Fear and loathing in east London

This Was Football ’89.

Last night was my third trip to West Ham’s new stadium and it was largely a deeply unpleasant experience that transported me back to the bad old days of the late ’80s when I first started going to football on a regular basis.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was predictably boisterous – but that’s a good thing, right? – until the last few minutes when Chelsea fans started to drift away, followed swiftly by West Ham supporters. So began the scenes that you’ll all have seen or heard about.

Our evening began in the Famous Cock pub in Highbury, which had a remarkably large police presence for somewhere so far from the stadium, even though it’s easily accessible by public transport. They obviously knew something we didn’t. A group of police officers had come into the pub and suggested to a group of, presumably Chelsea, fans – not wearing colours – that they might like to accompany them to the ground.

Once at Hackney Wick station (around 20 minutes walk from the stadium so as easy as using Stratford), we were greeted by the sight of fans surging out of another carriage barging straight into a line of police who were obviously trying to contain them.

Nothing identified the loyalties of these supporters though one could deduce that the police’s desire to contain them suggested they were probably Chelsea. We were stuck on the stairs of the station for a few minutes for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. Police were clambering up on to railings above us while a man in front of me urinated through some railings while simultaneously moving slowly with the crowd.

There was absolutely no attempt to inform the crowds about what was happening or why. Once we’d exited the station we were stuck between two lines of police with what swiftly became apparent was a large number of Chelsea fans. Most were middle-aged, some silver-haired. One was heard to say: “I haven’t been aaht since Cardiff. We put aaht about 300 for that one.”

My friend, a seasoned football-watcher but with no allegiance to either club, was making his first trip to the London Stadium and his wry smile said a lot. At one point I suggested  we jump back on the train and just go to the pub. I was only half-joking. I felt uneasy and slightly embarrassed.

My mate then asked a copper if we could leave the back of the kettle, as it were, and get to the ground a different way. “Who do you support?” “Well, Derby County as it happens but my friend … ” “Derby County?!” And off we went, away from the kettled silverbacks and at last heading to the stadium.

We arrived just in time for kick-off. It had taken an hour to get from Highbury station to the ground – that’s five train stops and a mile walk.

The game was great, at least for West Ham fans.

We’d thought about leaving early but we stayed and once we saw the missiles being exchanged at the away end, we thought we might as well stay put. We figured also that the nice fellas we’d shared some Hackey Wick time with earlier would be heading back that way anyway.

When we did head off, we tried to get back to Hackney Wick station but the signage is so poor and my internal satnav not yet fully attuned that we ended up walking all the way round the ground to Stratford.

It was just chaos. We weren’t the only ones who had no idea where they were going. “It’s a fucking circus, mate,” a West Ham fan said to a steward, who was stationed well away from the ground. “Fuckin’ shithole,” said the steward. I don’t know who was working for – neither does he probably. There are so many agencies involved in this stadium move that the buck-passing has been world-class.

Every few yards, there would be some new sense of menace. Pissed-up blokes bumping into coppers and getting into slanging matches. Alsatians slavering and yelping as their police handlers struggle the hold the leash. Police horses charging. And then every now and again, lines of police would sprint off in the direction of, presumably, some new flash point. All the while, helicopters whirred overhead.

I got home – less than three miles away – an hour and a half after leaving the stadium. I should have walked and next time will do. “Isn’t this supposed to be fun?” my girlfriend asked.

I saw no fighting, just a fog of simmering menace, not aided by the huge police presence who – and this is not meant as a criticism of them – didn’t really seem to know what they were doing.

The lack of crowd management – megaphones, signage etc – is scandalous and dangerous.

I am in favour of West Ham’s move to the new stadium. I think it brings so many great opportunities. But it is a terrible irony that the club now has a 21-st century stadium and a team capable of sparkling football yet with a public image that has regressed 30 or 40 years. Far from enticing new fans, you will simply turn them away, never to return. Who would subject their kids to that kind of atmosphere?

The club has to take some proper responsibility here. No one cares less about who owns or manages the stadium. This is West Ham United FC and the club – with all the vast wealth that exists and will continue to flow – has to step up, work with the other parties involved and sort out the mess.

Otherwise, this great adventure will have disastrous consequences.

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3 thoughts on “Fear and loathing in east London

  1. seanholder33 says:

    Unfortunately you are part of the problem. You don’t think that The Guardian is absolutely thriving off of the backlash from West Ham United fans towards the Olympic Stadium move? A move they have consistently undermined. And your comments do little to calm the storm surrounding the many problems still ongoing at West Ham’s new ground. In fact, the opposite. I took this apparent gauntlet of death to Hackney Wick station also and the picture you paint of tension I think is misplaced and only serves to add to the stereotype of a poisonous atmosphere. Much like the trouble inside the ground, this outward aggression accounts for such a small percentage of the fan-base, that merely mentioning it attaches a completely disproportionate amount of attention. This does not help any football fan or club solve the problem for the next high profile tie. It instead sets us back again, fueling the fire of aggression that the majority of media sources seem happy to stoke to outline some wider failing. Please think again before harking back to cliched pictures of the 70’s & 80’s when you clearly are well aware we not even close to that scale. These comparisons only offer sentimentalism to those who would want to re-visit this time, and i promise you one thing. These factions, unlike the West Ham of today, will very much be ‘enticed’ to come back to West Ham

  2. Mark says:

    Gosh, sorry to hear you had such a terrible evening. I appreciate you were simply reporting your personal experience, so here is mine.

    With our new, and very affordable, season tickets my 8yr old son and I have been to almost every home game this season. We love it. With so many different stations access is excellent, even though we are definitely in the ‘cheap seats’ the view is good. The toilets are clean and I can get him a jumbo hotdog for a fiver without much of a queue!

    Last night we followed our usual routine. With so many people arriving in time for kick-off we like to travel early. From Hackney Wick we wandered to our favourite hipster pub, I had a pint and he had a glass of milk sitting by the canal. After a wander around the club shop and a cup of tea downstairs we took our seats in the bottom tier of the Trevor Brooking stand about 3-4 blocks from the away fans.

    It’s was obvious security and stewarding had been beefed up from previous games. We were searched before entry and there was a very visible police presence around the ground which was reassuring.

    After a tough start to the season the atmosphere was electric. Creswell was combining brilliantly with Payet down the left, Antoni and Lanzini were on fire and Randolph looked solid at the back. Trust me when you’ve seen your team ship four goals against Watford this season being 2-0 against Chelsea is dreamland.

    Of course there were large sections of fans on both sides that were more interested in abusing each other rather than watching the match. The language and obscene gestures my son was exposed to was far from ideal. It’s been the same since he went to his first game at Upton Park. We’ve always had an open conversation about it, talking about what’s appropriate language and what’s not. My approach has always been to keep him safe but not be too over protective, giving him the skills and values to deal with any situation he finds himself in.

    We were aware of the trouble in injury time but kept our eyes firmly on the pitch. We stayed to the final whistle, went the long way around the stadium to avoid the away fans exit, walked back to Hackney Wick and got on the first train back to West London. The train was full and standing and my son was tired by this point (he wouldn’t normally be allowed to attend an evening game but it’s half term this week) and as happens every week a fan usually gets up to give him his seat. We pored through the programme together and reflected on a fantastic performance.

    There are clearly problems that need to be addressed, the crowd trouble has to stop and segregation arrangements improved as quickly as possible.

    However it’s important to keep things in perspective. We have a wonderful new stadium, the team are starting to fire and with a few more cup nights like last night it will start to feel like home.

    I do hope you’ll come back to watch another match. I’ll even buy you a pint beforehand and make sure you don’t get lost this time! Cheers.

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