By Tony Attwood
I have oft made the point that newspapers follow each other. One club is a great historic family unit that everyone loves, and nothing that happens there can change this. Another is a stumbling, rumbling disaster of incompetence, and it only takes one hiccup for the old stories to be rolled out.
All in the media agree, this approaches becomes habit, reinforced because each paper, TV and radio station. The message never changes.
West Ham were for years the darlings of the media – the final remnant of the old East End cockney image where happy old men and women dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens and stood on the terraces eating whelks and cockles.
For me, as a visiting supporter, it was a horrible cramped place where violence felt as if it were always only a few steps away, and taking a car to the vicinity was certainly not an option.
So when the Olympic Stadium came WHU’s way the press were reluctant to criticise the club for being in receipt of vast sums of tax payers money and indeed the papers never seemed to want to link the move of WHU into its new home with how it cost the people of the UK.
But they have become aware of the continuing criticism of the deal brought by a number of blogs – of which of course this is one. They even noted David Sullivan being a violence denier at the Man U game, and then blaming the late arrival of the Man U team for street violence before the match. Normally it would not have got a mention.
Building on this the continuing problems at the preposterously named London Stadium has made the media refresh its views and now we see the BBC even picking up on the story that “West Ham United have been accused by the chairman of their women’s team of breaking Football Association rules on discrimination.” Before the move, it would never have made the news at all.
West Ham have at least in part been to blame for their own fall from grace as far as the fawning media is concerned, as shown by the Telegraph’s headline, “West Ham owner David Sullivan tries to pass off repeated trouble at the Olympic Stadium as ‘sensationalism'”. You can’t keep the media on your side if you are going to criticise their interpretation of reality, that is rule one.
Any organisation can take on the media, and the media will either ignore the organisation or put it down. But you can’t take them on and expect them to continue their past mythologising about what a wonderful true-British heart-of-oak, jolly cockney tradition it is.
And this has been West Ham’s biggest mistake.
For years the press have willingly turned a blind eye to the past antics of directors of the club, be they involved in pornography or (in the case of chairman Björgólfur Guðmundsson) getting themselves a one year prison sentence. All this was rarely mentioned as the happy chirpy east ender image was constantly rammed down our throats.
But now as a result of getting their PR right, and appearing too crowing (as with Karren Brady’s comment that “The move has been a complete success on every level … Be in no doubt, we are part of the most successful stadium migration in history,”) the media has turned. They would ignore the fact that the taxpayer paid for a private profit making venture part run by an ex-pornographer. But when they started boasting about how clever they were at the same time… no that was a step to far.
So now we get, “Latest incidents come after 10 fans ejected during Watford game” and, “The ugly scenes follow previous incidents of disorder at West Ham’s new ground.” And “Supporters have complained about stewarding and segregation, and chanted “we should have stayed at the Boleyn” during Saturday’s match.”
What WHU really needed was for the myth of the chirpy east end cockney with his funny ways and incomprehensible lingo to be continued. But in the space of a month the directors set aside that incredibly useful media invention, without realising the simple truth: what the media can invent it can take away.
What WHU needed was for no one to make any comments about the big gap between the seats and the pitch where the running track is. What they didn’t need was for their Tweets to start calling their fans “customers”. What they most certainly didn’t need was for reality to poke its nasty little head through the fantasy world so cleverly maintained for so many years.
For as history shows, when the media turn, they can get nasty. So even complaints about not being able to get into the ground for a league cup match against a League Two side (which would never ever have been mentioned at the old ground where getting into the ground could be a nightmare) now make the news.
Then WHU made a dodgy situation far worse. For the next day the club denied any “extraordinary issues” and instead continued crowing. Try this: “A West Ham United spokesman told The Sun: “Last night’s match at London Stadium was the most watched game in the first round of the EFL Trophy.
“Due to a high number of last minute collections and over 1,000 sales in the hour before kick off, there was congestion at the ticket office ahead of tonight’s game. There were no extraordinary issues with the ticketing system and every query was routine. The queues were cleared completely shortly after kick off.”
This sort of statement is a huge error of judgement. The “no problem” response led the Sun to dig up all of the older stories. Starting with, “Home fans clashed with the visiting Bournemouth contingent last month after the first league match at their new home. And that was followed by distressing scenes in their last home game against Watford as sections of the home fans fought amongst themselves…And just earlier this week the London Stadium came under criticism from West Ham legend Billy Bonds.”
So it goes – once the media turn on a club, they will pick on anything and everything. So we now get, “The dugouts are a penalty-area’s length away from the pitch. The West Ham manager needs a mobile phone to consult with his assistants as he prowls the line.” Just as the happy chirpy cockney chappie and his missus was a complete fabrication, so is what will come now. All that has changed is that before it was all geared up to make WHU look good. Now it is set to make the owners look like turgid greedy bastards who would push your grannie down the stairs if they thought it would make them a quick buck.
And so in a flash back moment we got, “Can the East End earthiness, the homeliness, the humour – and, even, the threat – be conjured up in this soulless place?”
Of course if you have not spent much time in the East End of London you won’t quite get why I choked on that one. But it is a perfect reflection of how the mystique of WHU was built up over the years in which no matter what they did on the pitch or what a few of their fans did in the streets around the ground, nothing could ever be said against them. Every relegation was a sad day for football. Beating Arsenal in the Cup Final was an absolute triumph for the perfect underdog against the unfeeling aristocrats. Players from 50 years ago were gods, utter and absolute gods, no matter what dodgy deals they got up to in later life.
But now almost every article notes that WHU “pay £2.5m in annual rent, the club are not obliged to cover the costs of police, stewarding, heating, pitch maintenance or even corner flags.”
If the old image of WHU had continued we would not now have the Guardian saying, “Some seats are an eye-straining distance from the pitch and other, lower, sections of retractable seating offer very little perspective on the play. Indeed such is the view for many in the ground that it took more than one replay of Dimitri Payet’s rabona assist before they actually saw it….The managers’ technical areas, meanwhile, are about the size of a five-a-side pitch.”
Given the tiny amount of accurate reporting of what fans actually say and do it was interesting how much attention is now paid to supporters at the London Stadium. This again from the Observer:
“Stand up if you love West Ham,” chanted some fans; “Where were you at Upton Park?” sang others, as frustration with a dream seemingly turning sour before their eyes became ugly.
Some current and former stewards, with decades of experience at Upton Park between them, and who spoken to the Observer last week, have variously described the situation as a scandal and an accident waiting to happen.
That paper has actually talked about “the entire rationale for the move is in danger of being undermined.”
Interestingly, in the course of all this while the club seems keen to blame a few fans (or the driver of the Man U bus) the press are busy dealing with issues they wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole: “…it cannot be denied that the fractious relationship between the stadium operators (and the London Legacy Development Corporation/Newham “special purpose vehicle” that sits above them) has contributed to the current situation.
“Tensions that built throughout negotiations over the tenancy agreement, which resulted in West Ham paying £2.5m a year for the stadium, have led to a far from straightforward working relationship. West Ham seem aggrieved that they were not consulted more fully about how their new home would be run.”
Did we mention it just costs them £2.5m a year? Maybe not. Let’s say it again.
Some of the complaints get a bit detailed, but it is amazing just how far the press will go when they start turning the screw. “One of the biggest mysteries of the game of blame and counter–blame played out over the past week is the case of the incredible reappearing family section. Under Premier League rules, clubs are required to have an official family section. West Ham say that two blocks in the Bobby Moore Upper that house season ticket holders moved from the family area in Upton Park fulfil that criteria.
“But many fans who have contacted the Observer say they specifically asked if there was a family section and were told there was not.”
WHU’s PR machine is by and large now a walking disaster, petrified to say anything but endlessly trying to pick up the mess spread by the cohort of owners. While everyone at Arsenal would hold their breath when dear old Peter Hill-Wood got up to make an off the cuff pronouncement (not his strong suit towards the end of his tenure at Arsenal) so the newspaper hounds now perk up their ears when anyone associated with WHU speaks. One fan who accused Mr Gold of selling the club’s soul was told by the director to “pull yourself together” and go for a “lie down”. At least Mr Hill-Wood’s occasional PR blunders amounted to little more than calling the people who voted against the board at the AGM “the usual suspects”.
The point is Mr Hill-Wood rarely made it personal, and that is the huge PR error that has been made at West Ham and that is why those of us who follow the way the media reacts to news are so fascinated. At WHU it is very personal, and the owners and their chums just don’t seem to be able to stop. Another day another gaff, day after day after day. They just can’t believe that they have lot the media as their personal PR division.
Thus all the way through more and more PR blunders happen. The clubs’ directors desire to save every single penny, even though the tax payer has paid for their stadium was revealed when the Met Police replied to the club’s demand for a police presence at the stadium by claiming the lack of a “satisfactory radio system” at the venue prevents them from implementing a special service on match days.
It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. It doesn’t matter what happens subsequently. It is the initial perception that sticks, and we have just seen, in the space of a couple of months, a club that was forever the darling of the myth makers, be turned into the cold hearted money grabbing bastards. All we need now is for someone in the media to mention that it was tax payers’ money.
In essence the directors believed their own propaganda. They have had it their own way for so many years, they just couldn’t believe that Brand WHU could turn toxic overnight. Hence Karren Brady could say
The move has been a complete success on every level … Be in no doubt, we are part of the most successful stadium migration in history.