Stadium tales & things I’ve heard in the crowd and on the way to games lately

London Stadium

In my book, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I referred to a character who used to sit somewhere behind me in the Betway stand at Upton Park, who used to shout the words “back door, back door” continuously throughout the game, when our opponents were attacking our goal. If they had a corner, or a free kick, or indeed were attacking down either flank he would shout those words. It got a bit boring after a while and many of us were pleased when he no longer turned up for games. I’d like to think that someone showed him the back door!

Now there is a guy who sits somewhere behind me who I think of as Mr. Know-It-All. Throughout the game he passes comment the whole time with one or two expletives in every sentence. He really believes he is an expert on the game, and likes to tell everyone in earshot. Every player on the pitch, either our team or the opposition is referred to at the end of every single phrase he utters as a c***, or a f****** c***. Most of us are really cheesed off with him as he thinks he knows everything, but there is an old couple who seem to hang on his every word and seem to find him funny. During the Arsenal game he spent most of the time he was there berating Antonio. He didn’t actually know the difference between Fernandes who was playing and Antonio who was not. Fortunately he disappears to the bar about fifteen minutes before half time, and leaves a similar time before the end of each game. The grandfather who sits next to me with his six year old grandson has complained to stewards but they don’t seem to want to act. He really is a pain and keeps saying he is never coming again. But unfortunately he does.

Also near me is a chap who follows the team to every game, home and away, including abroad when we are in Europe. He gives a running commentary to his two sons, explaining the finer points of the game throughout. He actually is quite knowledgeable, but it gets a bit wearing.

A few rows in front of me there is a chap who is a dead ringer for the singer Will Young. He comes to the game with his wife, or girlfriend, or whatever she is, but doesn’t take any interest in the match whatsoever. They are too busy cosying up to each other and should really go somewhere else and get a room.

Fortunately, most of the people in my vicinity in the ground are a good bunch. But I guess you see all sorts in a crowd.

I’ve also heard some interesting things on the radio on the way to games. Phil Neville, who has obviously been watching a lot of tennis lately used the following words in a commentary: “he forced the City player into an unforced error.”

Chris Waddle referring to the game at the top of the table last weekend used the words “Manchester City could easily have been 3-1 up before Chelsea scored”.

And another radio pundit, referring to our own Simone Zaza, used the words “He’s still looking to find his feet”. Now I know the reason for his poor performances. Perhaps if he finds them he will be a better player.

A Tale of Two Stadiums

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Wisdom or foolishness, belief or incredulity?

Stadiums

Imagine there was a football team with a traditional working class support that gave up the cherished memories of its full of character home ground, which it owned, and moved away to rent a taxpayer funded converted athletics stadium. The first season at the new stadium witnessed an early European exit to an obscure eastern European outfit and then patchy form resulted in them slipping to 16th place in the league. This week that team has just defeated Barcelona and were reported to be top earners from last season’s Champions League with revenues of £76 million (equivalent to about 60% of West Ham’s annual revenue from all sources). The team is, of course, Manchester City.

Despite the obvious parallels there are also important differences. Critics of the London Stadium will point out that the conversion of the City of Manchester stadium was to a dedicated football stadium rather than a multi-purpose arena; and I’m sure there is some justification in that as far as the matchday experience is concerned. In addition, although City pay more in rent than West Ham do, and are responsible for all operating overheads, they are able to benefit more from the associated (and now significant) naming rights and matchday income.

In the first 6 years in their new home City finished 18th, 8th, 15th, 14th, 9th and 10th respectively. Despite what we may believe a shiny, new high capacity stadium doesn’t guarantee success. It wasn’t until the injection of Thai (briefly) and Abu Dhabi money that City’s new successful era began. It is arguable whether that investment would have been forthcoming if they had still played at Maine Road.

I know a few Manchester City fans and all are delighted with their new found status. They are now the second most profitable English league club, after their near neighbours, and with massive financial backing are well placed to continue the upward momentum. I don’t recall too many rumblings related to the move but, if there was a lot of moaning in Royle family style sittings rooms across the City at the time, it is long forgotten now.

Famous victories under the lights against Barca may seem a long way away to the average Hammer’s fan at the moment. The optimism of the new stadium (where it existed) has been overtaken by events and with the negativity fuelled and amplified by the media. With few exceptions the media is rather patronising towards West Ham regarding them as a wayward cousin to the ‘real’ glamour London clubs or Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. A rare moment in the sun is tolerated but other than that the club and its supporters are seen as a caricature that belongs in an Eastender’s plot. The nature and generosity of the deal for the London stadium has made the club a perfect target for journalists and online media sites to exaggerate and repeat half truths. It has not been helped by the actions of some supporters while similar flash-points at other grounds, with Manchester City fans smashing up the toilets at Old Trafford or Liverpool fans throwing flairs on to the pitch at Selhurst Park, barely get a mention. The stories about a return to the hooliganism of the 70’s or 80’s and the stadium being unsuitable for football are clearly risible.

I have mentioned before that in the past West Ham have relied heavily on TV money for revenues; far more so than our closest rivals in financial terms do. Staying at the Boleyn Ground (as it was) did not provide any opportunity for the club to develop or even to maintain the status quo with our peers. Whether it was viable to developing Upton Park into a stadium that could generate more revenue is another question but a moot one now. The point being that West Ham’s future depended on being able to increase Matchday and, more importantly, Commercial income. The alternative was to slip further away from any aspiration to join the leading London clubs and join the also-rans of Palace, QPR and Fulham instead. It is possible that some fans would be quite happy with this situation if it meant that traditions were maintained but, as a business decision, passing up the opportunity of the London stadium move would have been foolish; particularly with Tottenham hovering in the wings.

The gulf in earnings between West Ham and the (financially) big clubs is so huge now that even if the teething problems with the new stadium are fully resolved it can only take us a few rungs up the ladder. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where we are able to grow organically into becoming a regular Champion’s League participant. Major outside investment is the only route to such a promised land and that is something that would change the club out of all recognition.

The London Stadium and its location is ideal to attract the attention of investors (likely to be overseas) but the unanswered question is what type of club do we want?

Let’s Talk About Money

The conundrum of stadium, money, tradition and success.

MoneyDo you ever stop to consider why you support a football club? What is it that makes you want to invest so much time, money and emotion into the fortunes of a particular team? What do you get or want out of it in return?

Of course there is no simple answer as everyone has their own story and perspective. Originally it would have been about creating bonds and a sense of community; families, friends, territories and rivalries. Perhaps this still exists in the lower leagues at places such as Rochdale or Hartlepool (who I understand to be the most unsuccessful teams in history) but it has become less relevant at the top level; particularly in the Premier League where money and success rule. The dilemma for a team such as West Ham (or more importantly its supporters) is what constitutes success and what are you prepared to sacrifice to secure it?

It is no surprise to anyone that there is a strong correlation between how much money is available to a club and the level of success on the pitch; if we measure success by league position or trophies won. The move to the London Stadium was, no doubt, seen by the owners as an opportunity for the club to progress financially, to keep Tottenham off our patch and to increase the value of their investment. I don’t want to get involved in the merits or otherwise of the new stadium and we have to accept that there is no going back; like it or not we should concentrate on making the most of what we now have.  We are now in the London Stadium; where can it take us?

“The clubs who have better financial resources have the better teams”

– A Wenger

Based on the financial accounts for 2014/15 West Ham were the 20th biggest club in Europe (in terms of revenue) and the 9th biggest in the UK.  We were one of a cluster of English clubs with reasonably similar levels of revenue comprising Newcastle, Everton, West Ham, Aston Villa and Southampton. Manchester United are way ahead of everyone else followed by a closely grouped Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. There is then a gap to Tottenham before a further gap to our own group.

As Tottenham is the nearest financial target in our sights if we are to improve our relative position then I use them for comparison purposes only. In 2014/15 Tottenham had revenues of £196m compared to West Ham’s £122m. With a similar sized stadium they were able to generate more than us in Matchday (£41m/ £20m), TV (£95m/ £79m) and Commercial (£59m/ £24m) revenues. TV contributed 65% of West Ham’s revenue compared to Tottenham’s 49%.

The larger stadium will certainly generate incremental Matchday cash but it is difficult to see the direct impact that it will have on TV or Commercial activity; as these are more a function of team success and wider, higher profile. For the sponsors involved with football the attraction of Premier League clubs is the worldwide appeal of the major teams participating and this an area where both West Ham and Tottenham suffer in comparison with the (so-called) big 5 clubs. (In fact I ave not seen any significant major overseas profile for Manchester City yet but they can at least rely on the UAE for hefty sponsorship deals). Tottenham fare better than us with commercial sponsorship due to their longer and more regular involvement in European competition but they are still some way behind the others. It would be rare in Asia, for instance, to see locals wearing Tottenham or West Ham shirts and that is why our sponsors have tended to be local rather than international businesses. Breaking into that club and attracting overseas support is a major challenge for any new team.

So where does that leave us? Potentially with improved financial security and topping the also-rans-financial league I mentioned above, but with a mountain to climb if we want to see a sustainable step change in status. Over the last 4 years West Ham have been the 5th largest net transfer spenders (notable for our lack of large transfers out) and although this has brought relative improvement we remain firmly part of that mid-table pack. A realistic view is that it would appear virtually impossible to grow organically into a truly big club; only significant external investment can make that difference. Otherwise the future is the same mid-ranking club but in a much larger stadium.

And that brings us back to the original questions. What does success look like and how badly do we want it? Surely it should be better than 4 cups in 50 years but are we prepared to give up the remaining sense of community, tradition and what it means to be a Hammer in order to achieve it?

Source: Financial information taken from the excellent Swiss Ramble blog.

Stand Up If You Love West Ham?

Could this become the biggest controversy at West Ham since the Bond Scheme?

Standing at Olympic StadiumMy first visit to Upton Park was in 1958. I was four years old. I sat in the stand. B Block in the old West Stand to be precise. When I was old enough to go with friends we always stood. The North Bank was our position of choice for many years. I stood when over 42,000 crammed into the ground against Tottenham one day. We could barely move. But we were young and we didn’t care. It was more fun to watch a game whilst standing on the terraces. It was all we could afford anyway.

But in 1989 a disaster in Sheffield led to a review of the law relating to safety certificates being issued at football stadiums. They became all-seater at Premier League grounds more than twenty years ago, and despite many people wanting safe standing areas, they remain so. Many would welcome these areas but it would require legal changes for it to happen. Just because unofficial standing areas became the norm at Upton Park, usually in the lower areas, and a blind eye appeared to be turned, it doesn’t mean that it is a right now that we have moved into a new stadium. Many who don’t wish to stand (or in fact cannot stand) are inconvenienced because of their position in the ground.

At Upton Park fans knew where the unofficial standing areas were and migrated to them accordingly if they wished to stand. Moving to a new stadium has meant that these unofficial areas have not yet been established and this has therefore exacerbated the issue.

We could have had 60,000 for the visit of Bournemouth. But this had to be reduced to 57,000 as we couldn’t get a safety certificate for the higher figure. Who is to say that this won’t get reduced further if the standing persists? With 52,000 season ticket holders and tickets for away fans then this only left around 2,000 tickets available for people who are unable to get a season ticket. And we are told there are thousands on the waiting list. The club would like to increase the capacity to 66,000 to accommodate the demand, but this looks increasingly unlikely whilst some supporters continue to defy the rules because they believe it is their right to stand.

Now I prefer to sit to watch football. I am not one of the new breed of supporters (Essex middle class was the term used by one standing fan). I have been a regular for nearly 60 years and I have reached an age where a day out to watch football involves a lot of standing and walking, and I prefer to watch the game in relative comfort sitting down. I join in with Bubbles, and I shout and scream as the game is on. I leap to my feet when a goal is scored. When I get home I have often got a very hoarse voice. I am as passionate about West Ham as I was in the sixties, seventies and eighties when I stood on the North Bank. But I don’t have to stand up to show my passion.

The new stadium is infinitely more comfortable than Upton Park. I am lucky in that I sit in an upper tier where others are also seated. As I looked down at the Bournemouth game I could see the problems and conflict arising. Many stood in defiance because they believe it is their right. Throughout the game many faced away from the game with their arms aloft and started the chant “Stand up if you love West Ham”. I love West Ham but I don’t have to stand to prove it. This was followed frequently with “We’re West Ham United, we stand if we want.” These fans are not concerned about the consequences of their actions. They don’t seem to care if they mar the enjoyment of others. They don’t care that fewer can get tickets.

All change: Trains, missing seats and standing orders!

Travel difficulties and the matchday stadium experience.

Rail MapWe set out from Bury St Edmunds at noon looking forward the third opening game at the London Stadium. The Domzale game was the first, Juventus came next, and now the first home league game. We drove to Epping, parked the car, and boarded the westbound Central Line train at around 1.15 anticipating arrival in Stratford 30 minutes later.

Within minutes we knew this would not be the case. A message (from the driver) informed us that the train would be going no further than Leytonstone due to an incident at Mile End. No problem, no doubt we can get a bus from there we thought. The train reached Loughton at 1.30 and we all had to get off; it was going no further. And no trains would be going beyond Loughton until further notice as there was a person on the track at Mile End.

We milled around on the platform and discussed the problem with fellow supporters who we didn’t know, who became known to us as Paul and his son, Owen, and Rich. After a short conversation Paul said his car was parked close to Loughton Station so we could drive to a nearby overground station. Five of us set off in his car without a destination in mind as we drove away, and used mobiles and google to try to work out the best route to Stratford.

Google and tfl suggested Chingford to Hackney Downs, walk to Hackney Central and then train to Stratford. Parking was easy in Chingford on a Sunday, train connections arrived with no delays and the walk in Hackney was via a footbridge which apparently reduced the walk from 600 metres to 200 metres. We were there in plenty of time for the game.

The atmosphere beforehand was good, Bubbles was loud, and we settled down for what turned out to be a dull, uneventful game. Geoff’s article “Five Things We Learned From This Week’s West Ham Game” tells you all you need to know about the game itself.

Stand upThe stadium still has some teething problems. There was the continued issue of those who wish to watch the game whilst standing. The club had to reduce the capacity to 57,000 for safety reasons because of the refusal of a number, mainly in the lower tiers, who insisted on not using the seats provided for them. I can understand their frustration as in my younger days I preferred to stand at football games and did so for many years. I can also see the other side of the issue – people who wanted to sit but who were in seats behind those who were standing. “We’re West Ham United, we’ll stand if we want” those on their feet sang, some of whom didn’t appear to be taking much notice of the game itself.

The stewards moved in en masse and tried to reason with the standing supporters but no luck, they weren’t sitting for anyone. On my journey home I read social media where some of those standing were boasting of how they had seen off the stewards and got their own way. I also read others who had written that the stewards were mainly just taking seat numbers. They went on to say that, if the club were true to their word and wanted to eradicate the standing, and hence get a safety certificate to increase the potential crowd numbers, they would be writing to the “transgressors”. It would be a warning to them that if they refused to follow instructions then their season tickets would be withdrawn, and they would effectively be banned. Some were apparently ejected from the ground during the game, although I don’t know how many. The row continues on social media, and will no doubt still be an issue on Thursday.

56 people who had bought seats found that there were no seats for them to sit on – an administrative error I heard. They sat on the concrete or stood I suppose? The club apologised and said the seats would be there on Thursday.

Apparently the attendance was 56,977 leaving just 23 unfilled seats. There were many more than 23 with no occupants so these must have been the 3,000 that were reduced from the original expected 60,000. The club had obviously spread these around the stadium but some news reports were mischievously (I thought) trying to emphasise supporters not turning up. Perhaps the Mile End incident was another factor?

I was interested in the figure of 23 short of a whole thousand. On seven different occasions last season the official attendance at our home games was recorded as exactly 34,977, 23 short of 35,000. Incredible coincidence don’t you think?

The New Stadium Experience

First impressions of settling into the new West Ham stadium in Stratford

I have always been in favour of our move into the new stadium. For me, Upton Park was never the same after the ground redevelopment following the Taylor Report. Now that I have been twice to the London Stadium (Domzale and Juventus) I will relate my personal experience so far. Of course we’ll be able to judge the move better when the season really gets underway with the start of the league games.

New West Ham StadiumFirstly, the journey. As someone who has for many years travelled from Bury St Edmunds (via Epping Station on the Central Line) to watch us play then this is slightly easier for me as I now don’t need to add the District Line journey. But this makes little difference really. The walk to the stadium from Stratford station (via Westfield) is deceptively longer than it would appear, although for me it is more pleasant than the walk I used to take from either Upton Park or Plaistow stations.

Stratford StationI’ve read some complaints regarding the time to reach Stratford station after the game; it took me 40 minutes after each game from my seat to the platform following a leisurely stroll. Again, not an issue for me, but for some who are in a rush then perhaps it is. I’ve noted many leaving both games early (with the mock fire drill chant from our own supporters!) so perhaps they are desperate to get away. I don’t really understand that one myself. In 58 years of regularly watching the team I have only left the ground once before the final whistle was blown.

The bag search outside was carried out by friendly people and entry via the turnstiles was easy both times with no queueing. When I reached my seat I found the view to be excellent. When I visited the Reservation Centre to choose my seat I tried to replicate the view I had at Upton Park and am more than happy to be sitting close to the front of the upper tier. The seat itself is considerably wider than the Boleyn seat with significantly more elbow room and leg room, and a better viewing angle (that is angled towards the centre circle, not square to the pitch).

“As far as the atmosphere is concerned I believe that this is generated by the fans and not by the stadium itself.”

One thing I’m getting a little cheesed off about is the song / chant that appears to be more prevalent in the new stadium (Stand up if you love West Ham / hate Tottenham / Hate Millwall etc.). Most people in the ground are there for those reasons anyway, they don’t need to stand to prove it! In many parts of the ground (mostly behind the goals and in the lower tiers generally) standing areas are emerging where fans are on their feet throughout. That’s absolutely fine with me, and these seem to be the sources of the stand-up chant. I just don’t think we need to be continually implored to stand. You can love West Ham or hate Tottenham in either the standing or sitting position! As the Juventus game wore on fewer were standing each time.

The toilets were clean (as befits a new stadium), and unlike Upton Park provided considerably more facilities, little queueing, hot and cold running water and soap, although how long the plumbing facilities remain at this standard remains to be seen. By the end of the game I was amazed at how many still manage to piss on the floor though!

One thing I won’t repeat is buying a coffee; I have to say it was in my opinion possibly the most foul-tasting coffee I have ever experienced.

As far as the atmosphere is concerned I believe that this is generated by the fans and not by the stadium itself. Last season at Upton Park the atmosphere varied from electric (at the Manchester United (league), Liverpool (cup), and Tottenham games, for example) to very ordinary / quiet at many other games. It wasn’t the ground itself that produced the atmosphere for me, it was the fans reacting to the games.

West Ham Boleyn GroundThe roof at the new stadium lends itself to increased volume when the fans react accordingly, and certainly the singing of Bubbles has been spine-tingling. I reckon decibel levels are much greater here than at Upton Park, although I’m not sure any measurements have been taken. I concede that the Boleyn may have had an added intimidatory factor due to the proximity of the crowd to the pitch, but this too was significantly reduced following the 90’s development into an all seater ground. When we all stood on the North and South Banks and Chicken Run it was a different matter.

Overall, I have to say that my expectations, which were already high, have been significantly exceeded by the London Stadium experience. I believe that it also gives us the potential (just potential mind) to move to the next level. Most people I’ve spoken to hold a similar view, but some disagree. I’ve read comments like sterile and other negative reactions to the move, but it’s all about opinions. You can never please everyone. Me? I love it here.