Tonight is a night West Ham United fans won’t forget – but maybe not for the best of reasons. On a balmy spring evening in May 2016, the Hammers will say goodbye to the place they’ve called home since 1904 and a place that, like the club itself, is steeped in history and tradition.
As is well-documented, the move the club are making to the Olympic Stadium, first build to host the London Olympics, makes perfect business sense. Like so many things in football these days, the decision by the board of the East End club is motivated primarily by finances. So far, it’s proved to be a wise decision, with recent reports confirming that the Londoners have sold 50,000 season tickets for next season, meaning they’ll have more season tickets holders in their new (rented) home than the entire capacity of the one they’re leaving behind. Speaking to the BBC, vice-chairwoman Karen Brady was adamant about proving the doubters wrong, who said that West Ham would struggle to fill the 60,000 capacity of their new digs;
“[We] have always believed in the West Ham fanbase and knew we could fill the new stadium.
“Having made the bold decision to move to the former Olympic Stadium, we are delighted to see how it has captured the imagination of the Hammers fanbase.”
So far, so rosy you might think. The strong performance of the team under Slaven Bilic this season, aided by outstanding displays from the likes of Dmitri Payet, will no doubt have helped sales for next season, particularly when they still have a slim chance of qualifying for Europe. But even with all this optimism, the question has to be asked – what are the club losing in making the move? And is it something they’ll regain in time?
As previously stated, the financial reward of moving to a stadium with increased capacity can’t be underestimated. Even with the £2.5 million yearly rent they’ll be paying to play there, as well as various complex divisions of income with grantors E20 LLP, the Hammers will benefit in the long run – and that’s without considering the huge slice of the much-publicised TV deal they’ll rake in in the meantime. But even with the obvious financial gains, I’m sure there are many West Ham fans out there who will be more than a little emotional when they face Manchester United in their last ever match at The Boleyn Ground tonight.
I have no connection to West Ham. I have no particularly fond or negative feelings for them as a club. And yet, I can’t help but empathise with supporters who might be tempted to shed a few claret-and-blue stained tears tonight. I think about what it would mean to me if I suddenly found out I’d never again visit the current home stadium of my local team. The stadium I’ve been visiting since longer than I can remember, that holds more memories than I can probably recount. The stadium that holds such familiarity that it’s no exception to use the word ‘home’ when referring to it because, in a footballing sense at least, that’s what it is.
For me, though, the stadium is about more than just familiarity. It’s no exaggeration for me to say that some of the happiest memories I have in my life are memories of goals, celebrations and spine-tingling renditions of songs that all took place within the stadium I know. West Ham fans will, I’m sure be the same. It’s unlikely there is a Hammers fan alive today who remembers life before Upton Park and the stadium itself will be synonymous to its’ regular inhabitants with innumerable magical moments. Whether its the famous Paolo Di Canio volley against Wimbledon, as shown above, or the wonderful rendition of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ that rings out before every match, fans of the club will no doubt be wondering what might be lost in the move to the Olympic Stadium. Will they see more iconic moments? Will the signing ring out quite as loudly?
They, of course, don’t have to look far to see an example in the recent past of such a move. London rivals Arsenal are celebrating their 10th year at the Emirates Stadium, having moved from original home Highbury in summer of 2006. Hammers fans will be hoping not to emulate the Gunners, however, with Arsenal having won only two major trophies since making the move (no one counts the Community Shield, ok?). Having won six major trophies, including two league titles, in the 10 years before the move, the Emirates has not been such a happy home for the North London club and will be a pattern the East End club will be keen to avoid. Granted West Ham haven’t been cramming the trophy room full for some time, but an equivalent dip from them could spell serious problems for owners Sullivan and Gold, who will be keen to maintain the club’s Premier League status, if only to ensure they’re not trying to fill a stadium based on Championship football any time soon.
Whatever the future may bring, West Ham fans need remember only this – no one can change the past. When the final whistle blows tonight, Upton Park, and all the memories it holds, will be forever frozen in time to be cherished by the generations that have seen them happen and reflected upon by generations to come. Life, and football, moves on. The stadium may soon be gone, but the memories will remain. And hopefully, with continued upward momentum, a new home can become another source of treasured moments for the future.