West Ham’s Olympic gamble: has it paid off?

As we near the end of the English Premier League season, there is much to contemplate for clubs up and down the country. Perhaps none more so than for West Ham United.

West Ham

West Ham captain Mark Noble lines up at the London Stadium against Swansea Source: Getty Images

It has been a strange, bitter period down London's East End. Their move to the Olympic Stadium was the biggest thing to happen to the club since they won the old Cup Winners’ Cup 52 years ago.

But letting go of their roots at Boleyn Ground has left one of England’s more passionately supported teams – so much so they made a Hollywood film about it – bereft of their unique character.

Finishing with high-flyers Tottenham and Liverpool in their final two matches at the venue this season, Saturday night's game against Everton (Live on SBS, 11:30pm) might be their last chance to take all three points at their new home.

And if there is one thing that could have made the switch from the extraordinary atmosphere at Upton Park that little bit easier, it would have been some big wins at the Stratford venue.

🎥 We went behind the scenes at the London Stadium... 📺👉 https://t.co/joTHXaaxzx pic.twitter.com/SO2M7Kb7OK — Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) April 10, 2017
Put simply, those memorable wins didn’t come. Not one of their six victories was against a top-ten team. A 1-0 win over Bournemouth (14th) is the highest-ranked team they toppled at home this season. Five of those victories for Slaven Bilic’s men finished as 1-0 scrappers, too.

No, home will be thought of as the place where West Ham’s defence was torn to shreds over and over, first by Watford (2-4), then Southampton (0-3), Manchester United (0-2), Arsenal (1-5), Manchester City (0-4), Chelsea (1-2) and Leicester (2-3). Basically, the big clubs came and torched the place.

For the record, it was the complete opposite at the Boleyn Ground last season, where West Ham racked up nine victories last season and just three defeats. That's a real fortress.

But from blowing those famous bubbles there is now only rubble, a sacred site taken by developers and set to be converted into a massive new apartment block. There is no Highbury-style redevelopment, either, to keep the history alive.

Perhaps, if the new stadium had the steep stands football fans crave – and the old ground was known for – there might have been an embrace of the new arena.

West Ham fanzine editor Graeme Howlett said the design of the London 2012 stadium, with its shallow gradient and running track, had made atmosphere harder to create and affected the team’s results “without a shadow of a doubt”.

“It would be impossible to replicate the atmosphere of the Boleyn in Stratford due to the vast distance between the pitch and the stands,” he told the Liverpool Echo this week. “As has people leaving in droves before the final whistle in order to beat the (human) traffic ahead of the 15-minute walk to Stratford station and thousands of empty seats every match – the result of the club’s ‘+2’ scheme which enabled all season ticket holders to purchase up to three tickets during the migration process (many of which are left unused).”

So with all this negativity, has there been an upside to the Hammers making the move? Well, yes.

They now have a home average crowd of 56,967 – the third-highest in the Premier League, trailing only Manchester United and Arsenal. For a team that has flirted with the Championship rather than the Champions League, it is a huge following.

The club is also trying to work out how it can free up extra space to boost capacity to the promised 66,000, which would only increase their exposure. In London, that’s going to carry some major cachet.

The club’s rental agreement, too, is out of world. They pay just £2.5 million per year. Arsene Wenger said the Irons had “won the lottery” when the deal was done. Financially, he’s right. It’s probably the best deal for a brand new stadium in world football.

Here come the Hammers... #COYI pic.twitter.com/kI4bZIzPP9 — London Stadium (@LondonStadium) April 8, 2017
With that in mind, you have to wonder if it might have been a smoother transition if that seventh-placed finish last season could have been replicated. A poor start to the year gave them no chance of finishing in Europe, before a mid-season surge edged them away from the drop zone. Unfortunately, a five-game losing streak between March and April has deflated matters once more.

To think, too, that they lost Dimitri Payet – probably the club’s most talented player since Paolo Di Canio – for well-under his market value in January.

Put succinctly, it's been an emotional ride. For West Ham, and their fans, the fortune that's always been hiding is taking a little bit longer to find.

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5 min read
Published 21 April 2017 at 4:30pm
By Sebastian Hassett