Can West Ham United Stay The Best Team In London?

To observers of English football (or soccer), it may sometimes seem as if the city of London has more clubs than the rest of England put together. It is symbolic of how much London towers over the rest of the United Kingdom that it has so many teams- no American metro area has more than two in any given sport. By contrast, mere regions within London are home to two or more teams.

Some of the most famous examples of this phenomenon come from North and West London. North London hosts two of the English Premier League’s marquee franchises, Arsenal and Tottenham. The two contest the North London Derby, one of the oldest and most heated rivalry contests in English football. Arsenal in particular is one of the most storied clubs in England and one of the most famous around the planet, with millions of supporters worldwide.

In the past twenty years, West London emerged as one of the epicenters of the football world. Ever since Chelsea F.C. was bought in 2003 by Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, it has been one of the powerhouse teams of Europe. Since the purchase, they have won five Premier League titles and one UEFA Champions League crown, the only club from London to do so.

These are just a few of the most internationally popular and prestigious London football clubs, but there are many others in the Premier League as well as in English Football’s lower divisions. Few of them have achieved major success or international recognition in the modern era, however- although one underdog team is making a bid to do just that this year.

West Ham United, despite what the name might suggest, makes its home in the East London neighborhood of Stratford. In the late 19th century, this area was a major hub of manufacturing and industry, with the football club itself starting as a team for workers at the Thames Ironworks factory. West Ham’s team crest bears two crossed hammers in a tribute to this heritage, and its fans are nicknamed “the Irons” or “the Hammers.” West Ham’s fans are also renowned for their hooliganism, a fact which has been dramatized in multiple British films.

West Ham’s heyday came in the 1960s, as the team won the 1964 FA Cup and featured many key contributors on the English team that took home the 1966 World Cup. Beginning in the 1970s, the team fell on hard times, mirroring the decline of British industry that was taking place across the country as well. The club was one of the first to compete in the Premier League, but has been relegated multiple times.

In recent years, the team underwent poor performance on the field and managerial turnover off of it, with four manager changes since 2017- its current manager, David Moyes, was actually hired and fired by the club previously. In February of 2020, thousands of fans staged a protest at the perceived dysfunction and incompetence of their ownership group.

Improbably, the 2020–21 Premier League season has seen a resurrection of West Ham’s fortunes. As of the beginning of February, West Ham sits in fifth place in the Premier League’s standings table. This makes it, improbably, the top ranked club in London, just ahead of Tottenham. More importantly, that also puts the club within striking distance of a crucial spot in the EPL’s top four. The clubs that achieve top four status at the end of the season earn a spot in the UEFA Champions League, which is critical both for club prestige as well as for revenue.

West Ham has done this off the back of a major hot streak, winning six matches to start 2021- their first such winning streak since 2012. The success of the team is due in large part to its ability to develop young players, with seven first team members having come through West Ham’s youth academy or development squad.

This is even without scoring contributions from Declan Rice, a twenty-one year old centre back considered by many to be the club’s most promising young talent. However, the score sheet is not truly indicative of Rice’s value, as he led the team in tackles, interceptions and passes during the 2019–20 season.

Unfortunately, when the smaller English clubs successfully develop young talent, the bigger fish inevitably start circling. Chelsea, in particular, has expressed interest in acquiring Rice, although that club’s own managerial shakeup, one that saw Frank Lampard fired from his position as manager, may have set back their pursuit of Rice, for now at least.

This is the perpetual challenge of being a smaller football club, in England or anywhere in Europe. A club may develop a young player, but if they become a superstar, sooner or later a club like Chelsea will come calling and pay a massive amount of cash for that player’s transfer rights. Whether Declan Rice leaves for Chelsea or somewhere else, West Ham fans will have to see him go sooner rather than later. This leaves only one path to success for a smaller club- to have a youth system that continually churns out talent to replace what has been transferred away.

West Ham achieving the success that it has this season is a testament to how it is finally managing to succeed in that approach. If it were to beat the odds and finish the season in the top four, it would secure a place in the UEFA Champions League for the first time in the club’s history. The key question that the club will face in the future is whether its academy’s success in player development is temporary or sustained. Some small Premier League clubs have used this to establish a consistent presence in the upper ranks of the standings, such as Leicester City. West Ham has made a good beginning towards establishing itself in that category, but only time will tell if it can follow through on the journey.