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 been a West Ham United fan for over thirty years, but my last visit to Green Street, East London was nearly ten years ago.
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.
Whilst 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 better appreciate 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 whilst 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. Sunday’s visit was one of stark contrast.
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 true 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 match day fewer than ten people line the bar.
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 famous old red iron gates are now 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. To add insult to injury, portions of the ground were recently blown up as part of the filming of new Pierce Brosnan movie ‘Final Score’. Most ardent West Ham fans just want the process to be over with.whilst the framework of a team can be readily uprooted it remains to be seen if its heart and soul can be successfully transplanted”
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, that 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 whilst the arena itself may well be ready to house sport, the surrounding concourse is far from complete. When compared with the equally isolated new complex of the Metlife Stadium in New York, the London Stadium feels as if funding simply ran out with respect to the vital manicuring of the routes from transit stations to the ground 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 have no explanation regarding the ground’s alien environment but noted that the travelling minority fans easily 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 possibly 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 particular threat.
I dearly wanted West Ham’s transition to Stratford to be smooth and successful, but whilst the framework of a team can be readily uprooted it remains to be seen if its heart and soul can be successfully transplanted.