Ghosts of Green Street
With Upton Park days away from demolition, Sports Gazette paid a visit to the famous old ground and West Ham's new stadium in Stratford ahead of their fixture with Southampton.
I have recently returned to British shores following an eight-year exodus to my now second home of Canada.
On Sunday 25th September 2016, I made my first trip to East London for nearly a decade, to say farewell to a former spiritual home in Green Street and to assess West Ham’s new multimillion dwelling in Stratford.
While I’ve been away from West Ham physically, my connection to the club has not wavered, and as such I have followed the process of the clubs relocation with much interest post-London 2012.
A lot has been written of late about the club’s apparent downfall due to the new London Stadium. However, my perspective has always been one of optimism. My West Ham replacement, The Calgary Flames, educated me to appreciate better a more family friendly environment for watching live sport i.e. the same atmosphere sought by West Ham with their recent relocation.
Ultimately I felt very confident ahead of my return to London’s East End that while the goodbye process would be emotional, the greeting of our new home would far outweigh said grievances.
On match day Green Street used to be a hive of activity, a cacophony of claret and blue, a usually sedate working class high street injected with adrenaline and a buzz of emotive energy.
The likes of Ken’s Café and Nathan’s Pies, usually tens deep with clientele are now ghostly spectres of their former selves. Indeed, the sense of their impending closure feels imminent.
The Queen’s Head was once the fulcrum for match day festivities, salubrious in décor no, but nonetheless a real headquarters for West Ham fans to congregate in their hundreds in celebration or commiseration.
Today the likes of Byrne, Boyce and Bovington still adorn the walls, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles can still be found on the jukebox, but hours before kick-off on matchday fewer than ten people line the bar.
while the framework of a team can be readily uprooted, it remains to be seen if its heart and soul can be successfully transplanted”
Upton Park itself is perhaps the saddest facet of Green Street as a whole. The demolition of the ground appears to be taking place incrementally. The ground’s great old red iron gates have been replaced with chipboard substitutes; decals are only partially removed from the grounds exterior as a steady stream of litter gathers around a once proud Boleyn Ground.
As I left the ghosts of Green Street behind me, I pondered what lay ahead, optimistic that the London Stadium could fill the void within me.
Pudding Mill Lane is not the official DLR stop advertised for the new ground, but I was advised it is the closest in proximity. Immediately upon exiting the train, the same desolate atmosphere of Green Street began to haunt me once more.
Where there was once a sea of match day life, there is now a trickle of activity at Upton Park. However, the same energy cannot be found in Stratford. Rather it has been drastically diluted and sparingly scattered across the vast barren expanse that makes up the footprint of the London Stadium.
There is an immediate sense that while the arena itself may well be ready to house sport, the surrounding concourse is far from complete. When compared with the equally isolated new compound of the Metlife Stadium in New York, the London Stadium feels as if funding simply ran out concerning the manicuring of the paths from transit stations to the arena itself.
Fans funnel towards the ground from all directions over trampled bushes and hedges, not paved paths. A few lonely mobile bars worthy of a local circus are frugally strewn amongst the surrounding wilderness, primed to serve overpriced flat beer from jugs. It’s not often that you find yourself longing for a pub like the Queen’s Head but today, only a few hours removed, I found myself missing its sticky carpet.
Minutes from kick-off I made my way to my seat and was immediately impressed by the view. Beyond Wembley or Cardiff trips I’ve never seen so many West Ham fans in one location. However, once the game began, it became instantly apparent that something was not quite right. How could so many fans be generating such a timid atmosphere?
I had no explanation regarding the ground’s alien environment but noted that the travelling minority fans quickly drowned out the cagey locals creating an almost preseason or exhibition vibe.
During the game, it became apparent that West Ham were both intimidated and confused by their new surroundings.
I do not envy the task Slaven Bilic now has in rectifying the situation. The same team and manager are now producing a mirror image of last season’s performances, and yet the Club’s owners refuse to accept that our new home could be playing a role in this decline.
If West Ham are to be successful, they absolutely must eradicate all off-field stadium-related distractions. It will be of genuine interest to see how future games with Tottenham and Chelsea will be policed. Surrounding areas are open and expansive with the local River Lea canal of a particular threat.
I dearly wanted West Ham’s transition to Stratford to be smooth and fruitful, but while the framework of a team can be readily uprooted, it remains to be seen if its heart and soul can be successfully transplanted.