Can Slaven Turn the Olympic Sta­dium Into the House He Built?

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

I was in the Lon­don Sta­dium yes­ter­day for West Ham’s first ever Premier League game in their new house. Thou­sands of miles away the cur­tain was com­ing down on the Rio Olympics.

It was strange to think that when the crowds go home and Rio gets back to nor­mal Bota­fogo will just con­tinue play­ing in the ath­let­ics sta­dium and Flu­min­ense and Fla­mengo will con­tinue shar­ing the Maracana. And the city author­it­ies will still own both places.

Com­pared with the long drawn out drama involving West Ham, Spurs, Leyton Ori­ent, some law­yers and the flag­ship Lon­don Olympic venue it all seems very sens­ible and simple. Rio will have plenty of money wor­ries but the big sta­di­ums won’t be among them.

Given the sweet­heart of a deal that West Ham finally worked out it is import­ant they make a suc­cess of their new place. I played at the old Boleyn Ground many times where the crowd were right in your ear and the sights and smells of the place reflec­ted the per­son­al­ity of the club. It was a tough place to go to. The dress­ing rooms were so tight and so cramped I had to choose whether to have my head inside and my feet out­side or the other way around. Andy Car­roll, I know your pain.

It’s up to Slaven Bilic to cre­ate the memor­ies which will make the Lon­don Sta­dium truly feel like home. For now it’s not totally unlike play­ing at a neut­ral venue given the con­sid­er­able added pitch dimen­sions for a start – six yards longer and five wider than before. The stadium’s tech­nical dir­ector is Stephen Rice, the son of Pat Rice of Arsenal fame. I remem­ber him as a kid around High­bury. Yes­ter­day he gave me the low down of the place. It was hard not to be impressed. From the fifty meter syn­thetic run­ning track under the stands to the dress­ing rooms built for grid­iron teams, everything is of top spe­cific­a­tion.

I think in Slaven Bilic West Ham have the right man to turn a spank­ing new sta­dium into a flesh and blood home. He has the cha­risma and the ambi­tion to make West Ham his club and to bring people with him. Even in a block­buster league dot­ted with big name man­agers, like Mount Rush­more is dot­ted with those giant stone effi­gies, a pas­sion­ate, social­ist, gui­tar-play­ing, multi-lin­gual charmer with a law degree is a stand out.

I played against him many times and he was always, what’s the word? Inter­est­ing. He’d con­stantly debate with the ref­eree, he’d play every per­cent­age, he’d be in your ear, in your face and snap­ping at your ankles. And when it was over he’d shake your hand and have a word with a giant smile. Any­time I have met him since he has time to stop and chat. One of the good guys.

The new sta­dium is all about space. There were fif­teen thou­sand more fans present yes­ter­day than have ever watched the Ham­mers play a home league game before. Look­ing around I thought about the way young play­ers often buy their Mum and Dad a new house when they “make it” in foot­ball.

The folks rattle around in the new place, not quite at home and always won­der­ing if they wouldn’t have been hap­pier back in the old two up, two down ter­race house that held so many memor­ies.

It was a bit like that yes­ter­day. The atmo­sphere before kick of was bril­liant. Every­body happy and optim­istic and glad to just say they were there. The foot­ball when it star­ted did its best to tame the atmo­sphere and for a while it went dead and you began to won­der what the place would be like if West Ham hit a long slump.

Some parts of the stands had no seats installed yet. The tech­nical areas looked as big as ten­nis courts. There was room to play a five a side tour­na­ment between either side­line and the stands. But it’s up to Bilic to build a team that will make the sta­dium loved and not just admired.

It’s always tough. Southamp­ton found it dif­fi­cult when they moved from The Dell. At Sun­der­land when we moved from Roker Park to the Sta­dium of Light we were newly releg­ated and in the Cham­pi­on­ship but it took us till after Christ­mas to start play­ing foot­ball that made people feel a bit of pas­sion. By then it was too late to gain pro­mo­tion, so it was a long haul for the club and the fans to get used to the place.

In that way yes­ter­day was a very big win because West Ham really need to feel at home in this huge new space of theirs. And it was a tricky win to pull off.

West Ham lost this fix­ture 4–3 last sea­son and yes­ter­day they were miss­ing their two most cre­at­ive play­ers, Lan­zini and Payet. Worse than that, they were miss­ing any­body for Lan­zini or Payet to be cre­at­ive for. The French­man who we were told “had a knock” was a big loss. The stat of the day though was that of the 29 Premier League games he has played for west Ham, they have won 48.3% of them. Of the ten games he has missed they have won 20%.

Andre Ayew is out till Decem­ber. Andy Car­roll has gone back to his res­id­ency in physio. Enner Valen­cia had a lot to carry on his big shoulders yes­ter­day.

West Ham had also had the week from hell. Talk about hit­ting the ground run­ning. After the game yes­ter­day Bilic said that he had been gut­ted by the loss to Chelsea on Monday night. Maybe not as gut­ted as Michail Ant­o­nio who gave away a bad late pen­alty and got taken off instantly, but gut­ted all the same.

Then on Thursday night they were in Romania put­ting in a hard Europa League shift. They got back to their homes at 5am. Bilic had them on the train­ing pitch a few hours later.

It paid off. Ant­o­nio seems to have done enough to con­vince Bilic that he isn’t a full back so he was released for a gal­lop fur­ther up the field. He scored the first league goal at the new sta­dium when Gokhan Tore hit him with a lovely cross to the far stick and the Bournemouth defence kindly set up a quar­ant­ine cor­don around him so that he could accept their kind offer of a free header.

Tore, brought in from Bilic’s last club Besiktas with an option to buy at the end of the sea­son, looks like an inter­est­ing piece of busi­ness. No Payet but he had his moments.

With an injury list that makes the Arsenal sick bay look like a top peoples’ health spa the obvi­ous post match ques­tion was will Slaven Bilic be spend­ing ser­i­ous money before dead­line day? With his usual appeal­ing turn of phrase he said con­fid­ently that while he hadn’t spoken to him on the mat­ter yet he knows his chair­man is going to be “very gen­er­ous”. No pres­sure on the chair­man then Slaven!

Like the ref­er­ees from his play­ing days, Mr Sul­li­van will find it hard to turn down a man like that!