It may be fewer than 6km from Upton Park, but West Ham’s brand new London Stadium feels a long way from home.
While the club’s fans used to pour out of the tube station from which their old ground took its name, and make their way past well-worn pubs, pie-and-mash shops, and East End market stalls, it is a rather different welcome on disembarking at Stratford.
The station sits adjacent to the bustling Westfield shopping centre through which they must traipse to reach the perimeter of the vast Olympic Park. From there, far in the distance and beyond the futuristic Aquatics Centre, the London Stadium looms. And there is not a real boozer in sight.
The club still await an agreement on naming rights from an appropriate sponsor, although reports that it could become the Tesco Stadium have been described as wide of the mark, which will save us all from the inevitable tirade of tired supermarket puns and gags that would have followed.
Inside, the one main worry about West Ham setting up shop inside a former athletics venue, was the presence of a running track between pitch and fans. Football’s recent history has shown that such distance has never been conducive to creating an atmosphere. This would prove particularly strange for a club used to operating within a crucible like Upton Park for over a century.
Some sort of green tarpaulin has been laid down upon the track, fooling nobody, and it was a long dash for Cheikhou Kouyate to complete in order to celebrate in front of the fans after hitting the first goal at the stadium, as West Ham began life in their new surroundings by beating Domzale in Europa League qualifying last week. And the less said about the distance from the edge of Slaven Bilic’s technical area to the seat in his dug-out the better but there have been shorter triple-jump run-ups.
But despite the obvious drawbacks, this was very much a step West Ham had to take in order to get where they want to be. These new sterilised surroundings have that unmistakable ‘big club’ feeling. They have even employed the same stadium catering staff as Arsenal and Wembley.
It means that for the first time since the long and expansive redevelopment of Stamford Bridge in the ’90s, West Ham will head to Chelsea in their Premier League curtain-raiser on Monday knowing that they’ve got something bigger and better waiting back home for the return fixture.
Most importantly, on the pitch, however far it might be from the stands, they are closing in on parity too. In Dimitri Payet, this upwardly mobile club have one of the most efficient goal producers in world football today. Andy Carroll, in scoring twice against Juventus on Sunday in the stadium’s official ‘opening ceremony’, proved once again he was seemingly born to head crosses into guarded nets.
That is not to mention the plethora of talented players within the squad which was disappointed to finish only seventh last term, just four points behind Manchester United and Manchester City. Now Kouyate says that ‘nothing is impossible’ given what Leicester did last year. It is this point which explains Slaven Bilic’s reasoning for clearly lurching from the obvious party line when he addressed the media ahead of that Domzale game. Since this often-tortuous move across east London was first mooted, the club have rarely even hinted that the relocation may be a problem for the players.
So it was curious when the manager suggested that the switch could indeed be ‘dangerous’. His insinuation was that with their elite players, the promising performances and now the stadium, expectations of the Hammers across English football know no bounds. The feeling is out there that nothing, even a title challenge, is impossible.
But the fact is, West Ham’s best ever finish in English football, when they finished third in the Canon First Division, was 30 years ago this summer. Bilic was simply playing the pragmatist while the rest dream of what this Olympic-sized behemoth might be about to do.
Darren Randolph, meanwhile, who kept the first ever clean sheet at the London Stadium in the 3-0 win over Domzale, has also warned that the transition may not be easy.
“It’s going to take a while for everyone to get used to the new surroundings,” he said. “Even for us as players, going from Upton Park where it was quite tight and nearly on top of the pitch.”
Never mind Slovenian minnows Domzale, or Juventus in a friendly, this stadium will taste the Premier League for the first time on the 21st of this month, when Bournemouth visit. Maybe then it might begin to feel something like home.
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