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?

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.

Football will eat itself


It seems that finally footballing authorities are starting to take notice of the growing voices of the genuine fans on the subject of ticket prices.  Last weekend the mass walkout at Anfield with Liverpool leading 2-0 not only grabbed the headlines but could be argued to have such a distracting effect on the team that they conceded two late goals.  On Tuesday night Borussia Dortmund fans showed their displeasure at being charged £55 for a ticket for their trip to Stuttgart by raining tennis balls down onto the pitch during the game.  With so much money gushing into the English game there can be little reason why ticket prices continue to increase in many cases at rates well above the level of inflation.

Every club wants to play in front of capacity crowds and whilst some will offer discounted admission for some games, such as cup ties, where season ticket holders do not get automatic admission, come Premier League time and the prices increase.  Some clubs are desperate to increase capacities, trying to meet finite supply with almost unlimited demand.  The economists among us will know when that happens price equilibriums can be manipulated by the supplier, a situation that is leading to the anger in instances such as at Anfield where Liverpool fans could be charged up to £77 for a ticket in their new stand next season.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_hThe English game has never been so popular.  In a statement issued by the Football Supporters Federation after the Anfield incident, Chairman Malcolm Clarke suggests that rising prices will lead to  “Stadiums filled with tourists waving “half and half scarves and taking selfies”.  I’d actually say in many instances that is one of the reasons why ticket prices continue to rise – the number of overseas visitors attending Premier League games has never been higher, filling the vacuum left by English fans unable or unwilling to pay the increasing amounts for a ticket.  Again, simple Economics 101 suggests that “half and half” scarf sellers would pack up shop tomorrow and do something else if there was no demand for their product.

Clarke claims the money from the new £5.1bn television rights deal, due to kick in from next season which will see every Premier League club receive a MINIMUM of £99 million in revenues for the three years after that, could let every supporter into every home game and still bring in the same revenue as this season.  Yet it is unlikely that wholesale price reductions will be seen in England next season.

Last year’s BBC report on the Price of Football painted a relatively healthy picture of clubs offering low price tickets but the results on some levels were flawed because they asked the clubs to submit information rather than researching the situation and looking at the average cost of tickets. Headline figures of the “cheapest ticket” for instance often related to one game where the club discounts all tickets for a particular purpose rather than the cheapest average ticket cost across the whole season.  At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is listed £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). The Hammers also take the prize of having the highest away fans ticket price at an eye-watering £85, yet also offer many games at low price where more often than not the ground ends up being full, such as the Europa League games in the summer or the FA Cup ties against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool.

You can argue about the “value” of a ticket as well.  Leicester City fans would certainly say they are getting value for money this season but what about at Chelsea where it hasn’t been the happiest of seasons to be sitting in an £82 season for some games.  Any price increases will be easier to swallow based on the success of the season, although even a Foxes fan may baulk at a 100% price increase next season should the club owners decide to.

Whilst many Premier League fans have been priced out of the game and now get their football kicks further down the pyramid in the Non-League game where £20 can buy you admission, a programme, beer and a burger rather than just a Thai Green Salad Emirates Burger at some stadiums, their places have been filled with the overseas visitors.  Visit Britain published a report in 2014 that revealed over 800,000 tourists to Britain in 2014 attended a football match whilst here, spending around £684 million in the process.  It is not just tourist that enjoy football matches; out of the 800,000 total, more than 40,000 international business visitors went to a football match during their stay in 2014, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea the three most popular destinations.

The findings show that football is the number one sporting draw for international tourists to Britain. Of those visitors who gave their primary journey purpose to the UK as ‘watching sport’, 73% said they had attended a football match. Around 40% of those going to a football match said that watching sport was the main reason for visiting the UK.  However, the stumbling block is often access to genuine tickets, with most clubs operating a Members-only policy for the very limited amount of tickets that are put on sale for Premier League games.  Some clubs will try and drive visitors to hospitality or travel packages instead potentially at the expense of those hardcore fans who can no longer afford the basic ticket prices.  What is clear though is that any attempts by fans to protest with their feet and not attend games will simply see their void being filled by these “tourists waving half and half scarves and taking selfies”

The protest by the Liverpool fans last weekend certainly created some waves but it may take a concerted effort of protests from other fans, potentially those willing to make the sacrifice of walking out of matches to make the clubs sit up and listen.  The Premier League currently has a valuable asset in terms of full stadiums, but if empty seats start appearing in games being broadcast around the world ultimately rights holders will value the product less and so the knock on effect could be a lower value deal in three years’ time, consequently meaning less money for the clubs involved.  Remember, greed and gluttony are both deadly sins.

Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs


A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.