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 five 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, as almost nobody called it before its last season, was more idealised by the media than by visiting fans.
In its favour it was a traditional London neighbourhood venue, at the heart of its community, with an atmosphere that could be raucous and partisan, and a history that featured some great games and teams.
Set against this, it was cramped, inner-city and brooding. It had 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 for an hour after the game.
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 multistorey at West India Dock, and hopped onto the Docklands Light Railway for the ten minute ride to Pudding Mill Lane. From there it was only another ten minutes 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 there the DLR station was free from queues. We were back 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 are 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 is no real concourse in the sense of an area with walls and a roof, rather a partly-covered courtyard inside the turnstiles, which are opened at half time so that fans can go outside to smoke, buy pies 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.The climb 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 – although 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 each end 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 the 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), although 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.