RABBIL SIKDAR takes an in-depth look at the continued problems West Ham are having as they acclimatise to the London Stadium from the Boleyn Ground
They only moved a mile or so away but it feels a million miles different. A new home that doesn’t feel like the old home, lacking in the warm homely feel, the history and memories — instead feeling cold and corporate, very soulless.
This was not how West Ham wanted their first feelings at the Olympic Stadium to be. But so far it has been an unpleasant, disjointed and muddled transition.
No-one feels at home. No-one knows if this is home. West Ham swapped history, tradition and memories for exactly what? This is not West Ham and even the badge is now different.
The supporters have not taken to the stadium and the yearning for the Boleyn Ground — smaller but more compressed, boisterous and intimidating — is apparent.
Already crowd troubles have spilled out across home matches. Fans have clashed with each other and opposition fans.
The antipathy has flowed onto the pitch where results have been largely abysmal, a cycle of negative events reinforcing each other. Definitely not what West Ham wanted.
The positioning of the supporters is especially troubling for the club. The supporters are far away from the pitch unlike at the Boleyn, where they were pressed up against the pitch. Here they are distant and at times disconnected from the events on the pitch.
It’s symbolic of how the fans feel about the club and the stadium right now. The seating arrangements often do not make for comfortable viewing of what is happening on the pitch. During West Ham’s home defeat to Watford, many fans had to see several replays to spot Dimitri Payet’s rabona assist.
Crowd safety is organised by a group called LS185 who have so far endured a difficult relationship with the club. There have been heated disputes over how best to maintain the safety of the supporters.
Interestingly also, but worryingly too, is the account of the 140 West Ham stewards who moved from Upton Park. Reportedly, 40 have already departed, discontented with being ignored.
The sense of communion and togetherness that was held like a social glue at the Boleyn Ground cannot be understated: stewards had, through years of being positioned in the same part of the stadium, built up a rapport with the fans.
Here, however, many of them have simply been shifted across different parts of the stadium. When the troubles broke out at recent games, where they might have once cut it off at the source, here they could not.
The board have defended the stadium move, speaking of changing brand values and the financial security that comes from moving to a bigger stadium rented out to them.
Increase in match-day revenues combined with not needing to cover costs of police, stewarding, heating or pitch maintenance.
Of the £272 million that was required to adapt the stadium into a footballing one, West Ham paid for only £15m of it — although they do pay an annual £2.5m in rent.
West Ham will eventually be able to compete and it’s hard to imagine that had the owners not tackled their financial concerns that they could compete to sign players like Payet.
Karen Brady spoke about remembering tradition being at the heart of the club, that it was rooted in its community — yet the overriding feeling is that the heart of West Ham fans belonged back at Upton Park.
There was a strong family vibe, generated outside the grounds by local traders selling scarves or pie in their familiar stalls that felt as if they had always been there.
Generated by families taking their children to the game and turning them into West Ham fans. Generated by the sense that this was itself a family.
In a region of London suffering extreme gentrification and throwing a community into deep economic uncertainty, West Ham had been in their own way a reassuring sense of the way things had been.
A part of the old East End found underneath the floodlights at the Boleyn. But the club have also fallen victims to the “regeneration” project like many of the town’s people.
As families are increasingly uprooted and driven elsewhere, to places that can never be home, West Ham have found themselves — almost obliged by a necessity to compete with supremely wealthy local neighbours — regenerating in a similar disheartening manner.
The Boleyn Ground is not being turned into the affordable housing that is so desperately needed by local struggling families.
So when West Ham’s board speak of a community of supporters being at the heart of the club, the growing suspicion is that these are hollow words.
The local economy has been affected badly and one wonders, when the board held these discussions over swapping stadiums, exactly how much of local economic effects and the displacement of traders were talked about.
Local businesses like market stalls down in the Queen’s Market and Ken’s Cafe that almost solely depended on generating a revenue stream from West Ham fans have been essentially abandoned.
Pubs will slowly become ghosts of what they once were, no longer attracting the sheer volume of customers they once did. Eventually these will close down and fade away, all lingering traces of their memory washed away.
As if they never existed there. As if West Ham United never existed there.