West-Ham’s home form hasn’t been too smart so far this season. A home fixture against proverbial strugglers Sunderland offers the Hammers an opportunity to get things going at the Olympic Park Stadium. However, a word of warning to the headline writers; a home victory no matter how convincing could be a false dawn. You simply can’t underestimate the curse that is new stadium syndrome.
Off the back of a season that saw the Iron’s say farewell to the Boleyn ground for pastures new, fall just shy of a Champions League place and keep hold of their star man that dazzled in the European Championships in the summer, it’s fair to say that West Ham fans were full of optimism going into the new campaign, and rightly so. However, it has to be said that many have seemingly failed to foresee, and have rather naively failed to consider, the ramifications of moving a football team to a new stadium.
The history books tend to suggest that relocating a football team, more often than not, gives rise to short-term problems, particularly with reference to home form. Only four teams have uprooted and relocated in between seasons in the Premier League era: Arsenal (2006), Derby County (1997), Manchester City (2003) and Southampton (2001). Invariably, the sides’ home form has suffered as a consequence, with the exception of Derby County.
Arsenal, whilst only losing one domestic game in their first season at the Emirates, struggled with consistency, drawing seven home fixtures, mainly against opposition they would have expected to brush aside at home. The move from Highbury also culminated in 9 barren, trophyless years for the Gunners.
Rather worryingly, like West Ham, Arsenal kept the core nucleus of their squad in the summer of 2005, kept hold of their star man with the ‘va va voom’, increased their capacity by around 40% and added sentimental touches to their ground to give it more of a homely feel. Needless to say, the famous Highbury clock and Henry could not inspire Arsenal’s immediate success. It begs the question whether the bubbles machine and Payet will have as little influence on West Ham’s fortunes at the Olympic stadium this term.
BBC Radio 5 Live’s Chris Sutton reacted to West Ham’s 0-3 drumming to Southampton calling on more ownership from the players: “West Ham’s players should not use adjusting to a new stadium as an excuse.” “We can make excuses about off-the-pitch stuff but the players have a responsibility to do better”. I think that too many pundits, commentators and football fans alike, are failing to see the importance of “off-the-pitch-stuff”.
Often it is forgotten that footballers are human beings doing a job. The likes of Chris Sutton detach themselves from reality and formulate opinions in a football bubble. A more logical life approach may inform reasons why, as opposed to brash generalised footballing statements that are bounced around aimlessly.
Apply West Ham’s statement of affairs to an office based setting and you’d likely see unsettled employees with comparatively lower productivity levels. Whilst being supremely experienced and skilled at their respective job, with things in new places and surroundings different from before you would not initially expect the same performance or consistency levels. Now take this example back to a football setting under the watchful eye of millions and it seems ludicrous to think that the same logic will not apply and be exacerbated.
Sutton continued with scathing criticism directed towards Simone Zaza, and went on to add that “when players like Lanzini and Payet who were great last season perform like that, you are in trouble”. Whilst apparently stating the obvious and laying blame on individuals, he most definitely failed to identify the root of the problems and acknowledge the impact it is having on the collective. Yes West Ham have displayed some abject defending of late, yes West Ham have lacked dynamism and a high tempo to their attacking play and Yes West Ham have hugely underperformed so far this season. But… as Slaven Bilic rightly pointed out after last Sunday’s game; “One player can make a mistake, but this is four games, it is a team mistake, all of us.
These are the same manager, players and crowd as last year”. In other circumstances, the criticism would be fair but given that the notion of home field advantage has been temporarily lost and the fans have grown disillusioned with change, I think that the players deserve a wide berth for the time being.
Every professional football player will have a routine, a ritual they follow on match day. They will prepare the same way physically and mentally week in week out, focussed on executing the skills they perfect on the training ground, day in day out. However, a player must contend with controlling mental balance to achieve optimum performance.
Ultimately, preparation is key to performances. If preparation is unsettled, then performance can be compromised. When Mark Noble appeared on the Football Fantasy League show back in April, he touched on how ‘strange’ it would be leaving Upton Park. As Noble alluded too, the little things; knowing where your family sit and waving to them as you step onto the pitch, driving the same route to the ground and parking in the same space, sitting in the same place to get changed, being exposed to the same atmosphere and playing on a pitch with the same dimensions, make all the difference.
All sound like trivial things, however, all affect mental preparation and consequently, performance. With the seasoned veterans in claret and blue contending with this and finding their feet at their new home, I fully expect that the likes of Göhkan Töre, Simone Zaza and Jonathan Calleri and co. will struggle to settle in and make a meaningful contribution to West Hams season, in the absence of stability around them on and off the pitch.
Whilst there is no hard evidence to suggest that the crowd influence the outcome of football matches, you can’t write off the importance of the ‘12th man’. The cockney boys have undoubtedly contributed to West Ham’s successes in seasons gone by. Noble himself recently expressed that Upton Park was worth at least an extra 20 points a season.
Countless ex-pros are in agreement that the Boleyn Ground was a special place, with a special atmosphere. With the parameters set so close to the pitch, the raucous, old skool, East End crowd often ceased the opportunity to unsettle visiting players and provide an adrenaline rush to lift their own. A comparison can be drawn with Celtic’s impressive European home record at Celtic Park. Just 3 losses in their last 25 group stage games, compared to 25 losses in their last 36 Champions League away games. The same squad of players that were recently thumped 7-0 at the Camp Nou, held an equally impressive Manchester City side 3-3 in East Glasgow just 2 weeks later.
For other teams that have gained notoriety for having subdued fan’s or who are used to playing their football in the presence of large corporate crowds, the terraces will have comparably less of an effect on their team’s performance. Instead, variables such as preparation, ability, tactics, decision making and luck, to name a few, will influence the outcome of a game.
Chelsea’s sequence of 86 league games unbeaten at home a good example to cite here. I think it is fair to speak on behalf of the majority of West Ham fans in saying that they are struggling to adjust to the very different reality of the Olympic Stadium. With pockets of the old regulars fewer and farther between, sitting amongst the plastic, corporate and neutral bodies that now litter the stands, they are finding it increasingly harder, game by game, to recreate the Upton Park experience.
The fans too are dealing with radical change. Being displaced for standing and dealing with broken promises; have we seen the death of one of our infamous football clubs as we knew it? Or will it just take time? Perhaps a thought for another blog.
The supporters and the players have an entwined yet detatched relationship. It would seem that in this period of transition, they need each other more than ever. Both, for the time being, have grown disillusioned with change.
Noble – “I don’t think it can get any worse”.
The post-match reaction from Mark Noble, following the Southampton defeat portrayed his deep disappointment with his team’s recent displays. Reflecting upon West Ham’s dismal run of form, which also saw them dumped out of the Europa League by Romanian minnows Astra, indicated that the only way was up. Given that the highlights of their season so far are beating Bournemouth and Accrington Stanley by late goals, you’d be forgiven for agreeing with the West Ham captain.
Statistically speaking, the home team win on average 60% of the points on offer across a season. Whilst this figure varies from team to team, the average figure has remained fairly consistent since the football league recommenced post World War II. If you also consider the results observed by American psychologists into the impacts of relocating a sports team, which suggest that home form will suffer for 6-9 months as a consequence, it is not inconceivable to suggest that West Ham will be embroiled in a relegation dog fight come May time.
So even if West Ham win convingly against Sunderland let’s not get carried away. There’s no place like home, and as much as Mark Noble may tap his heel together, hoping to wake up at Upton Park, West Ham’s home will remain strangely unfamiliar for a little while yet.