Discord at Upton Park as fans plan boycott

Posted by Peter Thorne

Warren Little/Getty ImagesWest Ham supporters aren't happy with a hastily pulled advertising campaign that touted Manchester City's stars as a reason to buy high-priced tickets. There is now a social media push to boycott concessions at Upton Park.

I find it's usually a good idea to dip into my fellow ESPN FC colleagues' club blogs from time to time, just to gather how they think things are going generally and to try and see things from another's point of view. I guess it was fairly predictable that the Manchester City blog would be glowing in its praise of the team's 3-1 victory over West Ham at Upton Park last weekend.

Of more interest though was the way City correspondent David Mooney was able to do a follow-up piece later, describing how the City team was developing after a shaky start, how the influence of some players bought into the mix was starting to dictate the style of play and the prospects for the season, and how Manuel Pellegrini's tactics were starting to take shape. It was an encouraging read and it was difficult not to feel some envy for the writer.

Back here at the West Ham blog, I notice the ESPN news almost seems to echo the stasis felt on the terraces among fans. If I was to able to have a shiny English pound coin for every news story discussing how Andy Carroll's ankle is/is not progressing with the usual rent-a-quote about how Andy is "frustrated at how things have panned out this season" but "how happy he is with the progress made with his doctor's help" then me and the Good Lady Blagg might be viewing a Christmas on a hot beach somewhere rather than the daunting prospect of the annual squabble with the in-law's.

The fact is, though, is that the Hammers' season rests almost entirely on the broad shoulders and dynamic head of the genial Geordie and, until someone is able to pump the type of money seen flowing into the coffers of Manchester City into the bank account of east London's finest, that is not likely to change.

Of course, a little more thought about a Plan B would have been appreciated in the close season and the sight of two wingers flying - quite successfully too, it should be said -- down the City flanks last Saturday only to find there was no one in the middle for an even half-decent cross, does create more than a fair bit of frustration.

Manager Sam Allardyce is right to insist that West Ham supporters recognise the respective level of skills of the squads that matched up last weekend and, by and large, I felt most fans were appreciative of both the efforts put in by their team as well as the undoubted talent of their opponents; Upton Park has long been a ground where good football is welcomed and appreciated.

However, this relatively good nature sits on a knife-edge, and when the moribund sense of frustration starts to spill over -- as it inevitably does -- it's not helped by the people who run the club completely screwing up their public relations offensive.

Before the City game. a lot of fans were angry at the club's rather cack-handed attempts to shift expensive Category 1 game tickets for a match that was going to be shown live on TV later on the Saturday evening; one that would inevitably hit the crowd attendance in the ground.

E-mails and mail-shots exhorting supporters to shell out the best part of 50 pounds to see 'City's superstars' really didn't go down well; the feeling being that people are going to see how their own team copes with the opposition -- good as it may be -- and the entertainment it will hopefully provide (or not!) rather than sit open-mouthed in appreciation at the visitors. Tribalism dictates that no West Ham supporter was at Upton Park on Saturday to see the scintillating skills of Sergio Aguero. The club, realising its mistake, quickly withdrew the advert.

But then, faced with having a huge bank of empty seats in view of the cameras, the club had the idea of going out into the local community and selling tickets at £5 per head to try and fill them up. The resulting mess has caused quite a storm that has seriously harmed West Ham's always-fragile image.

Because the club failed to realise that in this day and age there are few in the local community who have much affinity with the local side, it transpired that many of the 'fans' bused in were rather taken with the powerful squad of the opponents and decided to cheer them on. This understandably angered many who paid out the full sum either by matchday or season ticket.

Most supporters on the unofficial sites are understandably incensed by this crass move -- something, incidentally, chairman David Gold said would never happen when the club moves to Stratford -- and there is a general call on the social networking sites for a boycott of club merchandise at the next home game against Aston Villa, including match programmes and food and drink in the stadium grounds.

This issue though has become embroiled with another story involving Muslim supporters conducting prayers during half-time in the Trevor Brooking Stand. The fans were videoed by others on mobile phones and the images started popping up on websites later that same evening.

Sadly, some of the video footage is accompanied by disturbingly racist comments and what seems like an attempt to interrupt the prayer session with chanting, and inevitably this has been picked up in the press with the type of 'fans turn on their own' headline.

Annoyingly though, the argument over supporters anger at cut-price tickets being issued after they had paid out for their own full price one, has been commandeered in some areas of the media to imply that the issue is about the club inviting sections of the largely Muslim local community to the game as part of a initiative to forge closer links with local community groups.

Now, it would be foolish in the extreme to deny that some of the comments about the prayer sessions you can find on the web are extremely unpleasant and prejudiced, and even amongst the more liberal supporters there are a lot of well-intentioned but sadly misguided "I'm not a racist but . . . " type statements being made.

But at its heart this issue is not about Prayer Rooms or Faith Areas -- surely the sensible and most easily provided answer -- but rather the fact that the Board has sanctioned a move that has undermined the hard core of the club's fans; namely those who go to the game regardless of TV exposure and late Saturday evening kick-off.

Sadly, you can almost see this suggestion being mooted somewhere in the Board Room as a 'good idea' that would cement West Ham's strong links to its local community. It smacks of one of those ideas hit upon by an earnest man in a suit, someone better versed in the ways of a Journal than a football field.

But its failure is that it is the very same TV channel that caused those gaps in the stand that is relaying images from Spain and Italy and bringing Manchester, Liverpool, North and West London into the homes around Upton Park, thus ensuring that in a time when the Champions League is seen as the all defining level of success, the lure of a Saturday evening at the Boleyn is likely to remain minimal until it's accompanied by more success on the field.

It's not without irony that the club's 'Superstars' campaign may have been better targeted to the community it then gave £5 tickets to.

At it's heart though, this is about treating your regular supporters well, and not charging them top dollar on one hand and giving out tickets to others to save embarrassment on the other. As it stands, it is a major gaffe by the board and a kick in the teeth to loyal fans.

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