West Ham United appear to be a club on the rise.
They sit seventh in the Premier League, are into the last 16 of the EFL Cup, where they will host Manchester City, and have a European campaign to enjoy.
On Thursday, they host Rapid Vienna in their first European home game in a competition proper since 2006, having started their Europa League group phase programme with a very impressive 2-0 win at Dinamo Zagreb.
Manager David Moyes signed a three-year contract in June and even the much-derided London Stadium is developing a ‘West Ham’ feel, with the stands behind the goal squared off, the distinctive carpet changed from green to claret and, now, a statue outside paying homage to the team that won the 1965 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Yet, if everything in the garden is rosy, why have Rio and Anton Ferdinand been joined by a third former West Ham player, Tony Cottee, in backing a group looking to take the club over? And why, before Sunday’s game against Brentford, is a demonstration planned by fans who have vowed to get rid of co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold, plus vice-chairman Karren Brady?
The bitter divide
On 29 February 2020, before the impact of coronavirus began to be felt and English football shut down, thousands of West Ham fans marched from Plaistow to Pudding Mill Station in protest at the club’s owners.
With their team in the middle of a relegation scrap, they felt it was time to show exactly what they thought about perceived broken promises around the controversial move from Upton Park to London Stadium in 2016. The atmosphere was toxic, the ill-feeling intense.
It was suggested by some, only partly in jest, that one of the reasons Moyes was eventually able to guide his side to safety and then, last season, into sixth place and a coveted European slot, was that no fans were present, ready to turn on Sullivan, Gold and Brady as soon as anything went wrong.
But despite the upturn in fortunes, the sentiment remains.
No matter that their team may have a chance of a place in the top four when they entertain newly promoted Brentford on Sunday, it is felt by ‘Hammers United’ – the group that has become an umbrella organisation – that now is exactly the right time to reinforce their feelings about wanting rid of Sullivan, Gold and Brady.
On Sunday, at 12:00 BST, a protest has been arranged close to London Stadium.
“West Ham supporters have waited patiently, following our last large demonstration in February 2020, for their opportunity to stand together and send a clear message to our owners,” say Hammers United.
“We are performing so well on the pitch, we are building a strong squad and we are in Europe. If you protest now, people will take notice and your message will be heard. It is the perfect time to demonstrate.”
Evidently, some fans are not happy at the thought of any kind of protest that has the potential to destabilise Moyes and his players. Others feel members of Hammers United have undermined their position by meeting with club executives in an attempt to solve some of their complaints through negotiation.
But Paul Colborne, co-founder and chair of Hammers United, counters that view.
“Trust in the current owners has been broken as a direct result of their actions over the last 11 years,” he says.
“An extensive survey of our members and the wider fanbase, carried out midway through the 2020-21 season, reaffirmed how supporters view a change in ownership as a priority if we are to rebuild the supporter experience at our club.”
Sullivan and Gold accept they have not got everything right under their stewardship.
However, they feel little credit is given to them for the investment they have sanctioned in the first-team squad.
Since 2018, West Ham have spent more than £300m on new players, including club record fees for Felipe Anderson and Sebastien Haller, who were both subsequently sold at a large loss following the exit of manager Manuel Pellegrini. In addition, West Ham resisted the option to sell star midfielder Declan Rice this summer.
They have also refused to enter into any meaningful discussions with the PAI Capital group, who want to buy the club as part of a wider strategy to bring the entire Olympic Park site, which continues to haemorrhage money despite the involvement of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, under one umbrella.
Run by Azerbaijan-born, British-educated businessman Nasib Piriyev, PAI Capital is promising £150m investment for the first team, attracting the Ferdinand brothers and Cottee to its cause.
There is disagreement over whether a second bid has been lodged for the club but even PAI sources accept Sullivan and Gold have shown no interest in advancing a deal, without which the entire Park plan cannot proceed.
A delicate balance
All of this creates a very uneasy situation. On one hand, gains are being made on and off the pitch and work continues at improving the relationship between West Ham and their landlords, which in fairness, could not have been any worse at one stage.
With their large supporter base, prime stadium location and improving team, West Ham do seem to be a club with forward momentum and capacity to go much further.
On the other hand, the situation also feels very delicate. This week, the club have been celebrating their heroes from 1965. That European success was part of a historic four-year run in which they won two trophies, and reached another final and three semi-finals.
In the past 30 years, however, success has been sporadic. Two League Cup semi-final defeats and an FA Cup final loss to Liverpool are balanced by three relegations.
No wonder many Hammers long for something better. It’s just that, no matter which way they go, there are no guarantees of getting it.