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Mar 22, 2013

Opportunity knocks with new home from home

It will be a wrench to leave Upton Park, but that likelihood became a reality on Friday as it was finally announced that West Ham United have secured a 99-year lease on the Olympic Stadium in Stratford and, following major conversion work that will cost in the region of £190 million that will include a roof extension and retractable seating - the stadium should be ready for the 2016 season.

- Palmer: Biggest challenge is yet to come - Hammers secure Olympic Stadium - Brewin: The price of progress

This news will inevitably divide supporters, but hopefully, now that the years of talks, wrangling and legal ramifications have bought a conclusion to conjecture, fans can now realistically concentrate on the hopeful benefits.

My own thoughts on this move have been well-known since the possibility was first mooted following London's successful bid for last summer's games back in 2005. The day after the bid was won, I blogged the hope that somewhere on the Olympic site a place would be found for a purpose-built football stadium to house the local club. I never expected to end up in the main stadium itself, but have been hopeful since David's Gold and Sullivan bought the club that, in the hands of people whose heart was in the fabric of the football club and the local community, that something could be done to make what is essentially - to use the vernacular - a no-brainer, into something that would be palatable for all concerned.

The roof extension and retractable seating will surely turn this already impressive arena into a stadium fit for football, while the infrastructure is already in place following last summer's spectacular success story. If the same designers are able to make the ground as spine-tinglingly concentrated with noise as it was last summer, then fears about a lack of atmosphere - something, in any case, the Boleyn lost years ago - should be of little concern. Financially, with the sale of the Boleyn Ground and the £2m per year in rent required for the OS it makes sense, while the horrendous travel and parking issues are solved at a stroke.

I've heard all the arguments for and against the move and, barring the emotional attachment to a ground that has long since lost its atmosphere, appeal and geographical attraction for its support base, the only real question must be how do West Ham fill a 60,000 capacity arena?

Well, as nearly all of the Hammers home games this season have been sell-outs and floating supporters who don't always know well enough in advance if they are available on the day have long complained that they aren't able to make a morning-of-the-game decision, I'd estimate that a 40k crowd is easily obtainable even now. The increased profile of the club and the easy accessibility will hopefully make the team a more attractive proposition for those who just want to 'watch a game' and aren't able to necessarily trek across London - always an arduous task - but, more likely - it is to be hoped anyway - West Ham will be able to reverse the trends of the past few decades and actually incorporate a price structure that will attract young supporters and families back to football.

It's a sad fact of life that the days of a schoolboy or girl pitching up outside a ground on matchday and gaining entrance with a portion of that week's pocket money is as much an anachronism as footballs with laces and referees with top hats. But this is a nonsense if football is to survive as a spectator sport - rather than a TV opportunity - and it would be a spectacular coup if West Ham United were to underline their local and family roots by reversing a disturbing trend and getting young supporters in for a couple of quid.

Of course, ultimately, it may be that the Hammers new tenancy might tempt someone to invest in the club in much the same way the Abu Dhabi United Group did at Manchester City following that club's high-profile relocation, or as Chelsea managed years before with their huge ground investment at Stamford Bridge. Depending on your view on 21st Century football, that may be viewed as a good thing or a bad but, if nothing else, that would ensure the survival of a club that has suffered massive debts over the years and one that has faced a difficult future when survival in the Premier League depends so much in on-field investment.

West Ham's move to the Olympic Park marks a decisive day in the history of the club and, providing vice-chairman Karren Brady's statement that the club were looking forward to working with fans to "create a stunning new home that befits the pride, passion and tradition that the world associates with West Ham United", is a reality and not just a politically-charged stirring sound-bite, then it's hard not to get enthused over the opportunity to walk from easily accessible rail links, across the beautiful Olympic Park to a stadium that is already imbued with achievement and history.

West Ham fans should be viewing the next three or four years with some excitement for a change.