Hammers fans must get used to life on wrong side of the track
What's it like playing in a ground with an athletics track and no atmosphere, where the far goal is 160 yards away? Nick Szczepanik heads for Brighton to experience 'the worst view in England'
Sunday 06 March 2011
If West Ham United's plans to move into the Olympic Stadium come to fruition, their fans will soon be watching matches across an athletics track. The experience is unusual in England, but not unique, as supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion know too well. They have been putting up with it at Withdean Stadium since 1999, and are counting down the games before they can move into their new – and track-free – American Express Community Stadium. What are the problems?
All seating at the small, council-owned athletics facility is outside the track, the closest seats to the action fully 16 yards from the touchline. In the South Stand, which is raised six feet to allow sightlines over the dugouts, the views are not bad. But seats in the North Stand begin at ground level and are only six rows deep in places, and behind the goals, occupants of the front row are up to 39 yards from the goalline, looking across eight lanes of track, the steeplechase water jump and the pole-vault run.
Go to the back and you gain the advantage of height, but you are 22 rows further away from the action. At this point the far goal is around 160 yards distant.
"If you watch the game from a low level, across the track, with stands that only rise gradually, you always get a poor two-dimensional view of the match," said Brighton fan Mick Wright. "This is obviously much worse when you are behind the goal. I feel for the away fans, who are subjected to the worst view in England."
Beyond putting advertising hoardings halfway across the track to make the pitch appear less distant, there was little the club could do.
"Because the away stand is so far away everybody stands, and you can't blame them," said chief executive Martin Perry, who has previously worked on Huddersfield's Galpharm Stadium, and has ensured that the front seats at Brighton's new ground will be only eight metres from the goalline.
"My understanding is that at the Olympic Stadium the distance is 45 metres," he said. "There is an optimum viewing distance, so a lot of the seats must be beyond that. The sightlines cannot be as good."
Brighton's players, fans and management are unanimous that the track affects atmosphere as much as it does sightlines. "It's very different, and not ideal," Casper Ankergren, the former Leeds United goalkeeper, said. "I like it when the fans are close, even though it can cause trouble – I've been hit with coins and lighters and balls." Not, it is safe to say, at Withdean. "Exactly. I'm quite safe here, but you lose atmosphere with a track. I want a bit of tension, with the fans close."
Gus Poyet, the manager, agrees. "The best thing in English football for a foreigner is to play three yards from the fans. When I first came here, you could score a winning goal and celebrate with the fans. That's a feeling that doesn't have a price. In the Olympic Stadium in Rome, they have to run 30 yards to celebrate with the fans. It's two and a half minutes before you can start the game again.
"We've had away games this season when the noise of the home supporters at corners and free-kicks makes you think you are under pressure when you're not. A corner at Withdean is nothing without supporters close by. In Spain, Real Sociedad had a tiny old stadium, very tough for visitors, and now they have a massive new one with a track, and it's easy and enjoyable to play in."
Graeme Rolf, who supports the team at home and away, got a rare players' eye view: "I played in an exhibition match here once, and I did feel very disconnected from the crowd. I like to hear the players shouting to each other, the instructions from the dugout, even the clash of shinpads – but you seldom hear that at Withdean."
According to operations manager Richard Hebberd, the roof and scale of the Olympic Stadium will make some difference, "but perhaps not as much as West Ham think. With the track there is simply too much extra space for the sound to get lost in. The problem is not necessarily sound travelling across the ground but along the stands. Our south stand makes a lot of noise, but you can't always hear it when you're in there".
Brighton fan Gary Dunk, who sis behind the goal, could not understand West Ham's decision. "I think they will miss Upton Park," he said. "It has been a formidable little ground for them. We've just had to put up with this because the club were left without a home by a previous owner. I prefer more intimate grounds, so I can't wait for the new stadium."
An athletics facility has to cater to its other tenants – in this case, Brighton & Hove City Athletics Club, whose field-event facilities have caused football as many problems as the track.
"We thought about seats within the arcs of the track behind the goal, but there you've got the hammer and discus enclosures, the pole vault area and suchlike," Hebberd said.
Chief executive Perry added: "We had here someone who aspired to be a top-class hammer thrower. Just imagine the impact on the pitch, which is horrendous and repeated. You have to have trays of turf ready and a turf doctor to put a new plug of turf in. And what if you missed one? Athletics is a summer sport, and during the time when the pitch should be recovering from the football season, it has javelins, hammers and discuses raining down on it.
"I think the Olympic Stadium is a fantastic facility, but the fact is that it's an athletics stadium – and I think there are practical issues about athletics and football sharing, no matter how good the stadium is."
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