Michael Walker: West Ham join Arsenal in gaining a stadium but losing part of club’s soul

Just like Arsenal’s move from Highbury, the Hammers left something behind at Upton Park

He said they moved with the best intentions. He said it was for the good of the club, for the future. He hoped it would be the start of a new glorious era. It was an economic opportunity that simply could not be missed, the club could go head-to-head with those long deemed more powerful.

Then he said, or implied, they had got it wrong. The fans felt distanced, literally and metaphorically. It had not worked out. He touched on atmosphere and loss. The tone was of regret. It was as if those in control had misunderstood what they held previously, and what held them.

And when it came to it, Arsene Wenger searched for a phrase to encapsulate all of this and settled on: "We built a new stadium but we never found our soul. We left our soul at Highbury."

It’s quite the perspective.


Of all the millions of words spilled on Arsenal every week of every year, these were some of the most telling this century. Wenger’s remarks should throw into question much about modern football. The fact they were made in Qatar says more about him and how planet football had pivoted in the past 20 years than it does about the club he entered in 1996 and participated in transforming.

That transformation, principally of playing style and increased behavioural professionalism, has had enough compliments down the decades. But Wenger also presided over a mutation at Arsenal, from Highbury to the so-called ‘Emirates’.

As he now concedes, 14 years after it opened, 14 years without a league title, along the way Arsenal lost their soul. Maybe it’s under the hat of one of the airline stewardesses stationed at home games as the latest manufactured attendance figure is read out.

Wenger knew the project was based on finance. The club’s decision to leave Highbury was a cold one. It’s a bit late to lament a lost soul.

And, of course, for some the economics worked. Wenger himself was on a reported basic £8.9 million in his last years as manager as overall turnover increased. It enabled purchases such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for €63.75 million.

That’s just one of the sums involved in one transfer. According to Football Wikileaks, Aubameyang’s basic wage is £10.3 million per annum over four years. Should he stay until the end of his contract in June 2021 there will be an additional ‘loyalty’ bonus due of £15.15 million, which you might wish to bear in mind when Aubameyang transfer rumours arise. In total, there’s a potential basic wage of £56.35 million.

He wouldn’t have got that at Highbury, but Arsenal would have had something else.

There are other eye-catching contractual details, not least the £50,000 due for every Premier League game won when Aubameyang starts.

Arsenal have won only six league games this season, though.

Six. It is all part of the malaise at the increasingly soulless stadium. The cost has included the loss of a manager, Unai Emery, and probably quite soon, a top four Champions League place (again), which will also affect income.

But this is not about Arsenal. This is about West Ham United.

Wenger made his soulless comment while talking to Jürgen Klopp about Anfield.

"It is the best stadium in England, " Wenger said. "It's simple, because the people are so close to the pitch."

There might be more to it than that and, let’s not forget, there have been plenty of moans from Anfield regulars about the quiet decline in the ground’s atmosphere. But the point Wenger made about distance is what takes you back to West Ham and the so-called London Stadium, which they rent.

West Ham fans peering across the athletics track have seen their team win once at the stadium since September. It’s quite the perspective.

The win was the 4-0 defeat of Bournemouth on New Year’s Day. Bournemouth are one of only three teams below the Hammers in the Premier League. That is what a grim home record does for you and West Ham’s is the second-worst in the division. Only nine-nil Southampton are below them – on goal difference.

Today West Ham are back at their rented accommodation to face Brighton, three days after losing 2-0 to Liverpool.

It was a perfunctory defeat, Wednesday’s, but a loss to Brighton wouldn’t be. The transfer window would be closed but alarms bells would be ringing and there could be people on the pitch who think it’s all over.

After Brighton, West Ham have consecutive away games at Manchester City and Liverpool. Those are damage limitation games. Then it's Southampton in London.

The Saints at home? It may sound winnable, but Southampton have recovered from their Leicester humiliation and sit above Arsenal.

That Southampton are three points off fifth-placed Manchester United says much about a bizarre Premier League season.

But what says more about West Ham are the accounts published this week. They revealed a record £190 million income for season 2018-19 and increases in pay for executive Karren Brady – up to £1.1 million – and further interest on the loan David Sullivan and David Gold made to the club when they took over 10 years ago. It's brought them £18.6 million in interest.

Also going up was the record transfer fee – £45 million for Sebastien Haller from Eintracht Frankfurt. He is now part of a wage bill totalling north of £130 million.

Everything seems to be going up at West Ham, apart from the points tally.

The danger, real and close, is going down. It would not only chop attendances and devastate gate income, it would tear at the remains of the hierarchy’s credibility. And they sound worried.

“Retention of our status in 2019-20 season is an absolute necessity,” said the accounts, warning of the “serious financial consequences which follow [relegation].”

The owners’ argument is that without the initial loan and investment West Ham could have disappeared. They saved the club in 2010, they say, and are proud of most of their work, including the removal from Upton Park to the former Olympic Stadium 3½ years ago.

The counter-argument, made by swelling numbers of supporters, is that the club has disappeared. It has, in Wenger’s words, lost its soul across the athletics track somewhere up in the seats. It resides in ghostly form at the previous address on Green Street.

Today there is a housing development there called Upton Gardens. Homes built on home, you could say, and maybe this is a moment, when London’s stalling, to say such things.

Sometimes it feels a sense of place is a floaty notion, something for novelists to ponder. But you notice when a place goes, Highbury or Upton Park. Then it’s an absent reality and it’s all too late for soul-searching.