So the deal is done and West Ham FC have got the keys for the London Olympic Stadium at Stratford. But beware the Ides of March! (well I am only a week out!). As I wrote recently in my article on the Price of Football, I heard in Dagenham that the Hammers had got the contract they wanted and will be the new anchor tenants. The deal was unwrapped at a news conference at what is being developed as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Starting next Friday 29th March you can get a preview of progress at the Park, which is due to open to the public in the summer. Tours are £7 and can be booked here. But the first three days are already booked out so you will have to wait until at least Easter Monday 1st April to get the chance to see round.
Artist’s impressions of the transformed stadium have been published by the London Legacy Development Corporation LLDC. When converted from an athletics arena, the ground will be able to hold 54,000 spectators (UEFA Catgory 4) and the Hammers are due to move in at the start of the 2016/17 season. The first match will be a Bobby Moore Cup friendly fixture, ensuring a link with the Club’s most famous player, who captained England in the 1966 World Cup at Wembley.
Wembley Stadium has undergone a complete transformation since then, making it a stadium that can seat 90,000. West Ham are promising that no seat will be further away from the pitch than at Wembley. One of the questions still to be resolved is what happens to Leyton Orient, a League One side which is the closest to the Olympic site. The club’s owner Barry Hearn has said he will press on with his attempt to get a judicial review of the process, claiming it will “crush” his club if it is not allowed to share the stadium with West Ham.
The future of the Boleyn Ground at Upton Park which has been the home of the Hammers since 1904 will be decided later. There’s speculation it could be sold off to a developer to provide badly-needed social housing in the Borough of Newham. The ground can accommodate 35,000 fans but has limited room for expansion and this is one of the reasons the Hammers have been searching for a new stadium.
I was only in Upton Park once (and that’s the name it has always been for people of my generation) on August 7th 2011 for the opening match of the Championship season when the Hammers, just relegated from the Premiership, lost 0-1 to Cardiff City. I had no trouble booking a seat in the East Stand. This retained some of the atmosphere of previous years, with old-fashioned turnstiles which had also been modernised with a digital reader to record the entrance of supporters. I was impressed with the view from the stand and I enjoyed the atmosphere at the ground.
My worry would be that a lot of this atmosphere and the sense of a glorious history linked with players such as Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Trevor Brooking will be lost in the vast spaces of the Olympic Park. This is what happens when commercialism reigns, but ultimately the move will succeed only if West Ham maintain their regained Premiership status.
I wish the Hammers and their supporters well, in what will be a time of transition. Some are not too happy that £25m of taxpayers’ money has been earmarked for installing a new roof, retractable seats along with permanent toilets and catering facilities for a Premiership football club.