The price of progress: Is London football losing its soul as clubs move home?

LONDON -- It is a May afternoon in 2017, and the West Stand of West Ham United's Boleyn Ground (or Upton Park, as most people called it) is being ripped asunder, a year on from when the stadium last hosted a match.

A large crane attacks the glass-fronted building that used to look out over the notorious Green Street -- a thoroughfare of shops, market stalls and pubs down which generations of fans trooped for 112 years. The crane's claw punches through glass, tearing off balconies. The mock-Medieval ramparts either side of the main entrance will be next to go.

West Ham's former home in East London is being consigned to history. In its place, Upton Gardens -- where the cheapest apartment among an eventual 842 homes is priced at £360,000 -- will change the old neighbourhood.

"West Ham fans, your team, your pub," a sign outside the nearby Boleyn pub reads, but though some fans still meet there on matchdays the football club has moved on. West Ham now play at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, built for the London 2012 Games and a full 45-minute walk though 1930s housing estates and past fearsome-looking backstreet boozers and the Westfield Centre, a 21st Century shopping mall.

David Sullivan and David Gold, West Ham's co-owners, seized the opportunity to increase their capacity from 35,000 to 57,000 and move into the Olympic Stadium in a bid to catch up with London's three biggest clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

"From 2016, West Ham will have one of the best stadiums in the country, if not the world," England's 1966 World Cup final hat trick hero and Hammers legend Geoff Hurst declared in a launch brochure in September 2014.

Time has not been kind to that bold statement. West Ham's move has been troubled, and their London rivals have made grander plans. Tottenham and Chelsea have embarked on their own renewal projects to follow the opening of Arsenal's 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium in 2006. The Emirates replaced Highbury, where luxury flats now stand on the site of a ground originally built in 1913.

This season, Tottenham will be tenants at Wembley while a new stadium is built at White Hart Lane for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The old Lane had been home since 1899. Throughout last season, the exoskeleton of the new structure loomed behind it, while a smart new office building, Lilywhite House, already houses Spurs' admin departments. The project is currently costed at £800 million.

When Chelsea move back into a rebuilt Stamford Bridge, with the latest estimate that the project will be completed in 2023 for £500m, each of London's four major clubs will have built new homes within the space of 17 years. London football has been altered by the money-driven, global ambitions of the Premier League, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. Those four new stadiums will be monuments to English football's revolution.

The good old days

Every football ground had somewhere the hardcore fans would flock to. Upton Park had The Chicken Run, a standing terrace that ran the length of the East Stand touchline and was within feet of the pitch. It had a fearsome reputation.

"It was live football at its best," Paul Christmas, a Hammers fan since the early 1980s and joint chairman of the West Ham Independent Supporters' Association, told ESPN FC.

"You were in touch with the players, they could hear you, and sometimes they would give you a bit back. And you could get at the opposition. You'd get players easing in from the wing, changing position to get away from the Chicken Run. It was a special place."

At White Hart Lane, to the north of the capital, there was The Shelf, a triple-tier terrace in the East Stand, which also ran along a touchline.

"It was one of the best sights in football," Martin Cloake, a match-going Spurs fan since 1978 and a historian of the club, said. "Like a three-tiered wedding cake, and in the middle row along two or three blocks was where the hardcore stood.

"As a kid, you went up one of the side blocks, where you learned the songs and how to behave. We grew up on that terrace -- you were a kid in an adult environment, you played by the rules and you had to have your wits about you."

Down in West London, across the river Thames, Stamford Bridge had The Shed -- the Fulham Road End at the south end of the pitch. The name was suggested by fan Clifford Webb in a letter to Chelsea's matchday programme in 1966 because of the stand's corrugated roof, and his idea stuck.

When Chelsea struggled to match their former glories -- the case for much of the 1970s and 1980s -- this was where the noise came from at a ground in which the atmosphere was affected by the presence of a dog track around the perimeter of the pitch.

Tim Rolls, a Blues fan since 1967 and an author and member of the Chelsea Supporters' Trust, recalls the 1976-77 season, when Chelsea won promotion back to the old First Division, as a particular heyday.

"You'd get in at half-two, when it was packed, and rush to get to your place on the terrace," he said. "There were surges when they scored, and a lot of banter, and there were recognised leaders among the fans: main men. And back then they were more imaginative with the songs, individual players had songs. It was pretty fervent."

At art-deco Highbury, there was the vast North Bank behind one of the goals and, opposite that, the Clock End, where broadcaster, author, journalist and actor Tom Watt, an Arsenal fan who grew up in nearby Holloway, stood as a boy from the late 1960s.

"It was a different time, when football was accessible," he said. "You could go to football as a spur of the moment thing. You'd find a place with people who wanted to sing, to give it the big 'un, to support the team. You'd pay and stand where you wanted. You put up with some crap views of the pitch, and sometimes not the greatest atmosphere, but you felt like you were part of something."

These fans' recollections come from an era already lost to English football, when the game was watched by young men huddled together, having paid cheap entry fees, and goals were celebrated by a seething mass on those famous terraces. They are snapshots from another century.

A time of change

London in 2017, fuelled by the City's influence in the world's financial markets, is a global destination for big business, tourists and economic migrants. It is a city apart from the rest of the country, one in which property prices continue to climb to levels unaffordable to most.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, London was still littered with bomb damage from the Second World War, but now the building works on new stadia only mirror the forest of cranes that already fill its skies, projects of regeneration and gentrification.

While much of the rest of Britain bears the scars of economic crises in the early 1980s and 1990s and, most recently, the global crash of 2008, London gets richer and richer, though inequalities also widen. The working class populations that once filled grounds in the old First and Second Divisions have been pushed out to the suburbs and beyond.

Within football, the past quarter of a century has been a time of snowballing modernisation, from the dawn of the Premier League in August 1992 right through to today's multinational super-clubs attracting global audiences and collecting £8 billion in TV revenues.

All-seater stadia to replace standing terraces, as prescribed by the 1990 Taylor Report that followed the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, changed the fan experience, but so too did TV as the Premier League was formed and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB empire won the rights to broadcast it with an initial £304m deal for three years from summer 1992.

In Watt's view: "It changed supporters into customers. The model changed -- it became more comfortable, more predictable, more formal."

Football clubs are now big businesses. Each of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham made multiple stadium alterations in the years after 1989. Stamford Bridge, a tightly packed ground in 2017, is almost unrecognisable from the loose collection of disparate, ramshackle stands of the early 1980s, where the cars of disabled supporters were parked around the perimeter of the pitch. Neighbouring Kings Road may have been a fashionable part of London, but Chelsea's ground was a dishevelled jumble.

Eventually, those historic homes could be modernised no more. Building their replacements was the next step.

Gates still key

These days Premier League football's leading revenue stream by far is TV, but gate receipts remain a significant contributor to a club's balance sheet.

Arsenal made £141m from TV in the 2015-16 season against £100m pulled in from gate receipts, behind only Manchester United's £107m against £140m. By contrast, Chelsea pulled in £143m TV revenue against just £70m from matchday, while Tottenham's £90m against £41m and West Ham £87m against £27m were lower still.

"You can't really compete unless you have got a 60,000-seater modern stadium," David Bick of Square One 1 Consulting, an expert in football business takeovers, told ESPN FC.

"I know people say it's not the largest part of the income these days, but you have to have a backdrop for a big game that's full up. The revenues are not insubstantial. It's a meaningful amount of money, and for Manchester United, to take the leading example, who have a capacity of 76,000, it's a significant proportion of revenue."

A 2015 UEFA report revealed that Arsenal were only £700,000 behind Real Madrid at the top of a league table of European matchday revenue, pulling in £88.2m, and the revenue brought in by corporate hospitality was key to that.

"Arsenal make as much money from 5,000 corporate guests at the Emirates as they do the other 55,000 fans," University of Liverpool football finance expert Kieran Maguire said. "It's about exploiting the corporate customers."

Chelsea, despite some lavish facilities at the old Bridge, cannot match that, and neither could West Ham nor Tottenham. In 1983, the old White Hart Lane became the first English stadium to house glass-fronted executive boxes, but it was too cramped for many of them to be built. The new Lane, with a capacity 61,000 -- by no coincidence 1,000 higher than the Emirates -- includes a hotel and will also have an array of corporate opportunities.

For West Ham, the London Stadium houses large corporate lounges, with "Club London" the brand name of the VIP facilities in the new West Stand.

Arsenal's wilderness years

Arsenal were London's pioneers, but 11 years at Ashburton Grove (the venue's name before Emirates Airlines signed a £100m rights deal in 2004) have not been been plain sailing.

On afternoons when Arsene Wenger's team are struggling it can feel like a place that's still searching for a core identity. These days, frustration gives rise to simmering silences rather than the gallows humour of Highbury as sound escapes into the sky from stands built on a shallow angle.

But at least Arsenal stayed close to home. "It's a couple of hundred metres," said Watt. "The doors at the new ground's West Stand and the doors at the old East Stand are no distance at all. Before the game, the experience, going to the same pub, that's all stayed the same. I think a real sense of dislocation would have come with a genuine geographical move."

Success, though, did not follow. The last season at Highbury in 2005-06 saw Arsenal lose the Champions League final to Barcelona, but Wenger has not been able to establish his club as a European force. Chelsea and Manchester City, meanwhile, have reaped the benefits of cash injections from billionaire owners.

Paying off the £390m cost of the Emirates was a burden that prevented Arsenal from being able to spend like their rivals. Meanwhile, Wenger kept his commitment to the club while having to swallow the financial realities of losing key players like Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie while the debt was serviced.

"When we built the stadium the banks demanded that I signed for five years," Wenger said in April 2016. "Do you want me to say how many clubs I turned down during that period?"

Meanwhile, Arsenal fans have paid the highest season ticket prices around, with the cheapest at £1,014 for the 2016-17 season compared with £765 for second-highest Spurs. That has changed the demographic and, when paying such prices, fans acting as customers feel more empowered to complain about the entertainment level of the football being played in front of them.

It is a new world that Watt has come to accept. "What was lost was a kind of sense of history that was completely unique, those constant physical reminders surrounding you," he said. "It harked back to the 1930s, you did lose that. But in terms of losing what was Arsenal, what being a football club was, that was already in train because it was already becoming about money and winning and star players and transfers."

Unlovable London

West Ham's new premises at least gave them chance to lower prices, with bottom-priced season tickets for the 2016-17 campaign at £289 and the highest at £1,250 -- cheap for Arsenal fans.

But that has done little to soothe unease about a new existence in the E20 postcode. The club's struggles to make the fan experience better in the new ground arise from being bound to a deal that appeared too good to be true and has thus far proved to be so.

For just £2.5m annually, Gold and Sullivan, with vice-chair Karren Brady, won the right to be the primary tenant of the Olympic Stadium after a labyrinthine process during which Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy submitted plans to knock the structure down and build a stadium from scratch. A morass of legal actions, including from local lower league club Leyton Orient, led to the bidding process being rerun before West Ham were finally named as "preferred bidder" in December 2012.

At a cost originally projected to be £154m, but which later surged to £323m, a stadium built to host athletics was converted into a multipurpose arena, though not one that suits football. Because of the running track required for athletics events, fans sitting on the halfway line are 20 metres away from the pitch, while the closest anyone gets is 12 metres (those by the corner flags). Sitting further back can be a severe test of eyesight, and players have complained privately about not feeling an atmosphere.

After crowd trouble broke out at a number of early fixtures, the stadium and club suffered from some bad PR, even after logistical problems began to be ironed out and safety issues addressed. Fan dissatisfaction is highlighted by the club undertaking a project to reassign 6,000 seats for season ticket holders unhappy with where they sat last season.

By the end of a campaign in which West Ham finished 11th, manager Slaven Bilic all but refused to talk about the stadium, while his bosses stayed steadfastly quiet on the subject. The conclusion of the club's first season at the stadium, a 4-0 thrashing by Liverpool, came with a lap of honour in which the players and their families almost outnumbered those fans who had chosen to remain to see it.

Hammers supporters had reasons for making for the exits that went beyond the team's performance. The London Stadium is situated in a remote corner of the city its name celebrates, a long walk from all nine of its transport links. Its stands loom above the Olympic Park's 560 acres, set between Westfield and the motorways and post-industrial landscape that make up this corner of the capital. And, on those long walks, there are no spit and sawdust pubs like the Boleyn or time-honoured eateries like Ken's Cafe, on Green Street, or Nathan's Pie & Eels, on Barking Road.

West Ham have a 99-year tenancy, but while the stadium is festooned with club regalia during the season, a summer visitor would find barely a trace of a football club. During July's Anniversary Games athletics meeting, the World Paralympics Athletics Championship, August's World Athletics Championship and concerts by Robbie Williams, Guns N' Roses and Depeche Mode, only the claret and blue seating is there to offer a reminder of the identity of the prime tenants.

The logistics of changing the stadium to being football-ready will prevent the team from playing a home game until Sept. 11, with no preseason matches staged. And at Christmas, West Ham will never be allowed to host a traditional Boxing Day fixture due to the Westfield Centre's block on football fans disrupting its busiest trading day of the year.

"West Ham don't own it, nobody bloody owns it," said Christmas. "It's not ours. Our home has been knocked down for the athletics at the moment. We are tenants in someone else's house."

Lessons learned

In constructing custom-made stadia, Spurs and Chelsea can avoid the organisational problems West Ham faced in taking on the former Olympic Stadium, while lessons from Arsenal's experience have also aided planning.

Before the final matchday at White Hart Lane, a 2-1 defeat of Manchester United, a big-screen video featuring chairman Levy received a loud cheer from fans when he said: "We've paid particular attention to making sure we're close to the pitch, we're right on top of the action and we retain as much of the atmosphere of this great stadium in the new stadium [as possible]."

That was a pointed reference. While Spurs played in a stadium that at times could revive the fervour of their 1960s heyday, especially on Champions League nights like the one when Gareth Bale inspired a 3-1 defeat of European champions Inter Milan in November 2010, their fans have often mocked the Emirates as "a library."

The new Lane will include a 17,000-seater single-tier stand which will be the biggest in the UK, larger than Anfield's Kop, to replicate the noise levels the old ground could reach. It will be similar to the "Yellow Wall" at Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion and the high-banked Juventus Stadium, which was built in 2011.

All being well, Spurs will spend just a year at Wembley. Their new stadium faces a race against time to be ready for August 2018, with Premier League rules stating that a club must play all home games for a season at one stadium. With little money spent in this summer's transfer window, Spurs seem like a club hunkering down for a year's exile until moving into their palatial new home.

The new place, which will include the added facilities required to play NFL regular season games (extra locker rooms, expanded playing surface), will not hold back on innovations to tempt corporate customers to a part of London not previously a destination for the blue-chip brigade.

Premium tickets for the "Tunnel Club" will allow 104 well-heeled fans a prime place from which to watch players come in and out of the ground, while membership of the "H Club," which will cost £15,000, allows access to a special "cheese room."

Chelsea's 60,000-capacity stadium design, released by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron in January, looks pretty similar to their Bayern Munich Allianz Arena project (built for the 2006 World Cup), in being a closed structure with stands at a steep angle.

The grandness of Chelsea's plans mean their stay at Wembley could last as long as four years, due to the complications of rebuilding in an area of London of far greater wealth than Tottenham and given that the Mayor of London only backed the local council's decision to grant planning permission in March.

Building a new Bridge will mean the demolition of the whole concourse that surrounds the current ground, including the Chelsea Village and Copthorne Hotels, which were built in the 1990s. A further, significant complication is that the overground railway crossing the Thames, which the club want to build a tunnel over, is used to carry nuclear waste across London. The listed 19th Century Brompton Cemetery, which backs on to the site, also has to be taken into account.

New eras await

Fans of both Chelsea and Tottenham are hopeful that their clubs will eventually return to spiritual homes. A Chelsea move to the former site of the Earls Court exhibition centre was mooted at one point, as was a development at Battersea Power Station, the iconic structure depicted on the front of Pink Floyd's Animals LP.

Chelsea instead chose to return to the only place they have ever called home since formation in 1905. "I was worried about those other places," Rolls said. "The club's heart is Stamford Bridge. They have always played there. It was founded in the pub opposite, the Butcher's Hook. I will be happy the day we move back to Stamford Bridge."

Mike Collett is a veteran of over four decades as a sports reporter, including many years as the football editor of the Reuters news agency, but it was at White Hart Lane that he learned the game, having attended over 1,200 matches at the ground since his first visit in 1964.

"It's bittersweet," he told ESPN FC. "On a sunny afternoon in the old days, when the sun used to shine through a gap in the stands onto The Shelf, I used to think it was one of the most beautiful sights in the world, bathed in a golden glow.

"I am really going to miss it, but side by side with that is the feeling that we're going to have this feeling of 'wow.' We're moving on, the club is going in the right direction. Well done, Daniel Levy. Look at the way we've changed."

Although Chelsea have been bankrolled by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich since 2003, London's clubs have struggled to keep up financially with the Northern powerhouse forming in Manchester. United, on £515m, and City, on £392m, pulled in the highest revenues in the Premier League in the 2015-16 season, with Arsenal third on £354m, ahead of Chelsea on £335m, Tottenham (sixth) on £210m and West Ham (seventh) on £142m.

New stadia can help bridge those sizeable gaps, according to Bick. "What happens if those TV rights dissipate, or they level off?" he said. "Then, stadium revenues would become much more important again.

"The reality is that banks would not have lent that amount of money to Spurs unless the move made economic sense to them. Manchester United were the first club to prove that, if you had the right size of stadium, you could justify yourself economically. Big new, modern stadiums work, and it is part of a prerequisite for success on the pitch. Can you really be a Premier League challenger playing out of [Leyton Orient's] Brisbane Road?

"If you want that old-style experience, it's League One, League Two, even below that, for standing with your mates, shouting the odds. You are not going to get that in the Premier League."

London's football future

English football has changed irreversibly since the days when fans would pay a handful of coins to stand on The Chicken Run, The Shelf, The Shed or The Clock End. That era came to an end a quarter of a century ago, on the road to the Premier League becoming the richest on the planet.

The 25 years since English football reformed gave rise to a process of modernisation, a greater acceptance of the corporate world's drive for constant growth and renewal. No European capital among the continent's leading football nations houses as many clubs in its top divisions as London's five -- South London's Crystal Palace included.

And through their grand, regenerative stadia projects, London's biggest clubs aim to dominate English football in the same way that the city overshadows the rest of the country.

For fans, such progress comes at the price of tradition. It will take time for the bright, shiny and new to feel like home.