Sep 9, 2015
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End of an Era: West Ham’s Upton Park Exit

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If the 2-0 win away at Arsenal was the stuff of dreams for the 3,000 West Ham fans at the Emirates on the Premier League’s opening weekend, then the travelling Hammers who witnessed their 3-0 win against Liverpool would have been in delirium.

Yet many West Ham fans, especially those of an older generation, are waiting for that first home win of the season. A home win against Leicester or Bournemouth may not have been special in any other season, but this is no ordinary campaign.

For 111 years, West Ham have called the Boleyn Ground, often called Upton Park after the area where the stadium is located, their home. From great-grandfathers to great grandchildren, generations of Hammers have walked, drove and caught the bus or tube to join the masses walking along Green Street on a matchday.

Queens Market that lies adjacent to the stadium has been there since Victorian times, but it’s not the hustle and bustle of the market that is the most recognisable noise in that part of London; it’s the echo of the clubs’ famous anthem, ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’.

But the song that has been sung at West Ham games for nigh on one hundred years, gaining as strong a connection with West Ham as You’ll Never Walk Alone has with Liverpool, won’t echo onto the East London streets around the Upton Park underground station for much longer.

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The clubs owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, were keen to take advantage of the Olympic Stadium, that did not have a full time resident following the games in 2012. From August 2016, West Ham will be exactly that.

Going from a stadium capable of holding 35,000 supporters to one that would be able to house 60,000 makes financial sense; yet in a romantic sense, West Ham could lose a lot.

The close proximity of the fans to the pitch at Upton Park can make it an intimidating place for away teams to play there, but also one with a great atmosphere that can make the stadium reverberate.

To go from a ground where home supporters can literally scream down the necks of opposing players to one that separates fan from footballer with a huge running track could have a real negative effect on that ambience; just see how the Emirates struggles to keep the noise in.

The hardcore support can sometimes be a negative; those same fans who can be the proverbial ‘12th man’ can also be a millstone around the necks of their own players when times are tough, as the fans expectations hang heavy.

The biggest expectation is often talked about as playing football in ‘the West Ham way’. Much the same way that Ajax and Barcelona have deep-seated traditions of playing attractive football, so does West Ham.

A nickname that comes from the glory days of the 1960s, in particular when three West Ham academy graduates helped England win the World Cup in 1966, it can often mean that success by playing less attractive football still can mean unpopularity.

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Despite leading the club from relegation back to the Premier League, Sam Allardyce was given particular short shrift from the club’s fans; Slaven Bilic’s appointment, one that seen a crowd favourite as a player return to the club in the dugout, was far more popular.

But perhaps the move to the Olympic Stadium, although great for the balance books (especially as the club only have to pay £15m towards the renovation costs), shows the battle football is going through in this modern age.

In the grand scheme of things, one hundred years is not a long amount of time in context; yet in organised football, that is almost its whole existence.

You have fans on one side, who understand that clubs have gone from being important to the local community, to being big players on the global stage, not just in football but in business itself.

But then you have the other side of the coin: the generations who see the club not just as a hobby but as an extended family, with a stadium with an enormous emotional pull.

Perhaps West Ham, and the Boleyn Ground, are the biggest example of that. Even in the global market of the Premier League, football lovers from all over will make a pilgrimage to the deepest part of East London to see West Ham, where tradition never seems to be lost.

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As a fan who has visited Upton Park as an away supporter, it can be a real grim experience. Exposed to the elements and paying through the nose for tickets, the long tube ride to the Boleyn could be seen as a trip back in time to the darkest times of football fandom.

But when you hear the sound of 30,000 fans all singing about their dreams fading and dying, the hairs stand on the back of your neck. It all makes sense, it all brings back what being a supporter who travels rain or shine to watch their team is all about.

Upton Park may not be the most glamorous stadium in the world, but through the eyes of a football traditionalist may well be a long-lost paradise, the long train journey from the heart of London almost adding to the romance of it all.

It will be a sad day for the West Ham faithful to say goodbye to the Boleyn, but it would be sadder if what makes the club special to those same supporters was lost with the move; even for someone who does not bleed claret and blue, that would be far worse than paying four quid to eat a soggy pie in the pouring rain.

Featured Image – All rights reserved by Mhd Alif

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