Marketing 101


Today we head back to February 2012 and the news that West Ham had turned to GroupOn to try to shift tickets.

On Tuesday morning, like every morning, I started the day with a look at my email. Such is the modern world, and the joys of working within the Internet Services Market for a global company that the motto “if you snooze, you lose” has become one of our core values. As usual after discovering my online bank has been accessed and I need to “log in” to restore my access, that my penis can actually grow by 6 inches in just 28 days and of course the happiest news that I have won the 

Spanish lottery AGAIN, I get to the GroupOn emails. The whole social discounting model is a great thing for consumers. Crap for retailer, but good for consumers.

People who buy these deals (and can jump through the respective hoops to actually use the voucher) do so because they are being offered something at a bargain price. They are rarely for things that you would normally pay full price for – hence why the retailers turn to GroupOn to fill capacity. Deals such as hotel breaks for 50% off (or more) become good deals, but few, if any, people would think that the deal/hotel was that good that they would return and pay full price. That is the fundamental issue with the whole concept. GroupOn (and other sites such as LivingSocial.com) are great for a one-off, but building loyalty is another issue.

I am used to seeing Fulham and Crystal Palace appearing on my GroupOn offers timeline. £10 tickets for Palace on a Friday night (“limit: 100 per person”) have made me smirk in the past. Few, if any people would take up the offer and return for future games paying full price (otherwise why wouldn’t they have bought for this game?). I would have thought that there are other ways to market tickets to niche sectors without having to resource to such drastic price cutting measures.

But today I was very surprised. West Ham were the “deal of the day” and before anyone says it, yes it was a slow new offer day. Tickets for West Ham v Watford (7th March 2012) were £40 for two (and £60 for 3, £80 for 4). As if that wasn’t enough to entice you in, the highlights included the fact it was “Close to Upton Park tube”. I am aware of the offers the club has been involved with so far in 2012 – discounted tickets for buying pizza in Dartford and leaflet drops in Charlton Athletic and Millwall supporter areas to name just two. But is this the right move for the club? And what are the issues of going down this route? To me it is three-fold.

1. The impact on the fans – Tickets for this fixture went on sale to Members back in December starting from £32. As with the game against Nottingham Forest where significant last-minute marketing was carried out to “boost” attendance, it wasn’t directed at the membership database. So one of the perks of membership is the ability to purchase tickets in advance of the general sale. It used to be the case that members also got a discount, but that privilege was removed last season. For this game (as it was for the game v Forest), members will have been penalised for buying early – a somewhat lopsided business model in terms of yield management.  The impact on members in future is that they may delay buying their tickets because there could be offers like this.  The impact of this for the club is that cashflow is delayed, meaning potential short-term pain.

2. The impact on the future – West Ham, under Sullivan/Gold/Brady, have become a club with grand ambitions. There is nothing wrong with that. You do not want your team to be content with just being also-ran all of the time. The whole Olympic Stadium debate was always (and still is) about them and their image, not the fans. In fact the fans have never been properly asked if they want to move. There has always been an assumption it was a given. Perhaps the original motives were simply to stop Spurs getting it, but I have never been able to understand the logic that says a club with a core support base of 35,000 need to move to a 60,000 stadium, let alone one where every seat offers a worse position than Upton Park. This is underlined by the fact the club is needing to resort to using GroupOn to sell tickets to fill the stadium. If you look at attendances this season you will see some near capacity crowd – such as Barnsley and Burnley or the game on Saturday against Crystal Palace, where as games where full price ticketing has been held up such as Leeds United, Ipswich Town or Portsmouth have averages down by 7,000 on capacity. Is it any coincidence that the games were attendances have been high have also had special promotions in terms of ticket prices? Kids for £1, kids go free, family tickets for four for less than £50.

This season the average attendance at Upton Park is 29,446, the biggest in the division.  Last season it was 4,000 higher in the Premier League.  Sure, there is the argument that away support is smaller, demand for the Championship product is less than the Premier League, and the police have played a part in limiting away attendees for the games versus Cardiff City and Millwall, but actually do clubs like Burnley, Coventry City or Bristol City bring less fans than Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham? This means one of two things – either the average price is too expensive for the product on offer, or the core fan base is dropping.

The second point is an interesting one. Discounts for kids are a great idea. West Ham should be applauded for the continued use of this tactic which they were one of the first clubs to introduce over a decade ago. But the issue is they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Other games (such as the one versus Coventry City) have seen kids tickets rise to £19, the consequence being crowds dropping to around the 25,000 mark.  Charlton Athletic frequently give tickets away to local schools – in an age where football clubs are trying to become the centre of the community what better way for the club to boost its image than encouraging locals to come to games.  West Ham are one of the biggest employers in Tower Hamlets, which is one of the poorest regions in England.  The vast percentage of West Ham’s supporter base is from outside of their local area – what better way to engage with them.  Interestingly enough these “new fans” would be more likely to return to the club simply based on the proximity of the club.

Finally, it is worth noting that as a member (and also having a lapsed membership on my email address) the club hasn’t marketed to me about the deal – surely a starting point from their database is fans who have bought tickets this season but haven’t for this particular game?  Isn’t that marketing 101?

3. The impact on the club – When you use GroupOn, only 50% of the revenue is pocketed by the “retailer” (the rest is kept by GroupOn).  So a £20 ticket will see only £10 reach West Ham.  Yet the club has an “active” Social Media strategy right?  Nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and a Facebook page with thousands of “likes” is surely a good place to start with these offers if they are going to do it.  That way the club will at least keep the full wallet.  Why is this important?  Because I want the club to get whatever money I pay for my ticket, which I hope they will re-invest in the infrastructure or the team.  I do not want to see that cash go to an US company.  As I mentioned above, I would rather the club invested into the local community, local schools, local groups where there is an opportunity to build a strategy for encouraging new fans.

So on one hand I should applaud the club for trying something new and embracing a social media channel to market.  But it cannot be denied that their continued use of shotgun style marketing offers is antagonising the existing fan base.  So for now I hope that those GroupOn purchasers enjoy their night out at Upton Park and I hope they come back, but somehow, like the vast majority of all GroupOn deals, it will be just for the night.

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It’s better to travel in hope than not to travel at all


Watching the great Dynamo Tblisi team of the early 1980’s is one of my foremost footballing memories.  This piece, written in March 2010 captured the trials and tribulations of “exotic” travel thirty five years ago.

We take travel today with a pinch of salt.  Budget airlines have opened up a world we would have never seen and thanks to this t’internet thing we can now get independent reviews, photos and even videos of hotels, bars and restaurants around the world all from the safety of our DFS sofa.  But can you remember what it was like to travel thirty years ago?  Sure you had your package deals with DanAir or British Caledonian, somehow managing to get off the ground and heading for the cultural high points of Majorca and the Costa Brava but what would it have been like to make a trip behind the Iron Curtain?

Having travelled a few times to the ex-Soviet states I know how hard it is today to get a visa, fill in the landing card and remember to keep enough dollars spare for the inevitable bribes for standing in the wrong place, or taking a picture of some government building.  Take this experience back to the early 1980’s when the Red Machine was in full effect and Russia was an almost closed country.  But football has always been a universal language, crossing even the most difficult borders and with three European football competitions every season it was inevitable that every so often our brave boys would have to experience a slice of life in the Eastern Bloc.

In March 1981 in the middle of their record-breaking promotion season, West Ham United headed off to Tblisi, capital of the Soviet region of Georgia to play the second leg of their European Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final.  It was never going to be an easy trip as Liverpool had found a few years before in the European Cup, but to go there on the back of a 4-1 defeat and just four days after a League Cup Final appearance at Wembley it was always going to be a tough trip.

But there is tough, and there is tough. Whilst the club had known that Tbilisi would be their opponents at this stage for some time, the winter break had made it almost impossible for the Hammers to find out much about their opponents before the home tie.  They had been given a brief scouting report by Waterford Town, who had played them in a previous round and Liverpool who had lost there in the European Cup the previous year suggested not to go at all!  The club found some help from unlikely sources.

The London Correspondent for TASS, the Soviet news agency had a friend who supported the club and managed to send over some videos of the team, plus a Swedish based journalist whose company had daily Russian newspapers was able to translate a few things relevant to the tie.  “Latin flair in lifestyle and play” he wrote on one memo to West Ham.  In the same report, published in the West Ham programme for the game that Russian football was not like our own game.  It was in fact much more controlled and regimented.  For instance, none of this playing for a draw every week – once a team had drawn 10 games in a season they simply got no more points from drawn games.  And penalties handed out to players were incredibly harsh.  A player who showed dissent to a referee could expect a 10 game ban, and feigning injury or time wasting a 3 game ban…..so what went wrong?

Most West Ham fans who turned up on Wednesday 4th March 1981 at Upton Park had never heard of any of the Russians and probably expected another easy home win, which they had become accustomed to during the season.  However, Tbilisi came to London with a squad full of class. Ten full Russian Internationals and four players who had represented their country at the Olympic Games the previous summer.  Included in this was Russian Football of the Year for 1978 Ramaz Shengelia, described in the match day programme as “fast and always on the move”, and the captain of the side, Aleksandr Chivadze.

At the time I was a promising young striker, happily banging in 4 or 5 goals a week at schoolboy level, but it is fair to say that on that March night I wanted to be like Chivadze from that moment on.  He had been voted Russian Player of the Year in 1980, beating Oleg Blokhin by some 80 votes from the Russian sports journalists and had become one of only a few footballers ever profiled by Pravda – the modern day equivalent of featuring in Tatler I would assume.  In a recent game against world champions Argentina, the world cup winning captain Daniel Pasarella had been quoted saying Chivadze would “grace any footballing nation”.  He was the best thing since sliced beetroot in the Soviet Union AND was clever to boot, studying for an Economics degree whilst playing for Dinamo.

It seemed that all attacks stemmed from Aleksandr bringing the ball out of defence.  He swayed past Trevor Brooking and rang rings around Alan Devonshire.  David “Psycho” Cross, at that moment the leading scorer in all of the English leagues may as well have been on a beach in Magaluf – he simply did not get a sniff out of Chivadze.

Chivadze opened the scoring in the game, starting and finishing a move that swept from one end of the pitch to another.  A second followed from Gutsaev before half time but the near 35,000 had seen enough to realise that the Hammer’s European adventure would go no further.  Cross pulled one back after the break but Shengelia added two more to put the Russians out of sight.  At full time, to a man the West Ham fans applauded Dinamo off the pitch, rubbing their eyes at what they had seen.

“I think West Ham underestimated us but even by our standards, that was a very special performance. We had 11 players playing at their best” said coach Nodar Achalkatsi after the game whilst John Lyall could only comment that “if you are going to lose then you want to lose to a team like Dinamo.”

Only a couple of journalists made the trip out to Georgia after the first leg result, giving the Hammers very little chance of overturning the 4-1 deficit and their brief reports simply focused on the 1-0 win rather than the trip itself. A few Hammers fans made the trip, and with their reputation preceding them were surrounded by hundreds of soldiers for their time in the Georgian capital. Very little was ever heard about their trip, but fortunately, West Ham’s Club Doctor, Dr Gordon Brill wrote a report for his diary.  Below is an extract, published in West Ham United’s official programme in April 1981:-

“In retrospect, we cannot be sure which (if either) reflected the true situation, because the 27-hour “outward bound” venture contained so many incidents that we were beginning to feel like James Bonds of soccer.

The almost incredible snags which interrupted schedules, frayed tempers and brought physical discomforts to many were eventually overcome thanks to the bonhomie and mutual co-operation of the 40-odd members of the official party.

Stories filtered out of the plight of our squad in Moscow Airport.  This included the fact that it took approximately one hour to obtain permission to leave a departure compound in order to visit the toilet some 20 yards away under the vigilant eye of four strategically placed guards, visibly equipped with walkie-talkies.  The rules were “go one by one, and the second cannot go until the first one comes back”.  It was just as well that during the preceding four hours at the immigration desks most of the party had only been able to grab a small beer or a coffee.

Eventually, after three passport checks of anything up to 15 minutes per person, and two close scrutinies of every piece of luggage it was decided that we should stay at a hotel overnight.  Fortunately permission was obtained for some food to be unloaded (after a specially convened doctor’s certificate was signed), but unfortunately our baggage containing the grub was back on the plane and could not be unloaded – so it took a whip round on what was in everyone’s hand luggage to provide some sustenance.

The efforts of our catering team produced a meal in the airport  restaurant and we arrived at the hotel around 2am GMT.

Orders were for an 8am alarm call in preparation for a 9am departure on the second leg to Tblisi.  Those above the third floor had a cold water shower and a lucky few found some coffee and stale rolls in the restaurant during a further wait until 11am when the bus eventually arrived for the five minute back to the Airport.

We eventually took off just after noon and arrived in the Georgian capital at 4pm local time.  Our hosts had literally been awaiting us since the previous night with no word on our whereabouts.

From thence on it was roses all the way.  Our hosts catered for our needs and entertainment in various ways.  For the players it was training in the Olympic stadium – indeed being allowed to use the Dinamo Sports Science Complex – a real honour for the club.

The match is dealt with elsewhere but a 1-0 victory for the Hammers was a great result, although it was the Russians who went through on aggregate.

And then we came to the journey home.  We arrived at Tblisi airport to find that our plane was still some 1,500 miles away in Moscow.  Thanks to our hosts we at least had some food as they had given us all before we left, not knowing when our next meal would come from.  We were luckier this time at Moscow airport as it only took two and a half hours to be processed through a deserted airport, although a few questions arose over some of our declarations.

For instance Trevor Brooking’s “cash declaration” showed that he had more sterling to bring out than he brought in thanks to Trev’s card school win that took some careful explaining.

Twenty seven hours after we left we landed at Stansted airport in Essex, and with a day and a half until we faced Oldham Athletic.  The club would like to thank all those who helped make the 8,000 mile trip as smooth as possible, especially Tescos for kindly donating some steak for the players.”

An interesting summary of what travel was like then.  Dynamo went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup in that season before slowly fading into the background of Soviet football.   Chivadze stayed at Tbilisi his whole career, making nearly 350 appearances for them before going on to coach the Georgian national side on two separate occasions.

Footballers today with their private jets don’t know they are born and what happened to those disciplinary rules?  Can you imagine them in force today?  Ronaldo and Drogba would be permanently banned!  Can I have the number for FIFA please?

Open season


It was only fit that West Ham’s official opening game in their new home was actually taking place three days after they first played here.  After all, having “turned the lights out” at The Boleyn Ground in the final home game of the season against Manchester United back in May, they then proceeded to host a number of other games there.  Every time you think that the club have turned a new leaf and rid itself of making mistakes, along comes another example of organisation curtosey of Captain Cock-up.  In this instance, the game against Juventus was announced prior to the end of the season when the club was still involved in the chase for Europa League (and even Champions League).  Surely, someone, somewhere in the upper echelons at the club must have said “hang on chaps, what if we qualify for Europe?”.  Still at least we have the co-Chairman’s son to spout rubbish every day.

28826459545_cf261d6c76_kThis would be a real test of logistics.  Thursday had seen nearly 55,000 leave the ground after the 3-0 win in the Europa League without many issues.  Today would see a similar number having to negotiate tens of thousands of shoppers plus the crowds heading to the “urban beach” next to the stadium.  The route to the stadium took us through the shopping centre where blue-rinsed shoppers berated the Hammers fans for delaying the opening of Marks & Spencers.  “Oi! I want to buy my bloody Sunday lunch for my old man.  But no! I have to wait for you lot”.

The club had promised that unauthorised street traders would be banished from the area around the stadium, so no badgeman or old programme stall.  However, it seemed acceptable that ticket touts and half ‘n’ half scarf sellers were allowed to peddle their wares.  I could rant here about intellectual property abuse but I don’t think the club actually cares.

28750098921_2448f2d40d_kThe stadium certainly looked magnificent from the outside.  The “wrap” around the perimeter featured some of the current squad, which is a bit dangerous as and when they may leave, as well as silhouettes of various players such as Noble and Payet.  Entry was painless but then you hit the first issue.  The queues for food and drink stretch along the concourse, meaning as you enter you have to negotiate through a line of queuing fans.

Just behind those concession stands was a temporary bar set up selling Iron Ale (there is also supposed to be Boleyn Bitter somewhere around), a beer mysteriously brewed specifically for the club and the ground (and at £4.90 a pint).  Once again, you get the feeling that the club could have done something with the pricing on food and drink, but decided not too.

As we made our way to the seats we found plastic bags on our seats.  “We’ve paid them £1,000 and all we get is a bloody plastic bag” was the response from my neighbour.  Apparently, when you held them all up it spelt out “Come on you Irons!” but we didn’t know that.  The whole opening ceremony was a little bit strange.  There had obviously been a few bits taken from the European Championships, whilst the fireworks added to the occasion but it did seem a little bit unorganised.

28211715773_203c789176_kWest Ham would be wearing their new third kit which for once one that most fans bought into.  In commemoration of the first season at the stadium the club had permission to wear a black (or very dark blue) kit that had the badge of Thames Iron Works (TIW in case you see the initials later in the season) rather than the new West Ham badge.

Despite all of the reservations, the political arguments and the rights and wrongs of their residence at the stadium, there was no going back.  Bilic fielded a strong starting XI with the impressive Nordtveit in the holding role whilst Josh Cullen was thrown in at the deep end, coming up against players like Dani Alves.  Whilst the result was in some ways unimportant, the fans wanted to see some of the flair that had seen West Ham challenge at the top end of the table last season.

West Ham United 2 Juventus 3 – The London Stadium – Sunday 7th August 2016
At the end of the day, it was irrelevant who won “The Betway Cup Final”.  Today was all about the Stadium.  Quite how Juventus went from dominating a game, with levels of possession in the 80 percentile in the first half, to nervously defending with five minutes to go to stop West Ham taking the lead I will never know.  If there was ever a definition of the gap between Champions League and Europa League then just watch the first 30 minutes of this game.  This was of course a Juventus side without Paul Pogba who had handily hitched a lift to London to sign for Manchester United.

28209016734_0ff552f128_kThe close passing play of the Italians was a pleasure to watch.  Both of their well worked early goals, scored by Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic, were applauded by the West Ham fans as well as the small group of Juve supporters in the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.  Then all of a sudden we clawed our way back into the game as Carroll scrambled home a loose ball after 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon had made a great save from his headed effort.  Two minutes later the woodwork and a combination of Carroll, Adrian and Reid somehow kept out Alex Sandro’s effort.

The second half saw a slow trickle of substitutions with Bilic, patrolling the biggest technical area in world football, blooding a number of his new signings including Fletcher and Quina, some of the promising youngsters such as Oxford, Burke and Page plus of course, the man of the moment Dimitri Payet who made his entrance in the 74th minute to a standing ovation and a chorus of his song.

28721450422_ef078649d7_k (1)Nobody had any idea what would happen if it ended 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes.  There was no reference to details in the programme nor was there any announcement made.  With just five minutes left it became academic when Zaza finished neatly after a through ball from Marrone, the queue for thousands of fans to make their way to the exits.

Whilst the vast majority of fans headed to the shopping centre to deliver chaos and carnage to the blue-rinse brigade, I took a left and went to Stratford International where I walked straight onto a train bound for Ebbsfleet and the waiting CMF.  Exactly 30 minutes after leaving my seat I was in the car.  Alas, that 12 minute train journey costs an eye-watering £16 one way.  Surely someone at the club or South Eastern railway realises there is a huge opportunity to alleviate some of the issues by making the route cheaper on a match day?   Or am I simply talking common sense again?

It’s far from ideal to be a football stadium that will please everyone.  Sitting in the Upper Tier you are along way from the action (everyone would really need binoculars higher up in the stands) and any atmosphere soon dissipates.  That may change when fans have their assigned seats come the start of the Premier League season.  The outside of the stadium looks fantastic, the inside still unfinished with the troublesome gaps where the retractable seating is.  But if the club gets 54,000 for every game will they really care?

The Long(est) Goodbye


When Bobby Moore virtually turned the lights out at The Boleyn Ground around 11.33pm on Tuesday 10th May, most West Ham fans shed a tear as the fine old stadium went dark for the last time.  Time to move on, even if like me, some questioned the need to move in the first place.  The season had been a huge success on the field with Bilic soon putting the pre-season critics in their place with a superb campaign even if two defeats in the last three games cost the club a first-ever Champions League spot.  But thanks to Manchester United’s FA Cup Final win last week over Crystal Palace,the Hammers will once again compete in the Europa League although that now poses an issue of where the home leg will be played after the club has sold over 50,000 seats for the opening game at The Olympic Stadium against Juventus due to take place after that tie.

However, since the Manchester United game the club has come under criticism for hosting a number of other games.  Whilst they may have a charitable motive, the fact that the much-hyped United game wasn’t the last game has seriously irked the fans.  A proposed West Ham Ladies game on 5 June was cancelled after nearly 12,000 fans voted to whether it should go ahead.  Despite over 50% voting in favour of the game! the club cancelled the game influenced by comments on social media! meaning the Manchester United game would be the last public fixture played at The Boleyn Ground. Except it’s not.

FullSizeRender (2)I can’t remember how I stumbled upon the information but on Bank Holiday Monday the stadium was hosting two games between Upton Park FC and Royal Engineers AFC with the ‘pay what you want’ admission fee going to charity.  The official West Ham website had no information about the game nor could I find any information about Upton Park bar an article I wrote myself and published back in 2011, summarised below.  With my alternative option of finishing deconstructing my old office in the garden (aka The Sheduseum), curiosity won the day and I headed off to Upton Park (the place) for my final visit to The Boleyn (the ground and the pub).

Upton Park FC had been dissolved back in 1911 and whilst former FA Cup winners, Royal Engineers, still have a team today, there was no link at all back to West Ham United or The Boleyn Ground.  Both teams actually took part in the first ever FA Cup back in 1871 with Upton Park losing 3-0 at home (West Ham Park) to Clapham Rovers whilst Royal Engineers made it to the final, losing 1-0 to Wanderers.  The two clubs actually played each other in the 1879/80 FA Cup at the 2nd Round stage with the Engineers running out 4-1 winners.  Despite their name, they had nothing to do with West Ham United nor ever played at The Boleyn Ground. The annual performance of the club in The FA Cup did inspire Thames Ironworks who moved to West Ham in 1897 after entering the competition themselves for the first time the year before.  Thames Ironworks became West Ham United in July 1900 and moving to the Boleyn Ground four years later.

But just a few months into the life of West Ham United, Upton Park FC had their finest hour, winning an honour that no English football club can ever lay claim to.  The date is 20th September 1900.  The place, The Vélodrome de Vincennes in the south-east of Paris.  In front of a crowd of approximately 500 locals the Great British football team had just beaten their French counter parts 4-0 and in the process won Gold in the first Olympic games of the modern era.

The 1900 Summer Olympics were notable for being rather different from the ones we can expect later this year.  For a start the games opened on 14 May and did not finish until 28 October.  And then there was the events themselves.  We may scoff at events such as Beach Volleyball and BMXing, but back in 1900 we had ballooning, cricket (England beat France), Basque Pelota and my personal favourite the 200m swimming obstacle race (Gold won by Great Britain’s Frederick Lane).  And there was the shortest Olympic event – the Tug of War – where a combined Danish/Swedish team took Gold from the French in a competition that took 3 minutes 12 seconds from start to finish.

But let’s get back to the football tournament.  As opposed to picking the best players of the time, the Football Association decided to ask Upton Park FC to represent Great Britain.  Quite why they picked a Non-League, amateur side who just a few years before had disbanded is a mystery that time and tide has erased, but they justified the decision by winning gold.

Sounds an impressive achievement doesn’t it?  Well let’s look at the truth.  Football had been introduced into the games as a Demonstration event.  Originally the tournament was to feature five nations – France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain.  Right up until the day of the first game it was expected to be a five way contest but for some reason the Germans and the Swiss didn’t bother sending teams so instead it was decided that it would just be a three team tournament.

In the first game Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques, representing France, were drawn to play Upton Park.  A very comfortable four nil win for the British put them on the verge of a Gold medal for just 90 minutes work.  Three days later the French side beat Université de Bruxelles 6-2 meaning a third and final game was not necessary.  The Belgians could not win gold and so the first ever Olympic football tournament was won by Great Britain, or more precisely, Upton Park Football Club.

At the time the team weren’t actually awarded any medals or even a cup.  Some years later the IOC awarded the club the “honour” of a gold medal, but as they had finally disbanded in 1911 nobody actually knows what happened to any award.  As it was a demonstration event they probably just had a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich or two before they returned back to Blighty.

FullSizeRenderA heart-warming story I’m sure you will agree, and one that could easily be made into a film.  But back to today and can someone please explain what relevance the Upton Park game has to being the last “public” game at The Boleyn Ground because I will be damned if I could find anyone outside the ground at 12.30pm who could tell me?  Still it did give me an opportunity for one final look around and a beer in the deserted Boleyn Pub before I headed inside to see what exactly was going on.

Upton Park FC 2 Royal Engineers 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 30th May 2016
At first glance it appeared this was a wind-up.  There was no game on, nor did it appear that there was any life in the stadium at all.  A group waited outside the main entrance for their tour to start but then I spotted an open door on the corner of the Main and Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.  No signage, no stewards, no posters – just an open door.  Once inside the inner-sanctum of the Main Stand I paid my money for the charity programme and took a seat just as the two teams came out for the first game.  It was surreal to say the least.  Around 100 spectators were spread across the lower tier of the Main Stand.  The constant sound of drills from the Bobby Moore Stand filled the air as the club had begun to remove them, with fans having paid £50 for a bit of old plastic.  Every possible sign in the stand, such as on the toilet doors had already been removed, as too had the big screens in the corners, in preparation for the final public event, the grand auction (only £25 to get in by the way) being held next weekend.

FullSizeRender (1)West Ham fan Matt Lorenzo was the PA announcer although with roll-on, roll-off subs he kept the announcements to a minimum as the two teams, who had to keep a minimum of three players over the age of fifty on the pitch at any time, played out a decent game which saw Upton Park, their squads made up of fans and Non-League players, ran out 2-0 winners.  The first goal was as good as anyone would have seen this season with the centre-back running through the whole of the middle of the Royal Engineers team from his own half before chipping the keeper.

The second game saw the two “first teams” play each other.  Upton Park included former West Ham keeper Neil Finn in their squad.  Finn played in the same Youth Team as Lampard and Ferdinand and became the youngest ever Premier League player when on 1st January 1996 he was drafted in to play against Manchester City at Maine Road after Les Sealey, deputy to the suspended Ludek Miklosko, was taken ill.  Miklosko’s wife had to sew numbers onto the back of Finn’s shirt in the hours before the game, which West Ham lost 2-1.

FullSizeRender (5)The two teams lined up for the “anthem” but no music was forthcoming, so someone quickly hit the button that said “Bubbles”.  “Sorry about that”, said Lorenzo, “We were supposed to be worshiping the Queen not Bubbles”.  Both teams had decided to wear dark shirts, black shorts and black socks, which made it a bit of a nightmare to work out what was going on.  As the second game kicked off, with the crowd now around the two hundred mark, the tour group appeared in the corner of the Main Stand, stopping to take photos and getting in the way of players trying to take throw-ins.  The whole experienced seemed quite bizarre.

FullSizeRender (4)Another decent game ensued with Upton Park running out 3-2 winners.  I’d left with 15 minutes to play to get one final pint in at The Boleyn, for old-time sake.  It seems like this goodbye had been the longest in history, but now it was time to drink up and move on after forty years of some good and a few bad memories of watching football in London E13.

 

 

 

A fond farewell…sort of


Humans are rubbish at saying goodbye.  We will put something off as long as we can, often kidding ourselves that we will get “one final chance” to say farewell, even when deep down we know it’s not going to happen.  I’ve known for three years that at some point I would be making my final visit to Upton Park yet when the realisation comes that “this is it” I didn’t really know what to think.

26578670721_9db220e464_zI recently worked out I had seen West Ham play at The Boleyn Ground over 300 times.  My first visit was back in 1976, coming to a game with my Dad and brother against Burnley.  I’ve seen promotions, relegation, riots, sit-ins, utter jubilation and crushing defeats.  As a father I remember bringing both my children to the ground for the first time, hoping that they would fall in love with the stadium just like I had.  One hated her first experience of football so much (and we were sitting in a box!) that she vowed never to come back.  There are few games that for one reason or another I don’t recall.  Despite the game becoming this global, polished marketing vehicle, the life that teems around Upton Park on a match day hasn’t really changed in that 40 years.  Ken’s Cafe, Nathan’s Pie and Mash, the same bloke selling the programmes (the one with the pierced ear and funny teeth).  I still wonder today what happened to the Monkey Nuts seller on the North Bank.

There was never going to be a chance of getting a ticket for Swansea City, or latterly Manchester United.  Football doesn’t work on compassion and nostalgia these days.  My years of loyal support and tens of thousands of pounds count for nothing – it is all about the here and now, and I have no issues with that having given up my season ticket six seasons ago.  So my chance to say goodbye was going to be in the Premier League Development Squad League Cup Final First Leg (nothing like a catchy title) against Hull City on a freezing cold April night.

West Ham’s current owners do some things really well. But they also far too often go back to type and think of the fans as ATM machines, happy to dish out cash on demand.  Take the start of this season where West Ham had qualified for the Europa League for the first time in over a decade.  Tickets for those opening games were priced from £10.  That is cheaper than watching games eight levels below the Premier League.  Consequently virtually every ticket for the three games played at The Boleyn Ground sold out.  A few days after the last of those games was a friendly arranged against Werder Bremen where the ticket prices were doubled.  The attendance? Well let’s just say tickets were available to buy on the day.

The positive vibes the clubs created by announcing a year in advance of the move to the Olympic Stadium with some of the cheapest season ticket prices in the Premier League were seriously undone by the legal wranglings over the exact details of the stadium deal. 26578680771_7a998b40f8_zA walk around the stadium store just shows how much money the owners have tried to make out of this final year at The Boleyn Ground.  Almost every item under the sun had a “Farewell Boleyn” logo on.  Based on the number that had started to appear in the bargain buckets, I guess fans have got “farewell” fatigue.

Every fan will have their own special memories of the ground and meeting up with Dagenham Dan and Brian we spent a fair amount of time taking a trip down memory lane to the most obscure places.  In the fullness of time I am sure I will remember more but for me the five most vivid memories have been:-

West Ham 5 Notts County 2 – August 1978 – My first real season at Upton Park and on the opening day a team inspired by Devonshire and Brooking scored four first half goals to top the league. I assumed from my spot on the lip over the entrance to the South Bank, just in front of the man bar that every game would be as easy as this….

West Ham 1 Dynamo Tblisi 4 – March 1981 – Almost 35,000 squeezed into Upton Park to see one of the finest performances ever witnessed at the ground.  The Russians (now Georgians) arrived for this European Cup Winners Cup Quarter-Final as relative unknowns but undid a West Ham side who had lost just a handful of games all season.  Even now I can remember the names of players such as Chivadze, Chilaya and Shengalia. By the time we reached the ground at 7pm, the North Bank and West Stands were full, but for some reason nobody was using the “away fans” turnstile – the first time I ever stood in that corner of the old South Bank.

West Ham 6 Aldershot 1 – January 1991 – Non-League Aldershot had managed a 0-0 draw in the initial tie in this FA Cup 3rd Round tie and with the replay also to be played at Upton Park I took the opportunity to take my then girlfriend of 9 months to The Boleyn Ground for the first time.  She hated the whole experience of standing on a cold and wet South Bank, despite the six West Ham goals.  I had to act fast to turn a desperate situation around so I proposed, kneeling down in the passenger foot-well of her pink Fiat Panda at some traffic lights in Walthamstow.  She said yes and for the next year I wasn’t allowed near a football ground because we were “wedding planning”.  By the time we drew with Non-League Farnborough a year later at the same stage of the cup, the wedding was off and I was again back on the South Bank.

West Ham 2 Ipswich Town 0 – May 2004 – After the shock of dropping out of the Premier League on the last day of the previous season, West Ham made a real hash of trying to immediate return, losing to sides such as Gillingham, Rotherham United and Millwall.  We scrapped into the Play-offs, winning just five of our last ten and then lost to Ipswich Town at Portman Road in the first leg.  This was the Pardew “Moore than just a football club” era and the noise levels at the ground on the night of the second leg were off the scale.  Etherington brought us back into the tie just after half-time and then Christian Dailly scrambled home a winner with twenty minutes to play to send nearly 32,000 Hammers fans into delirium….”Oh Christian Dailly, you are the love of my life, Oh Christian Dailly, I’d let you shag my wife, she’s got curly hair too”.  Less said about the final in Cardiff the better.

West Ham 3 Newcastle United 1 – September 2008 – In one of the first games of the Zola era I decided to bring my daughter to her first West Ham game.  I gave up my Season Ticket in the Bobby Moore lower to watch a team featuring Ilunga, Behrami and David  Di Michele.  The little Italian shone on that day, scoring two in the 3-1 win but more importantly giving every fan hope that we had found the new Di Canio.  Some of the football played on that afternoon was sublime and hard to forget, unlike the performance two weeks later against Bolton Wanderers where we lost by the same scoreline where it was hard to remember.

There are a host of other games that have less positive memories of course plus a huge bunch of matches that just merge into one.  Any fan could wax lyrical about their team’s performances over the year, with their most memorable games being close to their heart.  Being in the stadium one last time brings all of those to the fore, just like the memories of a dearly departed friend or love one.  As Shankly said, football isn’t a matter of life or death – it is more important than that.  Whilst I wouldn’t 100% agree, I do see on the emotional side where he was coming from.

26578684361_98d38ac4d4_zLooking around the ground before kick off it is still hard to fathom why the club feel the need to move.  With just the old East Stand needing redevelopment to make the stadium a more than comfortable 40,000 all seater, blind ambition seems to have got in the way of sense.  This season has taught us a number of things.  Firstly, you don’t need a massive stadium, nor billions of pounds to challenge (and win) at the top of the table.  The fact that West Ham are still chasing a Champions League spot with three games to go has nothing to do with the stadium but the squad assembled.  Secondly, clubs that have ignored their youth development will temporarily be replaced in the hierarchy.  Both Chelsea and Manchester United have suffered this season, primarily down to the old guard simply not reaching the standards required.  Again, that has nothing to do with the stadium.  Finally, it is about the football club being part of the community – moving to the Olympic Stadium will remove the club from the kill parts of this small area of London.

I get the fact this is about ambition and about being able to compete at the highest level of the Premier League but we also have to be realistic.  Only a small number of clubs can compete for the major honours and we have to go head to head against some of the world’s most wealthiest clubs – the new TV deal will make the rich, richer.  Investment will be required and I am not sure our current owners are willing to make that additional step once the club moves to the new ground.

West Ham United DS 1 Hull City DS 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 25th April 2016
In some ways a crowd of over 10,000 for this game was quite impressive, but with tickets on sale for as little as £4 for adults and only a few more games left in the ground I expected more.  There was a danger that the football would become a mere side-show but fortunately a decent game, punctuated by some excellent performances ensured that a fine balance between nostalgia and excitement was maintained.

26371043240_ee9b71b1c6_zDespite the last-gasp winner for substitute Djair Parfitt-Williams, West Ham dominated the game with the stand-out player being Martin Samuelsen, who impressed back in pre-season in a number of games and was again displaying some of the impressive skills that have seen him play regularly in League One this season at Peterborough United.  At the back, a mature performance from Reece Oxford ensured that it was unlikely Hull would ever be leaving East London with anything more than a point from a goal-less draw.

It is hard to imagine how many of the squad will go onto be regulars in the first team.  Sam Byron signed in a high-profile move from Leeds United, whilst Josh Cullen has been playing at Bradford City.  Whilst the Europa League run last season gave us a taste of the potential future talent at the club, few have been regulars in the first team squad yet.  The fabled West Ham academy production line seems to have temporarily gone on strike, although the purposes of youth development for Premier League clubs has changed so much in such a short period of time to almost being defensive in approach rather than looking to polish the diamonds of tomorrow.

As the rain and sleet fell at the end of the game there were a few fans shedding a tear as they posed for one last photo next to the pitch.  For my final visit there was no queue at the bar at The Boleyn nor was there one to get into the tube station at Upton Park – hardly like old times then.

The Boleyn Ground – 1904 to 2016 – Rest in Pieces

Has football already eaten itself?


The last week has seen the footballing world go into meltdown about ticket prices as if it was something that had just started to be an issue.  It hasn’t.  It’s quite difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where it all got a bit silly as the initial tipping point seems to vary from club to club.  Some may point at the formation of the Premier League nearly twenty five years ago as the catalyst, whilst for others it has been around takeovers and new stadiums.

But before we get back into the nuts and bolts, indulge me in the follow dilemma.  Once a week I enjoy a Chicken Katsu Curry from Wasabi for lunch.  I’m not alone.  Queues snake round the block at peak time in Canary Wharf. That was until a few weeks ago.  Turning up at 1pm two weeks ago there was just a handful of people queuing. The reason became apparent when you went to pay.  Prices for the most popular dishes, including Chicken Katsu Curry had risen by 20%.  With so many alternatives within a couple of minutes, fans of the spicy chicken had voted with their feet.  How did the brand react on Social Media?  It ignored what their “fans” were saying, refusing to engage on the subject.  Sound a little bit familiar?  However, Wasabi aren’t like a football club. Despite being a “fan” I am now less likely to go so frequently even though I may end up spending more at an alternative restaurant.  Why? Because I cannot see any value in that extra 20% cost.  I don’t get any bigger portions, the service is still the same fast speed, the sauce still as spicy.  That to me is one of the keys in the whole Premier League ticketing debate – the question of value.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kValue is the key here.  Suppose Liverpool would have suggested that for the increase in ticket pricing to £77 fans got additional value.  A free programme, access to a lounge, a free scarf, a free link to exclusive media content, a free pie or pint?  Would there have been the same uproar about the price?  There was more than just the top price ticket behind the protests at Anfield and I applaud them for their stance.  But football clubs need to also look at the situation and learn from the mistakes Liverpool made.

The impact of investment in Premier Leagues from overseas is often quoted as the tipping point for escalating price rises.  The takeover of Manchester United by The Glazers back in 2005 saw a mass exodus of some fans who could no longer take the commercial changes at the club to form FC United of Manchester.  However, their absence was never noticed by the new owners, with United at their peak and valued as one of the richest sporting institutions in the world.  The empty seats never stayed empty, with waiting lists of fans willing to pay what it took to see Ferguson’s side win the top honours in the game.

Down south there is a perception that Arsenal’s move to The Emirates as the tipping point for ticket price rises.  However, the start of the rolling stone went back much further than that.  An average ticket at Highbury back in 1991/92 was £10.  Seems reasonable based on today’s wages but actually that represented the biggest hike in ticket prices that the fans have experienced in the last thirty five years, rising from £7.26 on average the year before (a 38% increase).  This season a ticket for the centre lower tier at The Emirates is £45.69 on average this season, up from £40.47 five years ago and just over six pounds since they moved into the new stadium (Thanks to http://www.thearsenalhistory.com for the stats).  Arsenal’s “utilisation”, the percentage of seats sold (not necessary used – another Premier League bad trait) when compared to the total (not necessarily usable) capacity is in the high 90th percentile.  In fact, allowing for seats removed from sale due to segregation, there are probably only a few dozen seats remaining unsold throughout the whole season.  What would happen if Arsenal slashed ticket prices in half?  Would they be able to sell any more tickets? No.  Does the club really care whether a particular seat is bought by an adult, a child or a concession?  Absolutely.  So as a commercial enterprise what is their motivation for cutting ticket prices?

The issue of ticket prices may be a hot topic today, and we may argue that we are pricing out a generation of future fans, but have we already passed that point?  If I wanted to take my daughter to West Ham United v Manchester United next month her ticket (assuming there were any available), the cheapest ticket I could buy for her would be £45.  West Ham will argue that for other games I could buy her a seat for £1, but that misses the point.  People may argue it is no different to going to the theatre or the opera.  It’s not.  I want to go to see West Ham because it is my club.  Even if Leyton Orient a few miles down the road are at home on the same day and offer under16’s for £1 it is not an alternative I would choose.  If a ticket isn’t available for La Bòheme at the Royal Opera House isn’t available today, I can try again for tomorrow’s performance, or one next month.  Same performers, same venue, same storyline, same music.  Sport isn’t anything like that.

West Ham have gained many plaudits for their decision to reduce prices massively for the move to the Olympic Stadium next season.  But what was stopping them slashing the prices for this season, the last at Upton Park?  They know that every Premier League game would sell out and so in whose real interest would it have been to reduce prices?  Next season is a massive risk in terms of reputation for the club.  You can be sure that if the club would have funded the building/conversion of the stadium themselves then they wouldn’t have been so generous with the ticket prices.  They need to build an additional 15,000-20,000 new loyal fans and the best way to do that is ticket concessions.

Matthew Syed at The Times was involved in a heated debate this week with fellow Times correspondent Henry Winter about the issue of ticket prices.  Winter’s view was very much of the “we need to act now to stop the future degradation of the game”.  Syed’s counter argument was that it was too late.  Club are commercial entities.  They want and need to make as much money as possible a) to give returns to shareholders and thus make them a more attractive vehicle for further investment and b) to fund more expensive player acquisitions that will give them more chance of being successful which in turn leads to points a) and b) being repeated.  He was quite right in saying that if 10,000 Arsenal fans don’t renew their season tickets next season, there are 10,000 more waiting in line who would even pay a premium for the opportunity to get a ticket.

We may think that if nothing changes we will be playing in front of empty stadiums in years to come.  We won’t.  As soon as attendances start to fall, clubs will undoubtedly cut prices and demand will rise.  They have no interest to do that today, unfortunately, in most instances.  Football clubs will never come out and agree with the statements made by Football Supporters Federation Chairman Malcolm Clarke about tourists filling our grounds wearing half and half scarves taking selfies.  Would a club want a fan who comes every week, turning up at 2.55pm (or whenever 5 minutes before kick-off is), leaving at 4.55pm or someone who will turn up at 1.30pm, spend money in the club shop, spend money on food and drink and then share their experiences on social media?  We would all like to think it’s the former, the loyal fan, but in this ultra-commercial world I would suggest for many, the ideal fan is the latter.

The Premier League has stayed almost silent in the whole affair, yet they are the one organisation who has the remit to allow change.  The question of ticket prices should have been addressed a decade ago.  Why couldn’t they have put in a fixed price rise structure that is set for the Train franchises for instance?  The wealth now flowing into the game should be a catalyst for change, but it is simply an accelerant for faster growth of the same problem.

In God’s Country


The new TV deal signed last season by the Premier League sides meant that this weekend’s football coverage started in unusual circumstances with a live Friday night game.  With games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, there has never been more games on TV than today (metaphorically not literally).  And for every game that is shown, cash flows onto the pockets of the clubs and ultimately the players pockets.  But whisper it quietly, Friday night also marked the start of the 2015/16 FA Cup.  In fact just 15 miles up the road from Villa Park, Coleshill Town were hosting Ellesmere Rangers at Tamworth FC in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round.  Whilst you would need the best part of £50 to get a top range ticket at Aston Villa versus Manchester United, you could pay almost a tenth of that to see the first step on the Road to Wembley.

The first few rounds of the FA Cup often bring some of the best moments of the season.  Normally, the FA will drawn the first three rounds of the competition, meaning that Step 7 clubs like Lewes will know the four potential opponents we will play before a ball in the competition is kicked.  I know that my good friend, and half of the brains and brawn behind The Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold believes one way to bring a bit more interest into the competition is to draw all of the rounds up until the Semi-Final at the start of the season, so that every club know who they could play if they win their next game (and the nine after that).  Slipping on my Chairman’s coat again you also have an eye on the draw for the potential to earn some cash.  Three wins in the competition at our level means £15k in prize money plus half of the gate receipts, or around another £500 a week on the playing budget.

20009867753_9c172e40a1_kWhilst we all dream of a trip to the Third Round, few teams ever get that far in reality.  On Sunday one of the final ties of the round featured AFC Emley of the Northern Counties East League Division One host Parkgate.  Whilst they may be eight victories away from the Third Round, the club has been there before.  Well, sort of.  Back in 1997/98, Emley AFC reached the 3rd round where they were drawn against West Ham United. Given zero chance of getting anything from The Boleyn Ground, they found themselves 1-0 after just four minutes.  But they weathered the storm on and off the pitch and equalised in 55th minute.  West Ham finally found a winner with eight minutes to go but the Yorkshiremen were given a standing ovation as they left the field at full-time.

The glory day for the club was forgotten within a decade as the club had been forced into a merger with Wakefield, then lost their identity altogether.  But Non-League fans are made of sterner stuff and in 2005 the new club, AFC Emley had been formed, bringing football back to the Yorkshire village.  In their first season in the West Yorkshire League they gained promotion to the level they are at now.

So why was I driving up into God’s Country to watch the start of the FA Cup?  That will be David Hartrick’s fault.  Being not only a jolly good chap but also the publisher of my next book (in all good bookshops by Christmas) we had boring stuff like fonts, typefaces and binding to talk about. Back in the day Hartch used to grace the turf at The Welfare Ground, not that he likes to talk about it.  On doing my research for the game I couldn’t help noticing the following words on the Emley website, which too me could have been stolen straight off my Lewes FC laptop (in fact it probably was it is that good).

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

With such a mission, who was I not to pay them a visit, picking up Non League Day’s finest, and fellow Ockley Books author, Mike Bayly who just happened to be hanging around Barnsley Interchange on a Sunday lunchtime.  He was on his own mission to find the top 100 grounds that we should all visit before we lose our marbles and whilst I am quite sure that The Welfare Ground wasn’t on his list before the game, perhaps it could be afterwards.

20636702625_1b299a43fb_kThe opponents, Parkgate, played in the league above Emley – the Toolstation Northern Counties Eastern League Premier Division (that one rolls off the tongue – and came into the game full of confidence after a fine 4-3 win away at Tadcaster last week.  Few would have backed the home side to get anything from the tie, but fortune sometimes favours the brave.

Sometimes beauty comes from the most unlikely places.  There couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than the afternoon we spend in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.  “Go down the country lane and just head for the Big Tower”, Dave told us.  You can’t appreciate the instructions unless you have been to Emley and seen the Emley Transmitting Tower for yourselves, a 330m erection that is the tallest freestanding structure in the United Kingdom.

AFC Emley 7 Parkgate 1 – The Welfare Ground – Sunday 16th August 2015
20444075419_cfeb6c092b_kFrom the moment we paid £6 (SIX!) to get into the ground and saw the first prize in the raffle was a “do-it-yourself” breakfast, an upmarket spin on a meat raffle – well, it contained at least two non-meat products, we knew we had arrived in one of the closest places to Non League heaven.  Decent food, served with a smile and just for a pound (pie, peas and gravy – tick), locals who loved to chat and one of the best team displays I’ve seen for a long long time.

Emley didn’t just win, they destroyed a team from a higher division.  It could have easily have been double figures.  Parkgate were missing a number of key players due to work commitments but even Huddersfield Town may have struggled to contain the attacking threat of Emley, who at times seemed to play with five up front.  Defending appeared to have gone out of fashion this far north.

It all started relatively calmly, with both teams playing the ball around, feeling each other out.  Then in the space for seven first half minutes Ash Flynn scored a hatrick, notable for the fact that Mike missed the first two (on the pie and peas run then toilet) and Hartch the third (bathroom).  Parkgate pulled one back from the penalty spot and had they gone on to convert one of their other chances before the break it could have been a different story.

20604498906_5ef88aa001_kBut Emley went for the kill as soon as the second half started.  Flynn scored a fourth, again missed by Hartch before the star of the show, right midfielder Jordan Conduri set up Kieron Ryan for the fifth after a superb exchange of passes, before scoring the sixth himself.  Number seven came in injury time when Alex Hallam drove home.  It was truly a rout and one that Parkgate will want to forget very quickly.  For Emley, the delights of Burscough await in the Preliminary Round.  Half as good a performance as this will see them progress even further.

Alas, we didn’t win the raffle but we did find the winner – he offered us the prize for a tenner, fifteen if we wanted to go to his Mum’s house and she would cook it for our tea.