Tuesday 21 January 2020

Upwardly mobile Hammers in a race to make their new house a home

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic Photo: PA
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

In the first few games at the newly-constructed St Mary's Stadium back in 2001, so the stories go, Southampton players would run to take a throw-in and instinctively expect the ball to be given straight back to them by one of the home supporters. It was one of those things that made their home games so intimate, and idiosyncratic. The ball never came on these occasions, though, because this wasn't The Dell and because the fans were no longer right up on the edge of the pitch. They were almost 25 yards away, befitting the requirements of the modern stadium that the club wanted to build. That has obviously greatly helped Southampton become the forward-looking Premier League club they now are but, at the time, the players couldn't help looking back to how things were at The Dell.

These are the kind of little details West Ham United are going to have to quickly get used to, now that they've finally made the big move to the Olympic Stadium. What seemed an interminably long goodbye from Upton Park has finally led to this, the first Premier League game at their new home, as they welcome Bournemouth.

It's just that manager Slaven Bilic has already admitted it can't yet feel like "home". That was said before an opening exhibition match against Juventus, and the club have already held a number of events there with the players to try and get them used to the place. While the ground has gone down well with the supporters, that familiarity - and distinctive stadium culture - is still the kind of thing that can only come with time; and games.

In the meantime, West Ham are going to face an already old problem for clubs that move to a new home. It was perhaps most famously illustrated by Arsenal in 2006, and reflected in their results.

Having taken 22 points from their ­unbeaten last eight games at Highbury, they only claimed 16 from their first eight at the pristine new Emirates at the start of 2006-07. It took them three matches to even get a win there, having drawn with Aston Villa and then Middlesbrough in the opening two fixtures. That gap was never quite closed, as they ended up amassing 42 home points in 2006-07 compared to 45 in 2005-06, and some of the players admitted it took them a while get comfortable in the place and express themselves.

Some of the fans can still be heard expressing similar sentiments even now, especially around those games when the atmosphere at the Emirates is particularly downbeat, and they lament the loss of the Clock End and North Bank noise. It's often argued that the modern stadium's bowl shape - something shared by West Ham's new home - isn't conducive to creating an atmosphere in the way defined ends are. Upton Park, of course, had the latter as well as plenty of noise.

In many ways, the discussion is much deeper than the geography of the stadium, or sounds from the stands. It is not just that the club has moved, after all, but also that sense of self has been displaced. Stadiums are not only where sides played their games, but also where they made the memories and moments that formed their history and identity. This is the key to so much of this, and why places like Anfield and Old Trafford remain so special. They're not just concrete, and the kind of thing that shouldn't matter to teams.

As players and supporters look around such stadiums, they know they're also looking at stands that have witnessed great football events, and added to the gravitas of the club. It adds to the aura of a place, the fear factor of a team and the specialness of a game, and all of that can influence results.

That is not the case at new stadiums, and that is why so many visiting teams often feel they have more of a chance, because they can take advantage of slightly disoriented home sides. How Bournemouth react today will be telling, but not as much as how West Ham do.

Moving to a modern stadium is obviously a good thing - but it can just take a while to really make that so.

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