitable dissolving of many clubs roots, history and soul in favour of the corporate global-friendly branding that is ever-more prevalent in the modern game you have to ask yourself one question:
Why am I here?
Amongst 55,000 paying punters with opinions, it all boils down to two sides of one fence. As much as it pains me to say it, you’re either looking forwards or you’re looking back. Football is a perpetually rising empire and all empires must eventually fall. In the mean time Messrs Gold and Sullivan (and of course Lady Brady) seem to me to merely be doing what is not just necessary but essential to retain our place in the top echelon of the much celebrated English pyramid, until such a time that it self-implodes and returns to a more even playing field away from the current culture of the have-nots and the have-lots.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate it. It’s not even close to what I emotionally signed up for back on the 5th of September 1987. I was 8 years old, very impressionable and attending my first ever game with my neutral Glaswegian father. All conquering Liverpool should have won my allegiance that day, as they had already done to a number of my Hertfordshire schoolyard mates. It’s so easy to back a winner. Though that great Irons team would prove to be amongst the very best in our history I had no idea at the time. It was the performance of pluck and luck that earned us a one-all draw against a far superior side that spoke out loud to me. I didn’t have the knowledge to make an informed decision. My gut just picked a club that had a thumping heart, a vociferous and unrelenting support and an uncanny ability to ride its luck.
Back to the two sides of that fence: As footballs marketing juggernaut scoops up new fans, so some of them fall our way. I don’t think its a generational thing, but merely what parts of the wider game made you want to embrace it in the first place. There are those who got drawn in by Sky TVs somewhat generic yet friendly-to-the-masses hype of the Premier League. The same ones who like the approachability of an iconic new stadium, easier (though far from perfect) transport connections and somewhere lower down the list a hopeful yet often optimistic ethos of playing attractive, if somewhat unsuccessful style of football.
And then there are those that just fell in love with the raw passion of the old terrace, the raw language that you’d never knew existed and the raw hot dogs that were being served at peak match-day rush hour on green street. Those who can turn to memories of Stuart Slater’s near post miracle for comfort in dark times. Those who can heal the pain of our everlasting goalkeeper issues with a quick reminiscence of Ludo’s wall against Manchester United. Those that find solace in the knowledge that for all the awful Kieron Dyer’s, Benny McCarthy’s, Mido’s and and Boa Morte’s there was always one amongst them called Paulo Di Canio.
This is a club that has been built on moments of greatness not consistent success. Though every owner that passes through the boardroom will understandably seek it, sustained glory is not what the foundations of this great club are made of. Since the laughable Icelandic revolution there have been mutterings of top four and Champions League. These statements and the fans that have fallen for them have made the club the butt of plenty of jokes in recent years and they simply don’t tally with the level of investment and standard of player we have operated with up to this point. As we increase our wages and transfer pot so to do the likes of Southampton, West Brom, Stoke and Everton. And while this happens the clubs considered to be the absolute elite, seemingly entitled to a top six finish continue to stretch further ahead in these markets, operating on a whole different plane entirely. This pursuit and expectation of such achievement is eating away at the far more realistic values that I always perceived as the very core of this unique club.
I attempted to explain my philosophy of supporting West Ham to a Chelsea following friend of mine not so long ago and he just didn’t get it. I tried to explain how I live my football season for the individual results. How I could finish a season satisfied with relegation avoided and a win at White Hart Lane. How a Carlos Tevez winner at Old Trafford can produce a moment more glorious and celebrated than yet another almost routine Mourinho lead title at Stamford Bridge. How all these gallant repeated failures to improve always bring us back round to square one but with great memories to treasure for our trouble. How the now countless relegations I have endured just make those special moments taste all the sweeter. How I can still say after all these years that one FA cup win will see me go happy to my grave. How a 3-1 win over Benitez’s Chelsea could feel so good just because our goalscorers that day were the nationally (and locally) maligned Diame, Maiga and the ungifted but irrepressable workhorse that is Carlton Cole.
That season, like most, we finished as distinctly average. But I’ll never forget that game, nor the other years when mediocrity was fleetingly forgotten for one special match. Eric Dier patronisingly tweeted about our performance and win that effectively denied Spurs any hope of the title this year as being our “biggest game of the season”. You bet it was Eric! And I’ll take another glorious failure, silver-lined with the odd hard-hitting result any day of the week over yet another season of just not quite being good enough for it to truly count at the business end of the league table.
So why ARE you here?
You’re here because there is always that hope that this year we’ll actually do something special. You’re here because this club needs you to remind these newcomers what supporting West Ham actually entails. You’re here because you’ve sat through enough abject afternoons to have deserved your moment. You’re here because you know that this success isn’t just going to be bought, it’s going to be earned. Above all you’re here because even constant shattered dreams are infinitely better than being at Tottenham.