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Dec 5, 2012

Olympic Stadium: A new dawn

After months of conjecture, false starts and legal complications, West Ham United FC has finally been announced as the 'preferred bidder' for the Olympic Stadium at Stratford.

It doesn't mean it's the end of the process by any means, but it does mean that the London Legacy Development Corp. has recognised that the east London club, based in the borough in which the stadium resides, has provided the best case for the continuance of the arena as a top-class sporting venue. It is a sensible decision and one that is, frankly, long overdue.

- West Ham named preferred bidders - Blog: An Olympic ideal

On every level this is an exciting announcement. If all goes to plan, West Ham will get the opportunity to move to a newly-regenerated area, ideally situated for fans both old and new, with the added bonus of at last, being able to attract supporters in the wider catchment area available to them via fast rail links built and updated to accommodate the Olympics.

West Ham, like Liverpool and Newcastle, have fans that align themselves with the area the club represents. There may be few 'cockneys' born within the sound of Bow Bells nowadays, but the traditions and expectations -- even low ones! -- of the East End are still entwined in the fabric of the club and the minds of the supporters.

No one is speaking of Champions League qualification or Premier League titles -- mainly because that was not an expectation in the past and it's still not considered a major requirement for most fans in the immediate future. All we ask is for the club to progress and continue to grow so that generations growing up in the hinterlands of Essex -- and with this announcement, perhaps beyond -- don't look at the club at the apex of a huge triangle and see a nondescript second-class outfit happy to just muddle along, dragged down by a ground great on history and memories, but bound by poor rail and particularly road links.

Not one West Ham supporter will wave Upton Park a cheery goodbye. The club has proudly stood in its present location since 1904 when Arnold Hills moved the Thames Ironworks from the Memorial Road grounds to try and build a stadium that would act as a beacon to the local community; a centre of sporting excellence to attract people who lived mainly in poverty in the local slums.

There may well be a couple of Disney-like turrets and a hotel there now -- the east stand still hangs over the road and is now too far from the pitch -- while Sir Trevor Brooking and St Bobby Moore are feted in the two stands behind the goals, but the fabric of Hill's vision is still enshrined in the place. It will be a wrench to leave and no one will need a bigger box of tissues than me.

But the area has changed beyond recognition and is no longer 'fit for purpose'. Trying to get round the East Ham roundabout where the by-pass meets the traffic from Barking is like viewing a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Trying to park is like searching for a blade of grass in the Sahara. The queues for access to Upton Park station post-match resemble a 1930's soup kitchen. More importantly though is the fact that the 'East Ender' is more likely to be found in Southend, Wickford, Clacton, Colchester, Harlow and Chelmsford than Dagenham, Barking or even Basildon. Travelling to Upton Park is like making a pilgrimage true -- but it is now one fraught with frustration and tedium.

I have long maintained that West Ham is in a fairly unique position and has done little over the years to develop and build on its potential. Using the East End as the starting point, you can fan out for miles and miles to Suffolk, the Essex coast and even -- and whisper this quietly -- the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and Kent and see a possible catchment area for the club. For those overseas ESPN readers who support West Ham and don't know the area intimately, let me tell you that, in terms of top division football, it is probably the largest community available to any club in the country.

There are major lures in the Capital, of course, but accessing the 'giants' of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham demands a long and arduous trek across the capital. West Ham needs to be looking at the example of Chelsea -- and I'm not necessarily speaking of what happens on the pitch, and certainly not the board-room -- to see what is possible. You don't have to be in your dotage to remember when Stamford Bridge was home to Second Division football , its 'stars' were Tommy Langley and Ray Wilkins' lesser-talented brother and it muddled along with gates of 15,000 or so. In short, things need never be static.

West Ham can be -- should be -- the major focus point for those seeking Premier League football in the Essex area and beyond. Sadly, this being the 21st century, that won't come without success on the pitch, but at least this mooted move means the opportunities are at least there to grow the club. Investment will surely not be far behind.

A move to the Olympic Stadium -- itself a magnificent structure with its own short-lived but in-built history -- will provide West Ham United with unlimited opportunities for growth. It will provide jobs locally and, importantly, retain the legacy agreement of the Olympic ideal so important to Lord Sebastian Coe's vision. It will bring much-needed revenue to the magnificent Olympic Park and the local shops and use the existing infrastructure to create an enjoyable match day experience.

As for the rest, well the lifeblood of the club is its unique and passionate fan base. The traditions of the club can travel with the supporters.