I neglected to say earlier that the move to Westcliff High School in 1968 hooked me up with Paul Seligson again. My old fighting comrade from the nursery floor at Hadleigh.
When we were 14 and 15, Paul sometimes accompanied me to East London to watch West Ham. It was a ritual into adulthood. Fenchurch Street line train from South Benfleet and Pitsea up to Barking, then two tube stops along to Upton Park. Followed by the quarter-mile walk to the ground, the streets thronging, smelling of hot dogs and onions. Programmes, scarves and rattles touted by cockney voices. “Roasted peanuts!” Chips on the way home, as Paul looked for sixpences on the ground, or places to push in the train queue, before the boredom of Saturday night set in.
It started when the pair of us – plus Nick Eastwell, Howard Studd and John Madden – had all squeezed onto the impossibly packed Boleyn Ground terraces on 17 October, 1970, to watch the Hammers play Tottenham before a record 42,322 crowd on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon. My first time there without Eric. We were stood against a crash barrier and felt the full force of each tightly packed crowd surge down the terrace. Not quite tall enough to see all of the action, we often had to rely on the crowd noises for guidance. 2-2 at the finish.
The feeling then – and the memory even now – was of danger. Thirty or forty thousand (mainly) blokes unleashed in an environment where men could misbehave and get away with it. The naughtiest drank and swore, sporting Doc Martens and seeking fights with rival fans. Chanting and singing aggressively. “You’ll never take the North Bank!” or “You’re gonna get your fucking ‘ead kicked in!” Crystal-clear territorial messages.
I couldn’t resist. It was more fascinating than anything else in my humdrum teenage life. There was a badge of honour just in being on the fringes. It was near to Eric’s Bethnal Green roots, and the club had one of the great football anthems, ‘Bubbles’.
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,
And like my dreams, they fade and die.
Fortunes always hiding, I looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air.
Succinct football realism.
I would stand either in the North Bank, for 7 shillings, or in the West Stand, for 10 shillings, if memory serves. It was a ritual steeped in anticipation, where the hours spent in transit to and from the ground were devoted to talk about the teams and hopes of how well WHU might do today. Always dressing to fit in, Harrington jacket and Solatio shoes, and keeping an eye on everyone else in your immediate orbit. West Ham was such a magnet for hard nuts and hooligans, and I witnessed plenty of fights.
It generally scared the shite out of me. I was probably safe, with my claret and blue Hammers scarf. But even now, am slightly cautious at any match, although hooliganism has abated with the move to all-seater grounds. I met my old university chum Jonnie Price in September 2015 in the Boleyn pub near the ground. He had his Norwich colours on and was totally relaxed.
Contrast that with another university mate Ray Howarth. A Manchester United fan, Ray paid a visit in 1975. He set foot onto the South Bank, sporting his red and white colours, and was chased by an East end psychopath wielding a meat cleaver. Maureen and I witnessed an exuberant running fight on the London Underground between West Ham and Chelsea fans, which was about par for the course in an era when I also saw billiard balls thrown at Liverpool fans by Leeds supporters, and the gates at Molineux (Wolverhampton Wanderers ground) kicked down by Liverpool fans.
And witnessed any number of “charges” by away fans into the area in the home ground where the hard-core home fans congregated. West Ham’s North Bank, Liverpool’s ‘Kop’, Chelsea’s ‘Shed’, and so on. Mental British bulldogs letting off steam. The police always seemed to be making arrests.
Of the players, Geoff Hurst was my initial favourite. The scorer of the immortal hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Geoff liked to puff out his cheeks, and knocked in 242 goals for the Hammers. He was a ferocious penalty-taker. When West Ham reached the League Cup semi-finals against Stoke in 1971, on a wet February evening, Hurst had the chance to sew up the match with a penalty. But had to beat the great Gordon Banks. Geoff sent a screaming shot to the top corner, only for bastard Banks to somehow get his hand in the way. Stoke won the game. I was inconsolable.
Trevor Brooking soon became Upton Park’s favourite son, producing a range of silky skills for a decade or more. He was never as relaxed, or as confident, away from Upton Park, where he was unelected king. Alan Devonshire was another huge favourite in these years, and would link with Brooking up and down the left wing in moves that had the crowd baying with delight. When the pair were on song, you would go home buzzing at the ballet on display.
Best match ever: Hammers beat Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1 on a wet April evening in a European semi-final second leg. Brooking was unplayable, and scored the goal that took us through to the final. ‘Bubbles’ cascading around the floodlit ground. Wonderful.
I worked very near to Upton Park at the tail end of this era, just a mile or so down Green Street, managing a little Ladbrokes betting shop near the Romford Road end. By then, horse racing occupied my sporting horizon. World Cups aside, my interest continued to fade over the next decade, until Eric Cantona, David Ginola and other foreign players came along to brighten the game.
In the second half of the 1990s, I got to interview Bobby Charlton for a magazine published to accompany a British Trade week in Tunisia. Sir Bob, as he had become, was providing a soccer skills school for local Tunisians, to help generate interest. We met at Manchester airport – and he was late. It was strange to see the living legend walking through the doors to meet me, but I was struck immediately by Bob’s bad breath. Anyway he was pretty helpful. I both wrote down and taped his answers to my questions. And managed to confirm that he and brother Jack – both members of 1966 England team – were not on good terms.
Stopping at a service station on the way home to listen to the tape, I was horrified to find that I’d not turned the machine on correctly. Fuck a duck. Luckily the combination of notes and memory allowed me to blag it.
I went back to Upton Park in November 1998 with Kev Bull to see WHU beat Tottenham 1-0. My first visit in about 16 years. It wasn’t too captivating, but things at the old shrine picked up in early 1999 with the advent of Paolo di Canio. Within less than a season the Italian striker had become legend. He was almost taking on teams like Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal single-handedly. You had to see him play.
There was a game against Arsenal, in autumn 1999, where Di Canio displayed his tricks across every yard of Upton Park, convincing even the neutrals that West Ham had the best player in Britain. Aside from unreal ball skills and the deftest timing, he possessed two other gifts. A knowledge of exactly where each team-mate was positioned, and in which direction they were running, even if he was facing the other way. And the range of skills to deliver the ball to them most effectively, all gleaned from endless training ground practice. However many Arsenal players were in the way, the ball would be bent, chipped, flicked, curved and flighted, using opponents legs as deflection points if that was the chosen delivery route. It was as if he’d grown an extra pair of eyes suspended above the ground.
Three defenders came to challenge him in a pack. Too quickly for the eyes to comprehend, he was away towards goal, seeming to physically pass through them. The epiphany came when he chested down a high swirling ball, turned Martin Keown inside out with a simple piece of control, and arced the ball over David Seaman for what turned out to be the winning goal.
Yep, I loved him to bits. He was one of us. Favourite player ever, trumping the skills of Moore, Brooking, Tevez and Payet due to his passionate nature. He pushed a referee over once, but there was a far bigger taint to the memory – di Canio’s admiration of Mussolini’s politics. So stupidly pointless. I wouldn’t vote for him, but the truth is that most Hammers fans have let that monster piece of idiocy slide, for the sheer pleasure the bloke gave us all. Political correctness and football partisanship belonged in different siloes in those days.
Since Paolo’s time, I’ve been about once a year. But not to the new ground, the London Stadium, since this became the Hammers home two years ago. Partly because I mourn the loss of Upton Park, and there is something far more corporate about the new home, but mainly because I cannot be arsed anymore to pay upwards of £50 to go through the rigmarole of the travel, the queueing and the waiting around for the game. Less authentic but more pleasurable to sit at home with a hot drink and watch the live Internet stream.
PS. John Madden sent this memory of the Spurs game: “We got there early to get a good spot. the terraces were empty. I don’t think I’d been to a first division ground before. Then a loud roar started and hundreds of skinheads started streaming up the terraces, like Orcs against Helms Deep. I shat myself….I had never experienced anything like it. It was definitely planned and co-ordinated.”
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