Without actually planning it in any way, I found myself heading to the London Stadium yesterday evening for West Ham’s penultimate home fixture of what has been a relatively tempestuous season for Hammers fans. I have visited the stadium on several occasions previously for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 for which it was originally designed, and more recently for a couple of Rugby League internationals and to see Guns n’ Roses. I have to say that I have largely never had a problem with the stadium, but then up until last night’s visit I had never had an opportunity to watch a football match there.
The chance for my visit was borne out of a conversation with a drinking associate of Mrs Football Nerd’s and mine, who prides himself on being a founder member of the Tartan Army and who has travelled the world for many years watching Scotland. Sandy is also a dedicated St Johnstone fan and having been exiled in East London for a number of years has committed to getting his regular football watching fix with a season ticket for West Ham. Early morning starts at work mean that evening games generally finish too late and so he wondered if I might like to take his place for the match against Manchester United. After a brief period of contemplation of all of about half a minute, I took the ticket off him and started looking forward to the match.
The dissatisfaction with the stadium amongst the West Ham faithful has been well documented and something that I touched upon a little while ago (https://football-nerd.org/2018/03/15/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-unhappy-hammers-make-their-feelings-known/). Rather bizarrely my visit was to come exactly two years to the day after West Ham had beaten the very same opposition, Manchester United; in the last ever game to be played at the Boleyn Ground.
In many ways the issues with the London Stadium started with the decision to try to turn it into a ‘football stadium’ in the first place, the decision was at best ill-conceived and in reality struck many as being a hugely expensive compromise to not having an effective legacy plan in place for life after 2012. With the benefit of hindsight the most practical solution perhaps would have been to knock the stadium down altogether and to build a purpose-built football venue in its place.
Since West Ham moved into the stadium, a full four years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, a number of recurring issues have been raised by fans who probably didn’t want to leave their spiritual home in the first place: its location in Stratford nearly three miles from the club’s original homeland; the transport links and getting to the ground through the Westfield shopping centre; the distance from the seats to the pitch and having an athletics track in the way kill the atmosphere; and the site lacking the usual associated infrastructure we normally expect to find around a ground, read: pubs and food stalls that provide an alternative to the over-priced facilities within the ground itself.
Being relatively local and within easy access of the Docklands Light Railway which takes you into Stratford, for me getting there was pretty straightforward. For others, the Central Line coming in from Essex, a traditional heartland for West Ham fans who have moved out of East London alongside various other Tube, Overground and main line trains should mean that transport isn’t too much of an issue.
However upon exiting the station, the crowd control policies in place mean that the shopping centre itself and associated bars and eateries are off limits to the arriving crowds. After all who wants a load of football fans interrupting the customary retail activity? Instead arriving fans are shepherded on a ten minute walk via a circuitous route of closed-off roads with none of the pubs or food stalls you would normally associate with arriving at a football match. Certainly it is a noticeably less atmospheric approach than the old walk down Green Street from Upton Park Station.
Once you arrive at the entrance to the Olympic Park it soon becomes apparent as to why there were no refreshment options en route, as save for the bar at the Orbit there is no other option but to enter the podium area where there are a whole range of burger, hog roast, fish and chips and beer kiosks with pricing suitably inflated for the captive market. For those of us reluctantly accustomed to the pricing and options at the Emirates and Wembley it probably wasn’t as much of a shock to the system as for those expecting a more traditional football ground experience. While the pricing didn’t seem to put too many fellow fans off, the queues may have done. Having enjoyed a pint al fresco I decided to head inside to see what options were available on the other side of the turnstiles.
It was more of the same inside although it has to be said that there was less queuing due to the proliferation of kiosks around the relatively narrow concourse. The club’s ownership having clearly heeded the lessons learned from Arsenal’s move to the Emirates had gone to great lengths with the décor in an attempt to make it feel like West Ham’s home but I couldn’t shake the perception that the club were merely tenants in what used to be the Olympic Stadium and it made me wonder as to whether this will ever feel like home for the Hammers fans?
Having satisfied my appetite and quenched my thirst with the Wicks Manor jumbo sausage and bottle of lager deal for a just about palatable £9.90; I went in to see what the view was like from Sandy’s seats. Whether by my mate’s deliberate design or sheer good fortune the location nine rows up on the bend of the athletics track meant that I was probably as close to the pitch as anywhere else in the stadium. Certainly the vast swathes of seats sweeping up and behind me seemed to be a very long way away.
As the teams emerged to the traditional strains of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, it has to be said that it didn’t feel like the cauldron that used to characterise Upton Park. Maybe this may have in part been explained by the relatively meaningless nature of the result but certainly the huge distance from the goal to the more hardcore support behind it didn’t help the atmosphere.
The match itself was entertaining enough despite remaining goalless thanks in no small part to some flying saves from Adrián in the West Ham goal. Having secured Premier League survival the previous weekend the mood amongst the home fans was relaxed and jovial, a personal highlight being when they quietened the Man United support by suggesting they ‘only lived round the corner’.
Upon the final whistle the return to Stratford station was no worse than you would expect from departing any similar-sized sporting venue and the crowd was well marshalled. As I headed home I reflected on a thoroughly enjoyable evening of football watching, although as a strict neutral the fact that it didn’t feel like West Ham’s home to me allowed me to sympathise with the regularly attending fans who still haven’t taken to the place.