When you move into a new stadium, it shouldn’t change anything.
The football pitch is still a football pitch, the crowd are still mostly the same. And if you bought into the argument that the new environment had a massive detrimental effect, you’d never win an away game. You don’t crash your car just because you don’t know the road.
And yet, clearly changing stadiums does have an effect. As Tottenham Hotspur return to the new home of their London rivals where they lost last season, they might have a better idea of just how big that defeat was only a few months ago.
It was a huge game, though perhaps not for the reasons we all remember that it was so big. If West Ham ended Tottenham’s title hopes it was only a technicality. Three points at the London Stadium may have put more pressure on Chelsea, and we’ll never know if they would have cracked, of course, but with only three games to go it’s unlikely that it would have made much of a difference.
On the other hand, the gruesome overreaction, hideous in its severity and brutality, to Sky Sports presenter Rachel Riley’s incorrect assertion that defeat was a Spurs ‘bottle job’ shows just what fans made of the defeat. Howling at the dying of the light might be one way of putting it, but perhaps the emotional nature of the game was one that Spurs fans didn’t quite grasp at the time.
The thing is, the emotion of that game wasn’t because West Ham beat Spurs and, as the narrative might have you believe, stopped their rivals from winning the title. Sure, there’s a bit of that. Hammers fans will always be pretty gleeful at that idea, and the bitter – though probably correct – suggestion that the game was their ‘cup final’ doesn’t sit badly with the victors on this occasion. But there’s something more positively meaningful to West Ham about the victory that goes beyond the negative meaning of the thought of destroying Spurs’ season. This season, Spurs might begin to understand that.
Last year, the Hammers’ move to the London Stadium was arguably the biggest farce of the season. The team’s performance there was poor but that’s only a small part of the story: there were segregation problems, stewarding problems, problems home fans had with other home fans as well as their seats and location in the ground. There were problems with players, problems with the board and even problems with the training pitch and the frightening amount of injuries that the club picked up throughout the season. Recruitment was poor, both in the summer and in January, and all the while results went from bad to worse.
A new home can soon feel soulless in such circumstances. It felt far from the urine-soaked charm of the Boleyn, and it wasn’t really home, not just because of the problems the team faced, but because there seemed to be nothing positive to cling on to. Even harking back to the great form the previous season, which saw the Hammers challenge for a Champions League spot until the final weeks of the season, was futile because that meant pining for the old stadium, too.
But the positive emotion of winning a big game against your local rivals at the new stadium was something more visceral which could create a deep link between the supporters, the club and the ground, something which hadn’t happened up until then. Heavy defeats to Manchester City, Arsenal and even Southampton aren’t conducive to memory-making. But a late winner in an impressively industrious performance against bitter rivals is. And that’s probably where the emotion came from.
Spurs are in a much different position now, of course. Wembley, for them, is just a temporary home. In a sense it doesn’t matter if they get used to it. If they are to have a poor season by the standards set of the last two years, then it will be one they endure before moving into their permanent home. It’s not the end of the world. But for West Ham, never settling into a new stadium which will possibly be theirs forever would be a disaster. And in order to settle, you need an emotional attachment.
And so when Tottenham do move back into their new White Hart Lane stadium next season, they might find that they need something similar. Yes, it’s the same site as the old ground, and the memories of great moments of the past will still be there, albeit tinged with sadness that the old ground is no longer still standing. And it’s also true that they’re moving to a ground purpose-built for football, where the stands will be close to the pitch and there will be no issues around running tracks.
But at the same time, we know that there’s a difference. The white lines may be the same, the pitch might be the same size – more of an issue, apparently, than we might have thought only a year or two ago – and the crowd might be the same old people as before. But there’s something different that needs to bind the new building to the fans emotionally.
And when Spurs return to the London Stadium on Saturday, they might see just how big their defeat was last season. If not for themselves, then for West Ham.