On Sunday I was fortunate enough to take my seat in our new ground for the first home game of the new season.
I’m even more fortunate that I am able to take that seat for the whole season. Along with my Dad and my son.
We travelled up on a single train from Margate to Stratford International, joined along the way by a throng of fellow Hammers who reside in various towns and cities through Kent.
Upon arrival there was a pleasant and scenic trod past a few eateries and Olympic Park legacy landmarks before the stadium fully comes into view and it’s imposing size really hits home. Our new spiritual home.
The final approach, with little pockets of fans milling around near programme vendors on concrete benches can only be compared to the walk up Wembley way. Every game will have a cup final like feel.
We popped into the new Club shop. My son hit my dad and me up for a new home kit along with our name on the back and the number of (who else) Payet. We grabbed a burger and a drink each, for about £20, and then headed into the ground. Two hours early.
We climbed the stairs up in to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand and took our seats. I wasn’t disappointed. We’re at least a third of the way up towards the back of the Upper Tier in block 227 and the view was all I’d hoped.
Crowds congregated by stairwells, near the founders walls, whilst people searched for their names and in front of the big screens either end,which I’m eager to check out on our next visit. The buzz of anticipation was palpable.
The whole experience up t this point is a far cry from Upton Park. Gone is the arduous and labouring two hour plus journey to the ground. Gone, too, the busy bustling road and pavements of Green Street and the road side vendors. Places to eat and drink have altered drastically too. Some of these things I’ll miss, others I won’t.
But as the players walked out and the bubble machine kicked in, one enduring and eternal part of every game I’ve ever attended appeared and it was as beautiful and powerful as ever.
As 57,000 Hammers rose to their feet and sung the hymn that has been a constant in my life, I turned and looked at my son, his arms aloft singing as loud as his lungs would allow, I felt a life goal had been achieved. His first game, and he was one of us.
During the game there was a strange atmosphere. The club’s very public stance on standing was met with the defiance you would expect from the hardcore hammers who have stood and sung for their side for as long as they can remember.
There was a man a few rows a head of us and a cluster of fans over to the right who seemed determine to stand for as long as they could get away with. There also seemed an equal number of people who would not stand – even when asked do so to show their hatred for a certain side in white from North London.
Maybe they were shy. Maybe they feared expulsion. Maybe they just don’t hate Spurs as much as the rest of us. But these non-standers where met with looks of derision from some. Judged. Songs where started in different parts of the ground, some spread around the ground, others died out. Again, judgements where cast. As if standing and singing is the only way to support.
Myself, I rose to my feet every time we bore down on goal, every time a song started and anytime I had an opinion towards the officials. Same as I would have at Upton Park. And for me, the atmosphere was similar to what I have experience at Upton Park in the past.
Not the hostile and noisy one of my youth, but the one I have had on my sporadic visits over the last decade or so. Moments of intense singing mirrored by real lulls in vocal activity.
Last season was different. But the nostalgia invoked at every game last year has facilitated the throw back to the Upton Park of old. It’s left a rose tinted memory of the place that many are remiss to let go of.
My standing wasn’t persistent standing. It wasn’t standing at the expense of someone else’s view. It was standing due to excitement or collective song, which is allowed.
Clearly some standing is prohibited as people where evicted, but they would have been warned numerous times beforehand. It would also be plausible to assume that those who were evicted where standing at the expense of others. I say this because large sections of the ‘Kop’ stood for the whole game.
Presumably no one complained so the standers remained. I don’t judge these guys, equally I didn’t judge the guys on the end of our row who didn’t stand. They’ll do it if they want. They pay their money. They support our team. We are the West Ham family and we will work it out.
The game itself was a bit of a stale encounter. For my money, a few better placed final balls or anyone other than Enner Valencia on the end of some of the more decent crosses and we would have won comfortably.
As it was, it took the rightfully-restored-to-the-right-wing-wonder that is Michail Antonio to win it for us and get us all jumping for joy, my son and I high-fiving total strangers. Strangers who, over the next 18 home games, will become our closest relatives within the West Ham family.
And that’s the true beauty of the London Stadium. That it has given us a chance to extend that family. Myself and mine wouldn’t have been there to watch us play Bournemouth if we still played at Upton Park. And we certainly wouldn’t have season tickets. And we are in no way alone in benefiting from the change.
Over 20,000 extra season ticket holders are now going to be regular visitors to the ‘family home’. Once they feel settled in maybe they’ll feel more comfortable to holla and sing. Once they do, there will be an amazing atmosphere in the ground.
Once we’ve had a few more games there, that alien scenic walk will feel more like returning home.
And what a beautiful home it will be.