West Ham United 3 Southampton 0
Saturday 31 March 2018
On the face of it this match wasn’t an ideal choice. The previous game here, against Burnley, had descended into much-publicised chaos as fans – losing patience with poor performances and ongoing grievances about the new stadium – turned on the owners, the players and each other. As a result today’s game was to be heavily policed, draconian new segregation measures were in place and the eyes of the world awaited the next instalment in West Ham-ageddon.
Looking more closely, what seemed to have happened was that a few numpties ran on the pitch and then ran off (to deserved summary justice from their irritated fellow fans), following which another couple of hundred had a pop at the directors’ box. Meanwhile 56,800 other people went “meh” and left early to beat the rush.
In any case, you don’t watch football for eighty-odd years combined without experiencing the odd “toxic atmosphere”. So with a pinch of salt and a spring in our step we headed down to That London – not expecting the best of games, and ready for a degree of fan unrest, but overall looking forward to visiting an iconic stadium and seeing for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
Back in the day the Boleyn Ground (a name almost nobody used before the last season) was highly praised by the media for its charm and intensity. This was a traditional London neighbourhood venue, at the heart of its community, with an raucous and partisan atmosphere and a history that featured some great games and teams. But visiting supporters found it cramped, inner-city and brooding, with a horribly violent fan subculture and a police force that shared their dislike of outsiders. And access was via a single small Tube station, at which you could easily queue (nervously) for an hour after the game.
In the Sixties my elder brother was a keen Irons fan. No doubt this was due to their success in the 1964 FA Cup, the 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup, Moore, Hurst and Peters, 1966 and all that. But unlike many glory-hunters he was seriously committed. Not only did he make the trek to Upton Park from Exeter every other week, but he also followed them all over the country on various milk trains and football specials. Thus it was that he found himself at Southampton Central one evening in spring 1968, spotted the West Ham team waiting for their train, and secured the autograph of an eighteen-year old Trevor Brooking (and Southampton’s rather older Frankie Saul).
The Upton Park my brother knew was fast acquiring its final pre-Taylor Report appearance. By 1970 the North Bank had gained a roof (to match the South Bank opposite, rebuilt in the 1950s following wartime bomb damage). The West Stand was extended. And the wooden bleachers and corrugated iron of the ricketty old Chicken Run, which had faced it for more than 40 years, were replaced with a smart new East Stand. This too had a terrace known as the Chicken Run, and was the last part of the ground to survive until the end. The fans who stood here had a reputation as Upton Park’s most vocal and partisan. Given the way the rest of them carried on this was something of an achievement.
Even in a violent and intimidating era a game at West Ham could be a particularly uncomfortable outing. Upton Park remained unsegregated longer than most grounds, partly because the small number of fans who usually fancied the trip rendered it unnecessary. Until then it wasn’t unheard of for visitors to be isolated and chased out before the game even kicked off. And when a degree of crowd control was finally introduced, many got the sense that it was used by the unfriendly local fans and police as a handy way to identify their targets. Certainly there were often more West Ham nutters than away fans in the supposedly safe part of the North Bank, and like the club’s best-known celebrity fan they weren’t slow to let you know what they thought of Northerners.
Hassle free, apart from a hold up on the M6 which left us glowering at the Ricoh Arena for 30 minutes. We drove up the A13 as far as Canary Wharf, parked in the multi storey at West India Dock and hopped onto the Docklands Light Railway for the ten minute ride to Pudding Mill Lane. From there it was a quiet stroll to the ground, which you can see from the platform.
No puddings were sighted.
Coming back was equally serene. We loitered behind for five minutes at the end, and by the time we got back to the DLR station it was free from queues. We were on the motorway by 6, which for a London game is about as good as it gets.
Controversial I know, but we liked it. A lot. This isn’t one of your shiny new bowls – well, OK, it’s a bowl, and its new – but for dystopian concreteness it manages to be a worthy successor to the equally grim and concretey Upton Park.
There are two gates to negotiate on the way in. The first, from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is over one of a number of “bridges”. This is your bag and body search entrance. From here you’re on the raised outer concourse, from which you go through a more orthodox turnstile into the ground itself.
The inner concourses are “open” – in that there’s no real concourse in the sense of an area with walls and a roof, rather a partly-covered courtyard inside the turnstiles. These are opened at half time so that fans can go outside to smoke, buy pies, have a good old Cockney knees-up etc. Again, manna from heaven for a pair of arlarses who grew up out the back of 70s kops.
All this is at entry level – so the only stairs you go up are en route to the single seating tier, the front of which is below concourse height and the back of which is a kneecap-crunching 73 step climb. This takes most of your attention, so it’s only when you get to the top (or collapse) that you become aware of just how big this place is. And make no mistake, it’s massive, far higher (due to the pitch being below both inner and outer concourses) and deeper (because of the track) than it looks from the outside.
Can you see the play? Well, we were on the very last row and we could – though admittedly the view will be worse at the back of each end, from which the far goal must look pretty distant. That won’t be helped by the front of these ends being sponsoned out over the track, with the gaping space between the two sections awkwardly filled with awnings and walkways.
Is the stewarding poor? No more than anywhere else. The ones near us were firm but friendly, and tolerated us (and others) standing up, jumping about and generally being normal fans. The ones outside the ground chatted about pies, and how much they wanted one.
Are the fans unusually violent or agitated? No. The police we saw had nothing to do. There was something of a demo before kick off outside what passes for a front entrance, but it all seemed good natured enough and the assembled ranks of Old Bill kept well in the background. All quiet on the West Ham front.
Flesh and wine
We didn’t bother trying to find a drink, although no doubt there are “pubs” in the shopping centre over the way. A decent pint was available in the ground for the price of a small house in the Midlands. Equally, there aren’t many takeaways out there in the concrete jungle, so unless you take a picnic (and get it past the hungry stewards doing bag searches) you’re into food van territory. Which is actually OK, as there was a good selection and the food itself was nice (I had both pie and mash and a pasty), though you’ll be looking at a second mortgage to pay for it.
As I say, not ideal – but at the same time very ideal. The trouble with relegation six-pointers is usually that both teams are (a) rubbish and (b) end up with a point each. This one was different, not least because truly pathetic Southampton defending allowed a lively West Ham side to score three training-ground goals before half time. The Saints stiffened things up a bit after the break, and in truth they couldn’t have got any worse. This, coupled with the home side closing ranks, kept the scoreline respectable but still unchallenged. And the fans in a good mood.
Teams and goals
West Ham: Hart, Rice, Ogbonna, Cresswell, Zabaleta, Kouyate (Cullen 89), Noble, Masuako, Antonio (Fernandes 9), Joao Mario, Arnautavic (Hugill 80), Unused subs: Adrian, Evra, Pask, Diangana.
Southampton: McCarthy, Soares, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Tadic, Lemina, Hodjberg, Redmond (Boufal 67), Austin (Carillo 83), Gabbiadini (Long 45). Unused subs: Yoshida, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Forster.
Goals: Joao Mario 13, Arnautavic 17, 45+4.