PL25: The Great Stadium Migration (2016/17)

The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. After 112 years of plying their trade at the Boleyn Ground (no-one knows when it stopped being called Upton Park), West Ham United won the right to play in the Olympic Stadium in Stratford and moved in ahead of the 2016/17 season. Off the back of an excellent season for Slaven Bilic’s Hammers, hopes were high that an increased capacity and heightened prestige of London’s second biggest stadium could help West Ham attract a higher calibre of player and take one step closer to breaking into the top four. It couldn’t, they didn’t, but don’t ask Karren Brady for an impartial opinion.

After being parachuted in following the Icelandic financial crash saw previous owner Björgólfur Guðmundsson sell his stake in West Ham, Gold and Sullivan then oversaw a rapid decline on the pitch as the Hammers dropped into the Championship in 2011. Bringing in Sam Allardyce to replace Avram Grant, the owners settled in for a fiesta of pragmatic football and saw the club promoted at the first attempt. Two more seasons of meat and potato tactics followed before the two Davids finally ran out of patience with the future England manager, sacking him in the tunnel after a final day defeat at Newcastle in 2015. By this point West Ham had won the bidding war to become tenants in the newly built Olympic Stadium, so headed into the 2015/16 season knowing it would be their last at the Boleyn Ground. Former Hammers defender Slaven Bilic was brought in as the new manager, and an overhaul of the squad was authorised, as Carlton Cole, Stewart Downing, Jussi Jääskeläinen, Modibo Maiga, Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis were all shown the door, clearing out the last of Allardyce’s stench from the dressing room. Bilic’s recruitment policy centred around skillful continental players that represented value for money, and so Pedro Obiang, Manuel Lanzini, Angelo Ogbonna and, most crucially, Dimitri Payet were brought into the squad. Despite crashing out of the Europa League at the third qualifying stage to Romanian side Astra Giugiu, the Hammers got off to an auspicious start. Surprising, and comprehensive, victories at Arsenal and Liverpool were sandwiched by two home defeats, but Bilic’s side then embarked on a run of two defeats in nineteen, including another excellent win away at Manchester City. A fantastic season was capped with the final game at Upton Park where, after fans battered the Manchester United team coach, West Ham won 3-2 to secure a European place for the following season. Out of nowhere, the club were going places.

Having unpacked the furniture and finally had BT round to connect them to the internet, Gold, Sullivan and Brady (appointed Vice-Chairman in 2010 but slowly becoming a more visible presence at West Ham) set about recruiting the big names they’d promised their fans and (unwisely) their star asset. Dimitri Payet had been pivotal in the Hammers success the previous season, and after a starring role at Euro 2016 had started to agitate for a move away from East London, only backing down after being given assurances that the quality of his teammates would be improving rapidly. Unfortunately, by the time they’d logged on and browsed the marketplace, there weren’t many desirable options left, so they had to make do with the signings of Sofiane Feghouli, Havard Nordtveidt, Edmilson Fernandes, Arthur Masuaku, Ashley Fletcher and Gokhan Tore. Not a looker among them. Their marquee signings ended up being Andre Ayew for £20.5m from Swansea City and Simone Zaza on loan – better known as the biggest meme from Euro 2016. The lack of star quality attracted grumbles from both dressing room and stands, but the rechristened London Stadium still attracted 54,000 for its maiden West Ham game, a 3-0 victory over Slovakian side NK Domzale in the Europa League qualifiers. A narrow defeat at Chelsea on the opening weekend was hardly cause for concern, and Michail Antonio’s late winner against Bournemouth in the Hammers first home game of the season gave renewed hope of a prosperous future. Then things started to go wrong.

astra

The following Thursday night the Hammers were knocked out in the Europa League play-off round by Astra Giugiu (AGAIN), and slowly but surely supporter unrest began to infiltrate the new stadium. A two goal lead against Watford was blown, and Southampton dished out a 3-0 schooling that prompted boos from the home supporters. Having watched just three league games there, the vocal majority decided that the London Stadium wasn’t for them. The atmosphere generated at Upton Park – an intimidating cauldron for opposition players when the going is good, the same for the home side when things weren’t going well – had completely disappeared, with the running track around the pitch disconnecting the fans from the action. Stewarding and transport links were also high on the list of supporters’ issues, and just two months into their tenancy, the club had witnessed home fans fighting among themselves and tearing up seat. On the pitch too, there were clearly issues. On matchdays, the running track was covered with a green sheet to protect the surface, which Bilic identified as problem for his players, with the blend in colour becoming disorientating during games. West Ham appealed to their landlords to change the colour of the covering, but their request was denied. Five points from their next three home games represented a marked improvement for the Hammers, but when Arsenal left Stratford with a 5-1 win, with three goals coming in the final ten minutes, the meltdowns began once again. All the while the club’s star player was fuming behind closed doors. Having failed to see an improvement in the squad, Payet began agitating for a move, while Karren Brady put a brave face on the situation, parroting over and over again that the move to the new stadium had been an unmitigated success “We feel we’ve set out our goals and achieved them.”

The defeat to Arsenal left the Hammers a point outside the relegation zone, but a run of three wins and a draw over Christmas dragged them up to mid-table. Unfortunately another disaster was around the corner. On the 12th January, Slaven Bilic announced that Dimitri Payet had gone on strike in order to push through a move back to Marseille, and he wouldn’t be playing for the club again. Once again, the supporters were up in arms, but this time the ire was directed away from the directors box. That rerouting of fury spurred West Ham’s players on, and they recorded back-to-back victories against Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough to lift themselves into tenth as players and fans united in scorn against their French wizard. Payet was sold to Marseille for £25m on 29th January, and three days later the Hammers were walloped at home by Manchester City. The closest Bilic could get to replacing his best player was the £10m signing of Robert Snodgrass from Hull City, who had enjoyed a good first half of the season, but any misgivings over whether Snodgrass was Bilic’s choice of signing were justified when it emerged that, at his first training session with his new club, the Scottish winger’s new manager asked ‘What’s your best position?’.

payert

By now West Ham were stranded in mid-table, more likely to be sucked into a relegation scrap than emulate the previous season’s success, and a win at Southampton followed by two draws put them ninth with twelve to play – seven points behind Everton in eighth. If Bilic thought his side were home and dry, he was sorely mistaken. Five defeats on the bounce – two of them at home – dramatically changed the outlook of West Ham’s run in, and by the beginning of April they found themselves down in fifteenth, five points above the drop zone. A crucial 1-0 win at home to Swansea began a run of five games undefeated, the last of which brought a victory at home to Tottenham which secured safety for Bilic’s side and all but ended the title hopes of their London rivals. Finally the Hammers looked like a team and club pulling in the same direction as their supporters, and despite the tumultuous nature of their season, a victory at Burnley on the final day saw them finish in a respectable 11th place. The difficult first season bedding in at the London Stadium was over, and surely now things would get easier…

Slaven Bilic lasted just eleven games into the following season, before losing his job for a string of poor results. David Moyes was named as his replacement. West Ham doubled their efforts to secure some star signings ahead of their second season at the London Stadium, and ended up with Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart and Javier Hernandez, none of whom have impressed. The issues with stewarding and atmosphere continue to hamper the Hammers at their new home, and a 3-0 home defeat to Burnley in March saw multiple pitch invasions from disgruntled fans and chants of ‘Sack The Board’ from the stands. Karren Brady, sat at her kitchen table with a glass of shiraz surrounded by raging flames, still thinks the stadium move has been a tremendous success.

Antonio Conte returned Chelsea to the ruthless winning machine of previous years in his first season at Stamford Bridge, as the Blues ran away with their fifth Premier League title. Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland were the unfortunate sides dropping through the relegation trapdoor, with the latter in particular enduring a dreadful season. Heaven help the club that decides to appoint their manager…

chelsea1617

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s