West Ham United’s move to the London Stadium (the stadium that hosted the ceremonies and the athletics at the 2012 Olympics) has not exactly started well. Until they won successive home games this week against Sunderland and Chelsea the club had struggled to make the stadium feel like home. Now they are not the first club nor will they be last to struggle at a new home – Southampton when they moved to St Mary’s in 2001 being a classic example – but there is something more sinister here.
In most of West Ham’s home games since the move to the London Stadium there has been crowd trouble – even against the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and Middlesborough which are not usually fixtures that are associated with crowd trouble. So when West Ham were drawn against London rivals Chelsea in the EFL (League) Cup fourth round it was feared that there would be crowd trouble. The fears were justified.
Seats, coins and bottles were thrown during ugly clashes between West Ham and Chelsea fans on Wednesday. One Chelsea fan had blood pouring from his head after allegedly getting hit by a coin while eight year old children were among those who were struck. There was also a leaflet distributed before the game about Chelsea player John Terry which encouraged homophobic chants. All in all it was as if we had hurtled back 40 years in time to the 1970s when this nonsense was common.
To no one’s surprise an investigation has been launched (it’s what we Brits do best!). Also typically SIX different organisations – West Ham, Chelsea, the Football League (FL), the Football Association (FA), the Metropolitan Police and the stadium operators -are joining in this enquiry. And also typically two Conservative MPs – Mark Field and Damian Collins – have chipped in saying that if the bad behaviour continues West Ham should be made to play home games behind closed doors if bad behaviour continues. But they are wrong.
First of all why close the ground when it is clear that the pond life that is causing this nonsense is a tiny minority of West Ham fans? Then factor in the fact that the fans of whatever team West Ham might be playing in any future behind closed door games are innocent. They haven’t taken part in any trouble why should they be punished? Remember UEFA did that to innocent Manchester City fans in the 2014-15 Champions League while punishing CSKA Moscow for racist behaviour. Punishing innocent fans is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is unnecessary.
I’ve got two solutions. One uncontroversial one controversial. Try punishing the guilty not the innocent. There is CCTV at the London Stadium as there is at other grounds. The authorities should identify the cretins who misbehaved on Wednesday and ban them from every ground in the UK for life. No if not buts no second chances. If the law does not allow that the Government should change it. If Field and Collins want to do something useful they can pressurise the Government to make this change if the law does not allow life bans.
My second plan won’t be popular. Because the London Stadium has a capacity of 60,010 far more than their old ground Upton Park (35,016) West Ham cut their ticket prices. Now that makes sense – except I reckon it is the cutting of prices that has caused the hooliganism. Popular opinion thinks that the behaviour of fans has improved since the bad old days of the 1970s and 80s. But I don’t. I suspect that the hooligans were always there -it is just that the move to all seater stadiums and the rise in prices that caused priced the hooligans out of the game and now that prices at West Ham have gone down the yobs have returned. To back me up I don’t recall trouble inside Upton Park last season (the Manchester United team bus was pelted with bottles and coins at West Ham’s last ever game at Upton Park but that was outside the ground). Maybe it is a coincidence that trouble at West Ham has gone up when prices have gone down but it is an awfully big coincidence.
That doesn’t mean prices should go up for everybody. We know it is young men who mainly cause trouble at football matches. So keep cheap admission prices for children, families and pensioners. But prices for adults going on their own and for groups of young men should go up. It would be unfair and in the ideal world should not need to happen. But until men learn to behave themselves at football that is a price they will have to pay. Sure West Ham might not fill their stadium if they do that. But if they don’t and trouble continues at the London Stadium the football authorities might – despite my opinion – force West Ham to play in front of no fans at all. And that will be far far worse for them….