The Westfield shopping centre steward had the answer. The easiest way to West Ham United’s new ground, which, for now, the club are calling London Stadium? “Up one floor on the escalator,” he said. “Straight down towards John Lewis, left out of the last door, cut past Jamie Oliver’s restaurant and you’ll see it.”
En route, across the polished floors and past all of the concessions, a sales assistant was quizzing passers-by about their lifestyle choices. The reality was impossible to ignore and it will assault each fan who attends a West Ham game in Stratford this season. It is an awfully long way from Green Street.
The club take their first post-Upton Park steps on Thursday evening, when they entertain the Slovenian team NK Domzale in the second leg of the Europa League third qualifying round, trailing 2-1. Slaven Bilic has plenty on his mind, and it goes beyond the imperative to atone for a poor performance against a club making their debut in European competition.
The manager talked about injuries, and he said that Manuel Lanzini would be out for five weeks with a knee problem. He talked about how the internationals that reached the latter stages of Euro 2016, namely Dimitri Payet, James Collins and Angelo Ogbonna, were not match fit. And, of course, he talked about transfers.
West Ham are interested in a loan deal for the Internazionale left-back Davide Santon, and Bilic said a loan for the Argentinian striker Jonathan Calleri was “close”. Calleri played at São Paulo last season, on loan from Deportivo Maldonadocorrect in Uruguay. With Diafra Sakho poised to leave West Ham for West Bromwich Albion, Bilic was asked whether a leading striker was his priority. The club have been linked with a £20m move for Swansea City’s André Ayew. “It’s a priority,” he replied. “But not a big, big one.”
Everything was overshadowed by the new stadium talk. West Ham say that the venue’s official launch will be on Sunday, when they host Juventus in a prestige friendly; there will be an opening ceremony beforehand. But whether they like it or not, it will be the visit of little Domzale that will go down in history.
The first thing that you saw on Wednesday afternoon, after passing Jamie’s Italian, was UNITED in large, claret-coloured letters at the top of the stadium. WEST and HAM would go up later in the day. The finishing touches were being applied, frantically. Cranes and fencing ringed the venue and men in hard hats and luminous bibs were everywhere.
Each day, of late, has brought progress and the tangible sense of excitement but the work feels far from complete. The ducting was still on show in the ceiling of the room that hosted Bilic’s press conference. The Domzale tie has sold out at 54,000 but the stadium will not be at its 60,000 capacity until the opening home game of the Premier League season against Bournemouth on 21 August because the club do not yet have the safety certificate for the full numbers. Get there early against Domzale, was the message that they wanted to put out.
Inside the ground, what was striking was the distance between the dugouts and the pitch – a stretch of roughly 30 metres, which goes across the eight‑lane athletics track. There was the plan to cover it in green felt and, also, the suggestion that seating for the benches could be moved closer to the touchline.
The other eye-opener was the big gap between the middle tier in the stand behind the dugouts, which holds the corporate boxes, and the lower tier of seating, which has a makeshift feel to it, as though it has been rolled in. A home from home? Hardly. Or, at least, not yet. “This doesn’t feel like a home game, it can’t feel like that,” Bilic said. “But it’s not an away game, either.”
Bilic was not about to lie. “It’s very hard to imagine a better home ground [than Upton Park],” he said. “I’m not talking about the boxes and all that, the sandwiches or champagne – if we are talking about home ground advantage, Upton Park was brilliant.”
Bilic felt “mixed emotions” and he agreed that it felt weird to talk about Upton Park in the past tense. It would be hard, he added, to replace it, just as it was for Arsenal with Highbury and Southampton with The Dell. But it was not as if he and West Ham had not had time to get used to the idea of the move. One theme of last season was the long goodbye to Upton Park. “Before every game, it was: ‘Last season at the Boleyn Ground, or last game there against Leicester or whoever,’” Bilic said.
West Ham’s mission is to adjust and be positive. There has been and there will continue to be lots of discussion about the atmosphere, with the pitch set so far back from the stands, particularly on one side. “You can’t get an atmosphere at Parc des Princes or Saint-Denis [at the Stade de France], for example, like you can in Dortmund,” Bilic said.
But, essentially, it will be down to Bilic and the players to set the tone with the level and intensity of their performances.
“I played for Croatia at Wembley [in 2007] and when we were winning 2-0, you felt like you were enjoying it,” Bilic said. “But when England came back to 2-2, you felt the fans on our backs. It’s down to performances. My message to the players is to put on a performance to bring the stadium alive.”
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