West Ham United vs Stoke City: Subdued Atmosphere for London Stadium Draw

Pedro Obiang, left, with Joe Allen.
Pedro Obiang of West Ham United, left, with Stoke City's Joe Allen at London Stadium, Stratford, November 5. West Ham's new home has been beset by crowd trouble. Shaun Botterill/Getty

The giant, electronic screens attached to the exterior of the London Stadium illuminate a paradox that continues to trouble West Ham United, one of England's most historic clubs.

The pictures flit between athletics and football, showing feats of athletic endeavor. Laura Muir, the exciting young Scottish long-distance runner, raises her arms as she crosses the finish line, harking back to the stadium's not so distant past.

And this is a stadium, not a ground. The nomenclature is more important than it sounds, because British football, with its intense tribal element, has invariably and purposely been confined to grounds.

There, the fans are confined to stands, clearly defined and separated from each other if not by distance then by architecture. They can fight after the game—they have done in the past, in the 1980s especially, when British football gained an unwanted reputation for hooliganism—but raised standards in policing football, as well as fully seated arenas, have filtered out some of the anger from the game.

October 26, 2016, saw the return of scenes the Football Association and the game's governors on this island wish to consign to history. West Ham and Chelsea supporters threw coins at each other as the English League Cup tie entered injury time, and seats were ripped up. London's Metropolitan Police made seven arrests, while the club launched an internal investigation.

For the English Premier League game against Stoke City, that same Metropolitan Police Force has a presence inside the stadium. It is a highly unusual step for an English Premier League club—policing is mandatory outside grounds, but inside the crowds are controlled by stewards.

But then, this is an unusual situation in 2016. Walking from Stratford Underground Station, the nearest access by train to the ground, takes you past a police van belonging to Norfolk and Suffolk police force. Teenage girls selling Blowing Bubbles, West Ham's fanzine, offer a copy to a policeman stood outside the van; he refuses good-naturedly. Closer to the ground, a much older supporter laments the rising cost of converting the center-piece of the London 2012 Olympics into a dual-purpose athletics and football arena: now a reported £323 million ($404.3 million). Why couldn't they have knocked it down and built a football ground in its place, he wonders.

Inside the ground gives a different view. While the Met's presence is clear, a middle-aged fan gives an interview to the club's in-house television channel espousing the merits of the situation. "Great fans, great ground, great team. 2-1 to West Ham," he shouts.

West Ham moved 3.2 miles east in the summer of 2016, to become the permanent tenant of the former Olympic Stadium. It was here, in 2012, that Britain experienced a moment of sporting euphoria: "Super Saturday," August 4, when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all claimed gold medals.

Outside of their butterfly duration, of course, the Olympics must provide a "legacy," and in April 2016 it was revealed West Ham would pay £2.5 million a season to use the stadium. Its old home, Upton Park, is in the process of being knocked down and developed into a residential village.

"Stand up, if you love West Ham," chant a section of supporters in the Sir Trevor Brooking stand, as Saturday's game gets underway. It is a normal refrain at every football club in Britain where seating is required. Here, it has added relevance. There has been tension inside the London Stadium this season between those old Upton Park regulars who want to stand and sing, and those looking for a more family-friendly environment. It is an argument that cuts to the heart of one of the thornier debates in modern football. With 60,000 seats, the London Stadium is the country's fourth-biggest football arena. That is commercially advantageous, but with new converts comes a more subdued atmosphere. The Stoke fans pick up on it. "S*** fans, s*** fans," they hum. Stoke plays its home games in a curious mixture of the old and the new—a traditional English ground, with four separate stands and one of the more intimidating atmospheres in the Premier League, built only in 1997 and with the naming rights belonging to gambling company Bet365. It may be the kind of compromise certain sections of the West Ham support would prefer.

"My my my Delilah/Why why why Delilah…" The Stoke fans take up their anthem on 20 minutes, football's throaty version of the 1968 Tom Jones song. It is the West Ham supporters who punctuate their noise with the occasional roar of encouragement, rather than the other way around. Perhaps there would be less discontent in east London, perhaps the anger would be better mollified, if the team were not struggling so badly on the pitch. West Ham plays with the frown lines of a team 16th of 20 in the Premier League; it takes almost half an hour for it to register a meaningful opportunity on goal when defender Angelo Ogbonna powers a header from a corner, clawed away by the Stoke goalkeeper Lee Grant.

Police join stewards in keeping the peace inside London Stadium. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

West Ham inspires affection in the English game for combining aesthetic pleasure with frailty. The club's last major trophy was the FA Cup in 1980, yet over those 36 years it has produced, bought and sold a steady stream of stylish attacking players. English football has a habit of producing slightly nebulous aphorisms and attaching them to its institutions. So West Ham has the "West Ham way," which is a passing game, played with elan.

Dimitri Payet, its French attacking midfielder, is supposed to embody that, but for much of the first half Payet drifts on the outskirts of the game, more visible in defending his own goal than running at the Stoke defenders. As time dies at the end of the first half, Payet gets his chance — his speciality, a free kick on the edge of the Stoke penalty area, right in the center of the goal. There is a roar, stifled, as Grant watches the ball curve over his net.

At half time, I get a different perspective. Ahmed, a steward who was working at the Chelsea game, tells me those reports of trouble were overegged. His parents, he says, visited Upton Park twice and found it welcoming. Having emerged from its darkest period, and with these kinds of incidents increasingly rare, English football is now hyper aware of trouble.

Whether it is the lack of a bitter London rival, or the police presence in the stands, but the second half goes on without incident, on or off the pitch, until Payet dinks a cross for the head of England winger Michail Antonio, later marked as a Glenn Whelan own goal. 1-0 West Ham, anyway. Goals, and the accompanying overabundance of emotion, can produce flashpoints. Here, there is only the football fan's schadenfreude, the mass finger point toward the Stoke section, returned with interest on 74 minutes. Adrian, West Ham's Spanish goalkeeper, takes all of Jonathan Walters and none of the ball on a mad charge from his line, and Stoke winger Bojan Krcic finishes the chance calmly into an open goal.

That is the last meaningful action of the game. There are smatterings of boos; the West Ham fans begin to filter out. An afternoon of relative calm is unlikely to have solved the London Stadium's problems, as it move awkwardly toward absorbing football's unique partisanship.