It is a truth universally acknowledged that West Ham grabbed the bargain of the century when they purchased the London Stadium for just £15 million. It stands in stark contrast to the £390 million Arsenal had to pay to build The Emirates or the £1 billion Tottenham required for their new ground. The Hammers simply cut a deal with the government to take on the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford, saving them years of expense and hassle.
An extremely bitter Arsene Wenger was fond of saying West Ham “won the lottery”. He claims he had to sweat for six long years and fight for every pound, selling off his best players on an annual basis while battling to secure Champions League football, and he was not best pleased to see West Ham – like Man City before them – circumnavigate such pain by simply snapping up a stadium funded by the public purse for a one-off international sporting event.
“They have made a good deal, they have negotiated very well,” said the former Arsenal manager, who predicted in 2016 that the Hammers would soon emerge as one of the biggest clubs in the league thanks to the newfound riches the 60,000-seater stadium would bring. However, we are now in 2020 and that prophecy is yet to come true.
Greener Pastures Prove Elusive
In the 2015-16 season, West Ham’s final campaign at the Boleyn Ground, they finished seventh in the Premier League. Yet their form tailed off dramatically after the move to the London Stadium, as the Hammers secured just two wins in their first 11 games of the new season. Slaven Bilic was sacked and West Ham eventually limped home in 11th place under David Moyes.
The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini proved to be a false dawn as they finished 13th in 2017-18 and 10th last term. They lost just eight games in their final season at the Boleyn Ground. They lost 17 times during their first campaign away from the famous old ground, and then 16 times in each of the last two seasons.
Home form has been a major contributor to that poor record. The Hammers lost eight of their 19 games in their new home during the 2016-17 season. They lost six times at home the following term and ended with a negative goal difference at the London Stadium, and they also lost six home games last term. That compares to just three home defeats in 2015-16. Upton Park was in danger of becoming a fortress, but West Ham have struggled ever since they bid farewell to the famous ground.
No Longer Blowing Bubbles
This season, West Ham would be in the relegation zone if only home games counted. They have lost six of their 10 matches at the London Stadium. The new ground is nothing like a fortress, as rivals turn up confident of plundering all three points on a weekly basis.
The situation may improve now that Moyes is back in the hot seat – he won his first game there after replacing Pellegrini, although it was against an under-strength Bournemouth side – but there are no guarantees. If you check out the exciting fixed odds markets on the Premier League, West Ham are no longer favourites to go down, but they are not given much hope of even challenging for a place in the top half of the table.
There is a sense that the Hammers miss the ferocious atmosphere of Upton Park. A 52-year-old fan called Tom summed up the sentiments of many supporters in an interview with the Guardian back in 2018.
“This place is soulless,” he said, gesturing at the stadium and the empty expanse in which it’s located. “It’s got nothing. I used to go to Upton Park, grab a programme, nip in the pie and mash, have a bet, into the boozer, meet my pals, all good, have a laugh, then out afterwards. I’ve got nish here. I’m out in the elements drinking beer out of a plastic glass.”
Priced Out of the Club
Essentially West Ham are accused of ditching their working-class routes by abandoning Upton Park and decamping three miles east, leaving plenty of fans exiled from their spiritual home, put off by the soaring prices and a sterile, corporate atmosphere.
This is not a new phenomenon. What little atmosphere Arsenal enjoyed at Highbury evaporated when they moved to The Emirates, which is an extremely popular destination for corporate types taking out clients. Spurs will probably go down a similar route now that they have moved, and so will Chelsea if they ever get around to it.
Yet West Ham always stood out as being the most grounded in its community of the major London clubs, proudly representing the working-class East End. The hipsters are now taking over, and some old school fans feel they are being priced out of their areas and also their football club.
The Business of Football
One challenge on the atmosphere front is the layout of the London Stadium, which obviously was not built for football. The 400m running track around the pitch – now carpeted over as part of the so-called West Hamification of the ground – leaves the fans some distance from the action, whereas the Boleyn Ground was a lot more intimidating, as supporters were snarling right by the touchline.
The ground is bigger, slicker and more geared up for corporate events, and it may lack some of the dilapidated grandeur of Upton Park. Yet some would argue that it is now more family friendly and inclusive. Football is also a business, and the Hammers are now generating more income. They could only dream of competing with the big teams in the Premier League by making more money and they now are.
The club traded heritage and provenance for the promise of top-six finishes and an ultracompetitive team. That has not yet happened, leaving many fans veering between disenchantment and fury. Yet there are some mitigating factors: the 2016/17 season was overshadowed by the Dimitri Payet affair, and some of the subsequent big money signings have flopped. Pellegrini was the wrong man for the job. The defence remains a mess.
West Ham’s recent woes cannot be solely attributed to the stadium, but a strong home atmosphere is worth its weight in gold. It will now be up to the West Ham fans that can afford to visit the new stadium to roar their team on and try to inspire a strong finish to the current campaign. Just don’t expect cheap pie and mash and a pint of Carling on your way to the ground.