Fan Protests – How West Ham’s current plight mimic Brighton’s in the 90s

Malcolm X “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
The West Ham fans protest recently took a dramatic turn during their 3-0 home defeat to Burnley with angry fans invading the pitch and surrounding the directors box to show their disapproval and contempt for their current Joint-Chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan.

As a Brighton fan it’s hard not to draw comparisons to my club’s struggle in the 90s and the attitude towards many supporters of the club at the time. The apathy from the FA and more generally the football establishment, the public condemnation of the fans and the civil war between fractions within the club’s own support all mimic my club’s situation when fighting against irresponsible and reprobate individuals who asset stripped Brighton and Hove Albion football club and almost ran it out of business.

There has been plenty written about that time in the club’s history, so I won’t go into any greater level of detail here, but for those looking to get a greater understanding should read the fantastic book “Build a Bonfire” by Paul Hodgson and Stephen North.
What I will state about that time is, if it wasn’t for those protesting and their perseverance for the cause, it’s fair to say that the club wouldn’t be where it is today. In fact it’s quite likely there wouldn’t be a club at all.

Whilst the situation at West Ham may not be quite as near to a potentially terminal one, it certainly appears to be potentially terminal for the culture and spirit of the club. English football is renowned for its fan culture, and West Ham are one of the clubs which has a unique place in English football history, for better and worse. From 1966 World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, to the Hooligan element of the fanbase that played a part in the bad reputation that overshadowed English football in the 70’s and 80’s. However, they are currently starring at very different future, which threatens to endanger this and what the clubs aims to stand for.

Whilst West Ham still have an element of their fanbase that have been rightly regarded with disdain and that I certainly will not defend, (a quick google search and you’ll find various incidents of appalling fan behaviour just from the past two years) the clear majority are purely passionate football fans who want the best for their team. Sadly, it’s my opinion, that the same cannot be said for Mr Sullivan and Mr Gold. I am in no doubt that the tears shed by Mr Gold during the protests that day were more out of self-pity than anything else.

At Brighton in the 90s, the protests at the club created a sense of community amongst the supporters and incoming board of directors that was then galvanised during the various campaigns that were to follow including the at the time seemingly unceasing “Falmer for All” campaign. Whilst West Ham currently appear far from the sense of community created at Brighton, if the fans persevere with effective protests that catch the imagination and attention of the public, this can still be a long-term goal for the club.

Whilst some clubs like Brighton have flourished and succeeded following fan protests, others have failed. Blackburn Rovers supporters were widely criticised for not backing the team when protesting about their owners Venky’s during the season they were relegated from the Premier League and now find themselves in League One. Whilst the protest towards Charlton Athletic owner Romain Duchâtelet seems only to have hasten the clubs inevitable fall down the leagues. However, even if it is at the short-term hinderance of the team’s success, I fully believe fans should protest if they believe it is in the long-term interest of the club.

In ten years’ time, most owners and shareholders of professional sports teams will have lost any sense of amusement they currently get from their respective clubs and no doubt in time will neglected them, leaving the fans and local community to pick up the pieces (See Portsmouth, Swansea, et al.)

However, this is not to say I don’t appreciate some of the anger towards the protesters. The understandable reaction from players like Mark Noble who in the heat of the moment threw a supporter to the floor in anger and probably a slight sense of fear for his own safety, should only go to motivate those in power to appease the concerns of those protesting rather than vilify them. Vilifying them will only make the chasm of understanding between the two parties grow larger. Just as much as it did when the then Leyton Orient Player Ray Wilkins was attacked by Brighton fans during a pitch invasion at a league game between the teams in 1997. One of many pitch invasions at Brighton which at the time had already cost the club two league points and a fine. Whilst that is a worthy comparison, the intentions of the fans were not to harm the players on the pitch, not that Mark Noble knew that at the time of course. It’s easy to say that but of course many probably thought the same when Gunter Parche ran onto a tennis court in Hamburg during a WTA tour match quarter final in 1993, until he stabbed Monica Seles in the back that is.

The club and local authorities have a duty to protect the players but let’s not let the behaviour of a small number of individuals undermine the anger and contempt towards the owners of the club. The fans do have a right and maybe even a duty to protest about the mismanagement of their club. Whilst there will always be those that express the anger they hold in idiotic ways, let’s just hope the fans concerns are listened to and that this can lead to a productive solution rather than just vilifying an already oppressed set of supporters that simply want the best for the club they love.