The Liverpool game was my first “live game” in London this season. Together with three friends we had planned to spend a weekend in London at the beginning of November and watch those boys in claret & blue under the lights on Saturday evening. And maybe, well maybe, we were going to be entertained by our Austrian “hero” Marko Arnautovic. However, as we now know, we witnessed another disappointing game – the last one of manager Slaven Bilic in charge of the Irons. Have we witnessed a turning point in West Ham’s fortune too?
The trip from Vienna could not have started better. British Airways had us sitting almost three hours in the plane on the runway before we were able to take off for London Heathrow. We were told about heavy fog in west London this morning, but I was sure: if it hadn’t been West Ham we would have been there in time …
The weekend was going to start with a concert of blues legend John Mayall on Friday. On the Sunday we wanted to join a service at Holy Trinity Brompton. And on Saturday we thought we were going to be entertained at the London Stadium by West Ham United. Well, John Mayall at Cadogan Hall in South Kensington really was an inspiration. The 84 year old radiated positive mood playing his rhythm’n‘blues and one really could feel the joy he takes from standing on stage in front of his audience and playing together with the musicians in his band.
What a contrast to this evening the atmosphere one day later in the London Stadium was! We had been slightly optimistic before the game, thought it would be “so West Ham” to beat the Reds against all odds to kick-start this Premier League season at last. We also tried not to let the sad impressions from the detour we had made on the way to Stratford stand in our way: having decided not to travel directly to the ground from central London, we got to Upton Park to catch a glimpse of the current state of the site that had been the Boleyn Ground. Afterwards we would take the bus 104 from the Boleyn to Stratford.
It was a very strange view when we walked down Green Street from Upton Park station, coming across just a huge heap of excavated earth where the West Stand had towered over the car park only a year ago. There still stands one post painted in claret where in former times the impressive landmark of the John Lyall Gates had been. The narrow Castle Street behind the former Bobby Moore Stand now looks like a wide but deserted avenue, and with Ken’s Café closed and the Boleyn Pub far from overcrowded it almost seemed as if there never had been that theatre where Bubbles were blown and dreams been dreamt to be fulfilled or shattered with the final whistle …
Nevertheless the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Compassion, the numerous barbershops and Queen’s Market are still there, and the World Cup sculpture is in its place at the junction of Barking Road and Green Street – where in my opinion it should remain, in commemoration of West Ham United’s history at the Boleyn Ground, and not be moved to Stratford. The Champions Place in front of the London Stadium deserves to get a new statue, as new Wembley has got a Bobby Moore sculpture of its own.
Well, at Stratford there was no church but a group of singers seeking to evangelize by performing songs in the street. And we couldn’t have a pint in an overcrowded pub like the Boleyn or the Queens where you can hardly understand a word talking to your fellow supporters about the upcoming game. Instead of this we got us a treat and a tea at the quiet Caffé Concerto, sitting table to table with Markus Weinzierl, the former Schalke 04 manager. Just some hours later we learned that he had not been the only manager sniffing around West Ham seeking a new job this evening. Then we managed to book a table at Jamie’s Italian for dinner after the game and then we headed for the ground.
The atmosphere was slightly optimistic, as I said before, and “Bubbles” rang out like always when the players graced the pitch (without Austrian Marko Arnautovic in the starting IX, as expected). Remembrance Day celebrations were impressive and created a festive atmosphere, but from the start of the game West Ham seemed to be very nervous and lacking confidence and the players hardly were able to string some passes together. Compared to John Mayall’s spirit the evening before, West Ham’s attitude seemed quite uninspired and everybody was wary of making mistakes. The Irons’ continual backward passing instead of making quick runs and troubling Liverpool’s defence left us and our fellow supporters at growing unease, and after the Irons’ first good chance had been spoilt, minutes later a West Ham corner resulted in a fast counter attack and Liverpool scored. That felt “so West Ham” in a negative way. Then Liverpool got a corner and scored again, just 3 minutes after their first goal.
“The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score," the famous quote from “Fever Pitch” says. But in modern times it seems that being disappointed much too quickly leads to turn one’s back on the team. When Liverpool had scored, a lad in front of us in motorbike clothes seized his helmet and left his seat with immediate effect. He wasn’t seen on the terraces again.
During the interval we moaned about the “cheap goals” and the drama of two corners, and we wondered if Arnautovic would be given a chance to come on in the second half. But first it was Andy Carroll who Slaven Bilic chose to lead the line together with Chicharito. And things livened up from the start, the crowd got involved a little more, and with Manuel Lanzini’s goal the London Stadium became a noisy place and hope rose from the terraces. But only to get slammed in the face just a minute later with Liverpool’s next cheap goal!
With Liverpool having restored their two goal lead and the score 1-3, Mark Noble came off and Arnautovic got the nod. He showed some good moves immediately and seemed to try to bring West Ham back in the game, but it didn’t take long and he disappeared for the rest of the match. Finally bringing Sakho 20 minutes from time just seemed a last desperate act from the manager whose time was over for sure with this defeat. In the 75th minute Liverpool’s 4-1 rang the final signal for West Ham’s supporters to leave their seats and let poor Slaven and his squad almost walk alone for the rest of the game, much in contrary to Liverpool’s away support celebrating their win by singing a song with this title.
Usually I say that I like the English kind of support which is much more spontaneous and depending on the events on the pitch than the support from the European “Ultras” (as Rapid Vienna’s “Block West”) whose support is performed throughout the whole game almost no matter what the score. But this time there was almost no spontaneous cheering or singing, the atmosphere in the stadium was quite lifeless most of the time and it seemed the fans had come to the conclusion that this team was not worth being cheered on with “We’re West Ham’s claret and blue army”. They could have needed some permanent ultra-like support, but instead of this the white spots on the terraces got bigger and bigger with the supporters heading for the exits.
My thoughts went back to the old Boleyn Ground: there have been dire games and pathetic performances which I have witnessed at Upton Park too, but I hardly remember such a melancholic and sad atmosphere after a West Ham loss at Upton Park. With the current state of the site in mind which was West Ham’s former ground and the empty seats of the current stadium, this trip to London was quite a depressing one as far as football was concerned.
But as always I’m trying to take some positives from my memories and I told my friends at Jamie Oliver’s afterwards that I remember having witnessed another 1-4 defeat more than a decade ago which proved to be a turning point and the beginning of a very successful time for my home town club Rapid Vienna. I had been on the terraces together with my son that game, having taken him to his first game at our home ground. Rapid Vienna lost 1-4, and this also became the last game at home before their manager was sacked.
When I looked up that result on the internet it was quite baffling that the name of Bilic appeared alongside the score. Well, of course it wasn’t Slaven playing for Rapid but his fellow Croatian Mate Bilic, but the departure of the then manager shortly after this defeat lead to the appointment of Rapid’s most successful coach within the last decade. With Peter Pacult at the helm Rapid Vienna was able to win the Austrian Bundesliga and to qualify several times for the Europa League, twice eliminating Aston Villa in the process.
Therefore I think that this 1-4 will also be a turning point for West Ham, as it was for Rapid Vienna 11 years ago. Though David Moyes wouldn’t have been my choice as West Ham’s new manager things can only get better now, and when I will be back to London in four weeks time for the Chelsea game I will watch a different team, that’s for sure, I think!
Hopefully a team showing the commitment and spirit that makes them worth to be cheered on again by the brilliant support I know from former games! Let’s hope the new manager (and the future results) are going to instill some confidence and the players find a new way of playing together in a positive way instead of nervously passing backward again and again.
Going back to the example of John Mayall, whose inspiring concert we enjoyed so much more this weekend than the poor performance the trip had been planned around: Let’s hope there will be a radiation of positive mood around the London Stadium instead of the negativity that has been produced from the beginning of this season. Mayall’s first gold album in 1969 was called “The Turning Point”. Let’s hope the 1-4 against Liverpool will also have been a turning point with respect to West Ham – something this season is in desperate need of.
There is a German proverb which says, "Hope is the last to die.” This proverb goes with the “West Ham way”, always blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air. See you in December, reaching for the sky!
Come on you Irons!