Tottenham beware: a new ground means new gripes, writes Brenda O’Brien.
“I don’t need to explain because, clearly, it’s bigger. It’s also difficult to listen to the fans and, for us, the pitch is very big.” — West Ham United’s Pedro Obiang, speaking in March
So big, he said it twice.
The Spaniard’s grasp of English seems to have a way to go but there was no disguising the message or the significance in the fact one of Slaven Bilic’s players felt the need to express his frustration with their new London Stadium digs more than six months on from their first game in Stratford. The club itself tired of the gripes about those same dimensions in January when pointing out the 105 x 68m area was in line with Uefa and Premier League directives. It’s not that the London Stadium pitch is bigger, they said, just that Upton Park’s was shorter by five metres because of space restrictions.
The bottom line is one and the same: a new ground means new gripes. Obiang felt strange playing there. It was like sleeping in someone else’s bed. Wearing someone else’s shoes. Bilic admitted himself early on that there were “advantages and disadvantages” to swapping homes and how right he has been.
West Ham contributed just £15m towards the £272m needed to adapt the Olympic Stadium for football. They pay nothing towards costs and upkeep, just £2.5m in rent per season. That’s chump change in the Premier League so it’s no wonder their switch during the summer was described as the ‘deal of the century’.
It may well prove to be a masterstroke long-term but the story so far has been one of angst, on and off the pitch. West Ham fans have clashed with each other, with rival supporters and with stewards employed by the stadium operators who haven’t taken kindly to the penchant of some to stand during games.
The athletics track has served as a breakwater for the few positive vibes that have been generated in the stands and results have been, well, poor. The Hammers finished seventh in the Premier League last season but they sit 15th now and they entertain Tottenham Hotspur tonight for a game with obvious short-term implications.
Bilic’s job is on the line and Spurs have title ambitions to occupy their minds this evening but the venue is an apposite one as the visitors look ahead to their last ever game at White Hart Lane, against Manchester United on May 14, before a temporary switch to Wembley and the return in 2018 to the new-build back in N17. The suspicion is the project is a great idea at a terrible time.
Tottenham, after decades running a loveable but structurally suspect operation, finally have their house in order. Daniel Levy has had his critics but he has identified a man in Mauricio Pochettino, as well as a surrounding eco-system, that has finally allowed the London club to compete with the country’s big boys.
The opening of the new 61,000-capacity stadium on the site of their old home — which will house NFL regular season games and any number of non-sporting activities v should allow Spurs to prosper financially but their imminent moves have the potential to undo so much of their chairman’s and manager’s groundwork. Just over 30 English clubs have moved abode in the last three decades. Five of them — Derby County (1997), Southampton (2001), Manchester City (2003), Arsenal (2006) and West Ham (2016) — were Premier League clubs at the time and Sky Sports found that only the Rams managed the upheaval without their form taking a turn for the worse.
County, under Jim Smith, won eight home games in their last season at the Baseball Ground and then a dozen first time out at Pride Park. The other four all won less games in their new surroundings. Southampton, without a win at St Mary’s by mid-November in ‘01, even called in a pagan priestess to perform an exorcism.
It worked. They went out and beat Charlton Athletic 1-0.
“It’s a bit like when we moved to the Emirates,” said Arsene Wenger before Arsenal beat West Ham 5-1 away last December. “You feel a bit like you’re playing on neutral ground for a while. It takes a few years, because you have to make memories and build a little history.”
This isn’t unique to football. Richard Pollard, a statistician at California Polytechnic State University, studied results in professional baseball, basketball and ice hockey between 1987 and 2000 and found that teams moving home lost, on average, 24% of their home advantage. The reasons? Players adapting to new surfaces, locations and pitch sizes. Pedro Obiang was clearly on to something. Pollard didn’t work out how long this teething period lasts but the effect of a strange environment was put in perspective in 2002 when Sandy Wolfson of Northumbria University in England somehow worked out that testosterone levels of professional footballers was 67% higher for home games than away. Seriously, is there anything science can’t do?
It was Pollard who, in an interview with the New Statesman, suggested that moving home “probably cost you a couple of points in a season and, in some sports, that’s the difference between winning and second place”.
Food for thought for Spurs in the two years to come, particularly if they lie just one point behind Chelsea later tonight.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ByBrendanOBrien
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