At long last, the political and logistical wrangling is over and it’s a little clearer; West Ham United are favourities to move to the Olympic Stadium.
This will be good news for West Ham and equally positive for the Olympic legacy. Everyone who attended London 2012 will be glad that the site of the capital’s great achievement will be marked in some shape or form. And for West Ham? It will give them the chance to move up a level, to make them more accessible and also to allow the club to transform from cosy, “Knees up Mother Brown” territory (an outdated, cultural attachment that is totally out of sync with the current occupants of the London Borough of Newham) to tap into a wider audience. It has to be good news for the Hammers.
But what of the old Boleyn Ground or Upton Park? One of the traditional homes of London football? It was always a good place to watch football in the old days. The intimate atmosphere, the hemmed in feeling that meant you were never cold, the pre-match rendition of “Bubbles” and the caustic wit of the East End, all contributed to an enjoyable Cockney afternoon. On the other hand, there was the hostile North Bank, the even more intimidating South Bank and the heady mixture of racism, pick-pocketing and burly, donkey-jacket wearing toughs (and they were), who patronized the terraces. But that was a long time ago.
Upton Park was the home of entertaining, if mostly unsuccessful, football. There used to be some white-painted graffiti on the side of an industrial wall on the way to London Fenchurch St that declared: “West Ham…..1966 World Cup Winners”, and it stayed there for years (it may still be there, for all I know). If you went to Upton Park between 1966 and 1970, that was the underlying spirit – “Moore, Peters and Hurst won the World Cup for England”.
The first time I went to Upton Park, only Moore and Hurst were still in the Hammers’ line-up. It was December 15, 1971 and it was second leg of the semi-final of the Football League Cup. We left school early and queued intensively and uncomfortably to gain entry to the North Bank. Stoke won 1-0, but Geoff Hurst, England’s 1966 hat-trick hero, had the chance to put West Ham into the final (they had won the first leg 2-1) with a penalty. Another England legend, Gordon Banks, pulled off an outstanding save – in front of the North Bank and just a few feet from yours truly – to send the tie to a replay.
When West Ham move, and it’s by no means 100% certain yet, doubtless there will be an emotional outpouring driven by nostalgia. But West Ham have always been the fourth London club and while they are at Upton Park, they always will be. A new stadium will be just the ticket and allow the club to shake off its “jellied eels” image. It could be just the springboard they need to become a genuine “European” club. The people of Essex and East London will surely welcome the chance to see West Ham win at one of London’s latest iconic sites…the scene of the Olympics!