For decades this afternoon’s “District Line Derby” has been known more for its animosity than its importance, with the mutually antagonistic tribes of East and West London pitted against each other but few outsiders exercised by the result. That could be about to change, with West Ham United standing on the brink of the same great leap forward Chelsea made a dozen years ago.
This may seem an exaggeration – the Hammers are on course to finish above Chelsea for the first time in 20 seasons, but they do not have a Russian billionaire benefactor ready to dig into his roubles. However, the financial landscape of English football has changed. When the new TV deal kicks in next season everyone will be rich, regardless of ownership, it will just be a matter of degree. West Ham’s impending move into the Olympic Stadium could thus propel the East End club into the English game’s top echelon alongside their King’s Road rivals.
This would restore their historical parity for, traditionally, even as late as the early years of the Premier League, there was little to choose between Chelsea and West Ham. Both clubs had a decent history, but were overshadowed in the capital by Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Tottenham. Chelsea had won the only league title between them (in 1955) and spent more seasons in the top flight, but West Ham had won the FA Cup more often while each had a European Cup-Winners’ Cup in the trophy cabinet.
With the arrival of players like Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea then moved marginally ahead on domestic silverware, but at a cost that threatened to bankrupt the club were it not for Roman Abramovich’s arrival. Against that, Hammers fans would argue, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, they won the World Cup in 1966.
This similarity extended to support. Chelsea have always had the larger ground, and usually higher attendances, but West Ham had the more solid hardcore. Chelsea’s gates have in the past tended to rise and fall depending on the opposition and as recently as 1983 their average gate was below 13,000 – West Ham’s has never dropped below 16,000.
In later years, as Premier League football has boomed, both clubs’ attendances have been constrained only by the size of their stadiums. Chelsea are soon to embark on the process of rebuilding Stamford Bridge, taking capacity from 41,600 to 60,000, but that will not be finished until 2020 at the earliest. West Ham are well ahead. They move this August from their 35,300-capacity Boleyn Ground into the Olympic Stadium, rejigged to take 54,000. Aided by discounting, the club are so confident they will sell out every match they are already looking into expanding capacity to 60,000.
They will not be able to monetise the ground the way Arsenal do but they still have a bargain
West Ham’s move has been controversial. While Chelsea are spending £600m to upgrade Stamford Bridge, Tottenham investing up to £750m to rebuild and Arsenal’s new ground cost £390m a decade ago, West Ham have contributed £15m of the Olympic Stadium’s £270m conversion costs and will pay £2.5m a year rent. They will not be able to monetise the ground in the way Arsenal do, as they do not own it, but given they will not have the borrowing costs of others they still have a bargain.
This may seem unfair but the Hammers, by dint of their location, have simply got lucky, in the same way Manchester City did when they took on the City of Manchester Stadium (now Etihad) after the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The reality is the public purse cannot operate to support these stadiums without a football tenant. There is no serious alternative, as West Ham recognised, enabling them to drive a hard bargain.
Whether it was the possibility of moving into the Olympic Stadium, with its attendant financial benefits, that persuaded David Gold and David Sullivan to forsake Birmingham City for the club they grew up supporting only they know, but the setting ought to help attract both players and fans.
Compared with most London clubs West Ham have only just begun tapping into the wider market of virgin football fans. The Boleyn and its environment, wonderfully atmospheric and authentic as they are, will be intimidating to many of those newcomers drawn to the game by its extraordinary modern popularity. The Olympic Stadium, a landscaped adjunct to a shopping centre, has a very different setting. It will be interesting to discover, as demand grows, whether West Ham continue to sell the cheaper tickets they have boasted about.
As for players, being in London is already a bonus when it comes to recruiting foreign footballers; having a shiny new stadium adds further allure. Not that West Ham are struggling in that aspect. They are already capable of signing high-end players, notably Dimitri Payet, who is without question the most talented Hammers player since Paolo Di Canio and appears to have significantly less baggage.
The Frenchman’s acquisition is one of a clutch of signings by Premier League teams who were then in mid-table that highlight the league’s pull. Wages are doubtless a major reason for Payet, Yohann Cabaye and Xherdan Shaqiri crossing the Channel, but they are not the only one. The attraction of playing in fine stadiums, in front of passionate fans, in a competitive league should not be underestimated. Nor the desire to play, rather than sit on the bench at Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid. There comes a point when any leading footballer is paid so lucratively salary ceases to become the major factor when choosing a club (unless they have a rapacious agent).
Payet is a major reason West Ham are in contention to make their Champions League debut next season, but they are not a one-man team. They stuttered when he was injured, but did not slide far off the pace. Besides Payet, the Hammers have an excellent goalkeeper in Adrian, fine defenders such as Winston Reid. Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell, midfielders like Cheikhou Kouyaté and Mark Noble – whose continued absence from England squads is mystifying – and a clutch of attacking players including Andy Carroll, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho, who would make West Ham even more potent if they could stay fit.
They will go west to Stamford Bridge today aiming to win, which has not often been the case down the years. This is in part due to the mediocre season Chelsea have been experiencing, but primarily reflects their own confidence.
The Hammers, so long derided as dilettantes, now need to be taken seriously. For more than 120 years fortune’s always been hiding from the bubble-blowers, though they have sought it everywhere, but some day soon their dreams might not fade and die.