Updated: May 10, 2020
Revelations in this morning’s Sunday Times alleging West Ham United made secret payments to an executive on the Olympic Park Legacy Authority throw yet another twist into an extraordinary tale. West Ham has said it will sue over the allegations. I’m not going to go into great detail here about the details, partly because I don’t have access to the same legal resources as The Sunday Times, but mainly because, having written much about this already I wanted to focus on what it means for Tottenham Hotspur.
Regular readers will know I’ve been involved in a small ginger group of Spurs fans called Supporting Our Future, and we’ve been looking at developing practical ways for Spurs to expand stadium capacity. So I’ll get that out in the open to start. When I wrote about this before, attracting some of this blog’s highest ever traffic, some people said I had an agenda in favour of the NDP and against the Olympic Stadium bid. So let’s get that one straight.
I’ve surprised myself with my pragmatism on this. I’ve always taken the position that if the only way for Spurs to survive as a competitive club was to move to Stratford I would probably reluctantly concede we had to go. My gut feeling though is that football clubs are what they are largely because they come from a place, and this is at the core of the identity that is so important in the ‘brand loyalty’ which modern football draws upon to be a successful business. I wanted to feel strongly that I’d never go to see Franchise Hotspur at Stratford. But I’ve long accepted my addiction to Spurs and it is more likely that my dedication would slowly wither as Spurs became just another product.
So if I had a preference, yes, it was to stay in Tottenham. And that’s the option I still lean towards. Because while I’ve long seen why the Stratford stadium could well be a better option for the business that currently owns Spurs, I’m yet to be convinced that it is a better option for Spurs. And that’s for the reasons I’ve outlined above – because place is an important part of a club’s identity, and because moving to Stratford would split the support, damage the brand and lead more people over time to drift away from what would be just another product. And who knows, in future if Stratford became untenable, maybe Franchise Hotspur could move again – perhaps abroad. That would satisfy the 39th game lobby, too.
I’ve also raised questions about practicality, because it surely cannot be quicker to demolish and rebuild a stadium after creating new plans and achieving new permissions than it can be to adjust existing plans. And how quickly the club can expand its capacity is an important issue if we are serious about not falling behind.
That’s why I’ve been working with colleagues in SoF to look at what it is about the NDP that is a problem, and then how to address those problems. In the course of this we’ve spoken to Spurs, Haringey and local MP David Lammy. All have been positive in principle, but the truth is that – perhaps predictably – all have also played their cards close to their chest. So we have continued, unresourced, to try and develop some practical proposals. Some of our suggestions have attracted interest, and we’ve tried to avoid either trying to prove points or to put ourselves centre stage.
At times I’ve wondered why I’m doing this – that is, helping a rich private company which is ultimately owned by a tax-exiled currency speculator to get something which will make it more money. And I’ve made no secret at times in the past that I’m not the greatest fan of the way the club’s current board chooses to operate at times. I’ve also got severe reservations about pushing for public money to help private enterprise. So what the hell am I doing?
Well, first I’m a Spurs fan and I would like to see the club do well. Much as I think the importance of money is overrated in modern football, the fact is that money is important and we need income from an expanded capacity in order to help us compete. Plus, despite the rather flexible claims about the length of the season ticket waiting list, it’s clear that more people want a chance to watch the team than currently get the chance.
I also think the club could play a part in regenerating the local area, something that is important to me because of my social and political views and because I grew up in the borough of Haringey. So I recognise there needs to be a balance between public and private contributions because there is a balance between public and private benefit. I know there is a significant section of Spurs support that doesn’t think the community benefit angle is important. I think that’s wrong and, to be blunt, some of the comments about the local area have struck me as nothing more than prejudice against the poor and ethnic minorities.
All that is why I thought the decision to apply for Regional Grant Funding, announced by the club last week, was so positive. It looks like a way of bringing all the partners concerned together, which would be supported by the broadest possible coalition of interests, and which would – if you’ll excuse the flight of fancy – harness the power of sport to contribute to the greater good.
The latest allegations about the process by which West Ham got the Stratford stadium certainly raise further queries about a process that has attracted many questions. For my part, I have serious reservations about any football club being handed a taxpayer-funded asset – and that dates back to the gift of the Commonwealth Games stadium in Manchester to Manchester City. That’s another reason the Stratford option does not look attractive to me, and I think there are a whole heap of issues over the entire Olympic Stadium process which need to be looked at, issues separate from the interests of a couple of football clubs.
The worry I have at the moment comes when a “senior source” from Spurs is quoted as saying that if the Sunday Times allegations are proved then “there is no way it [the bid] can’t go back and be reopened”. I can understand Spurs’ fury at the process and how it seems the club was used. And I can understand the argument that says we are looking for leverage through our challenges to the result of the Stratford bid. But if we are briefing that the bid process should be re-opened it suggests that the club still wants to go for Stratford. And while that suspicion remains, it will be difficult if not impossible to get the backing for any other scheme. If Spurs are still thought to be interested in Stratford, for example, how realistic is it to expect to be chosen to receive RGF money?
As I see it, Spurs need to make a firm commitment to the NDP. Questions of compensation and everything else would then fall in behind securing that prize. If it turns out that Spurs are due some compensation, all well and good, that can go towards the NDP. I can understand the argument about keeping our options open, but I’m rather afraid that this could end up being another case of that oft-voiced criticism of Spurs – that the current board has a tendency to be too clever by half – applying. Without a firm commitment to a preferred option, there can be no support for a preferred option. Options are good, but eventually you have to choose one. And stick with it. Otherwise you become like a shopper always afraid to buy in case you see a cheaper product after you pay up.
Which ever way you look at it, I believe Spurs need to commit to the NDP.