Today, the Olympic Park Legacy Committee selected West Ham United as the preferred bidder to become the new tenant of the Olympic Stadium, beating out competition from Tottenham Hotspur. This decision will have a severe negative effect on an historic London club, formed in the early 1880s – not Spurs, but Leyton Orient.
The Olympic Stadium is just a mile away from Brisbane Road, Leyton Orient’s stadium, and a tenant like West Ham will have a severe impact on their ability to attract new local fans. Having been in existence since 1881, Orient have enjoyed just one season in the top flight in their history, back in 1962-3. Despite this, they have a hardcore group of fans, attracting just over 4000 fans as an average attendance, and invest in the local community and in a youth program which gives opportunities to local kids. West Ham, though they currently get around 30,000+ fans, will have 60,000 seats to try and fill for each home game (they don’t currently sell out Upton Park for some of the less high profile games). To do this, they will be offering low price tickets to school children and families to encourage people to come along. As a bigger club, with a more high profile name and more historical success, it is likely that new young local fans that otherwise might have been going to see Leyton Orient, will instead choose to go and see West Ham – more fame and a bigger stadium being obvious selling points.
The owners of West Ham are not doing this because they are fans of the club who want to see them succeed; Gold and Sullivan are in this purely for profit and know that having the Olympic Stadium plan will make the club have a higher resale value. The legacy of the 2012 Olympics could now be that one of the oldest community clubs in London could be put out of business, while in the process, two speculators manage to flip a club for profit using the stadium as leverage.
I am so happy that Tottenham were not the preferred bidder for two reasons. Firstly, we are not from East London, our roots, history and place is in the N17 region of North London. To franchise ourselves in the way that MK Dons did when they moved away from Wimbledon, would be tearing apart our history and telling the fans that the desire for more (money, success, profile) was more important than the neighbourhood and community that has supported them for over 125 years. It hasn’t escaped me that it’s not through choice Spurs are not moving. I sincerely hope this was gamesmanship on the part of Daniel Levy to try and encourage the local council to improve transport links to White Hart Lane; I’m just not convinced at this point it was. Secondly, I’m relieved that we will not be doing to Leyton Orient what was done to Tottenham back in 1913, when Woolwich Arsenal uprooted from South London to the Islington area of North London – previously a Tottenham stronghold. This set in place a fierce rivalry between the two clubs, as we believe they had encroached on our territory – something fans remind them of to this day with their suggestion they should go back to the other side of the river (Okay, we sing “F$@& off back to South London”). If we had made this move, my support would have gone to any local team that the supporters created, in the style of AFC Wimbledon. I do not know any Spurs fan that was in favour of this move, all of us would accept less success in exchange for not moving. Bigger is not always better, and greed definitely is not good.
I went to one Leyton Orient game, they were the closest team to where I used to live in east London, and I saw them take on Chester, my Dad’s local team when he was growing up. I sat in the away fans on a cold Tuesday December night back in 2005 and experienced the quintessential football experience, a scrappy 1-0 win for the away team in a low quality game, but completely enjoyable because of the banter between the two sets of fans and a fantastic coffee and meat pie at half time. My favourite moment from the whole night was a chant inspired by a new residential building that had been recently finished and allowed residents a clear view of the stadium, and vice versa – “We can see you washing up”. Since then, Chester have gone out of business due to years of financial mismanagement and are being forced to start again from the lowest rung of non-league football, I just hope that Leyton Orient do not follow suit because of another team’s greed.