t was much-anticipated, dreaded by some and highly controversial. Just over a year ago, West Ham completed their move to Stratford after 112 years at the Boleyn Ground.
The club’s new 99- year tenancy began with a routine 3-0 victory over Slovenia’s NK Domžale, but the match was unexpectedly played at the stadium and robbed the club, and fans, of the carefully planned curtain raiser against Juventus in the pre-season Betway Cup. The stadium was far from ready, but with positivity in mind, it allowed the club to assess some of the issues a bit earlier than expected. Unfortunately, there were several of these issues to tackle.
The View: It was no surprise that the sightlines in the stadium were going to be vastly different to those at Upton Park. Karren Brady insisted, in not as many words, that the worst seats at the former Olympic Stadium would be better or equal to those at Wembley.
It was basically a tactical way of saying that the views would obviously be a bit worse than the club’s previous home. A sea of green carpeting fills the not-insignificant void between fans and pitch; a feature which had become an important part of the experience offered at Upton Park.
Having said that, the old ground had changed dramatically from its traditional layout. The West Stand, usually known under its various sponsorship names over the years, was quite vast with views from the back of the stand unlikely to offer anything better than the majority of seats at the Olympic Stadium.
The views today are somewhat permanent, with no chance at all of the club being able to resolve the issue. Aside from working out how to bring the lower tiers closer to the pitch in some way, which it won’t be able to, it or something that fans will have to get used to.
Pre-Match Experience: For many a fan travelling to home matches, the food and drink on offer had become as famous as the football. Green Street was lined with mobile burger vans and memorabilia stands. Around the corner you would find dozens of supporters queueing for the East End staple of pie and mash outside Nathan’s Pies and Eels on Barking Road.
The burger vans have stayed, but they are not the greasy versions that fans were used to. It is ‘gourmet’ meat and brioche buns, following general dining trends in the capital. There is a sense that the Stadium is catering for tourists as well as football fans. The pricing of the refreshments are also not insignificant, likely pricing out a fair amount of fans in the process.
Empty Seats: As for the overall pre-match atmosphere, the build up to kick off can often be a little muted. That is essentially down to the fans. What the majority of fans cannot be blamed for, however, is the amount of either empty seats or seats occupied by non-West Ham fans, which has been fuelled by the low prices offered for Premier League football.
Social media has revealed that hoards of Millwall, Chelsea, Arsenal and neutral fans have managed to get their hands on season tickets. The increase in capacity of 20,000 seats has enabled a swathe of ‘tourists’, predominantly non-West Ham fans, to snap up seats and therefore deprive Hammers fans from coming to matches.
The club has tried to combat this by offering a ‘ticket exchange,’ but this appears to have been either a largely futile exercise or one which has not been embraced by those selling – evidenced by the obviously empty seats. It has to be one of the owners’ main objectives this season to tackle this as it leaves loyal and sensible fans disheartened in a time where they have already been wrenched from their spiritual home.
Stewarding: This part of the move has perhaps been the most heavily criticised. Ownership of stewarding and safety was taken by LS185, the firm responsible for the overall operation of the venue. Good-humoured rivalry and often expletive-laden banter with away fans is part and parcel of any match day.
But many fans have felt aggrieved by the attitude and heavy-handed management of supporters on the West Ham side of the London Stadium. Much criticism has been aimed at the board, which quickly deflected this back to the stadium management company, over the way in which fans have been treated and that they do not feel as safe at matches. It was also made clear that the stewards employed by the club at the Boleyn Ground were not approached at all about roles at the new stadium.