After West Ham United made a permanent move away from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium, Hammers fans would have hoped for and expected higher quality football and better performances from their team. However, this has not turned out to be the case. Slaven Bilic and his team are currently sitting in a mediocre 10th place after 25 games, sixteen points off the top six. What has happened at West Ham? How did the east London club go from being a strong candidate for a top 6 finish last season to mid-table mediocrity so quickly? Let’s take a look at how their stadium move contributed to their disappointing performances so far this season.
West Ham’s ambitious plans to move to the 60,000 capacity London Stadium(Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) would’ve had many West Ham fans very excited for this season. Coming off a strong 7th place finish last season, the London Stadium provided an excellent stage for West Ham’s possible first European competition in a long time. This did not turn out to be the case, however, as they were knocked out by Romanian side Astra Giurgiu for the second consecutive season in the Europa League playoffs. Such was the bad start Slaven Bilic and his players had to endure in their maiden campaign at the new stadium. League fixtures were not much better, with the team managing just a 9-5-11 record.
A big reason for this dip in performance this season could be because of the influence fans have had on the game, or a lack thereof. At the Boleyn ground, fans could quite literally touch the players on the sidelines for a throw in – that was how close the interaction between the fans and players were, an intimidating factor for any team that came to visit. While it may have not been the biggest ground in the top flight, its atmosphere could have been compared to any other club in England. The influence that fans have on the players during games is huge in boosting their morale and even the outcome of the match, and it would not be an understatement to say much of what West Ham achieved last season was due to the boisterous support and encouragement their Hammers faithful provided for them. The sheer number of fans in claret and blue, young and old, singing tunes like “Forever Blowing Bubbles” was enough to give goosebumps to anyone inside the ground, players and fans alike. This could not only be seen inside the stadium, but nearby it as well. Traditional pubs, street vendors, and the down-to-earth atmosphere around the stadium was a perfect example of what West Ham symbolized- a working class team for the industrial, blue-collar fans that lived in east London.
Let’s fast-forward to this season at the London Stadium. Even seen on a television broadcast, the stadium has a different feel about it. The former London Olympics stadium has a huge track that surrounds the pitch, distancing off the fans from the players by quite a significant distance. Manager Slaven Bilic might even have a right in saying that he roams the biggest technical area in English football, taking up the entire width of an Olympic-sized athletic track. As the stadium was originally planned as an Olympic venue and not a football stadium, the structure of the stadium makes it hard to distinguish between the home supporters, neutrals, and the away fans.
The working class feel about the club is also just about gone- many traditional pubs and vendors have been replaced by eateries one can find anywhere in a mall, and the stadium has become more than a tourist attraction than a fortress for the home team the Boleyn used to be. The mood inside the ground is entirely different from Boleyn as well, with many empty seats often seen in the stands during matches. With many reports suggesting the stadium is playing crowd noises through its loudspeakers to create an atmosphere, the attempt from West Ham to emulate the Boleyn experience at the London Stadium has been pathetic at best.
With arrests coming after rocks and missiles were thrown between supporter groups, most notably the EFL Cup tie against Chelsea, crowd management and security clearly have room for significant improvement. Some critics point out that stewards in the stands have little to no experience in controlling these large crowds, and West Ham is now looking to ban over 200 fans from the ground on these various offenses. With such trouble and lack of management and support coming from fans off the pitch, it is no surprise that players on the pitch have not taken to their new home and could almost feel they are playing 38 away games this season. The lack of support under the new spotlight and pressure has West Ham in bitter disappointment this season, and may have even contributed in the exit of players like Dimitri Payet going back to former club Marseille.
Of course, it may be too early to judge the success of West Ham’s move to the London Stadium, as they have not even finished their first season there. There are many stories of clubs finding success after moving to a new stadium, like Arsenal moving from Highbury to the Emirates and Manchester City from Maine Road to the Etihad. The fact that the venue was not designed specifically as a football ground provides some unique challenges, but it could just be a matter of time before fans and players take to the new ground and start performing well. There are many factors to be sorted out before that can be the case, as we have seen with poor stewarding, fan violence, and crowd atmosphere. But of course, at the end of the day, it’s the results on the pitch that determines a club’s success – whether the new London Stadium will be able to help that cause, remains to be seen.