West Ham clearly losing track at the London Stadium
Perfect for athletics, it will never feel quite at home as a football stadium
No wonder West Ham’s opening games of last season were marred by infighting among home and rival supporters. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Some of the Kerry relations are up for the match on Sunday and there’s talk of meeting beforehand for a quick drink. We all have our preferred rendezvous in and around Croke Park and we sometimes forget just how convenient the place is.
Last Sunday my brother was in London for the final day of the World Athletics Championships. We never got to meet. Even after 10 long days and even longer nights in and around the London Olympic Stadium it was difficult to get any bearings. Just because the place is convenient doesn’t make it hard to forget.
Part of the problem was he got off the Dockland’s Light Rail at Stratford International, instead of getting off at Stratford, and walking up the wall of steps and through the Westfield Shopping Centre towards the London Stadium (they drop the “Olympic” for non-athletic events), coming from the south side of what is known as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – not so much a former Greenfield site as a former wetland.
Coming down the Jubilee Line, and transferring at Canary Wharf, my most convenient stop was Pudding Mill Lane, on the west side of the stadium. After that it seemed there wasn’t anywhere convenient to meet, especially not for a quick drink.
The London Stadium is no place for a football match – at least not in the Croke Park sense
This in one small way captures the London Stadium dilemma also known as the 99-year lease to West Ham United. Because as suitable as it may be to hosting a major athletics championships, the London Stadium is no place for a football match – at least not in the Croke Park sense.
The story of West Ham’s virtual inheritance of the London Stadium after the 2012 Olympics has been told many times, and having experienced all it has to offer over those 10 days of the World Athletics Championships, it’s clearly been a great deal for the club and a raw deal for the supporter.
And a reminder too how lucky we were to be spared our Stadium Ireland, that great white elephant in waiting also known as the Bertie Bowl. Or indeed the importance of retaining existing stadium locations wherever conveniently possible, such as the recently redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
After successfully out-bidding (then winning subsequent appeals) from the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient, West Ham signed that 99-year lease with the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) in April 2016 for a mere £2.5 million per year, part of that deal also being they wouldn’t have to fund police, stewarding, heating, pitch maintenance or indeed corner flags.
At the time former Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn said his dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.
As anchor tenants, West Ham essentially rent the stadium for 25 days a year (the rent will be halved to £1.25m if the clubs is relegated from the Premier League), while the LLDC continues to rent out to other sporting bodies such as British Athletics, the IAAF, and the International Paralympics Committee (IPC).
And therein lies part of the problem – because one of the LLDC conditions was that the Olympic running track had to remain. Which is why the London Stadium will always work perfectly well as an athletics venue but never feel quite at home as a football stadium.
What the deal didn’t promise was the appalling distance between pitch and spectator
West Ham maintain they had every reason to break new ground after 112 years at Upton Park, which held only 35,000, most of whom were in occasionally poisonous proximity to the pitch. The London Stadium, though currently capped at 57,000 can increase its capacity to 66,000 – the third highest in England; bar, catering and toilet facilities are also doubled compared to the old ground and a new club megastore is open throughout the week. Changing-room space is also 80 per cent greater than Upton Park (although if they were good enough for Bobby Moore. )
What the deal didn’t promise was the appalling distance between pitch and spectator. Even when converted back to football mode (at a cost of £8m each time, incidentally), the 21,000 retractable – or rather “relocatable” – seats do little to address the gaping chasms between the stands and the pitch, not helped by the bowl-shaped stadium itself. Sitting in the media seats during the World Athletics Championships the track was certainly visible, the infield area far less so.
Marred by infighting
Last October, football stadium expert Paul Fletcher told the BBC that once the athletics track was put in before the football pitch, the supporters would always be too far away. “Either we go on as we are for the next 30 or 40 years, or we knock it down and start again,” he said.
No wonder West Ham’s opening games of last season were marred by infighting among home and rival supporters, partly blamed on the lack of segregation and insufficient policing, but also the realisation the new stadium really was as bad as feared. Not even some light-hearted moments (the Middlesbrough fans using the stretched fabric which hides the big holes in the stadium as a trampoline when they scored) could disguise the sense the club had left a good deal of its identity behind at Upton Park, turning 112 years of history into flats.
Last season, Slaven Bilic’s team won just seven of their 19 home games at the London Stadium, their top-six ambitions eventually surrendering in 11th place. This season, their first four games are being played away, as the stadium is turned back into football mode, starting with last Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford.
A hammering, in other words, around the same time the IAAF and British Athletics were signing off on the most successful ever World Athletics Championships, a record attendance of 701,889 over the 10 days.
One reason perhaps to support West Ham United this season, or else make the London Stadium the permanent home to the World Athletics Championships.