After years of build-up, West Ham’s first season at the Olympic Stadium felt like it just flew by. It was not an easy ride, but it was never going to be. This was always going to be a season of transition and that was reflected on the pitch with some less-than-inspiring performances. Of the 64 goals conceded this season, 31 came at home and more worryingly, only 19 goals were scored in comparison to the 28 away from home. Add to that crushing defeats to Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, as well as dispiriting losses to Watford and Southampton and you have yourself a season that many will be happy to forget. The media played their part in exaggerating problems off the field, but early season frustrations also boiled over into the stands. Certainly, this has been the biggest challenge of the season: getting the fans to adjust to their new surroundings. A far cry from the intimate location of Upton Park, the loss of character and intimidation has been all too clear. Many have even directly blamed the new stadium for what has largely been a mediocre, disruptive season, but in reality it has been one of many factors. Whilst the majority of critics have begun to soften their stance, some supporters are yet to (if ever) be convinced. So, with one season at the London Stadium in the bank, let’s reflect on what has been the good, the bad and the ugly of West Ham’s debut season in Stratford.
One of the major positives has been the improvement in transport links. Barring the long, often disruptive walk back to the station, the multiple platforms make for a far easier journey than the one line in and out of Upton Park station ever did. It’s been a welcome change from the post-match walk to Plaistow or the queue at Upton Park station. Tube delays and the flood of Westfield shoppers cause their own problems, but these could have been much more problematic. Closer to the ground, there have been gradual improvements as the season’s progressed. Changing the colour of the cover over the seats between the upper and lower tier to claret and blue has helped eradicate the generic and neutral hangover from the Olympics. Hopefully, the rumoured change to the track covering will also come to fruition. The most encouraging signs have been when fan demands have been met. The availability of pie and mash as well as the return of the Ribman have been popular inclusions to the vast array of food stalls around the stadium. Even small things like pre-pouring the pints of beer have helped to improve this experience and the Heineken Bar that made its first appearance in the final home game of the season looks like a promising addition to this. People have begun to settle into a routine after having their previous one uprooted and this has slowly helped fans adapt. Even the players have shown glimpses of this on the pitch, albeit with no real consistency.
The name itself is a problem. ‘The London Stadium’ embodies just how generic the stadium continues to be and the only connection to West Ham is the fact they are a London-based team. More worryingly, it highlights the commercialisation of the club by both the owners and a sport more worried about establishing them as a brand. Naming rights continue to be up in the air, but even the prospect of the ‘Vodafone’ or ‘Tesco Stadium’ is unappealing. Everything seems to be about milking money from the hardworking fans. Prices are extortionate and they would have been included in the ugly section if it was not a problem across the league. Acting as some sort of burger cartel, the price of a decent burger is equivalent to one hour’s pay. Another big issue has been with the seating. There have been numerous lies over this and the distance between the touchline and seats are not exactly pleasing on the eye. This has undoubtedly contributed to the dire atmosphere inside the London Stadium. A few more claret and blue seats would not go amiss either. The lack of noise in the stands has led many to spend the match in the concourse, but it’s something that is not helped by how slowly it takes chants to travel around the ground. Yet, there have been signs that the fans can get the place rocking. The second-half against Tottenham produced the greatest atmosphere so far and the opening rendition of ‘Bubbles’ still makes the hairs stand on the back of my neck. However, these have been too infrequent and not helped by my next point…
Tourist fans. I never expected West Ham to be one of those clubs, but they are quickly becoming one (if they are not already). This is unfortunately a product of the shameless branding of the club. With such an apparently big waiting list for season tickets, there is no excuse for people with no affiliation to the club getting tickets over loyal supporters. Fans leaving early has also been a source of embarrassment. Supporters have understandably not been happy and they have a right to do what they like if they’ve paid for their ticket, but seeing fans flood out from the 80th minute onwards is inexcusable. At least these fans do show up though, I could count the number of times the season ticket holders next to me have made an appearance on one hand. The club need to do more in this respect. The exchange system is seriously flawed. Offering a couple of pounds to season ticket holders for a ticket worth £60 borders on insulting. It’s a situation embodied by the increasing number of half-and-half scarves visible in the stands. For every pie and mash consumer, there is now their popcorn equivalent. Somehow it got lost in translation that this is football, not the theatre. The stewards have continued to be a problem. Many lack the experience of dealing with football supporters and the others are far too ‘trigger-happy’ with kicking people out. Those operating the stop/go signs on the way back to the station have an unenviable job, but they hardly help themselves. This has compounded what already felt like a loss of a home advantage. The team have been exposed far too often and easily with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City thriving on a huge pitch. In truth, it has rarely felt like West Ham have been the home side and that has been one of the hardest things about the move.
What do you reckon West Ham fans? Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by DAVID HOLT