CAS Trust Member Paul Breen and author of "The Charlton Men" offers his view on West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium...
As a child growing up in Ireland, I always had a passing interest in how West Ham were getting on since my cousin, from Mayo, lived in Camden and supported them, because he was a fan of the underdog. Back then, in the late 70s and early 80s, West Ham United found themselves in the role of underdog, as they battled for promotion from the second division and beat Arsenal, against the odds, in the 1980 FA Cup final.
Those were interesting times when the likes of Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds, and Alan Devonshire could play in the second tier of the English League, and there was nothing that unnatural about it.
These days I can’t imagine too many English internationals who’d be glad to ply their trade in the championship, no matter how much of a love they professed for their ‘local’ club.
Coming to live in Charlton and then following CAFC, it was interesting too that most of our fans don’t see West Ham as rivals, thanks to how they helped us out during exile from The Valley. Unlike Crystal Palace who screwed us over, and kicked us when we were down, West Ham held out a helping hand.
For that, you can almost find yourself grudgingly forgiving them their tendency to poach some of our best young players down through the decades – Billy Bonds, Jermaine Defoe, Diego Poyet.
But the times have changed since 1980, and even 1992, and they’re about to change even more in coming decades as West Ham move ever closer to residing in The Olympic Stadium.
Again it’s a place that most of us associate with positives thanks to the feelgood factor of the Olympic games and gold medal successes, but also a place that casts a shadow of uncertainty across the once-steadfast dividing line of the Thames.
West Ham is on the verge of potentially becoming a very big club, and I hope that the management and marketing folks behind the scenes at Charlton are ready to deal with the impact and consequences of that. Even though I am writing about this only now, it is an issue I have weighed up for quite a while.
I know that the Trust have also been thinking about this, and are active in highlighting potential issues. We do seem to be one of very few London clubs who realise what this could all mean for us.
Last week I was chatting to a West Ham fan that I work with, a university teacher of Business and Management, and he gave me an insight into the excitement the Hammers’ supporters are feeling at the present time. They have just got rid of a manager who kept them afloat in the division but played some uninspiring football. They have now brought in Slaven Bilić and if he gets them playing attractive football, and solidifies their position in the Premier League, they are then in pretty good shape on the playing side for when they move into the Olympic stadium, making them an attractive proposition for supporters, new and lapsed.
Right now, just as Charlton depend on our support base in Kent, West Ham depend heavily on a support base in Essex. However, the Olympic stadium is going to give them the opportunity to reach out and attract new fans from that 5 mile radius of Stratford, along all sides and bends of the River Thames that might once have been seen as clearly demarcated in its sense of football loyalties. That drive to attract supporters has already started. Take a look at The Evening Standard in the new season, much as we might dislike some of its views, and you will likely see the same type of adverts as have been used increasingly by West Ham over the past couple of years. They are putting in full page colour adverts offering discounts for kids, families, and casual supporters to attend Cup matches and so on. At other times they will have adverts that are designed to specifically appeal to the corporate supporter to come and sample their match day hospitality. I know for a fact that they are also increasingly giving away tickets for such hospitality, or offering deals at reduced prices, all in a drive to attract new fans.
According to my work colleague this is about getting a stronger support base so that when they move to the Olympic stadium, they become a more attractive option for investors.
He believes that Karen Brady right now has goals in mind to make West Ham London’s biggest club, after Arsenal and Chelsea, and that if they can get investment they can become as stable for the long-term as Arsenal, not reliant on one key funder for revenue.
This could put them up there in the top five or six clubs in the country for the next couple of decades, and that’s where the situation becomes relevant to Charlton. If for example our owners were considering a long-term aim of prioritising the London fan base over the Kentish one, then they are going to face quite a fight. Secondly, the Charlton fan base and the fan base of clubs in general in England is getting older, as is widely acknowledged, even though the younger generation also love their football.
That younger fan base is constantly exposed to coverage of the Premier League and as one of my students said last term when I said that I was a Charlton supporter – “it’s not football if it’s not happening in the Premier League.” With this kind of attitude, clubs that market themselves as Premier League are always going to have an advantage. Increasingly too, there’s going to be a demand for clubs to reduce their ticket prices so as to fill the stadiums and make the spectacle more appealing to the overseas markets.
So the message here is that as supporters we have got to be conscious of what is around the corner in terms of West Ham moving into the Olympic Stadium. There is a danger that we may feel powerless about it but, as CAS Trust has shown HERE, there are a number of avenues we can still explore. Meanwhile we can keep promoting the good name of Charlton, and hope that our team remains an attractive enough proposition on the field and off to keep West Ham’s support base firmly on the other side of the Thames Estuary.
But they are out there hovering on the edges of better possibilities, and becoming more attractive to investors the closer they get to taking up tenancy of their new home. I don’t begrudge them their new found fortunes but just hope we get the chance to go there and beat them in their new backyard as soon as possible!
Paul Breen – follow me on Twitter @CharltonMen