West Ham clearly los­ing track at the Lon­don Sta­dium

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

Some of the Kerry re­la­tions are up for the match on Sun­day and there’s talk of meet­ing be­fore­hand for a quick drink. We all have our pre­ferred ren­dezvous in and around Croke Park and we some­times for­get just how con­ve­nient the place is.

Last Sun­day my brother was in Lon­don for the fi­nal day of the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships. We never got to meet. Even af­ter 10 long days and even longer nights in and around the Lon­don Olympic Sta­dium it was dif­fi­cult to get any bear­ings. Just be­cause the place is con­ve­nient doesn’t make it hard to for­get.

Part of the prob­lem was he got off the Dock­land’s Light Rail at Strat­ford In­ter­na­tional, in­stead of getting off at Strat­ford, and walk­ing up the wall of steps and through the West­field Shop­ping Cen­tre to­wards the Lon­don Sta­dium (they drop the “Olympic” for non-ath­letic events), com­ing from the south side of what is known as Queen El­iz­a­beth Olympic Park – not so much a for­mer Green­field site as a for­mer wet­land.

Com­ing down the Ju­bilee Line, and trans­fer­ring at Ca­nary Wharf, my most con­ve­nient stop was Pud­ding Mill Lane, on the west side of the sta­dium. Af­ter that it seemed there wasn’t any­where con­ve­nient to meet, es­pe­cially not for a quick drink.

This in one small way cap­tures the Lon­don Sta­dium dilemma also known as the 99-year lease to West Ham United. Be­cause as suit­able as it may be to host­ing a ma­jor ath­let­ics cham­pi­onships, the Lon­don Sta­dium is no place for a foot­ball match – at least not in the Croke Park sense.

Great deal

The story of West Ham’s vir­tual in­her­i­tance of the Lon­don Sta­dium af­ter the 2012 Olympics has been told many times, and hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced all it has to of­fer over those 10 days of the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships, it’s clearly been a great deal for the club and a raw deal for the sup­porter.

And a re­minder too how lucky we were to be spared our Sta­dium Ire­land, that great white ele­phant in wait­ing also known as the Ber­tie Bowl. Or in­deed the im­por­tance of re­tain­ing ex­ist­ing sta­dium lo­ca­tions wher­ever con­ve­niently pos­si­ble, such as the re­cently re­de­vel­oped Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Af­ter suc­cess­fully out-bid­ding (then win­ning sub­se­quent ap­peals) from the likes of Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur and Ley­ton Ori­ent, West Ham signed that 99-year lease with the Lon­don Legacy De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (LLDC) in April 2016 for a mere £2.5 mil­lion per year, part of that deal also be­ing they wouldn’t have to fund po­lice, stew­ard­ing, heat­ing, pitch main­te­nance or in­deed cor­ner flags.

At the time for­mer Ley­ton Ori­ent chair­man Barry Hearn said his dog could have ne­go­ti­ated a bet­ter deal for the tax­payer.

As an­chor ten­ants, West Ham es­sen­tially rent the sta­dium for 25 days a year (the rent will be halved to £1.25m if the clubs is rel­e­gated from the Premier League), while the LLDC con­tin­ues to rent out to other sport­ing bod­ies such as Bri­tish Ath­let­ics, the IAAF, and the In­ter­na­tional Par­a­lympics Com­mit­tee (IPC).

And therein lies part of the prob­lem – be­cause one of the LLDC con­di­tions was that the Olympic run­ning track had to re­main. Which is why the Lon­don Sta­dium will al­ways work per­fectly well as an ath­let­ics venue but never feel quite at home as a foot­ball sta­dium.

New ground

West Ham main­tain they had ev­ery rea­son to break new ground af­ter 112 years at Up­ton Park, which held only 35,000, most of whom were in oc­ca­sion­ally poi­sonous prox­im­ity to the pitch. The Lon­don Sta­dium, though cur­rently capped at 57,000 can in­crease its ca­pac­ity to 66,000 – the third high­est in Eng­land; bar, cater­ing and toi­let fa­cil­i­ties are also dou­bled com­pared to the old ground and a new club mega­s­tore is open through­out the week. Chang­ing-room space is also 80 per cent greater than Up­ton Park (al­though if they were good enough for Bobby Moore . . . )

What the deal didn’t prom­ise was the ap­palling dis­tance be­tween pitch and spec­ta­tor. Even when con­verted back to foot­ball mode (at a cost of £8m each time, in­ci­den­tally), the 21,000 re­tractable – or rather “re­lo­cat­able” – seats do lit­tle to ad­dress the gap­ing chasms be­tween the stands and the pitch, not helped by the bowl-shaped sta­dium it­self. Sit­ting in the me­dia seats dur­ing the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships the track was cer­tainly vis­i­ble, the in­field area far less so.

Last Oc­to­ber, foot­ball sta­dium ex­pert Paul Fletcher told the BBC that once the ath­let­ics track was put in be­fore the foot­ball pitch, the sup­port­ers would al­ways be too far away. “Ei­ther we go on as we are for the next 30 or 40 years, or we knock it down and start again,” he said.

In­fight­ing

No won­der West Ham’s open­ing games of last sea­son were marred by in­fight­ing among home and ri­val sup­port­ers, partly blamed on the lack of seg­re­ga­tion and in­suf­fi­cient polic­ing, but also the re­al­i­sa­tion the new sta­dium re­ally was as bad as feared.

Not even some light-hearted moments (the Mid­dles­brough fans us­ing the stretched fab­ric which hides the big holes in the sta­dium as a tram­po­line when they scored) could dis­guise the sense the club had left a good deal of its iden­tity be­hind at Up­ton Park, turn­ing 112 years of his­tory into flats.

Last sea­son, Slaven Bilic’s team won just seven of their 19 home games at the Lon­don Sta­dium, their top-six am­bi­tions even­tu­ally sur­ren­der­ing in 11th place. This sea­son, their first four games are be­ing played away, as the sta­dium is turned back into foot­ball mode, start­ing with last Sun­day’s 4-0 de­feat at Old Traf­ford.

A ham­mer­ing, in other words, around the same time the IAAF and Bri­tish Ath­let­ics were sign­ing off on the most suc­cess­ful ever World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships, a record at­ten­dance of 701,889 over the 10 days.

One rea­son per­haps to sup­port West Ham United this sea­son, or else make the Lon­don Sta­dium the per­ma­nent home to the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RICHARD HEATHCOTE/GETTY IMAGES

No won­der West Ham’s open­ing games of last sea­son were marred by in­fight­ing among home and ri­val sup­port­ers.

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