I was in the London Stadium yesterday for West Ham’s first ever Premier League game in their new house. Thousands of miles away the curtain was coming down on the Rio Olympics.
It was strange to think that when the crowds go home and Rio gets back to normal Botafogo will just continue playing in the athletics stadium and Fluminense and Flamengo will continue sharing the Maracana. And the city authorities will still own both places.
Compared with the long drawn out drama involving West Ham, Spurs, Leyton Orient, some lawyers and the flagship London Olympic venue it all seems very sensible and simple. Rio will have plenty of money worries but the big stadiums won’t be among them.
Given the sweetheart of a deal that West Ham finally worked out it is important they make a success of their new place. I played at the old Boleyn Ground many times where the crowd were right in your ear and the sights and smells of the place reflected the personality of the club. It was a tough place to go to. The dressing rooms were so tight and so cramped I had to choose whether to have my head inside and my feet outside or the other way around. Andy Carroll, I know your pain.
It’s up to Slaven Bilic to create the memories which will make the London Stadium truly feel like home. For now it’s not totally unlike playing at a neutral venue given the considerable added pitch dimensions for a start – six yards longer and five wider than before. The stadium’s technical director is Stephen Rice, the son of Pat Rice of Arsenal fame. I remember him as a kid around Highbury. Yesterday he gave me the low down of the place. It was hard not to be impressed. From the fifty meter synthetic running track under the stands to the dressing rooms built for gridiron teams, everything is of top specification.
I think in Slaven Bilic West Ham have the right man to turn a spanking new stadium into a flesh and blood home. He has the charisma and the ambition to make West Ham his club and to bring people with him. Even in a blockbuster league dotted with big name managers, like Mount Rushmore is dotted with those giant stone effigies, a passionate, socialist, guitar-playing, multi-lingual charmer with a law degree is a stand out.
I played against him many times and he was always, what’s the word? Interesting. He’d constantly debate with the referee, he’d play every percentage, he’d be in your ear, in your face and snapping at your ankles. And when it was over he’d shake your hand and have a word with a giant smile. Anytime I have met him since he has time to stop and chat. One of the good guys.
The new stadium is all about space. There were fifteen thousand more fans present yesterday than have ever watched the Hammers play a home league game before. Looking around I thought about the way young players often buy their Mum and Dad a new house when they “make it” in football.
The folks rattle around in the new place, not quite at home and always wondering if they wouldn’t have been happier back in the old two up, two down terrace house that held so many memories.
It was a bit like that yesterday. The atmosphere before kick of was brilliant. Everybody happy and optimistic and glad to just say they were there. The football when it started did its best to tame the atmosphere and for a while it went dead and you began to wonder what the place would be like if West Ham hit a long slump.
Some parts of the stands had no seats installed yet. The technical areas looked as big as tennis courts. There was room to play a five a side tournament between either sideline and the stands. But it’s up to Bilic to build a team that will make the stadium loved and not just admired.
It’s always tough. Southampton found it difficult when they moved from The Dell. At Sunderland when we moved from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light we were newly relegated and in the Championship but it took us till after Christmas to start playing football that made people feel a bit of passion. By then it was too late to gain promotion, so it was a long haul for the club and the fans to get used to the place.
In that way yesterday was a very big win because West Ham really need to feel at home in this huge new space of theirs. And it was a tricky win to pull off.
West Ham lost this fixture 4-3 last season and yesterday they were missing their two most creative players, Lanzini and Payet. Worse than that, they were missing anybody for Lanzini or Payet to be creative for. The Frenchman who we were told “had a knock” was a big loss. The stat of the day though was that of the 29 Premier League games he has played for west Ham, they have won 48.3% of them. Of the ten games he has missed they have won 20%.
Andre Ayew is out till December. Andy Carroll has gone back to his residency in physio. Enner Valencia had a lot to carry on his big shoulders yesterday.
West Ham had also had the week from hell. Talk about hitting the ground running. After the game yesterday Bilic said that he had been gutted by the loss to Chelsea on Monday night. Maybe not as gutted as Michail Antonio who gave away a bad late penalty and got taken off instantly, but gutted all the same.
Then on Thursday night they were in Romania putting in a hard Europa League shift. They got back to their homes at 5am. Bilic had them on the training pitch a few hours later.
It paid off. Antonio seems to have done enough to convince Bilic that he isn’t a full back so he was released for a gallop further up the field. He scored the first league goal at the new stadium when Gokhan Tore hit him with a lovely cross to the far stick and the Bournemouth defence kindly set up a quarantine cordon around him so that he could accept their kind offer of a free header.
Tore, brought in from Bilic’s last club Besiktas with an option to buy at the end of the season, looks like an interesting piece of business. No Payet but he had his moments.
With an injury list that makes the Arsenal sick bay look like a top peoples’ health spa the obvious post match question was will Slaven Bilic be spending serious money before deadline day? With his usual appealing turn of phrase he said confidently that while he hadn’t spoken to him on the matter yet he knows his chairman is going to be “very generous”. No pressure on the chairman then Slaven!
Like the referees from his playing days, Mr Sullivan will find it hard to turn down a man like that!