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.