BORO clocked up a string of firsts in their 1-1 draw at West Ham’s box-fresh ground but it wasn’t a game that will go down in history.
It was the first time in the Hammers’ new home, the first time Boro had faced the use of goal-line technology and the first time Jordan Rhodes had started in the Premier League – ahead of Alvaro Negredo too.
A lot of Tees travellers, collectors with plenty of miles on the clock, will be delighted to have ticked off a new ground that has an echo of Olympic glory about it – but few will be dishing out many medals for the trip or want to return in a hurry as the day was marred by a cowardly post-match attack on innocent supporters by knucklehead West Ham ‘fans.’
The ground is a strange and dislocated construction and has a deeply unsatisfying atmosphere that may well be contributing to the repeated trouble in and around the ground so far this season. It wasn’t a great experience from the moment you walked out of Stratford tube station into Westfields, a Metro Centre sized mall.
It is an impressive sight as it looms on the skyline and well appointed in a lot of ways inside but it doesn’t feel like a football ground and it is far from a fan-friendly experience.
The walk up is sign-posted by makeshift hoardings and stewards that funnel fans quickly through the mall, discouraging any browsing and creating an unwelcoming vibe. Poor segregation and crowd traffic flow, along with question marks over the almost invisible policing and ill-prepared stewards new to the ground, have created problems.
Approaches to and exit from the ground have created bottlenecks and flashpoints along the main route back from the game to Westfield and the tube station, and it was in that exposed area that there were some unpleasant moments after the game, a low key match that had very few moments of friction on the pitch.
Afterwards some Boro supporters were penned in and others were ushered out straight into the flow of home fans creating unnecessary confrontation that left supporters caught up in chaos. There were reports of sporadic violent attacks on pockets of fans heading to the tube and heading back to the coaches. There were some very disturbing images on social media of what appears to be a blade brandished by one lowlife idiot and reports .
Even inside the ground there had been trouble with several Boro fans in the lower tiers hit by missiles lobbed from higher West Ham areas after the opening goal.
And that is not for the first time this season. There has been fighting among Hammers fans inside the ground and outbreaks of trouble at the Bournemouth, Watford and Southampton games, fixtures you wouldn’t naturally think of as high risk.
That needs addressing urgently by the club, the police and the outside company that supplies the stewards. The security and safety of visiting fans has to be ensured. The FA must take full responsibility for the situation and demand an immediate review of the entire match-day operation before someone is killed.
West Ham have a notorious fan-base but have somehow escaped punishment for a string of incidents. These are the fans remember that marked the exit from Upton Park by attacking the Manchester United team coach. And whose owners initially defended the thugs and yobs and suggested it was United’s fault for arriving late.
It is a powder keg situation. Boro must be a relatively low key game but old rivals Chelsea visit soon in a night game in the League Cup, will take a far bigger allocation and will be approaching not just from one direction but from all routes. And you dread to think what would happen in the shopping centre should they draw long time sparring partners Millwall in the cup.
And it is not just outside the ground that things fall short. Some strange internal architecture, dislocated crowd dynamics and a sterile sense of theme park illusion leave the distinct feeling that this is not really a football stadium. Athletics yes. Gigs. Yes. But it doesn’t feel like the vibrant home of a football team with heart and passion and a loud proud history of intimidating visitors with noise and colour. Even the bubbles felt like an ‘on the hour, every hour’ tourist trap historical recreation.
It was strange. The innards of the ground are on show. There are wide open empty drawers of space in the prime location where the temporary front seats are supposed to tuck away in the ground’s other life as an athletics stadium. That central band, a prime location which in most grounds is the perfect height and position, is fenced off and hidden away like a disused trampoline park.
Inside there is a temporary feel to much of the bowels of the beast. Bare concrete. Hastily knocked together signage in Olympic livery and fonts. Everything is fine. Adequate. But it doesn’t feel engineered as a football ground. It doesn’t feel lived in or loved. It had a the feel of a one-off, like a semi-final at a neutral ground with both sets of fans strangers.
There is a sense that everyone, not just the away fans, are here for the first time, were blundering through. And that leaves an air of bewilderment. Few of them were familiar wit the lay-out. It took several attempts and a string of stewards to find the press entrance. They were over-manned in some areas and getting in each others’ way looking lost and under-staffed in places where they were needed.
Some of that spatial confusion may have spilled onto the pitch. Boro were certainly left looking lost as tour guide Dimitri Payet – who definitely knows his way into the box – slalomed through for the goal.
Jordan Rhodes started a Premier League game for the first time. That was a first. And ahead of Negredo too. It was a shock selection but the Spaniard couldn’t argue after some ineffective and inhibited recent displays.
And Rhodes did well. He didn’t score but he brought some intelligent moves and combined well with a lively front four that was fluid and had a bit of balance about it. And he had a few chances too. He glanced a header wide and hooked an overhead effort that sailed over but was always looking for it. So that bodes well.
Boro came up trumps in another first though. When Cristhian Stuani’s header squeezed through the crowd and was hooked away from the vicinity of the line there were palpitations in the away end.
It looked over but it was chaos in there and it would be just our luck to have it ruled out but the wonders of 360 degree computer modelling gave us the goal and the edge.
It swung the mood dramatically. “You’re going down with the Mackems” taunted previously nervous Boro fans as the maths at the foot of the table sharpened.
But within minutes the away end was muted and West Ham fans were bubbling again as Payet was allowed to weave into the box past five static stoppers – Antonio Barragan, Marten de Roon, Calum Chambers, Ben Gibson and then George Friend – before cutting back to level. The speed with which Boro are leaking levellers after scoring is a worry.
And the manner. That wasn’t a first. In fact is become the norm. In the last three games now opponents have waltzed in from the flank before hammering in costly strikes. That will need to be consigned to history if we are to flourish.
So overall, it was a new ground ticked off and we won the video vote but apart from that there won’t be much to stick in the memory banks bar the post-match trouble.
An away point is always a “good point” – Aitor was happy enough – and Boro will be happy to have stopped the rot after three defeats. With away points at West Ham and West Brom and the win at Sunderland the record away at teams in the lower level mini-league is not bad. Solid but not spectacular.
But you can’t help but think that the game was there to be won with just a little bit more assertive intent, a little bit more pressure applied to a side who looked fragile at times. Mind, both bosses will be thinking that.
And here’s my ever popular “what game were you watching Vickers you blind get?” player rating from the West Ham game….