If, as seems likely, the decision to grant the post-2012 use of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford to West Ham United is rubber-stamped over the next few weeks, we should perhaps pause for a moment to consider what the decision says about the state of English sport at the start of the new century. For the last few weeks, we have seen an unseemly attempt at a land grab between two large sporting organisations who both seemed to cherish one thing above all else – a site in East London with outstanding transport links, a relative rarity in London, that was available on the cheap. Money, as ever, trumped all other concerns.
The Olympic legacy, a central part of the reason why the games are being held in London in the first place, were put firmly on the back burner and the future of the football club nearest to Stratford feels a little less certain today after the parachuting in of one of the game’s behemoths, but very few people seem to care very much about that. In thrall to the twin false gods of Mammon and the Premier League, the timbre of the debate on the subject had a thoroughly modern feel to it, yet both the Spurs and West Ham bids had the feel of being thoroughly imperfect for completely different reasons. The one aspect of the decision that seems to have been overlooked as the battle intensfied and became more and more bitter, however, is that all of the decisions being made at no point consulted the supporters of all concerned.
As Spurs crashed out of the FA Cup at Fulham a couple of weeks ago, a familiar tune was picked up by the ESPN microphones. To the tune of “Tom Hark”, the amended words of, “Say no to Stratford, North London is ours” were clearly audible. This wasn’t a motley crew of keyboard warriors. This was the hardcore of the Spurs away support, those that are able to get a ticket for an away match in the FA Cup. Yet this voice was barely even acknowledged by the club’s management, who also often seemed to be making a very good job of burning their bridges in N17 before a decision over the Olympic Stadium had even been made. As recently as the 26th of January, the Haringey Independent quoted Levy as saying:
If one had a choice we would rather be building here. But to compete at the highest level we need a larger stadium and if that means we have to move out of the area I think the fans will back us.
But they are now back to the drawing board, and Haringey Council could be forgiven for telling Spurs and Levy to stick the Northumberland Development Project, the Spurs fall-back option of developing White Hart Lane that was the club’s default option until comparatively recently, where the sun doesn’t shine. There has, over the last few weeks, been an increasingly nasty and snobbish aura coming from both the club and a section of its support (most likely those that don’t live or never have lived in the area itself) with regard to the area that Spurs have called home since 1882. It doesn’t seem unreasonable point out to such people that clubs in other, wealthier parts of London are available if Tottenham – or Haringey – isn’t somehow “good” enough for them.
These voices (from the support at least, if not the club itself), however, seem to be very much in the minority and the reaction of the majority of Spurs supporters to the news that the stadium seems almost certain to go to West Ham United has been somewhere between ambivalence and delight that they will not be the ones to have their history and tradition torn up in the pursuit of perpetual Champions League football. Indeed, the We Are N17 group emerge from this farrago with considerable credit, having fought hard to make their voices heard as Tottenham Hotspur FC lost any sense of moral compass in the rush for this plot of land. If the NDP is dead in the water (as many claim it is), Spurs will either be stuck at White Hart Lane as it is for the forseeable future or will have to start looking at other sites, perhaps in nearby Enfield. Perhaps the club has a back-up plan but, if it does, it hasn’t made it public yet.
What, though, of the victors? The delight of Karren Brady is predictable enough, but the viewpoint of the club’s supporters seems more mixed. There are those that don’t wish to leave the Boleyn Ground for sentimental reasons and/or feel that the club could, if it had wished to, have developed their current home and others who feel that the Olympic Stadium will be too big for West Ham or have serious concerns over the effect that the running track will have on their match day experience. If the club is relegated from the Premier League, financing may become an issue, even allowing for the loans promised by Newham Council and, is should be said that the idea of watching Championship football from behind a running track would be more or less everything that many West Ham supporters would not want from such a move.
The question of whether West Ham United will ever be able to get anywhere near 60,000 people to turn out for home matches is also one that has been perplexing some of their supporters, but their attempts to boost their attendance may prove to be a significant problem for the smallest players in this story, Leyton Orient. Orient are the closest club, geographically speaking, to the Olympic Stadium and it is a reflection upon the state of English football at the start of this century that their views have been so comprehensively ignored. It seems impossible to believe that the parachuting of a Premier League football club into a site barely a couple of miles from their ground will not negatively impact upon them to a massive effect and it is to the shame of the Football Association and the Premier League that existing rules designed to stop clubs moving into the direct territory of another club. Leyton Orient, it feels, aren’t fashionable enough for anybody in control of these matters to care very much about.
So, in the unique way that only people that manage these matters seem able to muster, the 2012 Olympic Games have been soured for many already. Perhaps, in this respect, the “legacy” of London 2012 being a big football club stomping into another, smaller club’s immediate vicinity, forcing it to moving out of London or being shunted towards insolvency is completely appropriate as a reflection of what passes for “values” in modern sport. This whole situation has been one that has left very few emerging with any credit, and there is still even time for Boris Johnson to trump all others by not taking any notice of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, though the likelihood of this happening seems remote. As a commenter on the Guardian’s Sport Blog commented earlier this afternoon, “Surely it isn’t part of the Olympic dream to service the business strategies of opportunistic capitalists?”. He’s got a point.