In the summer of 2005 London was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics and West Ham United were celebrating their return to the Premier League after a two-season absence. Few around the club at that time would have welcomed the prospect of leaving the Boleyn Ground, where they had played since 1904, for a new stadium in Stratford, and no one in the office of the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, imagined they were constructing an Olympic stadium that a football club could inherit when the games were over. In 2013 the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) and West Ham, under the majority ownership of David Gold and David Sullivan, two businessmen who had made their money from pornography, agreed that the club would acquire a 99-year lease on the Olympic stadium. By then, West Ham had gone too far to retreat – not least in resisting the legal challenge from its London rival Tottenham Hotspur – and in the second round of bidding for the tenancy the LLDC had received no other serious offer.
The relationship has now turned disastrously sour, leaving the LLDC with a stadium losing more than £20 million a year and West Ham in tumult despite the club’s having made a £43 million profit in its first season at Stratford. We know – because their correspondence with the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, on the subject was released after a Freedom of Information request – that Gold and Sullivan, along with West Ham’s vice-chairman, Karren Brady, think the move has in good part been a catastrophe. But West Ham’s top triumvirate has also spent much of the last two seasons trumpeting the success of the move and effectively threatening those season-ticket holders who have complained about the match-day experience, including rudimentary safety concerns, by telling them that fifty thousand people are waiting to take their seats. Many West Ham supporters wonder if the club they love still exists. In the home game against Burnley on 10 March anger and disappointment flared, and a number of fans stormed the pitch while others slung abuse at the directors’ box. The stewards employed by the stadium operator seemed to have no idea what to do. The additional security put in place for the next home game cost taxpayers under the terms of the lease around £60,000.
At the heart of West Ham’s woes is the simple fact that the football club is no longer playing at a football stadium. The shape is all wrong, for a start: a rectangular pitch is surrounded by an oval array of seats, most of which are too far from the action to allow the energy and sound of the fans to have much effect on what happens on the pitch. The stadium was built for athletics, and without thought for the fact that the only viable future it had after the Olympics was as a venue for top-flight football. The massive cost of moving the retractable seating to allow both West Ham and UK Athletics to use the stadium is the reason for most of the financial problems besetting LLDC.
That West Ham is an inconvenient necessity in Stratford could scarcely be more obvious. On match days, stewards frogmarch the fans streaming out of the train stations away from the Westfield shopping centre on a circuitous route to the stadium, purportedly for health and safety reasons. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s website announces that the job of the London Stadium – as it is now known – is to bring in ‘new events and activities’. Sadiq Khan refused for months to meet Brady to discuss the problems at the stadium, before finally acquiescing to a meeting that lasted only 45 minutes. His priority is a commercial strategy for turning the stadium into ‘a hub for global events and not just football’. The Rolling Stones will play there in May in their first appearance in Britain for five years.
If the club’s results had been better over the past 18 months some of the discontent would probably have remained buried. Most West Ham supporters had reconciled themselves to moving to Stratford (largely because they hated losing at anything to Tottenham) and having done so grasped at a dream, as football fans are wont to do: in a bigger stadium, with increased match-day revenue, good times, they hoped, would finally arrive. As it turned out, the last season at the Boleyn Ground was a successful one and expectations soared. But Sullivan and Gold saw no reason to invest money in a team whose vulnerabilities were still evident. As the squad’s deficiencies became ever more glaring after the move, they looked for cut-price players to patch things over, but in the last transfer window appeared only to weaken the squad. Without a better team, there is only the harsh reality of a stadium that isn’t fit to stage football and owners who, at best, were deceived as to what kind of stadium they had secured, and at worst dissembled when the decision to move could no longer be undone.
West Ham fans tend to think that what happens at their club says something about the state of English football. It’s an illusion born of a summer afternoon 52 years ago when West Ham players provided the four goals and the captaincy that won England the World Cup. But it is not without some truth. Over the past two decades or so English football has changed almost beyond recognition. New stadiums host games in the gaps between conferences. Exorbitantly paid players and managers come and go at dizzying speed, and any number of top clubs have been acquired by foreign owners for whom football barely registers in their business interests. The FA Cup final, once the most sacred event of the season, has become a sideshow. The connection between the old East End and West Ham was diminished long before the fans poured down Green Street for the last time. By the early 2000s many supporters made their way from Essex, Kent and more affluent parts of London rather than from the streets where fans-turned-players like Martin Peters, the future World Cup winner, and Mark Noble, a future club captain, first learned to pass a ball. In 2006, the team conceded an injury-time equaliser in the cup final, three minutes away from winning West Ham’s first silverware in 26 years. A few months after that, the families who had owned the club since it was founded in 1895 by the owner of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company sold it to a consortium of Icelandic bankers who promised Champions League football within five years. When the consortium’s business empire collapsed during the financial crisis and the massively expanded wage bill didn’t even yield another cup run, West Ham were lucky to escape administration.
The move to the new stadium has proved so traumatic because every aspect of being a supporter there is a reminder of the transformed nature of the sport, and the football on the pitch has provided no relief. Football, as Arthur Hopcraft wrote in The Football Man (1968), has been built into the British urban psyche, especially, he might have added, in areas like the East End, where the industrial working class lived and worked. It gave communities a proud heritage to be passed from one generation to the next, and sometimes exalted its tribal loyalties beyond sanity. The people who came to watch the game found in its drama an authentic experience that they understood with a fierce exactitude. To anyone who remembers what British football once was, the new Stratford – the Westfield shopping centre and the roads leading to the building sites that line the Olympic park – is not an urban place. It establishes no claim on the memory or imagination and makes no impact on the senses. There is nothing that transcends commercial imperatives. Football in this country cannot be watched in such surroundings and remain football. For West Ham there is no place they can go to play the game most supporters still want to watch. Worse still, there is no illusion that there could be such a place.