By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Six games, five defeats, 16 goals conceded – not quite the start to the season West Ham fans had in mind, especially given last term’s impressive seventh-place finish. After leaving their beloved Boleyn Ground in order to become tenants at the Olympic Stadium in a controversial move, the Hammers are finding tougher than expected to adapt to their new surroundings. So is it just a case of being a little homesick or are there deeper underlying issues to West Ham’s poor start?
Any club that moves to a new stadium finds the bedding-in process challenging. However, this is exacerbated with clubs whose stadiums were tight to the pitch. Remember how Arsenal struggled at first at The Emirates in 2006? Their old Highbury ground was almost on top of the turf compared to their new home. Similarly, Southampton struggled to adapt to St Mary’s relative spacious stadium compared to the pokey but wonderfully characterful Dell. They consequently got relegated and dropped down to the third tier of English football before returning to the Premier League in 2012.
The issue for West Ham is for both supporters and players. The squad are naturally getting used to playing in a new stadium with new pitch dimensions and with a running track in between the pitch and the fans. Furthermore, supporters are familiarising themselves with their surroundings – where do the hardcore fans congregate, and where are the more family-friendly areas etc. The result is a diluted atmosphere which opposition players have capitalised on. The Boleyn ground was an intimidating prospect for any away team (and sometimes the home team) whereas now, visiting sides are exploiting the uncertainty on the pitch and in the stands.
Indeed, there have been reports of fighting amongst Hammers fans and I get the impression that, whilst the move to the Olympic Stadium makes sense financially, it is not popular with a lot of supporters. The point is that, whilst the move might swell the coffers of the owners and the club, does it really benefit the lifeblood of the club – the fans? As Manchester United have shown recently, a healthy balance sheet off the pitch does not necessarily translate into success on it. I have met some ex-Hammers fans that were so disillusioned with the commercialism of the club and that they have started going to local non-league Clapton FC instead. So what are The Irons’ owners (David Gold & David Sullivan) prioritising? Profit or results?
Yet, if West Ham can ride out this current run of poor form and establish themselves at their new home, the future looks very rosy. The club can maximise profits which will in turn make more money available to purchase better players which should see the Hammers challenging for more honours. If Gold and Sullivan are true to their word and re-invest money in improving the squad, this can only be positive.
Speaking of which, the players must take some responsibility for recent results. Dimitri Payet is yet to sparkle as he did last season, possibly as a result of his exertions at Euro 2016 and the defence has been woeful. I also think West Ham overachieved in reaching Europe last season with Payet, Mark Noble and Adrian all performing brilliantly. After a seventh-place finish in 2015/16, expectations were high that The Irons could kick on to even better things so to be languishing in the relegation zone is a bitter pill to swallow.
So what are the answers to West Ham’s current travails? Firstly, key players such as Aaron Creswell (who deserved to be at the Euros with England) and Diafra Sakho are injured or unfit. Secondly, their new signings have not gelled. Alvaro Arbeloa is struggling to defend – something he had to do little of whilst at Real Madrid, Sofiane Feghouli has been anonymous, Simone Zaza has been useless and their most expensive signing, Andre Ayew has been injured.
I have no doubt that the Hammers will be in the Premier League next season as they have too much quality in their side to be relegated (we’ve all heard that one before). However, everyone at the club, board members, players, management and fans alike need to be pulling in the same direction to achieve this. At the moment West Ham are a divided club and this is showing in the performances on the pitch. Until this is rectified, the lower echelons of the table will be their home for the foreseeable future.