The London Stadium was a sea of colour as the teams came out for this match. Those colours were fluorescent orange and yellow, representing the uniforms worn by the dozens of extra security and stewarding staff who had been drafted in for the day.
Joe Hart’s goalkeeping kit was in the same bright tones as the tabards, perhaps in a gesture of solidarity. This was a big match for West Ham and everyone knew it. Not only did the nature of the fixture against Southampton make it a relegation six-pointer but after the debacle of the previous home match against Burnley there was a sense of the club’s identity being on the line. Would they – the team, owners and fans – come together or fall apart?
The joint-chairman David Sullivan was, for his own safety, ensconced under an awning behind the director’s box for the duration. David Gold was in his usual seat however, as was Karren Brady, under a West Ham blanket in the late March chill. The skies were grey and rain was falling as the match kicked off. Sir Trevor Brooking stepped down to his seat with a grimace.
At the very back of the stadium, among half-a-dozen empty rows, a group of football tourists watched the first half. Irish, Danish, Japanese and Portuguese, they were taking advantage of a weekend in London to catch some Premier League football. These punters would perhaps be emblematic of a changing identity for those Upton Park ultras who had conducted a noisy protest before the match (they sang a chant to the tune of Cum on Feel the Noize, the refrain adapted to “lies, lies, lies”).
Thanks to the home side’s dominant first-half performance, any thesis on how far these fans could be pushed before breaking was never tested. Even the tourists were out of their seats when Marko Arnautovic rounded off a superlative team move on the stroke of half-time. Sir Trevor took his seat after the interval with a broad smile and a pat on the back from Barry Fry. It looked as if the game would pass as other victories have here; quietly, almost with a shrug.
Then something unusual happened. Home supporters in the ground’s lower tier stood up from their seats en masse. They started to chant, singing about bubbles and dreams and claret and blue. In the autumn of last season stewards instructing supporters to sit down had been one of the first flashpoints at West Ham’s new home. This time the massed neon ranks just let them get on with it.
It was an interesting moment and one that caused no problems inside the stadium. There was no trouble, just noise. Arnautovic was the main beneficiary, receiving two roaring ovations from the crowd – first after his substitution 10 minutes before the final whistle, and then following his announcement as man of the match. But it was hard not to think that everyone got something from such obvious support.
As the crowd left the ground and the sun came out, one fan phoned home to his wife: “I’m a happy Hammer tonight,” he said.