Friday, 11 February 2011

West Ham and the Olympic Stadium

It's been a year since West Ham's move to the Olympic Stadium was first mooted by the new owners, and just over a year later, the OPLC gave the thumbs up to the joint West Ham/Newham Council bid. Contrary to popular tabloid belief, not every West ham fan is jumping with unrestrained joy.

OK, so the current ground has a lot going against it. The capacity is just over 35,000 and can't be extended further by more than 2-3,000; transport links are terrible - on the odd occasion the District Line is actually running on match days, the half mile queue that forms going in to the station isn't fun, especially when all you want to do is get home and forget another loss!

We're told, quite convincingly, that the move to Stratford will elevate the club to "big club" status. It will immediately propel us in to Champions League territory, with the world's top players queueing up to play in the claret & blue (all having admitted to a boyhood love for the club, of course). Supporters of the scheme get very excited, saying that in five years we'll be comparable to the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal.


It seems that in the year since the move was first mooted, views among West Ham fans have changed. Twelve months ago it was all about leaving Upton Park and going to a rented ground with a running track. The polls at the time suggested opinions pretty much split. Looking at the latest polls (KUMB), and the split is about 70% favouring the move. So what changed?

Well, for a start, twelve months ago the prospect of Tottenham getting the stadium wasn't on the horizon. A bit of a fast ball, that one. Tottenham, with their ancesterol home in North London looking to re-locate to E13? Were they mad? In one fell swoop, as if conjured up by the West Ham joint chairmen, Tottenham had become the common enemy; to a lot of supporters it was no longer about whether they wanted to go to Stratford, but about making sure that Spurs didn't.

While I couldn't believe the logic of Spurs moving to Stratford, I give them credit for their bid. It was honest in saying that Stratford wasn't a good football stadium and they planned to demolish it and build a purpose built football stadium, while refurbishing the National Athletics Centre at Crystal Palace. I wish our bid was theirs!

But Spurs didn't get it and I imagine that while many of their fans would have loved the thought of getting one over on West Ham (even though they usually do that twice a season anyway), I'd be surprised if the majority would have been in favour of relocation out of their heartland to the 'bandit country' of East London.

Just over a year ago the David's (Gold and Sullivan) came along and bought a 50% share in West Ham, leaving the Icelandic banks with the remaining share. Their reluctance to sell the whole is now much more apparent, with the opportunities that selling Upton Park and the commercial opportunities of the Olympic Stadium now becoming a reality. However, they are bankers, not entrepreneurs, and I wonder whether they share the same vision for West Ham as the David's. It's all well and good talking about West Ham being a "big club", it's another to make the investment needed to realise that ambition.

One thing's for sure, twelve months ago West Ham was valued at around £105m. I don't think you'd get the banks or the David's to accept anything like that figure now. Whether this will herald their exit strategy, perhaps in 3 or 4 years, is anyone's guess, but I think it's fair to say that the club I've supported since 1970 is going to undergo major changes in the next five years - and I'm not sure it's a change I'm looking forward to.

UPDATE 12th February.

Today's newspapers carry an interview with the West Ham Vice-Chair, Karen Brady, where she says that retractable seating to cover the running track for football is now an option under consideration. At £10m it isn't cheap, but it would make a big difference to how it's viewed, in more ways than one, and it maintains the principal of keeping the running track.