West Ham United – Champions of North America


Another day of our looking back without anger..This story is one for all West Ham fans to remember and pull from their sleeves when other fans start asking what we have won….

I like to think I know the history of West Ham quite well.  When I was younger I poured over statistics, history books and programmes to learn the managers, the players and the key games in their history.  I knew all about the War Cup victory, the FA Cup Final appearances of 1923 and 1964, the European Cup Winners Cup campaigns of 1965, 1966 and of course 1976.  I was lucky enough to experience the “golden” age of 1980 to 1986 first hand, and once touched the Intertoto Cup we won in 2000. But last week whilst researching Czech Republic football for a new project (coming to your bookshelves in 2013) I came across the International Soccer League which ran from 1960 to 1965.  When I looked at the winners of the trophy during that five-year period I was stunned.  Back in 1963 the Hammers became the first, and only English team to win the trophy.

I always look forward to my work trips to New York.  It is a chance to experience one of the greatest cities in the world, and often to get a slice of sport, US-style.  Unfortunately my timings this week meant that there was no sporting action on the agenda.  The MLS was about to kick off the 2013 season, Baseball was a month off and the NBA is dullsville.  ut over dinner at Swine (vegetarians look away now) I heard an amazing story about a little known football tournament from 50 years ago.  And apparently, West Ham had been a household name in these parts.

I can see you scratching your head, assuming that this was some random one-off game played between small clubs at the start of the season.  But you would be very very wrong. The tournament 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.

Polo GroundsIn 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.  Bayern Munich, Nice, Glenavon, Burnley and Kilmarnock competed with the New York Americans in a round-robin tournament played within New York State.  The Scots shocked everyone by winning Section 1 and eventually went on to meet Bangu, from Brazil who had topped a group featuring Red Star Belgrade, Sampdoria, Sporting Lisbon, Norrköping and Rapid Vienna.  Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians took the first ISL title by beating the Scots 2-0 at The Polo Grounds (there is even video of the game here).

The following year the tournament was expanded to feature eight teams in each section with Everton winning six out of seven games against Bangu, New York, Karlsruhe, Kilmarnock, Montreal, Dinamo Bucharest and Besiktas before losing in the final to Dukla Prague 9-2 on aggregate.  Such was the interest within North America that half of the games were played in Canada.

In 1962 the organisers decided to add in the American Challenge Cup, pitting the season winners against the previous years champions.  The only British team to enter in this year was Dundee who finished fifth in a group won by eventual champions America RJ from Brazil.  They then faced 1961 winners Dukla Prague over two legs in New York, losing to the Czech’s 3-2.

Taça_da_International_Soccer_LeagueBut in 1963 it was the turn of the Hammers to take part, accepting an invite from the organisers to play in Section I along with the Italians Mantova, Kilmarnock, Recife from Brazil, Preussen Munster, Deportivo Oro from Mexico and France’s Valenciennes.  With Bobby Moore leading the side, the Hammers topped the group in one of the tightest competitions yet, with just four points separating all seven teams.  They went forward to play Section II winners Gornik Zabrze from Poland and beat the Poles 2-1 on aggregate on Randalls Island to claim the title as well as Moore being named the tournament’s “MVP”, winning the Eisenhower Trophy, and Geoff Hurst the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals.

The following year the tournament had a number of drop-outs, reduced from fourteen sides to just ten, with Polish side Zaglebie Sosnowiec beating Werder Bremen to win the trophy, although the Hammers decided not to compete for the American Challenge Cup, passing the honour instead to 1963 runners-up Dukla Prague who beat the Poles 4-2 over two legs in New York.

The final year of the tournament was in 1965 and the Hammers were back, fresh from winning the European Cup Winners Cup against 1860 Munich who they faced again in New York.  This time they finished bottom of Section 1 with the US team, New York Americans finally winning the group, although they had to settle for the runners-up spot after losing in the final to Polonia Bytom.

This was the last season of the ISL.  The United States Soccer Federation Association filed a law suit banning the “import” of any foreign teams to play in the competition, although Cox later won a court case to overturn the decision which led to the strange United Soccer Association League in 1967, but that one is for another day.  For now I am safe in the knowledge that West Ham have won ANOTHER tournament (to go along with the Intertoto Cup) that no other English team has.  And that will buy me plenty of ammunition in the office football banter wars.

The wonderful Pitch Invasion has a complete history of the tournament that can be read here.

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.

Friendly Fire…or how to navigate through the pre-season dance


No, no, no.  One after the other the emails from professional clubs arrive as responses to our requests for pre-season friendlies.  At least the clubs in question have had the decency to reply – 50% of the requests we send out go unanswered, consigned to the trash folders or passed around the clubs until they fall into someone’s spam filters.  We did consider the idea of requesting friendlies in writing, rather than email, but there’s even less certainty that the request will end up on the desk of the right person, or even if they are in the office during the close season.

Every season we start the planning earlier and earlier, based on feedback we get from the pro clubs that their schedules have already been locked down when we ask.  And initially they all say “it’s too early for us to be arranging our pre-season games” before letting us down gently a few weeks later.

At our level it is all about who you know – there’s very little chance of success trying to appeal to the benevolent side of a pro club, they don’t care.  They are doing you a favour and if something more attractive comes along you will be dropped like a stone.  Likewise, with the average life expectancy of a Football League manager now around 14 months, the summer is a fertile time for change and anything agreed is quickly disagreed when the new man comes in as we found out last season when an unnamed current League One club pulled out of a friendly at The Pan with a few weeks notice due to a change in manager and no chance for us to fill it with a similar fixture. Cobblers is what we said to that this time last year.

We quickly filled our local away games and extended the hand of friendship to our old friends from Dulwich Hamlet and Burgess Hill Town who would bring a fair few thirsty fans but every year we try to have one friendly that will get our fans tapping their feet in expectation.

Our “headline” act this year is a decent one and one that has come about through the patient building of a wider relationship.  We’ve enjoyed a good relationship to date with Chelsea and whilst we would have loved to have seen Conte’s men come down to the Pan, their DS side is still an attractive draw.  Who knows, there could be a famous name or two in the pack come the 22nd July.  

If you don’t ask you don’t get so we asked.  Multiple times.  And then they said yes.  It’s likely to be an attractive enough game for the fans of both sides that we will beat our budget for gate receipts from our pre-season games from this one game alone which puts us on a strong footing financially for the start of the season.

At least there is some logic in our Pre-Season plans which is more than can be said for my once beloved West Ham.  Their “European Tour” as they are calling it consists of three games against two opposition, one of which is a fellow Premier League side (someone obviously hasn’t been reading the Pre-Season Friendly rule book).   Despite the platitudes that come out of the club, surely someone up on high must have questioned the logic behind the games.  A pre-season training camp in Germany (not sure what’s wrong with Butlins at Camber Sands like in the old days) followed by two games against Werder Bremen in 24 hours but in locations over a hundred miles apart.  It’s not even that they are playing in well-known stadiums or in cities that have some link with either club – Schneverdingen has a population of around 20,000 and one of the biggest places of interest is a bog called Pietzmoor.  Twenty four later they decamp in Löhne (literal translation “wages” – how apt) in Nord-Rhein Westphalia.

But then they ramp up their preparations by heading to Iceland where they will take on Manchester City.  Iceland.  What’s the point of that?  No disrespect to Iceland but is there any relevance to the game being played there?

“It is fantastic that we will make history by becoming the first Premier League clubs to face each other in Iceland, and we are really looking forward to visiting Scandinavia, where there is a very big West Ham following.

“Iceland captured the imagination of everyone with their fantastic performance at the European Championships last year and, although the country is small in population, they have a huge love for football.”

The words of Slaven Bilic apparently.  Not sure what definition of Scandinavia he has read but according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Iceland is a Nordic Island Country and not part of Scandinavia.  But even so, what a flimsy reason to suggest why the game is being played there.  I certainly struggled to find any evidence of the West Ham Fan Club, Reykjavik branch (Chelsea and Spurs yes).  On West Ham’s official website there is a directory of hundreds of fan clubs not not one from Iceland.  Perhaps the club has confused the popularity of the discount frozen goods store in Green Street?

Good luck to the Hammers fans heading off to follow the side.  I’m sure the players will acknowledge your loyal support as always even if the club continue to wear their blinkers.

So where are we going – First Qualifying Round – Andorra


FC Lusitans – Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Vella – Andorra La Vella

I’m sure we’ve all read the Wikipedia page about FC Lusitan about their Portuguese heritage and all that useful relevant information for the hundreds/thousands of West Ham fans who may decide to make the trip to Europe’s highest capital.  Alas, with a population around the same size of Chesham or Seaham (basically around the equivalent of the 469th biggest place in the United Kingdom), it’s not a place that will keep many football fans engaged for long, despite the promises of the tourist office that remind us that:- “There are many places to see in this city from the old buildings to the majestic view of the Pyrenees mountains. A good idea would be to take your digital camera along to capture some beautiful pictures.”

Essentially, once you’ve seen the (stone) bridge, (stone) buildings, (stone) church and (stone) stone in the middle of the Plaça del Poble you will need a beer.  Fortunately the town has, quite literally one or two bars including La Birreria in Carrer de la Vall, L’Abadia Cerveceria and Barria Antic Pub in Cap Del Carrer.  The one thing Andorra has got is hotel rooms by the bucket-loads.  As one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe, there will be plenty of choice for the travelling Hammers as the winter-sports hotels will be rubbing their hands at the biggest summer pay day in their history.

It is expected that we will play at the 850-capacity Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Valle which acts as the regional stadium used by Perimera Divisió FC and US Santa Coloma, Penya Encarnada d’Andorra as well as FC Lusitans.  It is possible that the game may be played two miles up the road at the bigger national stadium, Estadi Nacional d’Andorra where Wales played in front of a sell out 3,100 crowd.  The smaller stadium, as you would expect with such a harsh alpine climate, is a 3G whilst the single main stand wouldn’t look out of place in the lower reaches of our Non-Leagues.  That’s not meant to be disrespectful in any way – it is perfectly adequate for domestic purposes, whilst the national team have dispensation to host bigger nations in Barcelona, Girona or Toulouse all around 3 hours away by road.

Talking of roads, there isn’t any other way in or out of the principality other than by car, coach or bus.  Most fans fans will undoubtably land at Barcelona El Prat Airport which is around 130 miles away.  Don’t expect to be able to do the trip in anything less than 3 hours – it’s pretty twisty and turny all the way up the Pyrannes. Girona, used as a hub by Ryanair is around the same distance/time away but there are less transfer options.  Alternatively, Toulouse is a few miles closer on the other side of the mountains but time-wise it’s still around three hours drive.

Andorrabybus.com offer coach transfers from Barcelona Airport every two hours from 8am to 8pm returning daily from Andorra from 5am to 3pm at the same interval, costing €56 return. They also offer two departures per day to/from Girona and Toulouse respectively.

So what can we expect from our opponents? They blew a huge opportunity to grab the title they won in 2012 and 2013 by only taking five points from their last five games, allowing FC Santa Coloma to nip in and gain the championship as well as a place in the Champions League qualifying.their European pedigree isn’t exactly red hot, gaining one draw (at home to Faroe Islanders EB Streymur last season) and losing seven games including a 8-0 spanking in 2012 against Valletta of Malta.

Thirty nine year old Óscar Sonejee is the Lusitans rock at the back and has plenty of experience and is Andorra’s most capped player with 101 international appearances.  The Portuguese influences can be seen in the 15 or so Portuguese nationals that Lusitanos will likely be able to choose from.  

With just a few UEFA nations yet to watch a game in I couldn’t be happier drawing one of the two teams who were in the draw from Andorra.  Dates are still to be confirmed as fellow UE Sant Julià de Lòria have also been drawn at home in the first leg just up the road in the Camp d’Esports d’Aixovall against the Danes of Randers.

* Now confirmed as the 9th July

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.