West Ham’s first season at London Stadium: a ‘terrible’ experience or a step forward?
From a business perspective, it was not hard to understand why West Ham United found it impossible to resist the allure of London Stadium, with its agreeably large capacity, vast corporate facilities, proximity to the capital’s centre and Olympic legacy. It seemed to tick all the boxes for a club looking to reach the next level, as long as everyone kept in mind the football team that was going to play there. They would have to feel as comfortable as those sitting in the posh seats. After almost a year in their new home, they don’t.
West Ham’s players have played ball in public, obligingly telling the world about what a thrill it is to play in such a wonderfully modern stadium, even though they have suffered some dreadful humiliations there this season. But the truth is different in private, where the brave faces disappear and the grumbling begins. Slaven Bilic’s team feel so uneasy in the new stadium that one senior player describes the Stratford experience as “terrible”.
The obvious counter to such complaints is that West Ham have a poor home record because they are a poor team who are led by an average manager. In normal circumstances, that would be enough. West Ham endured enough ordeals at Upton Park to know that a stadium’s power is limited. True, Manchester City have hit nine without reply on their two visits to the London Stadium, Arsenal won 5-1 and even Astra Giurgiu came away with a 1-0 victory that saw the Romanian underdogs qualify for the Europa League, but what’s new? When West Ham were relegated in 2003, they didn’t win at Upton Park until the end of January.
There is finite value to be gained from romanticising Upton Park. The atmosphere could be damagingly poisonous, the facilities were tired and the transport links were dismal. It held 35,000 and West Ham made £26.9m in matchday revenue last season. The London Stadium holds 57,000 and West Ham are seeking permission to increase its capacity to 66,000. Supporters with open minds simply had to do the maths to understand the board’s position and accept that this was West Ham’s chance to take on Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur on a stronger financial footing.
Those who are less certain can expect West Ham’s vice-chair, Karren Brady, to point to 52,000 season-ticket holders, 10,000 under-16s who regularly attend matches, 36,000 members and a waiting list for season tickets that stretches to 55,000. She is also proud of the club’s rise to 18th in the Deloitte Money League after turning over £144m in 2016. Season ticket prices have been frozen.
The numbers are impressive. Yet where there was excitement about new possibilities last August, by October there was cynicism over slapdash summer signings, stewarding and ticketing problems, an increasingly lacklustre atmosphere, violence inside and outside the ground and the awkward sight of large pockets of empty seats during some games. Post-match queues for trains at Stratford have tested even the mildest of tempers, which definitely wasn’t in the brochure.
It would all be easier for supporters to stomach if the team were in better shape. There have been flashes of promise – Andy Carroll’s overhead kick against Crystal Palace, the League Cup win over Chelsea in October – but the experience has been disappointing overall. Having challenged for Champions League qualification in their smaller, traditional ground last season, West Ham have flirted with relegation this time. Fifteenth with three matches left, they could still be relegated if results go against them. The London Stadium move was not made with the Championship in mind.
West Ham will be fortunate to survive another year of this. They host Tottenham on Friday and Liverpool on Sunday. Lose both matches and they will end the season with six home wins, four draws and nine defeats, having lost just twice in the league at Upton Park last season.
In different circumstances, Spurs would undoubtedly view a trip to West Ham as tricky. It certainly was when their title challenge faltered under the lights last season, Michail Antonio scoring the only goal on an evening when the Hammers fans gave Mauricio Pochettino’s team the most inhospitable of East End welcomes.
That closeness, that claustrophobia, has been conspicuous by its absence this season. Because of the running track, the players struggle to feel the atmosphere and the distance from the pitch prevents the crowd from getting on top of visiting teams. The place simply feels too big for a team of West Ham’s stature at the moment and it was striking to hear Pep Guardiola make that point after City’s 5-0 win in the FA Cup in January. “Today we controlled a bit more, through the passes,” Guardiola said. “The pitch, the stadium, helped us in that sense. It looks like it’s bigger. It’s an impression.”
The pitch at Upton Park was 100.5m x 68m, while the London Stadium is five metres longer and the same width. However Guardiola’s comments echoed ones made by Sir Trevor Brooking, who warned that teams would raise their game at Stratford. The psychological impact of playing in a stadium regarded as a soft touch cannot be underestimated. Without that home advantage, West Ham’s frailties become even more exposed. Tottenham are likely to enjoy themselves on Friday evening.
Some progress has been made off the pitch. The fault for many of the early problems belonged to the stadium operators rather than West Ham and they have mostly been ironed out. The club’s response to the trouble that marred the cup win over Chelsea was strong and there has been no repeat of those disgraceful scenes.
But other issues won’t go away in a hurry. For all that it takes time to turn a house into a home, this is a venue with architectural flaws such as the large gap between the tiers, the effect of which is to make the stadium feel disorienting, too spaced out and cobbled together. The running track, meanwhile, is a huge problem but it is here to stay. This is the price to pay for playing in a quasi athletics arena.
The point of going to football instead of watching on television is to smell the action. Sit too low and you will struggle to see the other end; too far back and it feels like you are in a different postcode. You drift off. You leave early. You decide that was a waste of money. You stay at home next time.
What was it all for? West Ham’s owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, are determined to challenge the elite. There is an iron belief that moving was the right decision and it is possible to be sympathetic towards the argument that expanding Upton Park would have made little impact on the club’s finances because the surrounding area was so cramped.
Equally, however, the London Stadium gamble will only be seen as a success if West Ham move forward on the pitch. That was the deal: turn 112 years of history into flats, focus on the brand, change the badge on the shirt, sell popcorn to tourists – just have something to show for it at the end. Only one thing will compensate supporters who feel a loss of identity and connection with their club: trophies. The stakes are high.
But the last of West Ham’s four major honours was the FA Cup 37 years ago. Their highest finish, achieved in 1986, is third. They have been relegated four times since then. Bilic recently said that Bayern Munich and Juventus benefited from moving to new stadiums. Yet both of those clubs left running tracks behind. They have also enjoyed a touch more success than West Ham, the fourth biggest club in London.
It is already crowded at the top in England. The historical power of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United gives them a head start. Chelsea and City are owned by billionaires. Tottenham, cleverly run, are on the rise. Where is there room for a club that sells Dimitri Payet and signs Robert Snodgrass? The competition is not hanging around. Elsewhere in the city, Chelsea have unveiled plans to redevelop Stamford Bridge and Tottenham are putting the finishing touches to the new White Hart Lane. Neither ground will feature a running track.
Expectations rose dramatically and instantly when West Ham swapped E13 for E20, but they are yet to respond in the transfer market and are almost starting from scratch this summer.
These are still early days, of course, and it is hard to put a timeframe on how long West Ham will have to wait before flexing their financial muscles. It could take one year; it could take 10. If it is to be the latter, the pressure will intensify as doubts grow and patience wears thin.