Three things might keep you inside a stadium when your team is losing heavily: Hope, fear or novelty. Novelty if this is a day out with result secondary to overall experience and number of train tins consumed. Hope if you have even a glimmer of belief that your team might turn it around. Fear, therefore, that if they do you will miss a famous comeback. Fear too of judgement, that leaving a game prematurely makes you a lesser supporter.
And so to a rote response which has endured for generations: leaving a stadium before full-time is unacceptable and something no “true fan” would consider. Increasingly that feels like a moral code from another time. For one thing, none of the early cut critics ever had to make their way back to Stratford station via woeful signage and retail hellscape of Westfield. That is a trying experience at the best of times, but one thousands of West Ham fans chose rather than sticking around to see their disembowelling by Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Ticket-holding West Ham supporters, among them James Corden, had better things to do with their Sunday than watching this West Ham team.
An air of fatal apathy
“Thank you for your support, have a safe journey home,” was the curt goodbye from London Stadium announcer Chris Scull after the final whistle. He sounded annoyed he had been forced to stick it out. By then his audience was perhaps a 10th of the sell-out crowd whose afternoon began in cautiously optimistic mood. The exodus began when Bukayo Saka made it 2-0 from the penalty spot with five minutes left in the first half. Its status was upgraded from “we can see you sneaking out” to “is there a fire drill?” after Gabriel scored Arsenal’s third in the final minute before half-time.
When Leandro Trossard made it 4-0 two minutes later it became clear that hundreds of West Hams were not mooching up the gangways to beat the queue for a hot dog but giving up on the game altogether. An aerial TV shot showed a stream of supporters long past the point of no return, those signs by the turnstiles warning about forbidden re-entry.
West Ham supporters have been split on David Moyes long before this result, but there was no audible rancour about their manager, even as the scoreline worsened in the second half. Instead, an air of fatal apathy. The current Premier League will occasionally produce humbling results for under-performing teams against title chasers. West Ham’s fans seemed to recognise this, and the futility of wasting any more time watching such a no-show. Even Moyes said he could “totally understand,” fans leaving early.
Considering the specifics of supporting West Ham this is no surprise. If you reach their stadium via public transport, and you have little choice, you will likely come in via one of three stations. There is the aforementioned Stratford, with its non-negotiable traipse through a portion of a stressful shopping centre, Hackney Wick or Pudding Mill Lane. The former precedes a canal-side walk past a dozen bars designed to enhance your pre-game mood for a healthy London mark-up. The latter creates an enjoyable cross-section of football and Abba fans, full of anticipation for their afternoon with world-beating singing holograms.
In other words football is being placed squarely in the category of consumer product, just one of many activities you may choose to enjoy in the former Olympic park. West Ham are competing for a slice of your leisure spend, an aim which drove their move from Upton Park to an athletics venue awkwardly configured for football.
If you support the team that plays here it would be easy to spend £100 on an experience which may leave you feeling miserable. Even if you hate shopping, disco and craft beer, you can still find a more reliable return on that money elsewhere in the locale.
Cinephiles are not regarded as fairweather for walking out of a dud early, if anything it is regarded as discerning. So we should not criticise football fans for the equivalent. Treat fans like consumers for long enough and they will eventually start behaving that way.