Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Olympian ideals but money is talking
John Brewin, Senior Editor
Stratford is an unloved and unloveable part of East London's sprawl towards the heartlands of Essex. It is not to be confused with Stratford-Upon-Avon: William Shakespeare spoke with a Brummie accent and not a Cockney twang. By August 12, 2012, it will have hosted London's Olympics, the greatest sporting show on Earth, give or take the World Cup finals.
But before Baron de Coubertin's brainchild comes to town, two of London football's historic clubs are locked in a bitter war of words about just who can cuckoo into Stratford's flagship Olympic Stadium once the last medals have been handed out and attentions have turned towards Rio de Janeiro in 2016. West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur's rivalry has now moved beyond the football field to a world of boardroom mudslinging, corporate partnerships and debates about what the concept of legacy might actually mean.
Both clubs are currently based - and have been for over a century - in areas that could also be considered unloved and unloveable parts of London to those whose roots and footballing fortunes do not lie inside them. The ownership of both clubs covet the Olympic site as the key to their own redevelopment. A move to Stratford is key to an ability to keep up with Joneses of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in the case of Tottenham. For deeply-indebted West Ham's part, the plan is proclaimed as key to economic survival.
Neither move can be said to popular among either clubs' core support. Even in an era of globalism for the Premier League, tradition still matters to the match-going fan. Attendance at either White Hart Lane or the Boleyn Ground will acquaint one with signs that 'Say No To Stratford'. Both clubs' owners have mounted PR drives to explain the thinking behind such uprootings but suspicion abounds among supporters to whom being made promises and pledges has long been met with cynicism and doubt. That neither move has yet won over fans flies in the fashion of most other clubs' stadia moves - even Liverpool's ultra-sentimental fans recognised the need for a new ground.
In the claret and blue corner lie the ever-public faces of co-owners Davids Gold and Sullivan and vice-chairman Karren Brady, she of BBC TV's The Apprentice. In the white corner sits Daniel Levy, the hard-bargaining, rather quieter but nonetheless steely chairman of Tottenham. Recent weeks have seen both open themselves up to the public in a series of TV, radio and newspaper interviews. Brady, fresh from winning her battle with Richard Keys, has usually led the West Ham charge; her paymasters have often been prone to overstating their case, to put it mildly.
It was a surprise to hear Levy, a man who often keeps his public powder dry, go on the offensive and dismiss Brady earlier this week. Football's first lady, with apologies to Sian Massey, had described Tottenham's plans to knock down the entire site and start again with a new stadium complex as a "corporate crime". This was met with Levy's description of such a viewpoint as "scaremongering and irresponsible".
That is just the latest in a to-ing and fro-ing that is raging to a climax. Such brickbats are being hurled because decision time, which has already been postponed after being expected on January 28, is to be reached by the Olympic Legacy Committee by the end of this financial year - April 1 in the United Kingdom.
West Ham's plans centre on moving to the site of stadium, and keeping its running track to allow for a dual-purpose staging of athletics events while retaining the greater part of the Olympic structure. To move from Upton Park's 35,000 to a cavernous 65,000 enormodome has met with some disquiet, not least from Harry Redknapp - campaigning for Spurs despite his long association with the Hammers. The Hammers' plan is council-backed, with Newham Council providing a loan of £40 million and USA concert giant Live Nation in the mix too for sundry events. That West Ham currently lie within the council borough offers right to their side, say the bid's supporters.
Locality is the weapon with which Tottenham's proposals are attacked. After all, Tottenham is not near Stratford in London terms, five miles being something of a distance in a city of packed metropolitan traffic and rail hell. Spurs will partner with AEG, the company that among other many ventures converted New Labour folly the Millennium Dome into the O2 Arena, the world's largest-grossing concert venue. Spurs will offer 60,000 seats to what they say is a long season-ticket waiting list while concerts in the new complex will further repay an investment running to £250 million minimum. AEG is consequently linked as potential purchaser of Spurs as a whole.
At this point, the concept of Olympic legacy comes into play. This was the tenet that led Lord Sebastian Coe's successful bid to host 2012, an approach replicated to far less avail in bidding for the 2018 World Cup. Coe has thus backed the West Ham approach, and eschewed Spurs' offer to redevelop the current National Athletics Stadium at Crystal Palace, perhaps in mind of Athletics Association Federation chief Lamine Diack's response to a lack of athletics beyond the Games themselves as killing Britain's hopes of further bidding success. "You can consider you are dead," Diack said last month. "You are finished."
Mention of Crystal Palace throws in further ingredients to an already heady brew. Crystal Palace FC are believed to be deserting Selhurst Park, perhaps the most unloved and unloveable London stadium of all, to return to their traditional home on the site of the original Crystal Palace, potentially throwing a spanner in Spurs' plans. And then there's Leyton Orient, actually closer to Stratford to West Ham, and facing the threat of a major club on their doorstep. Owner and snooker impressario Barry Hearn has been making himself heard of late, quoting Football League rules about clubs being moved into another's immediate vicinity.
Should either bid be successful, and there will be legal wrangling to follow long after the Legacy Committee decision, then one unlovely area shall lose its commercial life's blood. Spurs are based in Haringey, and with plans to build a new White Hart Lane by the wayside, are seeking to leave their borough. David Lammy, a local MP opposed to Tottenham Hotspur's bid to move to the Olympic Park, has demanded the club be renamed 'Stratford Hotspur' should they win the bid, which opens up the type of warfare once waged when Wimbledon sought to become MK Dons.
And the complications will run far deeper than all that. Among the support of both West Ham and Spurs has developed an emotion that, while deserting a traditional home will be sad, seeing the other side swan into the Olympic Park would be worse. Despite the talk of legacy, make no mistake that finance and lucre are at the heart of the issue. Spurs' plans may be more naked in their pecuniary motives, but West Ham's purchase by Messrs Gold and Sullivan was clearly made with the Olympic Stadium's revenue-generating possibilities in mind.
But there is a third way. And one that may appeal to many, including fans of either club. The original plan was to reduce the stadium to a 25,000 athletics-purposed arena. Perhaps Stratford would be better served, and better loved, if football did not prove to be the winner in the battle for the Olympic Stadium.