During my time watching football, I have followed the Premier League the most religiously. In fact, I have only really followed the Premier League. So, when I decided to study abroad for a semester, I planned a visit to the UK for my mid-semester break (my longest break) so I could catch as much Premier League (and other English football) action as possible. Unfortunately, Premier League tickets are hard to come by and it seems to be virtually impossible to get tickets for my beloved Chelsea (even as a member). So, I decided I would go to any game that I could get tickets to and West Ham’s home tie against Aston Villa ended up being the easiest one.
A part of the Bobby Moore exhibit on the John Lyall gates, now installed in the West Ham club shop.
I was extremely excited for this game, having grown a soft spot for the Hammers from watching Spencer FC’s ‘West Ham Vlogs’ back in the day. In the past 5-6 years, West Ham have had many players who have done extremely well for my fantasy team (Dimitri Payet, Felipe Anderson, Jarrod Bowen, and Michail Antonio to name a few) which gave me all the more reason to support them when they played anyone but Chelsea. I also happen to know ‘Bubbles’ by heart, so I was eager to belt it out as the players walked onto the pitch.
So, with all this in mind, I arrived at the Olympic Park a good 90 minutes before kick-off. Getting off at Stratford tube station, I walked with thousands of West Ham fans across the bridges to the massive bowl-shaped London Stadium. Before entering the seating area, I made a quick stop at the club shop, and saw a very cool Bobby Moore exhibit - The John Lyall Gates, entrance to the former Boleyn Ground, are now installed in the club shop and there were newspaper clippings and scarves hung up to pay tribute to Bobby Moore (West Ham legend and 1966 World Cup Winner).
I entered the stadium with about 45 minutes to kick-off and the stands were mostly empty. I watched Alphonse Areola warm up at one end and World Cup winner Emi Martinez at the other. Looking around the stadium from the inside sparked numerous thoughts in my head. Everyone who knows anything about West Ham knows they had a tearful move from their former home – the old, compact, traditional Boleyn Ground – to the modern, large, and not necessarily fitted for football Olympic Stadium. From inside, I could see all the haphazard adjustments that were made to the make the stadium compatible for English football. There were temporary stands installed in three of the four sides and a walkway connected the original stand to the temporary ones, with a large wasteful gap in between.
With about 10 minutes to kick-off, the stands began filling up rapidly and it was soon full (barring a few empty seats here and there). Over the speakers, an announcement was made to create awareness regarding male cancers – in memory of Dylan Tombides (a West Ham youth player) who passed away seven years ago this week, due to testicular cancer. We were also informed about DT38, a foundation created by Tombides’ family, that aims to change the way testicular cancer is diagnosed.
As the players finally began walking onto the field, a familiar tune began playing over the speakers and bubbles were flying everywhere. I joined in with 60,000 odd West Ham Fans and sang ‘I’m forever blow-wing bubbles’ at the top of my voice.
Once the game kicked off and the West Ham fans had finished singing ‘Bubbles’ twice, the London Stadium went silent. For the next ten minutes, all I could hear were the travelling Villa fans, who occupied a corner of the Trevor Brooking Stand.
Look at the large walkway connecting the temporary stands below to the permanent stands - it really distances the fans from the action.
On the pitch, however, the Hammers were all over Villa. They had a couple of half-chances early in the game, but they could not capitalize off any of them. The visitors, on the other hand, scored off their first significant attack in the 17th minute. Some lackluster defending allowed Álex Moreno to pick out Ollie Watkins in the middle, and the English striker nodded in the opening goal of the game. Knowing how West Ham’s domestic season is going, the circumstances surrounding the goal seemed quite apt, and frustrating.
Luckily, West Ham did not ease off the pedal and in the 25th minute, Lucas Paquetá earned them a penalty after being shoved down in the box (it was a soft one, but it was given). Saïd Benrahma stepped up to take it and he rifled it into the top corner, past the outstretched arm of Emi Martinez. The Algerian ran over and shushed the travelling Villa fans before being embraced by all his teammates.
From my vantage point high up on the terraces, I was able to really appreciate the quality of football that was on offer. West Ham were playing expansive football, with good spells of possessions and daring build ups – something that has been a characteristic of Premier League football in recent years. Obviously, the Hammers were not perfect, and they lost the ball cheaply on multiple occasions, but it was still a good watch. Villa preferred to sit back and absorb the pressure, before finding opportune moments to hit West Ham on the counter.
In the 31st minute, West Ham got a chance very similar to the one Villa scored. Benrahma whipped in a cross into a crowded penalty area, but an unmarked Kurt Zouma headed wide. With a few minutes left in the half, Moreno got forward once again and continued to cause problems for West Ham. He slipped in a ball to Jacob Ramsey, who squared it to Watkins, but Alphonse Areola made a huge save to prevent Watkins from having a second. Heading into the break, the two sides were level.
I must say I found the home crowd to be quite tame. Apart from giving Emi Martinez plenty of stick for alleged timewasting, singing bubbles and yelling ‘Come on you Irons’, they offered absolutely nothing. A majority of the supporters in my section (and the entire stadium it felt like) were older fans or parents with kids, who did not actively involve in any of the songs or heckling.
After the break, Villa controlled possession, but the Hammers were more threatening. In the 56th minute, Benrahma cut inside from the left wing and unleashed a curler that seemed destined for the back of the net. However, Emi Martinez made an incredible fingertip save to push it over the bar. Over the course of the second half, the home side continued to apply the pressure and create chances. The West Ham crowd were more active now, as they applauded every tackle, through ball and corner with fervor. Unfortunately, the end product was lacking for the Hammers, and they squandered many half-decent opportunities.
In the later part of the second half, the intensity of the game began to decline, and a stalemate seemed imminent. However, this was only a calm before the storm because it really picked up in the last few minutes. In the 84th minute, the ball fell to Benrahma at the back post, but he was denied from point-blank range by a superb last-ditch tackle from Ashley Young. A few minutes later, Villa nearly scored from a deflected corner, but the ball eventually fell into the grateful arms of Areola. Finally, in the second minute of injury time, Maxwell Cornet was played through on goal with the chance to score a West Ham winner. However, Martinez made the save, following which the off-side flag went up.
My view of the game, slightly exaggerated in this wide-angle shot. Honestly, it was not bad at all and I could see everything that was happening on the pitch.
In the last few seconds of injury time, there were at least a couple of very realistic full-time whistles from the crowd, which I thought was funny. Several people around me stood up thinking that was that, and I nearly did so myself. Finally, when the referee blew his whistle, boos echoed around the stadium, showing the dissatisfaction of the home support. Personally, I thought West Ham performed quite well and were unlucky with the result. However, considering that they are just one point above the drop zone, I can understand the frustration.
Looking back, it was a very interesting experience. Everything felt 'sanitized', so unlike the Upton Park West Ham (that I saw in Spencer FC's vlogs). In every conversation I had at the stadium, I was asked (in a friendly manner) whether I was a West Ham fan, or if I was just trying to catch a Premier league game. I guess the West Ham faithful have accepted the fact that ‘tourist fans’ are an unavoidable consequence of ‘growing the club’. If any West Ham fans are reading this, you might feel better in knowing that I sang every song as loud as I could and tried my best to contribute to the atmosphere.
Finally, I left the Olympic Park, to the sound of drunk Villa fans singing, “stick your f#$!king bubbles up your a#$e" - which somehow seemed to be a fitting end to a matchday at the Olympic Stadium.