The header of my first monthly column in August was: “Your Nightmare Returns”, chosen with the paradoxical intention to prevent West Ham from bowing out of the Europa League being beaten by the same team as last year. Unfortunately, as we all know, that kind of psychotherapeutic intervention (asking for something in order to achieve the opposite result) didn’t work in this case. Astra Giurgiu won the second leg in our new home, and with an aggregated score of 1-2 the Hammers just “nearly reached” the group stage of the Europa League. One month later we have all but bigger problems than missing out on European football though.
Nevertheless the fact that West Ham United is not to play in the Europa League anymore makes me sad especially because play-off winners Astra were drawn into the same group as Austria Vienna, the arch rivals of my hometown club SK Rapid. Assuming that it had been West Ham instead of Astra playing in Group E, it would have been something special to cheer for West Ham in the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna against Austria in that fixture this autumn.
But as I said before, the lack of more European football in West Ham’s new London Stadium is a minor problem. To be honest we should be all but relieved that there won’t be any more distractions from abroad for an unsettled team with a lot of injuries which now has to concentrate on finding form and momentum in the domestic competitions. By the time I am writing this post the Sunday games of round 5 have not been played yet, but by the end of this weekend West Ham could be in a relegation spot.
Could we have seen that coming?
Well, we have to admit that the start to the Premier League this year has not been great with two defeats and one win in our first three games. But we had also gained just three points by this stage last season, and what a glorious season it had been! It also seemed that West Ham had done good business in the transfer window and so, by the end of August, regardless of being unlucky again with injuries to some key players, we all were still dreaming dreams and scheming schemes of an other famous season “in our stunning new home”. It was going to kick-start after the international break in September, we thought. We could not have been more wrong.
To make the bursting of the bubble even worse the first game after the international break looked bright for forty minutes with a 2-0 lead in the London Stadium against Watford. But the game ended in disappointment with a 2-4 defeat, and one week later we now have to settle with another 2-4 defeat at West Brom. Shipping eight goals in two games suggests that West Ham’s problem is not the lack of a “20 goals a season striker” (as the board and many supporters may have thought), but there are evident problems at our back four and with the defensive work of the whole team.
Also the hype about the new “almost 60,000” stadium has worn off a little with all the problems with crowd management, permanent standing and supporters dissatisfied with ticket allocation and the seats they have bought. It’s no surprise that a transition as big as this one with an increase of more than 20,000 supporters per game and a lot of new stewards in surroundings unfamiliar to everybody is far from easy.
And – having started this article on a psychological note – we should not forget that we all, the club, the players and the supporters, are in a difficult emotional state right now. Well, a football fan and especially one who is supporting the mighty Irons is never far from disappointment and despair: “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score”, a famous quote from Arsenal fan Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” goes. But for West Ham, this is not a “natural state” of football feelings this time.
Just imagine you have decided to leave your old home, move to a new house, face all the problems with building or renovating it, not to mention removing all the furniture and other belongings and shipping them to the new place at last, just to find that in the new home a lot of things don’t work as they should. That’s not what you had expected and at least everything is very different from the familiar surroundings you were used to. That is not only the typical uncertainty factor and misfortune we have been used to as West Ham supporters, just having beaten the likes of Arsenal or almost won the FA Cup and losing to minnows or fighting relegation the other day (season). We have been able to cope with that for decades, using sardonic humour and other remedies, and blowing bubbles again at our good old Boleyn Ground the next Saturday. But the situation club and supporters are in right now is very different from that.
Even for all who have been in favour of the move, almost everything we have been used to (including the crest) has changed, and the atmosphere as a whole seems to be much different from Upton Park. It will take a lot of time until the feel-at-home-factor will be here to stay again. This should not influence the performance of the team; a squad of highly paid professionals should be able to play their game at any pitch … but I fear it does anyway.
Though I have not been to the Olympic Stadium since its transition for West Ham (hoping to be able to come in December) I know what I am speaking of. Not only that my family moved several times, also my home town club Rapid has just got a “stunning new home” by the beginning of this season. And although the so-called “Allianz Stadion” has been built at the same place as the old ground and Rapid has qualified for the Europa League and has won more games than lost in the new ground, my feelings are quite ambiguous and I am really struggling to feel at home on the new terraces.
“Every game and every season is like an expedition into an unknown territory”, German author Axel Hacke wrote in his book “Fußballgefühle” (“Football Feelings”, p. 16). For West Ham this season is more than that, I would compare our journey to a space mission, as our old song goes: “They fly so high …” Now I hope the club, the manager, the squad and we, the supporters, are going to show that we are equipped well for this task. I, for one, will be happy this season with a safe landing of our claret and blue starship in mid-table security.
Come on you Irons!