The most enduring stories are those that centre upon the quest of their protagonists to find their way home. From Homer’s Odyssey to Homer’s precarious drive in the opening credits of The Simpsons, we are continually entranced and beguiled by the adventures of characters who crave nothing other than safe passage and security from the raging winds of the world beyond. Tony Soprano wheels across the surrounding New Jersey environs after another day of murder, betrayal and therapy and wants for nothing other than one of Carmela’s leftover gabagool and a reclining seat in front of the History Channel whilst Dorothy intones repeatedly that “there’s no place like home” when the transparent nature of the realities of Oz become apparent.
How must West Ham fans be feeling this week, knowing that the ground that saw the majestic Bobby Moore perfect and perform his cerebral form of defending, will be jettisoned for a stadium that will be as homogenous and soulless as any of the others that have been built in the Premier League era? The onward march of progress cannot be stopped and in many cases, it shouldn’t. If that were the case, Mr Mubarak would still be in power as I write. However, with change there inevitably must be some sacrifice. And West Ham supporters, whether willingly or less so, must begin the process of beginning to relinquish part of themselves and who they perceive themselves to be after Friday’s decision to award the Olympic stadium in Stratford came out in favour of their bid rather than Tottenham Hotspur’s.
I wrote a piece for In Bed With Maradona in October in which I put forward the case for a possible ground share between these two old rivals. Although I stand behind my original proposals, the last couple of months have shown me that any move away from N17 would have been fractious and divisive both for the community and businesses within the White Hart Lane locality but even more tellingly, we would have seen a fan base descend into the bitter civil war as was so heartbreakingly played out when Wimbledon relocated to Milton Keynes and were rebranded as MK Dons whilst the hardcore, local support formed AFC Wimbledon. When the FA cup draw threw up a potential match-up between the two clubs earlier this season, the football media quickly went into a hand-wringing frenzy at the thought of the ensuing hostility that would inevitably have arisen from such a fixture. In the end, replays put paid to that but AFC’s success in the non-leagues will ensure that the throng will get their dose of blood-letting sooner rather than later.
I don’t want Spurs to end up as a media sideshow, with supporters clashing outside the stadium and threatening to create a rival fan-owned club, as happened with Manchester United. Nor do I want threats of boycotts and shirt burning. In many respects, the Olympic decision saved us from all of that. There still remains the issue of how the club can accommodate its fans and expand but that is for the people who receive a far greater salary than me to work out an achievable and sustainable way to keep the club in the location in which it was formed. But that is for another day. For the moment, we keep our home.
And for me it means the following… It means I can take the walk from my mum’s house through Fore Street (always on the right-hand side) on a match day with my unborn but imminent, son or daughter. I can buy an open portion of chips with them (salt first, then vinegar) and then walk around the stadium, within the mass of the crowd, taking in the aroma of grilled onions and horseshit. I can buy him or her a programme whilst I pore over the badly printed but cutting commentary of a fanzine. Or see him or her wrapped up in a Spurs scarf for the first time. And watch his or her heroes play on the same pitch as the one on which I saw Jurgen Klinsmann score a spectacular scissor volley on his home debut and the four goals in four minutes we scored against Southampton in 1993, a few days before my Arsenal-supporting grandfather died. I can show him or her the place where I stood for the first time, with tickets bought off a tout by my dad for eight pounds, behind a fence on a sunny April day in 1989 to watch my beloved Spurs (with Waddle and Gazza) beat West Ham. And because he or she will be there, they’ll understand, with any luck. Because he or she will be connected to the past in a way that no manner of perfect viewing, easy access, corporate sponsor-driven stadiums can ever hope to emulate.
However much he prospered in London, my grandfather always harked and pined for the old country. Despite all that he achieved, he missed Cyprus dearly and romanticised it in a way that only our memories allow us to. In much the same way, football supporters do the same. Manchester City might now bestride the football world like an engorged money colossus but it was telling that in yesterday’s Manchester derby, their fans were still chanting that they were “City from Maine Road.” Eastlands doesn’t eradicate such yearning – it paradoxically enhances it.
West Ham will inherit a wonderful stadium – that cannot be denied. In much the same way that Arsenal and Southampton and a number of other clubs have left beloved home grounds in the last decade or so, to be re-housed in bigger and seemingly better locations. But the art décor of Highbury and the intense closeness of The Dell have been lost forever and for the fans of these clubs, it can only be a further factor in their dislocation from the modern game.
As he looks out upon the cityscape of Baltimore in the last scene in perhaps the greatest story of the modern era, The Wire’s Detective Jimmy McNulty’s final line is tellingly, “let’s go home”. In the end, isn’t that what we all want to do?
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis