And the rain tossed about us;
In the garden of the world
But a flame arrives to guide us;
Past the gold between the anvils of the stars
Those words are straight from July 2012. Pre-season was in full flow and I was at Radcliffe Borough v Bolton Wanderers where Owen Coyle had watched me dancing; a youthful version of myself raced back home to take in the Olympic games opening ceremony. The overriding highlight of the spectacle came when Alex Trimble, lead singer of Two Door Cinema Club, provided the vocals to Underworld’s track ‘Caliban’s Dream’ as the stadium’s Olympic flame was lit in front of the millions watching worldwide.
The song, which I am sure faded quickly in the minds of most who watched, had an effect on me; I was captivated. To this day it remains a piece of art which I hold very dear to me. It did help that the lead singer of my favourite band had provided that moment but even seven years later, as I sat in my seat at the London Stadium in Stratford, I pulled my tangled headphones out of my jacket pocket and transported myself back to the summer of 2012.
Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford became the first heroes of this stadium on that famous ‘Super Saturday’ but now there was a new crew in town. Declan Rice and co. were the poster boys for this pre-season friendly against Athletic Bilbao who finished 8th in La Liga last season. It wasn’t a thriller, or an event to keep you up the night before with excitement but it was a nice and relaxed way of ticking off a stadium which will always have a place in our nation’s sporting history.
I was more than aware that the Olympic Stadium was nothing like Upton Park, which I had managed to visit in it’s final months when The Hammers hosted Sheffield United in a League Cup tie. That place was just outstanding. The controversial move to Stratford, it was promised, would help propel West Ham United forward by establishing them as a top half Premier League club with ambitions of qualifying for European football.
There was no point going all the way down to London to just do West Ham v Athletic Bilbao, so I also managed to squeeze Tottenham Hotspur v Inter Milan in the following day. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the football on show, I just wanted a nice chilled out couple of afternoons in the sunshine. Admittedly, when I booked the whole trip I hadn’t clocked that it was actually the opening day of the Football League season, meaning I missed Bolton’s momentous trip to Wycombe.
It wouldn’t normally be momentous, a trip to Wycombe, but Bolton fans had sold out the away end following an uncertain summer where it looked as if our beloved club would no longer exist.
Having already ticked Wycombe off though, I was well up for the day at West Ham. Whenever I have stayed in London in recent years, we’ve opted for the Premier Inn at Stratford, so I knew the area very well. I knew that if I fancied a pre-match pint I would probably head for the TapEast brewery which is found at the far end of Westfield shopping centre; I opted not to on this occasion though deciding to save myself for the magical ‘fill up from the bottom pints’ at Spurs the following day.
I caught the DLR to Pudding Mill Lane from Cutty Sark where I was staying at Aaron’s for the weekend. I’ve only began to realise recently how the DLR features in my families history. My grandfather was a chartered mechanical engineer for GEC and worked in the team that designed the trains that still run to this day on that stretch of railway. It was a strange feeling as the train pulled up at Cutty Sark, as the carriage numbers were in double digits, showing that I was on one of the very first to be put into service. Perhaps my grandfather Dominic would have seen these very carriages upon their completion all those years ago. Maybe he even had a ride on this very one?
Following a change of train at Canary Wharf, I got chatting to a couple of West Ham fans who walked with me to the stadium, as they said the route from Pudding Mill Lane isn’t the most clear cut. They were right. Paths were closed and others were restricted access. I ended up scaling a hill, walking over a river and then arriving into the Olympic Park. The main centre piece to the park is the Orbit, which is Britain’s largest piece of public art standing at 115 metres. Large parts of the steel structure were forged in Lostock, a stones-throw from Bolton Wanderers stadium which gave me the little bit of home that I was needing.
After all, West Ham at one point did have a large proportion of former Wanderers in their squad. Kevin Nolan, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Joey O’Brien, Ricardo Vaz Te, Abdoulaye Faye and Matty Taylor were all led by the main man himself, Sam Allardyce. Unfortunately for me, all those players were long gone and I was left to study a Hammers team sheet with just Jack Wilshere being the only former Wanderer. While I have little time for the arrogance of the man these days, when he was a teenager at Bolton he really was an outstanding and exciting talent.
Other names of note that were involved in this match were Javier Hernandez, Pablo Zabaleta and Pablo Fornals – who I had seen play in three matches for Spain U21 at the European Championships in Italy a few weeks beforehand. Bilbao meanwhile operate their strict ‘cantera’ policy, which permits only players from the Basque region to play for the club. It meant that I didn’t really know any of their players but in all honesty I have fallen out of interest with European football in recent years. Gone are the days of me knowing nearly every player in a Champions League match.
Also a thing of the past is me buying football shirts from a plethora of clubs I don’t support. It really didn’t bother me, and still doesn’t but I am pleased to announce that as I have grown older, this practice has slowed down somewhat. Despite this, I do still like to purchase the occasional shirt that others may raise an eyebrow at. Back in 2001, a six year old version of myself started collecting football stickers and my two favourite shirts in the Merlin series were the Fulham one with the Pizza Hut logo and the West Ham one with Dr Martens on the front. An honorable mention to the Leicester shirt with Walkers on the front too. Pure nostalgia.
I had nipped into West Ham’s shop a few months beforehand and had seen the Dr Martens shirt on sale. I opted not to waste my money on another club’s jersey, but as I walked away back through Westfield I knew I had made a mistake. The decision chewed away at me for a while, and so upon my return to the London Stadium, I was straight into the shop and I was now the proud owner of a Di Canio style Hammers shirt.
For this match, I chose to sit in the upper section of the West Stand, entering through section C. I found it all rather spectacular and couldn’t get over just how stunning the view was from my seat. Many will moan, and rightly so, about being so far away from the pitch, but as a one off for me I didn’t mind it in the slightest as I sat more or less on my own with not many tickets having been shifted for my part of the ground. It cost me £25, which I thought was a bargain considering the cheapest adult ticket for a Category A match this season would set you back £55.
One thing that I became tired of during the pre-season of 2019, was the insistence on making boring and meaningless friendlies such as this into ‘something’. I love pre-season because I just enjoy getting out and about and sitting there in my own world, not caring what the result is or what impact it will have on either side. This match, or the Betway Cup, as it had been branded had been hyped up so much, that you would have thought it was a Champions League qualifier.
Of course, with a trophy up for grabs it meant that if it was a draw at full time it would go to penalties. Sods law. It did end a draw, and it did go to penalties. In a full on grumpy, I hate modern football strop, I left on 89 minutes so I could beat the rush. Not necessarily from a rush of West Ham fans, but from the swathes of Cheltenham fans who were knocking about in the area as they took on Leyton Orient just down the road.
This match at the London Stadium was labelled as ‘entertaining’ by the West Ham media team, who were no doubt having their first outing since gaining some form of degree in how to tweet. The match ended 2-2, which on the face of it seems partially entertaining, but I disagreed when I remembered that the four goals were all scored in the opening 23 minutes. Even for a Bolton fan, 67 minutes without a goal is a bit boring.
I had been listening to a West Ham podcast before the match, to gauge a sense of what the gobbier members of their fanbase expected ahead of the new season. They seemed impressed by their signings and were more than optimistic after beating Hertha Berlin 5-3 just days beforehand. Superlative laden sentences, with positives in abundance were thrown everywhere, so I was fairly amused when the Hammers found themselves 1-0 down after just two minutes thanks to a Sebastien Haller own goal. The French striker was making his home debut for the Hammers, after becoming their all time record signing a couple of weeks beforehand for a sum of £45 million.
14 minutes later and Athletic had doubled their advantage when Iñaki Williams, their leading goalscorer last season, made a run towards the near post to slide home after Iker Muniain found space on the right hand side.
I honestly believed I could see West Ham be on the receiving end of a ‘right old battering’ but Manuel Pellegrini’s men fought back and were level within just seven minutes. Haller linked with Pablo Fornals for the first goal, with the Spaniard creating a neat opening for Manuel Lanzini. Moments later and Jack Wilshere grabbed an equaliser when he swept the ball home from the edge of the box.
The 40,000 inside the London Stadium applauded both goals but that was the last of the action in all honesty. Penalties it was. Andriy Yarmolenko and Robert Snodgrass tucked their spot-kicks away, but Javier Hernandez and Grady Diangana missed to gave Yuri Berchiche the chance to claim victory, and he made no mistake to send the much coveted and elusive Betway Cup to the Basque Country.
As I strolled back to Stratford station, I thought about how much I had enjoyed my day at the London Stadium. It was a treat. It’s not often I get to watch matches at sparkling, state of the art facilities like those at the Olympic Park.
The stadium certainly provides more of a family atmosphere than Upton Park did… but is that a good thing? Personally, I would say no. The Boleyn Ground was like no other and that walk down Green Street at night was something I will never forget. Seeing the floodlights at the far end of the road, the bustle of the crowd and the smell of burger stalls. All that has been killed. The surroundings of the Olympic Park are very corporate, clean, commercialised and fake. It’s exactly the kind of matchday experience I had become familiar with from trips to Arsenal and Manchester City. Of course, there will be West Ham fans who prefer this and are proud of what they now own, but it will never be as good as it was before.
And the light drive out our fears, And the joy drive out our pain,
And the nations come to greet us, waving open arms like waves of golden corn.
Ever hear us, oh the spirit of the world. May your light be ever near us,
Always lead us from the dark, though we may fall.
We will fly.
And with love, ever call.