Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

West Ham 1 - 0 Sunderland (Or My Last Visit To Upton Park)

“Oh excellent” said nobody. Another memorial for Upton Park.

I don’t care – this is for me, not you. Sitting here in the seamy grey drizzle of a London Tuesday, I am hit with an overwhelming desire to write something down. This is it. The last time I’ll ever get to see West Ham play at Upton Park. Or The Boleyn Ground if you’re feeling posh.

And I won’t even be there. So forgive me this little act of vanity but I’m having a slightly out of body experience today as I contemplate all of this moving on happening without me. At the place where I spent the best part of twenty five years giving a little piece of soul fortnightly to men like Ian Bishop, Julian Dicks and Matty Holmes. Rio Ferdinand, John Moncur and Sasa Ilic. Samassi Abou, Trevor Sinclair and Lee Boylan. Paolo di Canio, Edouard Cisse and Darren Powell. Kepa Blanco, Scott Parker and Kevin Nolan. Some heroes, some not, some you won’t even remember, but all of them important to me in some way.

I can't say that it ended as it began.


My first trip to Upton Park was on April 30th 1986, when West Ham seemed destined to win the League and Alan Devonshire was the best player you'd never heard of before. Ipswich were the visitors, West Ham won 2-1 and I'm pretty sure the 7 year old me was holding back tears of joy when Ray Stewart banged in the late winner.

That game had a Nick Hornby-esque story arc as Ipswich took the lead and John Lyall's exhausted team - in the midst of playing 10 matches in the final month of the season - fought back valiantly to nab a late victory. In many ways, I've never forgiven my Dad for taking me to that game. It set an impossibly high bar, and created a world for me where West Ham would always play free flowing attacking football, challenge for the title, and come from behind to win games forever.

It was false bloody advertising is what it was.


And so at 12.45pm on February 27th 2016, nearly 30 years on, I watched my last ever game at the Boleyn Ground. West Ham versus Sunderland.

It had the kind of weather where the cold permeated your bones like ice water, where your breath hung in the air long after it was drawn and the wind whistled through the stadium, swirled in the stanchions and dived down on to your head like a Stuka bomber. It was almost as though God had asked Sam Allardyce what kind of day he would like for his return to East London and Big Sam had puffed out his large Dudley frame, grinned his chewing gum grin and said "Let's pay homage to those lovely Icelandic former owners", before presumably blaming his back four for something.

As things transpired, West Ham won an unremarkable game 1-0. Michail Antonio scored a well-crafted winner and then had an epileptic fit, Dimitri Payet shivered his way through the game as peripheral as one of the many plastic bags floating across the sky on the breeze, and Sam Allardyce bemoaned the state of the pitch. Because when you're a footballing purist like Big Sam you want a billiard like surface in order to maximise those diagonal lofted balls to the edge of the box.

I must say enjoyed that last comment from Allardyce. I got my first season ticket when I was 11, and held it for the next 24 years with my Dad. We stood on the North Bank and sat in the Bobby Moore Stand Lower, saw us go up and down, and survived the Bond scheme and Carlos Tevez and Manny Omoyinmi. But we sat down after the 2013/14 season and both confessed that we were no longer enjoying watching West Ham. I respected Allardyce's arch pragmatism and I admired the limitless self-belief, such a curious counterpoint to the strict limits he imposed upon his players on the pitch, but I wanted something more from my football viewing. I wanted to dream.


I understand that West Ham isn’t special to anyone but West Ham fans. I understand that Upton Park isn’t a cathedral to anyone but those who worship there, and not even all of them. That’s how football works. I’m sure that Tottenham and Derby and Burton fans are rolling their eyes today at the “Farewell Boleyn” circus. I don’t blame them, but I’m not apologising either.

I often ask myself, how could anybody ever support Arsenal or Manchester United? You might as well go into a casino and cheer on the house. But that’s how these things work and that’s the universal oil that greases the cogs of the game. I have never been in thrall to the legends of my football club in the same way that, say, Liverpool fans seem to be. My club is special in certain ways, but to me and my fellow fans - nobody else, and I understand that. We are no better or worse than Aston Villa, Barnsley, Millwall or Chesterfield. And that’s the crux of it. There is nothing inherently special about any football club or stadium, unless it’s yours. And then they might just be the most special things of all. It’s all just different sides of the same many splintered thing.

But moving on from this stadium is oddly difficult. I’m beginning to think that maybe Indiana Jones knew why – it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

As I look back on it now I seem to be able to tie so many important moments in my life to visits to West Ham. My nan died the same day as a 1-0 Cup win at home to Crewe; my parents split up the night after a 1-1 draw at home to Barnsley; my first love broke my heart after a 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa, my daughter was born just after a home win against West Brom. Maybe these things are meaningful, maybe a lot of stuff happens on weekends, but I suppose the constant is that much of my life was measured by the distance to the next visit to Upton Park. That wasn’t always a positive thing, but it’s how it was.

Walking away after that Sunderland game and knowing I would never go back was a strange, elegiac experience. It was a final line drawn under a period of my life.


So we gave up our season tickets in 2014, and it didn't help that by Christmas, we were second in the table. Of course, Allardyce had essentially stumbled arse backwards into a formation that worked but, as is customary, West Ham came down with the Christmas decorations and he reverted to type once the injuries hit. But for a while there it was fun, and I missed my fortnightly trip to Upton Park.

Which brings me back to where I started. One shouldn't romanticise the place undeservedly of course. It is a jigsaw of a stadium, with mismatched stands and terrible transport links and the worst customer facilities in the universe. The next time hot water comes out of the taps in the toilets will be the first. But as a hothouse for memories it holds many poignant and special moments atop those turrets.

I love the idiosyncrasies of the layout. How a song can spring up in one corner of the ground and rumble around the stands until the whole stadium is rocking. Ipswich (them again) were the visitors for the 2004 play offs when the girders shook and the noise was enough to scare the opposition into allowing Christian Dailly to score. Of course, that aspect of the ground has faded now, and the really atmospheric fever dream midweek games are long consigned to the past. It’s why I don’t object to the move. We can either sit around in our comfortably uncomfortable old house reminiscing about glory days that don’t have that much glory, or move forward and make new and better memories.


I can’t say I’m happy about the way the priority list has been managed. I followed West Ham all my life, and when this move came about season ticket holders were allowed to bring two fans with them and effectively jump ahead of me in the queue. I have paid a tremendously high price for tiring of Sam Allardyce. I am sure many will say that once I gave up my season ticket I lost my right to complain, and that’s probably correct. It is somewhat galling, however, to find that after a quarter century of attendance the Club deemed me less worthy of a ticket than random friends and acquaintances of other fans. Thus I now sit in a huge, sprawling waiting list with no obvious hint that I will ever get a ticket again. Another line drawn, another chapter closed.

It’s an overlooked aspect of the process which leaves a sour personal taste, but I still don’t object to the move. John Ford once said “Whether or not you believe you can do something, you are right” and I respect and admire the energy that David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady have injected into my club. I wish our social media presence wasn’t filtered through a 15 year old boy and I hope that we never have to hear about the rise of the Krays again, but I can’t deny the forward path being furrowed.

I shall probably blink back a tear tonight, but only for myself and my own loss. Farewell Boleyn, and all that, but hello Olympic Stadium and the promise of a brighter, much brighter, future.

I think there is a bubble rising in East London – I hope it never bursts.

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