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For two hours....

It was football as poetry. At 3:10pm on Saturday 23 March 2000 Marc Vivian Foe played the ball out to Trevor Sinclair on the right wing. Sinclair's lofted ball to the far side of the penalty box should have been straightforward for any reasonable player to trap and lay back into the box, for the advancing Frederick Kanoute.

Paolo Di Canio is not a reasonable footballer.

As the ball made its 35-yard flight, Di Canio slipped past the retreating Wimbledon defenders, never taking his eye of it. Near the far edge of the box, about twelve yards from the touchline, he leapt into the air, adjusting his balance constantly - while in the air - and struck the ball on the volley with the outside of his right foot. It flew just inside the far post. To Hammers fans it will always be "That goal". More than 25,000 of them gasped in astonishment, before exploding into wild cheering.

And that is the problem. West Ham's Boleyn Ground at Upton Park is one of the smallest in the Premier League. To compete financially Premier League grounds need capacity of least 35,000 and preferably 40,000. Ideally, they also need to be used for things other than football, to be all-week venues.

Football is about passion. For two hours on a Saturday afternoon, nothing else matters. People who see things like that put up with a lot. Ten years ago the team as playing badly and Upton Park, was a complete tip. The ground and the team were under-invested and its tradition of stylish football was under threat as its famed youth academy fell into disrepair. The club was in decline, but still the crowds came.

But for tragedy elsewhere it could easily have stayed that way. More than 50 died when Bradford City's stand caught fire during a match. Then 96 Liverpool fans died in the Hillsborough disaster. Lord Justice Taylor's report into Hillsborough was savage: Treat people like prisoners of war, it said and you should not be surprised if they act like them. The most important thing was that the standing terraces were outlawed.

An Upton Park with terraces could hold 40,000 at a pinch. Without them, capacity collapsed and the club faced extinction. Both ground and club had to be rebuilt, but West Ham was (and, relatively, is) poor. Enter Terry Brown as club chairman - and Dearle & Henderson.

Football is about business. Brown is only too aware that a vocal chunk of the support thinks he does not care about West Ham as a football team. He reads the Web-based fans chat sites that, daily, tell him. But his office is packed with memorabilia going back to the Thames Ironworks days (West Ham was founded as its company team) and he needs little prompting to discuss it. If fans vitriol gets to him, he does not let it show. He is well aware of clubs like Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, which made dashes for growth and now struggle in lower divisions under a mountain of debt. He is not about to let that happen.

Five years ago, the old North and South stands were rebuilt, with the Centenary and Bobby Moore Stands respectively replacing them. Dearle & Henderson ran those projects, but the big job was still to come.

The redevelopment of the West Stand - as well as including 15,000 seats, new changing rooms, executive boxes which double as three star hotel rooms, conference facilities, the club museum and class rooms for the clubs community programme, has one important catch - capacity cannot fall during rebuilding. Every seat needs to stay in use until new ones are ready. It will cost £26m and every penny of income is needed. Working around a working stadium is Adrian Cole's challenge.

Brown says he does not lose sleep over the project, despite the future of the club hanging on it. It is, he points out, Cole's job to lose sleep for him. Cole is overseeing the redevelopment for Dearle & Henderson.

On passion Cole says: 'I have to detach myself from that side of it. At the end of the day we have a very complex project to deliver.'

This is how complex: The upper tier of the new West Stand is being built behind the existing one. When that is complete, the old stand will be demolished and work on the lower tier will start, with the new upper tier in use. Capacity will increase as it is filled out. Then the pitch will be moved 15 metres west, to make room for the East Stand to be rebuilt at a modest £9m. And this has to be done around the fixture list. The break for England's Wembley farewell, for example, allowed piling for a later part of the project to be done. But this will have to be complete and covered up in time for the home match against Arsenal.

First, however, Cole had to build a school.

St Johns Roman Catholic boys school practically adjoined to the old West Stand. It had to move. Brown says 'They've been heroes in the sense that it couldn't have been done without them and they were reasonable.' Heroes may seem strong, but Brown and Cole are aware that the school could have held them to ransom.

While doing this, a planning consent was needed. It took a long time, with hugely complex Section 106 agreements, but Cole says of Newham Council 'they have been absolutely fantastic.' Newham would have been quite entitled to revoke the existing stand's licence. "They only let us use it because they know we are redeveloping," he says.

Football is about results. Results come with teamwork. But the team is not just Dearle & Henderson, West Ham and contractor Taylor Woodrow. Both St John's School and Newham Council, through being stakeholders, effectively became part of the project team. The stand, says Cole, is on time and on budget.

'From here,' says Cole, 'the real challenge is ensure the approvals are gained and it gets a licence.' A sparking new stand is useless if nobody is allowed to use it.

You get a sense of how Cole sees the job when he discusses the existing West Stand. 'When taking guests to a place like that it doesn't give the impression of a 21st century club.' It is Cole's job to take the Boleyn Ground from post-Hillsborough trauma to the new Millennium.

© 2000 Ian Cundell

Originally published in modified form in Dearle & Henderson house magazine