West Ham United's players fear the toxic atmosphere at the London Stadium will harm their battle against relegation after their 3-0 defeat by Burnley on Saturday was marred by furious supporter demonstrations against David Gold and David Sullivan, the club's co-owners.
Although David Moyes called for his team to stick together after an afternoon of chaos left them three points above the bottom three, there is concern within West Ham's dressing room that their fight to stay in the Premier League will be derailed now the fanbase appears to have lost all faith with the board.
The east London club have launched an investigation and is braced for a heavy fine from the Football Association after the London Stadium’s security failings were exposed by four pitch invasions, hundreds of supporters gathering in front of the directors’ box to vent their feelings, the police receiving two assault allegations and Sullivan’s glasses saving him from serious injury after he was struck by a coin during the protests.
The situation is far from ideal, bearing in mind the damage that West Ham's third consecutive defeat has done to their chances of staying up. Several players were visibly annoyed with the delays caused by supporters breaking on to the field of play, with Mark Noble, the captain, hurling the first pitch invader to the ground and James Collins becoming involved in a heated exchange with another.
It is understood the squad is worried about the prospect of further unrest during the run-in. The pressure on them is already immense and while they understand why fans are upset with the hierarchy, the last thing they need are any more distractions during a crucial period.
The squad flew to Florida for five days of warm-weather training on Sunday morning and need to regroup swiftly before their next game, which is at home to fellow strugglers Southampton on March 31st.
Yet the sense is of a club at war with itself. Supporters believe promises have been broken since West Ham left Upton Park two years ago and they have railed at a lack of investment in the transfer market. Within the club, however, there is disbelief that the mood turned so quickly in the ground after Ashley Barnes gave Burnley the lead in the 66th minute.
The day was supposed to be remembered for commemorations marking the 25th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death. Yet the atmosphere deteriorated after the visitors scored, even though West Ham would have had ample time to rescue themselves in normal circumstances, and there is a feeling that the disruptions played a part in the team’s subsequent collapse.
Sullivan and Gold were escorted from their seats on safety grounds in the 84th minute. Some supporters gathered below the directors’ box had made throat-slitting gestures and some threw missiles.
Trevor Brooking, who was sitting on his own in the directors' box by the end, confirmed reports that a coin hit Sullivan.
“I didn’t see it myself but I did have that confirmed, which was part of the reason why the people in the directors’ box had to go inside to save any more problems like that,” the former West Ham player and manager told the BBC.
The focus in the aftermath switched to the failure by stewards to respond to the pitch invasions and the way they were overwhelmed by the surge towards the directors’ box, with one female steward knocked to the ground.
Questions were raised about the slow response from the security team, given the fallout from a cancelled protest march before the game. Rival fan groups had clashed over that decision and Mark Walker, the chairman of the West Ham United Independent Supporters Association, has criticised the club for not condemning the threats and abuse that he received last week.
West Ham, who say they went through the proper safety checks before the game with the relevant authorities, called an emergency meeting with the stadium’s stakeholders on Saturday night and will issue bans to anyone involved in the pitch invasions.
Sullivan blamed LS185, the stadium operators, as West Ham do not have control over stewarding.
“We feel very badly let down by the stadium operators appointed by the mayor’s staff,” he said on Saturday night. “Where were the stewards and police?”
A spokesman for the mayor of London responded by saying that Sadiq Khan’s office has no influence over the stadium’s security, while the reason it took police so long to appear was because officers are not required in the ground for low-category fixtures.
The London Legacy Development Corporation is conducting an inquiry with LS185. While both organisations had made preparations for the march that never took place, they will analyse whether there was information to suggest that there would be some form of protest inside the ground.
Ultimately, however, the FA will hold West Ham responsible for the inadequate crowd control. West Ham, who banned around 200 fans after violent clashes during last season’s League Cup victory over Chelsea, expect to receive a fine, while the FA has the power to make them play behind closed doors. Aston Villa were hit with a £200,000 (€225,000) fine after pitch invasions overshadowed their FA Cup victory over West Bromwich Albion at Villa Park three years ago.