There are few grounds that compare to West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground in the Premier League. Tucked away amongst a crowded corner of suburban East London, the walk up to the stadium itself from Upton Park underground station bristles with the kind of character that you’d expect from an historic capital club.
The venue itself is unique, too. While the facilities aren’t quite up to speed with a lot of West Ham’s local rivals, there’s something enamouring, endearing even, about the frayed edges of this famous old stadium. It’s a raw side of football and amidst a game which is motoring forward, that blemished but unblemished quality is becoming increasingly scarce.
Everton also seem to win there too, which is probably why my own reflective take on this venue is particularly upbeat.
Admittedly, in the second half of a season which has been disastrous for the Toffees, I’ve not been to quite as many Premier League away games as last season, when this team was charging after a Champions League spot. Indeed, trips to Wolfsburg via Berlin and Bern via Geneva in the Europa League wiped me out financially, but provided some extraordinary memories.
But as the final away game of the season, even though there was absolutely nothing at stake for this trip to London, I made the exception for a trip to West Ham. After all, as a visiting supporter, there will only be one more opportunity to sample this iconic venue before the Hammers move into the Olympic Stadium.
It’s a place I’ll miss. Granted, there are plenty of facets of this stadium I won’t lament seeing the back of: the pocket of home support whose attention fails to ever divert from the away support—what on earth is that all about?—the nightmarish time it takes to get away from the stadium and steep ticket prices being a trio of minor gripes
There are little things that are brilliant about Upton Park, though. Simple things. The supporters’ sense of humor, the away fans being behind the goal and tight to the pitch—how much better does a goal look with that kind of chaotic backdrop?—plus the way in supporters bang on the corrugated advertising board to create a backdrop to their chant.
The Olympic Stadium will be wonderful for West Ham. The transport links, location and expansion are imperative for the club to move forward and while it may not boast a nostalgia comparable to Boleyn Ground, there’s a chance for the Hammers, with a blank canvas, to write an intriguing new chapter in the club’s history.
Hopefully it’s a stadium as kind to Everton. The past two league encounters at this ground have seen the Toffees snatch late victories. Last season’s 3-2 win was the trigger for an enthralling campaign, as Leighton Baines scored two stunning free-kicks before Romelu Lukaku snatched a headed winner on his debut for the club.
It was Lukaku who grabbed a win for Everton again in the dying embers on Saturday, but while his towering leap last season was an enthralling sign of things to come, this stooped strike was a flourish to cap off a hugely forgettable campaign.
The fans still celebrated wildly. Stood on the end of a row, a supporter actually fell backwards down the steps just centimetres away from me, cracking his head on a stair in the process. The lad got back up immediately, probably buoyed by the adrenaline of a late goal, but I left the stadium thinking it could have been a bittersweet day for him; I doubt he’ll remember too much.
As aforementioned, getting away from the stadium is usually a minor blemish on the day at Upton Park. The queue for the tube station nearest the ground is a phalanx of frustrated football fans which takes roughly an hour to abate fully, so for anyone thinking of going to watch West Ham next season, I’d advise to steer well clear of that station afterwards; it’s worth walking to Plaistow or East Ham if you’re looking to get back to central London.
But if the opportunity is there, I’d highly recommend going. It’s tough not to draw parallels between the Hammers and my own club too. Like Everton, they’re currently a team playing a supporting act in a football mad city in an old stadium which has seen better days. The big difference between the two is that West Ham are motoring into the modern age, while the Toffees’ own future plans are somewhat murkier.
So while this Everton side moved above the Hammers with this win in what’s been a horrendous season for Martinez’s men and although the Toffees have come out on top in the last four league meetings between the two sides, looking at matters with longevity in mind, it’s clear whose shoes you’d rather be in. That’s a sense I couldn’t quite shake on the trip back up to Merseyside.
It’ll be a sad occasion when the Hammers do finally end their association with their longstanding home, for those who visit frequently and flippantly.
But West Ham fans dreading the day should take some comfort from the many supporters—this writer included—who will be looking on enviously when they occupy a new 50,000-seater stadium at the start of the 2016/17 campaign. At least the Olympic Stadium will be a bit quicker to dart away from should Everton lose.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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