West Ham face the price of progress

Posted by John Brewin

Unless you are a fan of the hooligan fetish film which bears its name, Green Street is no scenic route. The brisk walk from Upton Park tube station to the Boleyn Ground that has been home to West Ham United for 108 years takes in some rather grim scenery.

"Don't kill your wife. Let us do it," says one sign just near the station though this is not the premises of a contract killer, but instead a laundrette. When West Ham are playing at home, the streets are full of fans chugging down cans of lager and the malodorous waft of fast food. There are a couple of hostelries that most would not consider on any other than a match day. This part of East London, where the capital strains out towards Essex, is resolutely working class. Once sat in one of the upper tiers, the sight of discolouring grey tower blocks remind that this is an area of considerable deprivation.

Chelsea Village this is not, but the ground - note, not stadium - is still home to one of the most intimidating atmospheres in English football. Behind a facade that looks as if it was built from an incomplete 1980s medieval Lego set, West Ham's home is often where the hurt is for bigger clubs. Only last week, Chelsea were victims of a Sam Allardyce rope-a-dope. Twice in the 1990s, Manchester United lost hope of a league title at the Boleyn.

It may not be pretty but it is home. Though not for much longer, as West Ham has become a club of Olympian dreams. Last week saw them finally confirmed as 'preferred bidder' to assume tenancy of London 2012's stadium, probably in 2016. Claret and blue rather than gold, silver and bronze; a swap of Green Street's prosaic charms for the modern sheen of Stratford's huge shopping centre and leisure facilities.

It is a move that most West Ham fans understand the logic of. Theirs is a club that can never grow if the Boleyn remains home. Unlike during the 1970s and 1980s, being a yo-yo club between the top two divisions is potentially ruinous. The current regime of David Sullivan and David Gold is still picking up the cost of the previous two ownerships. The first, under Terry Brown, presided over relegation and some disastrous transfer dealings before its successor, the Icelandic consortium figure-headed by Eggert Magnusson, took the club to the brink of bankruptcy. The modern West Ham is not quite living on a shoestring but the margins for error are small. The choice of Allardyce as manager may betray football principles but it all but safeguards against relegation now he has them back in the Premier League. Big Sam is always good for 50 points.

To better themselves, and further horizons, West Ham need to move to Stratford but there are still reasons for doubt. New grounds have not often made for great success in the English game. Southampton are back in the Premier League after a seven-year absence. They were relegated in 2005 after their move to St Mary's from The Dell gave them a plush ground that was no longer uncomfortable for visitors. Derby County's Pride Park has never proved to be the fortress the old Baseball Ground once was. Coventry City, once First Division perennials, rattle around in a Ricoh Arena they cannot afford to pay the rent on.

The need to modernise can remove an aura from a club and not just in terms of achievement. Many Manchester City fans still yearn for Maine Road, even its final ramshackle incarnation: the Kippax with seats bolted on to an old terrace and the 'Gene Kelly' stand, a supposedly temporary structure that was uncovered and thus allowed fans to sing in the rain. Eastlands, built in an area that used to be United territory, is still to gain the affection that Maine Road did, despite the old ground's location in notorious Moss Side.

No less a club than Arsenal have suffered new ground syndrome. The last arrival in their trophy cabinet predated the opening of the Emirates at Ashburton Grove by a year. It may have been mocked as the 'Highbury Library' but the old ground had atmosphere on the big nights, and bearing too. The Marble Halls and the Herbert Chapman bust reminded of a club with history, the North Bank was one of football's great terraces.

Few grounds can offer the luxuries of the Emirates yet that comfort brings a regrettable cost. There is no stadium in English football with as moribund an atmosphere. Arsenal fans would not like to admit it but Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane, compact and old-fashioned, is its superior for noise and passion. Arsenal fans pay the most for season tickets, but deliver the least in terms of vocal support. Even Fulham, a club with a highly middle-class sheen to its support, outdoes the Emirates in intimidation terms. Arsenal's fans are often at their loudest when booing their own team. High admission prices yield a mandate for a low threshold to complaint.

Even those who remain at their traditional homes suffer from a demographic that becomes ever more inclusive of well-heeled tourists with cash to spend. Weekend trains from London to Liverpool or Manchester are full of foreign fans making their way to Anfield and Old Trafford. A TV shot of the Manchester derby caught a front row of Asian City fans in suspiciously new scarves and replica shirts. In the globalised world of the Premier League, local clubs no longer mean local people.

Becoming tenants of the Olympic Stadium can attract such floating voters to West Ham but the club still faces an equation without ready solution. It must live up to the sacred status that two weeks in the summer of 2012 gave its new home while not surrendering what has drawn fans to Green Street for over a century.

The price of progress in football should not be identity.

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