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West Ham meltdown? Why pitch invaders & fans groups can turn this thing around

COMMENT: More than any march. More than any stand-up protest. For desperate, despondent West Ham fans, the catalyst for change could well come from those four pitch invasions on Saturday.

The tension. The brawling. The sheer anger. It had been kept to the stands. Hidden away. Way, way... way from the pitch. But there was nothing wrong with London stadium, they argued. Nothing wrong with security. The seating. It was just typical West Ham fans. Typical football crowds. But then Saturday came. Then the pitch invasions occurred. Then it became serious.

Now we all could see. Players. Not security staff. Escorting these fans from the field. Players. Not security staff. Tackling them to the ground. In London. Beamed across the world. We all finally saw what local fans had put up with since the Boleyn Ground was shut. This was pathetic - and dangerous.

The buck stops with the board. With the two Davids (co-owners Sullivan and Gold) and Brady (vice-chairman Karren). Not because they're responsible for ground security, but because they've passed it over to outsiders. Given London's current global reputation for personal security, the idea that Sadiq Kahn, the local mayor and with no interest in West Ham or football, has a say in how the club manages it's stadium policing is ridiculous. Just as it is that a Premier League club has allowed itself to be in such a position. The Premier League is the most successful sporting competition on the planet. It has blazed it's own trail. Built and maintained it's own success. It is government departments that seek favours from them. Not vice-versa. West Ham should never leave it's future to an outsider, especially one so disinterested.

Sunday and through to Monday, there's been emergency meetings with representatives of the London stadium board. And there is talk of the penny finally having dropped for West Ham. Taking control of ground security. Embracing the responsibility of it. This has to be the way forward for the club.

In terms of matchday experience, the votes are in: London stadium is a disaster. Of course it is. This has been an unwanted cultural change for the West Ham fan. No major club in England has played it's football with a running track around the pitch. The beauty of the English game has always been it's fans and the stadia which has them sitting virtually on top of the players. What makes English football unique was cast aside when West Ham chose this move.

And the fan senses it. They feel it. At the Boleyn, their voice could be heard. By the players. In the dugout. They had an influence. But not at Stratford. It's already begun. And it'll grow. A detachment. From the players. From the atmosphere. From eachother. The matchday experience will transform. It will become an event. Something to passively watch, not passionately experience. The West Ham fan didn't deserve this. No English football fan does. The atmosphere is what has made the Premier League the global phenomenon it is today. An atmosphere generated by the most committed. The most passionate. And recognised by stadium designers. Which is everything London stadium has sucked away.

But there is hope - and not just from 48 hours of stadium crisis meetings. For while us outsiders are enjoying our finger wagging and moralising, there's been genuine practical action taken by the grassroots.

A meeting between Brady and a number of West Ham supporter groups was held last week. The publicity it generated was all about a cancelled planned march and the accusations involved. But what was missed were the results from this summit.

This wasn't about finger pointing or grandstanding. The support achieved a raft of commitments from Brady. From statues being erected around the stadium, to club flags and input into seating arrangements (which should be accelerated given Saturday's events). There was even a pledge to bring the stands closer to the pitch. The general attitude from the support was 'we have this stadium, we need to make the best of it'. Of course, that it should get to this point before the board commits to making the ground feel like a West Ham stadium is ridiculous. But the supporter groups were practical - and now have their commitment.

And in those minutes released from the meeting was another significant divulgement from Brady: a new 'head of recruiting' was being sought.

Constantly seeing his signings flop. Mocking players publicly already on the books. Blaming managers for players he signed. If any football director had behaved the same way as Sullivan has over the last 18 months, they'd not only be sacked - they'd be run out of the game. Sullivan wouldn't tolerate it from an employee, yet this is how he has behaved as West Ham's prime dealmaker. For the sake of the club and it's future, Sullivan needs to step away and hand the reigns to someone who knows.

Luis Campos, Andrea Berta, Marcel Brands... there's any number of experienced, proven football directors who would jump at the chance of getting their hands on a club of West Ham's potential. Two years ago, this column did some groundwork for one foreign sports director aiming to break into the Premier League, which included assessing potential employers. And West Ham, even before leaving the Boleyn, achieved high marks.

You do hope Brady's words aren't hollow, though Paul Mitchell's move to RB Leipzig last month, with no hint of contact from the Irons, does leave you skeptical. But when it comes to West Ham, there's been too much of that.

Saturday against Burnley can be a watershed. For the stadium and for the matchday experience. It just needs the board to get hold of this Stratford ground - and keep to those pledges made last week.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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