While the Olympic Stadium saga continues, Mark Segal asks whether a move to Stratford really is in the best interests of West Ham
When West Ham first announced their intention to move into the Olympic Stadium after London 2012, the response from fans was at best lukewarm. After it was made clear that the new 60,000-seat ground will include a running track, scepticism grew among fans who were still not entirely convinced that their team needed to move away from Upton Park.
The club's hierarchy launched an impressive PR campaign to extol the virtues of Stratford and once it became clear that Tottenham Hotspur were also eyeing the site, most supporters fell in line with the view held by owners David Gold and David Sullivan, and vice-chairman Karren Brady.
In February, when the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) announced that West Ham's bid, which included a £40 million loan from Newham Council, had been successful, the feeling was more of relief and resignation than outright joy.
Fast-forward eight months and West Ham's plans are now in tatters after the OPLC decided to call off talks with the club following months of legal battles with Tottenham and Leyton Orient. Both clubs had objected to the financial help the Hammers were receiving from Newham, while an anonymous individual made the same complaint to the European Commission.
The OPLC's new plan is to keep the stadium in public ownership, pay for the £35m transformation from an athletics-specific arena to a multi-sport stadium from the public purse and look for a tenant who would be asked to pay around £2m a year to rent the ground.
From the tone of the press release West Ham rushed out after the announcement it would appear nothing has changed. Brady, whose claim that the club had the Queen on their side has become a source of embarrassment to supporters, insisted West Ham would bid to become tenants again and were confident of a second victory.
While that might be so – and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson "almost certainly" thinks it will – the Upton Park management may want to stop this headlong rush to Stratford and just pause for thought. Brady claims that West Ham are still the obvious choice for the OPLC, but is the Olympic Stadium still the right choice for the Hammers?
West Ham have no obligation to move. The chances of the arena turning into that most feared of all animals – the white elephant – are greatly increased should West Ham pull out but, frankly, that's not their problem. Especially now that Tottenham have ended their interest in moving to east London. While none of us would like to see the Olympic Stadium's legacy become a couple of athletics meetings a year and the odd cricket match, the mess was created by the government and those behind the bid. West Ham's financial future should not be put on the line to save their romantic dreams.
In the short term the club would obviously benefit from only having to pay the annual £2m rent rather than the full costs of transformation, but it is a huge financial risk to sell Upton Park and only become tenants at the Olympic site. The lower leagues are full of stories of clubs who have hit financial trouble by doing just that. As reported by the Telegraph recently, the government's recommendations for the reform of football state there should be a "presumption against selling a ground, unless it is in the best interests of the club".
The question is whether selling up their home and moving into rented accommodation that is probably too big for their needs is in the best interests of West Ham, now and for the future. The West Ham board have a duty to supporters to at least look again at other plans for expansion. They might find a way of expanding the East Stand at Upton Park and there may be other areas of Newham which could be redeveloped.
While the Hammers work on their new bid, up the road in Waltham Forest Barry Hearn is also plotting another attempt to grab some of the glory, and the money, for Leyton Orient. Hearn, like his counterparts at West Ham, has never knowingly shunned a TV camera and is again claiming that his club would be destroyed if West Ham moved to Stratford.
In the coming months there will be more of this bluster from both sides, but while those in control of the east London clubs throw verbal grenades at each other, their respective fans just sit, wait and shake their heads at the mess we are now in.
From WSC 298 December 2011