Tales From Stratford

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2016.

There was no doubt about it; there was a definite edge to this one. All of the ingredients were there. A cup game under lights between two rival teams – and supporters – plus the added intrigue of our first-ever visit to a stadium which has been in the news all season. The football world has looked on from outside with bewilderment at the mess which has surrounded West Ham’s move to their new stadium. Not only has there been sporadic outbreaks of old-fashioned hooliganism outside the ground, but outbursts of fighting inside the stadium, between West Ham fans no less, too. Additionally, there has been a sense of alienation among the West Ham faithful at the awful atmosphere, and the poor sight-lines within the stadium. It has been, thus far, a tough move away from the intimate and well-loved Upton Park.

Usually I dread a mid-week away game at West Ham, but at least the drive was easy. I had collected the troops at 3.30pm and we were parked-up at Barons Court at 6pm. Until this season, the route to West Ham United would have involved staying on the District Line for over an hour, and a journey encompassing twenty-three tube stations. It is one of the most tedious train trips. On the last two visits, we have missed the kick-off due to congested traffic flow nearing the final stop.

I got the chaps to pose for a photograph, clutching the most sought-after away ticket of the season, outside Barons Court tube, and we then dived down the stairs to begin our journey to Stratford. We changed at Notting Hill Gate, and then sped along the Central Line.

We arrived at Stratford train station just before 7pm. This was a definite improvement on the painful schlep out to Upton Park. Strangely, I had spotted only one West Ham fan en route. The tube is usually full of them.

At Stratford, a quick handshake with Kenny and Rob who had evidently been on our train, and then a quick look to see which way we had to head. Outside into the mild London night and we followed the crowd, keeping close together. For a while we walked, I noted, in a diamond formation, with myself at the base, Parky and PD to my flanks and Glenn at the tip. It made me chuckle.

There was a certain boisterousness in the air. Occasionally, West Ham fans would bellow out “Irons!” and it sounded like a mating call.

Soon, we spotted the electric blue neon of the London Aquatic Centre, and then the lofty sculpture to its left – the oddly-named ArdelorMittal Orbit – which was glowing a deep red. Taking as a duo, it was a good enough effort to create a claret and blue welcome to West Ham’s new home. Beyond – quite a walk away by the look of it – was the illuminated London Stadium, a dash of white on the horizon.

Thus far, there was no trouble.

At Upton Park, it eventually became an easy away ground to negotiate ever since they moved away fans from the South Bank to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand. Out of Upton Park tube, past the market, past the Queens pub, then over the road and through some Chelsea-only side streets, with plenty of police on hand in case there was ever any trouble. There never was.

Here, in Stratford, at the site of the 2012 Olympics, everything was vastly different. For one thing, we were in unfamiliar territory. And it was night time.

But to be fair, this was easy. There was no trouble, no mobs, no nonsense.

I spotted Jonesy, and caught him up. He had a different tale to tell. A few of them had been quietly drinking in a West Ham pub, maybe half-a-mile away, and had witnessed a mob of West Ham attacking the Old Bill.

We walked on.

“Irons!”

We approached the stadium, walking underneath the twisted metal of the Orbit statue, then past a long line of punters at the match-day ticket office. A friend, Maggie, grabbed me by the hand and said “nice to see someone we know – nobody is wearing colours” and she was right. As we veered towards the security check outside entrance D, it dawned on me that nobody was wearing colours; no Chelsea scarves, no Chelsea shirts, no Chelsea jackets, no Chelsea caps, no Chelsea hats. It was hardly surprising.

I hadn’t seen many home fans wearing too much other.

It had only taken us twenty minutes to reach the away end from Stratford.

Inside the packed concourse, there were Chelsea songs at last.

PD and Glenn shot off to their seats in the very front row of the lower block 119, whereas His Lordship and myself ascended to midway back in the upper tier 218.

And here was my real problem with West Ham’s new stadium. In truth, I was never a fan of the aesthetics of the former Olympic Stadium – quite bland, quite dull – but as it became apparent that the oft-quoted “football refit” had resulted in away fans being split in two tiers, it did not take me long to tell friends that I had spotted a problem.

The bottom tier seemed to be ridiculously isolated from the upper tier. Surely there would be a segregation issue here, especially since there would be home fans sharing the lower tier too. And then as the season began, we heard rumours that segregation inside the stadium – surprise, surprise – was a major problem. And wait – there’s even more. Police were not patrolling the inside of the stadium due to radio communication issues.

In my mind, right from the off, surely it would have been better to allocate away fans with a single block of tickets in a thoroughly-segregated upper tier, which is what happens at Sunderland and Newcastle. This would keep all away fans together in an area which would be easier to marshal.

I mentioned this, but with more succinctness and with many more swear words, to Jason who was two rows in front. He agreed.

I looked around.

Lots of empty seats. Such a wide open stadium. Not a football stadium.

“Thank heavens we don’t play here.”

The empty seats never did fill up as kick-off approached. There would be around ten thousand empty seats on the night. Conversely, I did not spot a single empty seat in our 5,200 allocation, which was probably split something like 1,700 downstairs and 3,500 upstairs.

We hadn’t spoken too much about the actual game on the drive up. We had heard that Michy Batshuayi and John Terry were playing. We wondered if John would play centrally in the back three.

Antonio Conte had mixed youth and experience. It was a typical Chelsea approach to the early rounds of League Cup football.

Asmir Begovic.

David Luiz – John Terry – Gary Cahill.

Cesar Azpilicueta – N’Golo Kante – Nathaniel Chalobah – Ola Aina.

Willian – Michy Batshuayi – Oscar.

The PA pumped “Bubbles” before the teams came out and then faded at the “fortunes always hiding” line to allow the home fans their big moment. It was loud, I’ll given them that.

The teams entered the pitch. The Chelsea fans were in good voice. The scene was set.

I did note that the manager had jettisoned his usual neat black suit for blue Chelsea gear.

I guess nobody had bothered to tell him the dress code for the night –

“No club colours.”

He was casual, but not in the way that some of our away support was; I just hoped his approach to the match wasn’t casual either.

The PA then repeated “Bubbles” again just before the kick-off and I groaned; nothing like overdoing it, eh?

I had a quick thought blitz through my mind.

“A sterile stadium and manufactured atmosphere. I hate modern football.”

I simply could not believe how far the directors’ box was from even the nearest touchline; it must’ve been fifty yards. The subs and management team were a good thirty yards from the same touchline. It is no wonder that Conte and Bilic stood in their respective technical areas all evening.

We began well to be honest, moving the ball around well. We had a couple of chances. First from John Terry at the near post and then from a Kante shot.

The mood in the away sections would soon change.

West Ham won a corner down below us – OK, some thirty yards away – and the cross was headed away, but only as far as Mark Noble out on the West Ham left. His cross was played in with pace and was met unchallenged by a perfectly-timed leap and header from Cheikhou Kouyate. The ball screamed past Begovic.

With this, the home areas boomed. The West Ham players gleefully celebrated at the near corner flag, and we were met with quote a surreal scene as both sets of fans goaded each other – separated by fifteen feet of open space – while bubbles from a machine drifted around in the background.

The West Ham fans to my left in the upper tier then began antagonising us and I tried my best to ignore them.

We reminded them of the poor show from them :

“They’re here, they’re there, they’re every fackin’where, empty seats, empty seats.”

They responded with the oh-so tiresome “WWYWYWS?”

The banter was flying now and our “You’ve won fuck all” soon morphed into a new Chelsea song –

“WE’VE WON IT ALL.”

And so we had.

Ha.

On the pitch West Ham then dominated the rest of the first-half. Our goal lived a rather charmed life as Michail Antonio drilled a shot wide. Manuel Lanzini then misfired on the half-hour mark.

John Terry was grimly exposed for pace when one-on-one with a West Ham attacker and it was horrible to see. Elsewhere, Oscar was especially poor, quick to pull out of tackles and awful in possession. Aina and Chalobah did their best but were not aided by the more experienced players on show. Kante was not at his best. Batshuayi did not get the early ball, nor the late ball for that matter; his service was poor. At the back, we looked nervous. It was a pretty grim story all round. Thank heavens for the excellent Begovic between the posts who kept us in it with a few fine saves and blocks.

In the closing moments of a dire half, Oscar found Batshuayi inside the box. From around one-hundred and fifty yards away, it looked an easy chance. But from twenty yards, it proved otherwise. Batshuayi shot high and over the bar.

Ugh.

At half-time we expected changes.

“And please – no extra time and penalties.”

I needed to be up at 6am on Thursday and, with penalties, I would not get home much before 3am.

Another “ugh.”

We heard from a chap from Gloucester that a Chelsea crowd of around three hundred had been the victims of Police kettling outside the stadium, at the bottom of the steps leading to the away turnstiles, for a full thirty minutes, thus missing most of the first-half. I have no idea why.

There seemed to be a strange atmosphere surrounding the game all night.

The second-half began and within just three minutes of the re-start, we were groaning again. Begovic saved from Payet, but the ball broke to Edmilson Fernandes who drilled the ball back and into the net.

2-0, bollocks.

More goading from the home fans to my left.

I had hoped that Conte would pair Batshuayi with Costa upfront, but instead our young striker was just replaced.

Hazard came on for Chalobah, Pedro for Aina.

It amazed me that Oscar had remained on the pitch.

There was a good chance for Willian, inside the box, but his shot narrowly missed the far post.

We built up a little head of steam, but we were plainly not “on it.”

Two consecutive corners from Willian failed to clear the first man.

Hazard and Diego fluffed good chances.

This was hurting.

There was still no end of aggressive pointing and gesturing from the West Ham fans to my left. One fan in front of me, clearly drunk, was annoying the fuck out of me with his solitary and boorish goading of the home fans, which involved the monotone singing, ad infinitum of “where were you at Upton Park?”

Ugh.

“And only four hours sleep if I am lucky.”

John Terry headed wide, a penalty claim on Eden Hazard was not given. With ten minutes to go, many Chelsea fans headed for the exits. There was talk of us being given an escort (how ‘eighties) back to the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane, and so I wondered if the early-leavers would be allowed to leave the stadium.

And then the madness started.

The walkway behind the seating area of the lower tier became the subject of everybody’s attention. It appeared that objects were being thrown from both sides of the seated area, which then instigated a rush towards the stewards guarding the small wall of segregation behind the seated area. From memory, I thought that the West Ham fans were the instigators but “I would say that wouldn’t I?”

Fans from the upper tier moved downstairs. I noticed how fans could easily rush towards the problem area along unguarded alleyways connecting the lower tier seats to the concourse below us. It was an ugly scene. The stewards were in the brunt of it, though few punches were thrown. Many had vacated the lower seats, but were replaced by others who evidently wanted to join in the antagonism. The flashpoint was still the walkway behind the lower tier of seats; there was a mesh of segregation between the fans in the lower level which remained virtually intact the entire time.

My pre-match thoughts about the new stadium were being proved right; there was just too much space to monitor, too much shared-space, and not enough segregation. At last, as a token gesture, a few police arrived on the scene, woefully late, and apparently without much direction or idea.

Gary Cahill knocked a goal in, if anyone cared, and I had this sudden thought.

“Bloody hell, if we score an equaliser, another thirty minutes of this will be a nightmare.”

Was I surprised that there was this nasty outbreak of civil disobedience?

Not at all.

For an element among both sets of fans, this night was – sadly – always going to be more than about the football. The throwing of objects – plastic bottles, seats, even coins – was sheer stupidity. It has no place in football.

At the end, I was glad to hear the final whistle so I could go home and get some sleep.

We all met up downstairs in the concourse.

Outside, bizarrely, there was an overkill of police waiting for the Chelsea fans. They were all lined up, geared up too, and told us to head to Pudding Mill Lane. I thought like saying “where were you lot inside the bloody stadium?”

On the quick walk to the station, I turned around and expected to see hundreds of Chelsea fans behind me. There were hardly any. I had a chuckle to myself.

The others had obviously avoided the escort and had decided to run the gauntlet – for better, for worse – back to Stratford.

The four of us met up with a few old friends and were soon away, catching the Docklands Light Railway train to Poplar, where we stopped momentarily beneath the towering masses of the towers at Canary Wharf, before heading back to normality and west London.

We chatted to a couple of lads who were among the thousands who had returned via Stratford. There had been outbreaks and scuffles all the way back.

“All of a sudden – course you don’t know who is who – we found ourselves among the West Ham lot, so we drifted off, and lost them.”

We spoke about the game. The euphoria of Sunday had dissipated by the time we all reached Earl’s Court. There was talk that Conte should have played a stronger team, yet there is always a call that we don’t play the youngsters. It is a tough balancing act.

“Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”

The real problem has been that good players such as Chalobah and Aina have been played so sparingly by Mourinho and Hiddink in the past, that a potentially strong squad on paper includes many youngsters who are simply not experienced enough.

It is time that we give these youngsters more games, not less.

At the moment our signing of young players, and then putting them out on loan, or not playing them in the first team at all, is akin to stockpiling carrier bags, stuffing them in the drawer beneath the sink, then forgetting that they are there, and yet still paying money for new ones.

It is a mania that has to stop.

It had been a strange evening. We felt sure that West Ham would be fined for the problems with crowd segregation. In fact, we found it difficult to comprehend that a safety certificate had been awarded to the stadium at all. Already, some Chelsea fans were saying that they would never return. I will be back later this season, but it is a stadium that does not thrill me. I can completely understand the West Ham support’s displeasure at the sterile structure, so unbefitting of football. I am just so relieved that our stadium redevelopment involves more intimacy and more consideration towards those things that we hold dear.

On Sunday, it’s back to league football. See you there.

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