BY WILL MAGEE
With the twilight of their first season at the London Stadium upon them, West Ham fans are well placed to give a balanced verdict on their new home. The team’s early season woes are largely behind them and, with performances on the pitch now passable and any relegation fears allayed, supporters can assess the merits of the ground without anxiety and frustration over results creeping in. What’s more, fans have read countless opinion pieces and hot takes on the place, which have doubtlessly helped them come to an informed judgement. That judgement appears to be: journalists are a load of fucking wonks and everything they say is complete and utter nonsense.
While we feel obliged to say that this is not entirely accurate, it’s not hard to understand why West Ham fans have become frustrated with the football commentariat. From almost the moment that they moved into the London Stadium, people seem to have been doing their best either to build the ground up to monumental heights or level its reputation to the ground. This culminated in absurd fashion in the aftermath of West Ham’s troubled League Cup clash with Chelsea last October, with a seriously ‘out there’ take on the BBC. In that particular piece, a stadium advisor named Paul Fletcher said: “Something has to give. If you want to satisfy spectators, the only way to get those spectators near that pitch is to knock it down and start again.”
Now, whichever way one looks at it, there are some obvious issues with the London Stadium. For a club which draws much of its support from heavily Eurosceptic Essex, having an athletics track on the edge of the pitch is a rather European touch. Some have suggested that the distance between fans and players has partially stifled the atmosphere, or at least some of the visceral noise that one might associate with Upton Park. On top of that, there have been various problems with stewarding at the stadium, not helped by several high-profile incidents of crowd trouble, changes to seating arrangements and initial complications with the police radio system. These difficulties may have died down of late, but still represent latent teething problems for the Premier League’s newest ground.
Likewise, the fact that the London Stadium is in the middle of the former Olympic Park is a problem in itself, with the surrounding area currently lacking the amenities and infrastructure needed to support a football club. The immediate locale is devoid of the cafes, food stalls and noisy pre-match atmosphere of Green Street – the closest place for a decent pre-match lunch is Westfields, which is hardly fan friendly – and more importantly there are barely any proper pubs nearby. That said, the suggestion that the entire site should be smashed to smithereens and rebuilt from scratch seems, to put it mildly, a touch extreme. Not only would it be legally, contractually and financially impractical for the club, it would also represent a material overreaction to the inevitable setbacks and pitfalls of moving home.
While there is certainly a strong degree of nostalgia for Upton Park among large swathes of the fanbase, the reality of the situation is that there is no going back to their old ground, and so the London Stadium is here to stay. West Ham supporters, along with the club hierarchy, have to find a way to make a success of their move, and that will ultimately require a good deal of dialogue, cooperation and compromise on both sides. How this process is likely to turn out, only those who are personally invested in the club can really say. Accordingly, rather than hold forth on West Ham’s future at the London Stadium ourselves, we went along ahead of their recent match against West Brom and spoke to supporters about how they feel the club is settling in.
With fans already trickling towards the ground over the concourses and bridges of the Olympic Park, we break away from the crowds and head down towards the moorings on the Bow Back Rivers where the Hammers Chat YouTube channel have their impromptu headquarters. These consist of a few food tents and moored river boats, which on matchday host a bar, table football, and a karaoke machine, out of which comes a steady stream of eighties classics over the course of the early afternoon. For an area with too few places for fans to have a pint before kick-off, this is the sort of minor infrastructure the club needs around it, albeit in far greater density and a way that caters for more than a few hundred supporters. To get access to the river boats, one has to be a member of the Hammers Chat internet forum, with admission costing a small fee.
As the familiar strains of the Cockney Rejects clang and jangle out of the karaoke boat, we find a quiet spot on the table football barge to speak with Hammers Chat contributors and friends of the channel. Unsurprisingly for such an emotive topic, fans seem to have a wide range of views on the move from Upton Park, with considerable disagreement on how the transition to the London Stadium has been handled. Speaking to Mike, a longstanding West Ham fan who has a mildly incongruous soft spot for FC St. Pauli, there is a feeling that while the transition was couched in spin and obscurantism, the move still has the potential to be positive. “The club could have handled the move better, and they weren’t as clear as they should have been, but I think that’s very different to the reality of the stadium,” Mike says. “The reality is actually pretty good, and I think more people would have gone with it had the club been more level with us. It’s not the actual stadium that’s the issue – I think the stadium could be great in a few years, once it’s been bedded in – but for a lot of West Ham fans it’s more the way we’ve been told about the move that’s problematic.”
The move to the London Stadium was certainly sold as a huge step up for the club, with the sky the supposed limit when it came to corporate growth and expansion. It was suggested that West Ham were moving into the big leagues, and that player acquisitions would be suitably ambitious. In actuality, that side of things hasn’t worked out as planned, despite the fantastic deal the club got in securing the stadium on favourable financial terms. Moves in the transfer market have been strangely muted, various targets have passed West Ham by, and star man Dimitri Payet has been enticed away to Marseille, with his mural on the side of the stadium sheepishly replaced with an image of Andy Carroll’s overhead kick against Crystal Palace.
Add to that a public relations error from Karren Brady in which she described the move to the London Stadium as “a real opportunity to change the brand values of the club” – a comment which felt a bit like a euphemism for trading in West Ham’s working-class, East End identity for something more marketable – and it’s understandable that communication is an area which supporters feel can be improved. In fairness, the club have already made some progress on that front, with Brady assembling various fan groups recently to speak about their concerns and ideas for fine-tuning the matchday experience. There were some frank exchanges by all accounts, though the fans we speak to seem to have a better opinion of Brady as a result of the meeting. While there is still a middle ground to be found in terms of corporate success and preserving the club’s distinctive culture, the key point from a West Ham perspective is that everyone involved wants the move to succeed.
Speaking to Mike, it seems not everyone is overly sentimental about leaving Upton Park, while there even seems to be some excitement about the possibilities of a state-of-the-art stadium. “If you go back to the last season at Upton Park, the fabled atmosphere wasn’t all that,” he says. “There are some people who will want to stand me against a wall and shoot me for saying this, but if you were at the 1-0 home win against Sunderland, you could hear the murmur of people talking amongst themselves. I’m old enough to remember the days of terracing, when it was just volume for the whole match, but that wasn’t true of Upton Park at the end. The problem that this stadium has got is the mythology of Upton Park and, while it was rocking last season for the games against Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal, that wasn’t always the case.”
Mike adds that, when the atmosphere at the London Stadium was coming under intense scrutiny back in the autumn, West Ham went on a run that included home games against Watford, Southampton and Boro. These were not showcase fixtures and, in fact, are the sort of matches which often produce tepid atmospheres at stadiums up and down the country, new and old. Meanwhile, disregarding the crowd trouble which marred the match and brought a fresh spate of negative headlines, the London Stadium was “rocking, absolutely rocking” for the notorious Chelsea game in October. It seems there are seeds of hope for the atmosphere at the London Stadium, even if they are yet to spring up and grow to full height.
It’s worth remembering that it’s incredibly early days for West Ham at the London Stadium, and as such it’s not such a surprise that fans are still acclimatising to the place. Talking to Tom, a contributor to Hammers Chat and hardcore karaoke enthusiast, it’s clear that the club could probably have done more to ease things along. “It’s been difficult, the move, and there have been certain issues with bringing supporters local to Upton Park over to the London Stadium, as well as the old stalls, businesses, fanzines and so on. I think the club are reaching out to supporters now to try to make things better, and I think they understand that they have to reach out to fans who have an impact in the community. Coming to see West Ham was never just about seeing the team, it was about the day out, having a pie and mash before the game and seeing the old faces on Green Street, not about having a Domino’s like they have now – that’s not West Ham.”
While the club moved to the London Stadium with the stated aim of increasing revenues, it’s clear that the West Ham hierarchy will have to tread a careful line between the commercial and the cultural to keep fans on board. To some extent, Karren Brady and co. may have to rein in their corporate ambitions, with supporters not likely to take well to new “brand values” that chime discordantly with the club’s traditions and heritage. If this means jettisoning the Domino’s and inviting more of Green Street’s old stallholders to trade in and around the stadium, then that seems a small price to pay. If anything, maintaining the club’s East End flavour should increase revenues as well as goodwill, and perhaps encourage older fans – many of whom still spend most of matchday in E13 – to spend more time at the new ground.
Though Tom has various suggestions as to how the atmosphere might be improved, including flags and banners within the ground and the active guidance of a Supporters’ Trust, he seems to feel hopeful that things will fall into place in time. “When we first moved to the London Stadium, the club wasn’t very vocal with the fans and didn’t really give the fans a voice. That’s got a bit better, and as long as Karren Brady and the club allow the fans to air their opinions and try to improve things within the stadium, I think we’ll be absolutely fine.”
With Spandau Ballet blaring out from the karaoke speakers at this point and people getting ready to head to the ground itself, we have a final chat with Charlie, one of Hammers Chat’s video contributors and a moderator on the forum. He agrees that the club hierarchy have made steps in the right direction in terms of public relations, even if there is some way to go. Speaking about the meeting between Karren Brady and the fans, Charlie says: “That was a really, really positive thing. At that point, it was getting to a situation where people were no longer happy with the hierarchy, where they wanted the board out and so on, so for her to sit down in a room and basically say, ‘Right, let’s talk about what we need to change,’ was huge. Whether the right sort of changes come from that is another question, and we’ll see in the coming months. It’s a big first step, at least.”
In terms of life at the London Stadium, Charlie says that the club’s muddled transfer policy and Dimitri Payet’s unceremonious departure have served as something of a reality check. Still, there’s a sense of pragmatism and understanding when it comes to why the club made the move. “Financially, there are no arguments with it really. This stadium has been so cheap for us, so affordable to move into and make money from, that there will inevitably be more money to invest in the team. It’s just whether or not we can convert that into success on and off the pitch.”
While there is doubtlessly a difficult course for the club to steer over the coming months and years, it seems the powers that be at West Ham have steadied the ship for the time being. Improved results have been a boon for the team, but many supporters are cautiously optimistic that the club hierarchy are also making progress and gradually taking their concerns on board. Whatever fans’ individual feelings on leaving Upton Park behind – and some have no doubt been deeply alienated by the experience – the London Stadium is their home now, and people have tentatively set about making it feel like such. There are no guarantees that the outcome will be satisfactory for supporters, but then again the current mood among fans is not quite as fraught as some seem to believe.