Does the London Stadium now feel like home for the Hammers?
On Thursday August 4th 2016, West Ham United kicked off a new era in the club’s history at the London Stadium after bidding farewell to Upton Park, their home since 1904.
Has the move to Stratford been the fresh start and the springboard for the Hammers to step up to elite level, as owners David Gold and David Sullivan claimed it would be?
Three years on, and with encouraging signs both on and off the pitch, Elephant Sport has talked to two die-hard Irons supporters about whether the troubled settling period at the former 2012 Olympic Stadium is well and truly over and the club can look forward to better days.
Since switching from the old Boleyn Ground, which has since been redeveloped as flats, West Ham fans have witnessed a slow progression at their new home, and last season the club recorded their best-ever points tally at their new ground, taking 31 Premier League home game points from a possible 57.
Life at the London Stadium
Pete May, who writes the hammersintheheart blog and is the author of several books on West Ham, believes that life for the Hammers and their fans at their new home has been difficult to say the least.
“The move has undoubtedly been problematic, with a lot of teething troubles in those early days. For example, there were issues with the matchday stewarding and, of course, you saw it all boil over in March last year in the 3-0 loss to Burnley, when captain Mark Noble had to deal with pitch invaders.
“There were also chants aimed at the owners of ‘You’ve destroyed our club’ as well as some of the fans moaning about lack of money and transfer investment in the team.
“I do, however, think there are signs of the stadium doing us good as the club is stronger now financially and able to sign players such as Felipe Anderson for £36m and Sebastien Haller who cost £45m.
“Another great thing that helps is they have named one of the stands after club legend Billy Bonds. There was a big naming ceremony and Billy came out and broke down in tears, which was very moving.
“Little things like getting the correct colour for the carpet over the running track have also helped; it is now claret with the club badge, as opposed to a green one, and that does actually make it feel a bit more like West Ham’s home.”
The pitch invasion which accompanied that defeat by Burnley, when Sullivan and Gold had to exit the stadium for their own safety, was certainly a toxic low ebb of their tenure at the London Stadium, but it also served as a turning point.
The recruitment in May 2018 of manager Manuel Pellegrini, a Premier League winner with Manchester City, signalled a statement of ambition.
With the Argentine at the helm, and more revenue being generated by their 66,000-seat new home, West Ham have been able to attract higher profile players. This enabled them to finish tenth in the English top-flight last season.
Comedian and Stop! Hammer Time podcaster Phil Whelans thinks that the club missed a huge opportunity in the past and simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity to move into the London Stadium.
“It felt like there was a sort of opportunity to aim to be one of the solidly top three of four clubs in London rather than vying with the likes of Watford or Crystal Palace.
“West Ham have had a history of missed opportunities, I think the dynasty that had control of the club at the advent of the Premier League should have seen what this new league was going to become. I think they should have developed a massive new stand or made the old stadium bigger because the catchment area for the club goes out in Essex and Kent.
“I think the club could have speculated to accumulate at some point a long long time ago.”
“People are getting used to it, however, there was a lot of resentment at first”
Since the arrival of current boss Pellegrini, the Hammers have broken their transfer record three times in just over a year including bringing in Issa Diop, Anderson and, most recently, Haller. May believes that the stadium is a huge reason for this.
“I think being in a bigger stadium has definitely helped in a way as players are attracted by the thought of playing in it. We seem to be getting bigger names now like Anderson, Haller and Fornals who has just cost £23m, so I think that players like the idea of living in London and having a 60,000-plus capacity stadium to play in.”
Overall, there has been a positive change for the claret and blue side of London since moving away from Upton Park and May feels the general mood around West Ham has improved.
“People are getting used to it, however, there was a lot of resentment at first. The other mistake that they made was lumping all of the families in with fans who like to stand up and sing, and so there was a mix of people who were standing up and sitting down.
“The problem was exacerbated by the club getting rid of a lot of the old stewards and bringing in people who were more used to stewarding concerts rather than football matches. It took a while, but these issues were ironed out after the first season or so, and generally it is getting better.”
There is a significant chance that either Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United may fall out of the top six this season, leaving a space or even spaces for newer sides like Leicester and West Ham, who have made great starts to the current campaign, to make a breakthrough.
“If you could somehow be a team that supplements that elite rather than displaces any one from it, then that is something to go for”
Phil Whelans told me: “I think certainly that the potential is there. Sometimes it all goes wrong for teams, and it’s currently going wrong for Manchester United. You have just got to keep it tight, keep building, keep investing and not just thinking the 11 players that got you seventh place will do even better next season. You have to keep freshening the squad, but certainly the platform is there.
“I think last season and this one so far have been good. We finished mid-table last season, and it feels like something we can build on this one. I guess you probably attract better players if you have become a bit more of a ‘glamour’ side, and possibly being in a big stadium with global TV coverage has helped in that respect.”
Even though attendances don’t affect the financial standing of a club in the English top-flight like they used to – it’s all about TV money these days – the atmosphere generated by big crowds is a key weapon in a home side being able to generate the buzz that is needed to see off visiting teams.
West Ham United are currently only behind Manchester United and Arsenal in terms of average attendance at home this season with 59,917 being their average after four matches this season.
May feels his side have done well to fill their stadium.
“A lot of people didn’t think that West Ham would, but it hasn’t been much of a problem. The London Stadium has been getting noisier. That being said, when we win 5-0, it is loud and if we are losing it is quieter, and there isn’t a great deal we can do about it.”
There is still a lot of growing to do for the Hammers at their new stadium, on which the club has a 99-year lease, and Whelans has a perfect picture of what West Ham can become in the next 10 years.
“I feel like we need to start challenging for a bit of silverware and be a top European side in either the Champions League or the Europa League. We can definitely be a top eight team, but to be a top six team would mean displacing one of those existing clubs, and that will be tough.
“There would have to be a significant withdrawal of funds. I suppose it is conceivable that if, for example, Roman Abramovich’s visa problems continue, he might sell Chelsea, but I feel someone [equally rich] would step in and buy them. If you could somehow be a team that supplements that elite rather than displaces any one from it, then that is something to go for.”