Published on January 13th, 2017 | by Bill

Irons out: West Ham fans should ditch the #AMF Arena and form a breakaway club.

50 minutes into the West Ham v Man City FA Cup tie at football’s Sea World aka the London Stadium and a video is shared on social media of not so happy-clappy Irons fans apparently queuing for the exits.

United are 4-0 down after an unmarked Sergio Aguero prods past floundering West Ham stopper Adrian with the Argentinian considering an Italia ’90 style running track celebration but abandoning it for fear of exhaustion on the long walk back.

The supporters with some grasp of the bigger picture who choose to grin and bear the whole of the eventual 5-0 defeat are left to ruminate on the ills of corporate sport in what may as well be known as the Against Modern Football Arena. It oozes through their pores, echoes around their minds like the dull chanting and sticks sickly sweet between their teeth like the popcorn the ground dispenses.

The writing was on the wall for West Ham fans before the contrived ‘on brand’ motifs reached the sign makers for the Olympic Stadium conversion. The Hammers’ heralding of ‘Club London, the capital’s newest and most luxurious members club’ should have been enough to send Bow alarm bells ringing as a description for anything to do with a football club. That’s without Vice-Chairman Karren brand-centric Brady boasting about having ‘pored over every detail of each space from floor to ceiling personally selecting each fixture and fitting’ like the new stadium was a luxury hotel rather than somewhere to watch a bit of sport with your mates.

Indeed, going back further to the Football Association’s 1991 ‘Blueprint For the Future of Football’ you can see the London Stadium as the synthesis of football elite’s desire to target the ‘affluent middle class consumer’. Except in 2017, away from the multiple corporate lounges, the lower middle classes are the ‘squeezed middle’ and the working class the ‘working poor’ meaning Utd, for now, offer a percentage of cut price tickets to keep the new ground full.

Meanwhile, on a popular West Ham web forum, the thread ‘FC West Ham Utd of East London’ stretches to eleven pages and counting. Some will be reading it on the arduous journey home and flicking through pictures of the demolition of the Boleyn Ground, a lovely stadium, with TLC more than up to the job. The subject of the thread? A fan-owned breakaway club in the style of FC United of Manchester which cut the cord from the Glazer owned entity at Old Trafford in 2005.

Now, even the discussion of such a protest club is a big deal to West Ham fans who guard the club’s identity fiercely and have for generations. Yet, more and more are coming round to the thinking that the real West Ham is being torn apart by the excavator buckets at the ruined Boleyn.

In its place, a generic East London franchise outfit akin to one of Pro Evolution Soccer’s unlicensed teams which looks the part from a distance but lacks authenticity close up. A football club as a destination like the nearby Westfield shopping centre rather than being anchored in a community. A sporting theme park.

Baroness Brady, has played her part, having seemingly swallowed a 1990’s Saatchi and Saatchi in-house jargon style guide and gloating of the club ‘resting in the foothills of the financial sector and being ‘ranked 15th’ in terms of brand values’ like that means anything. That’s the Saatchi and Saatchi who are named contributors to that F.A Blueprint by the way.

‘More and more likely by the week’ said one poster on the idea of a breakaway club, ‘inevitable’ wrote another, echoing the feeling that West Ham United London is so far removed from the Upton Park outfit as to be a lost cause for some longstanding supporters. Similarly there are question-marks whether the London Stadium, as a modified Olympic bowl, will ever be a venue that delivers the immediacy, atmosphere and visceral thrills that makes football a tribal spectator sport: an opera house with its orchestra out in the car-park.

Whether West Ham will ever be able to ‘compete’ with the Premier League ‘big 6’ is further open to question, likewise whether it is even worth the further gentrification that comes with it.

The message for West Ham fans mulling over a protest club then should be why wait? You only need to look at Coventry City whose fans have held off on going it alone. The result: years of misery under hedge fund owners SISU while hoping for some magical transformation when a fan-owned breakaway club could have been back in the Football League by now. Coventry too sold a historic ground for an isolated new-build monster arena and look where renting that has got them.

Of course people will look at FC United of Manchester as an example of what can be achieved by a do-it-yourself approach and so they should with the club doing remarkably well on gates topping three thousand despite normal teething problems with their evolution.

However, HFC Falke, the breakaway club of HSV Hamburg in Germany are a significant example, going from strength to strength since a group of their supporters decided to detach themselves following HSV’s decision to form its football arm into a private company and other commercialised measures.

The Falke fans sourced a beautiful non-league stadium in the city, charge £2.00 for entry, £1.50 for a beer, stand through the matches and are finding a reconnection to the club whose business bosses luxuriate at the Volkparkstadion, the ground with the same capacity as the London Stadium.

HFC Falke stagger their games meaning that it is possible to go and see the ‘big club’ too on the same day. They are not asking fans to choose one or the other, just showing another way to do football as they rise through the German lower leagues. Indeed, West Ham fan Cass Pennant has been over to check out HFC Falke while others old-school Irons have been looking to non-league clubs around London for a more authentic experience.

Funnily enough, at fan-owned HFC Falke, the players pay a membership fee in a similar way West Ham founding side Thames Ironworks FC’s players did in the late 19th Century. Except now, the original half crown Ironworks playing fee has been built into a cross hammers collage in a West Ham ‘private dining club’ while Utd also peddle a £55 Thames Ironworks inspired replica shirt.

In many ways, football clubs exist in the hearts of supporters, the people that weathered the terraces, ruffled the programmes, cut grooves into ticket office counters and pissed their wages up the toilet walls. In this light the last flickering embers of the old West Ham might be carefully moved and the fire reignited back in the manor.  Prominent fans groups will have to unite and find a ground as close to Upton Park as possible. The Old Spotted Dog Ground, less than a mile from the Boleyn has been mentioned although fans of Clapton, the club that plays there might not be so keen. Pull in a couple of thousand however and West Ham’s rebels would have themselves a viable Football League club and what a ride that would be compared to the soul destroying perpetual chase of the big 6.

Supporters Direct would be on hand to talk fans through the red-tape of such an exercise: the only fear being fear itself.

Some say that this is the future of football with Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Spurs in a league of their own in mega-stadiums, with fans of each forming their own breakaway clubs, tired of being a number. West Ham are just going through the transformation quicker. With the team not being up to much and the problematic stadium, they are unhindered by the pesky football side of things, recycling the core fan-base on the way to becoming a shelf recognised brand like JVC, Puma or maybe Domestos considering the toilet they are producing on the pitch right now.

So that leads us back to those West Ham fans who feel like outsiders in their own club, drowning in opulence and trying ever so hard to enjoy the new ground like being in a tacky Monaco nightclub and knowing they’d have a better time in the local boozer.

Thames Ironworks is a name being mooted for any potential breakaway club, indicating a desire to wrest the history of West Ham away from those that have created a future ‘product’ that bears little resemblance to its past.

Yet the moniker is not as important as the act of cutting loose. A cheerio to Brady, Sullivan and Gold who saved a club waving not drowning and a message that supporters won’t sit by in accepting a misjudged commercial decision to uproot a club from its community.

This piece was written, for STAND by Tom Reed

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