West Ham United 3 N K Domzale 0
Europa League Qualifying, Third Round, Second Leg (West Ham win 4 - 2 on Agg)
With the Hammers moving home and Cheltenham Town winning promotion back to the League, I was back down to 90 grounds out of the 2016/2017 92. It was a happy coincidence that I could tackle both this week and be back to 92 by the end of day one of the new season. First up was the Europa League qualifying game with West Ham taking on N K Domzale in the first ever game at the London Stadium, the new home of the Iron.
We all know the stadium from those heady days almost exactly four years ago when the Brits did so well on day 8 of the London 2012 Olympics with Mo Farah, Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford winning gold. The stadium has undergone a subtle but expensive transformation since then and is now the new home of West Ham. This was the first chance their fans had to sample the new surroundings and there was an inevitable feel that many aspects of the night were still on test.
I was joined by three friends for the game including my good mate Andy The Shrimper, who was also filling in the gap created in his current 92. We parked in Car park B in the Westfield Shopping Centre, just up the road from the stadium and that set the standard for the night as we were guided to a vacant parking bay by a sophisticated system of cameras and lights that adorn every one of several thousand spaces and then wandered in some awe through the massive three story shopping mall. It was a Thursday afternoon and the place was rammed with shoppers.
We made our way to the Wetherspoon pub along Broadway, the Goldengrove and that too was rammed, although it was now mostly West Ham colours and not shopping bags that were mostly in evidence. We had heard a rumour that access to the stadium through the Shopping Centre would be closed at 6:30pm and it seemed everyone else had heard it too as just before that time we joined the throngs of supporters making their way past the shops and restaurants to the seeming bewilderment and annoyance of the local shoppers. This is my first real observation about any future trips to the London Stadium; I cannot see how this access will work safely when thousands of away fans are joining West Ham supporters; if you think Wembley Way, but with shops either side and open air restaurants in the middle you get the picture. There is apparently another longer route around the outside of the centre and that may be the answer. For now, we all slowly inched along, being guided by stewards holding up banners with "Stadium this way" notices. I can't believe this can work with several hundred away fans taking the same route loaded with ale!
When the stadium eventually came into view, I have to say the first impression is "Wow!". It rises in front of you like a recently landed flying saucer, a giant bowl surrounded by huge white steel tubing and now clad around the sides with pictures of the West Ham squad. Alongside the stadium is the weird red steel structure of what is now the Arcelormittal Orbit, the tallest sculpture in Britain and the creation of Sir Anish Kapoor. It now houses the world's longest tunnel slide in which, if you are so inclined, you can slide down on your back at 15 miles an hour! It is an iconic centre piece for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and was made famous around the world during the 2012 Olympics although the slide is a new addition.
There were clearly some teething problems being discovered in and around the stadium; we stood in the queues for a programme for twenty minutes or so with some very disgruntled Hammers who were giving the new stadium a try but were far from convinced it was a good move. They had a dislike of the current regime of owners who they considered were "doing the stadium on the cheap" - hence having so few programme sellers available on this, the opening night with a crowd of 53,914 - just 86 short of the advertised capacity for this fixture (61,000 when all sections are open apparently) .
I have to say the inside of the ground doesn't quite have the same wow factor as the outside view. The turnstile system worked efficiently enough with it's barcode scanning and inside there seemed to be plenty of toilet facilities which were all gleaming and white before the inevitable stickers and graffiti appear in the coming weeks but it was all a bit boring and characterless.
The climb up to our seats was a challenge - we were on row 70 of about 75, right near the top just to the right of the half-way line. Once again when I turned around to look at the pitch though, the view was stunning albeit the pitch seemed a very long way away!
The view is unhindered all around the ground and the steel work of the roof and supports is well out of the way of your eye line. The seats themselves are not the padded luxury of the MK Dons Stadium though or Wembley Stadium and maybe this was another example where costs have been cut. They were the normal hard plastic you would find in most modern stands. The legroom was adequate if not generous.
The parts of the running track that are not covered in seats when the ground is in football mode (a few rows of seats can be removed to turn the stadium back into an athletics venue) were covered in green plastic sheeting and of course for the first game the pitch looked immaculate.
A chap sat next to us explained that he was in his actual season ticket seat and it had cost him £900. He was well pleased with it in contrast to some of those fans we spoke to outside who said they had only really renewed their STs to ensure they could continue to buy tickets for away games which they said they would continue to enjoy, whether or not they continued to take up their seats for every home game. Our new friend reckoned West Ham were renting the new stadium on a 99 year lease for only £2m a year and he was convinced the new debt free Hammers were on the threshold of becoming a new super club on the lines of Man City and Chelsea. Time will tell. My overriding feeling was that while the stadium is almost full the atmosphere will be fantastic but I wondered what it will be like if West Ham suffer a decline on the pitch and the place suddenly becomes half empty on a match day. That might be an altogether different experience!
As it was, this was a night of celebration; the whole stadium erupted in the first singing of "bubbles" as the teams emerged and it was an impressive sight as was the "Stand up if you love West Ham" when everyone stood with arms raised; well, everyone except Andy The Shrimper who saw that as a step too far!
West Ham won the game 3 - 0, although Domzale had plenty of decent possession and, had they had a proficient striker to finish any of their good build up play, it could have been a different outcome. The 3 - 0 score was more than enough to overturn the 2-1 defeat they suffered in Solvenia last week to go through to the next qualifying round. It was then disappointing to see so many Hammers fans leaving the ground after the third goal was scored, they no doubt knew the chaos that would ensue as 54,000 tried to leave the ground at the same time. For our part, we stayed until well after the final whistle for a few final photos and had a comfortable experience getting away apart from not being able to locate the car in those massive car parks. Fortunately, that sophisticated system of cameras means they have stations where you can enter your reg and it will "find" your car for you! We then discovered we were actually in car park A when we should have been in car park B! At £6-50 for up to 24 hours on a week day and £9-50 at weekends the cost was not too bad.
Overall, a decent day out at the footy, a fine stadium albeit maybe it will become a soulless arena if only 30,000 turn up on a regular basis.
From a space age, 60,000 Premier League stadium to my next venue on Saturday; Whaddon Road, Cheltenham, a 7,000 capacity League Two ground for the visit of Leyton Orient on Day One of the new League Season. That's what football is all about!