A fond farewell…sort of

Humans are rubbish at saying goodbye.  We will put something off as long as we can, often kidding ourselves that we will get “one final chance” to say farewell, even when deep down we know it’s not going to happen.  I’ve known for three years that at some point I would be making my final visit to Upton Park yet when the realisation comes that “this is it” I didn’t really know what to think.

26578670721_9db220e464_zI recently worked out I had seen West Ham play at The Boleyn Ground over 300 times.  My first visit was back in 1976, coming to a game with my Dad and brother against Burnley.  I’ve seen promotions, relegation, riots, sit-ins, utter jubilation and crushing defeats.  As a father I remember bringing both my children to the ground for the first time, hoping that they would fall in love with the stadium just like I had.  One hated her first experience of football so much (and we were sitting in a box!) that she vowed never to come back.  There are few games that for one reason or another I don’t recall.  Despite the game becoming this global, polished marketing vehicle, the life that teems around Upton Park on a match day hasn’t really changed in that 40 years.  Ken’s Cafe, Nathan’s Pie and Mash, the same bloke selling the programmes (the one with the pierced ear and funny teeth).  I still wonder today what happened to the Monkey Nuts seller on the North Bank.

There was never going to be a chance of getting a ticket for Swansea City, or latterly Manchester United.  Football doesn’t work on compassion and nostalgia these days.  My years of loyal support and tens of thousands of pounds count for nothing – it is all about the here and now, and I have no issues with that having given up my season ticket six seasons ago.  So my chance to say goodbye was going to be in the Premier League Development Squad League Cup Final First Leg (nothing like a catchy title) against Hull City on a freezing cold April night.

West Ham’s current owners do some things really well. But they also far too often go back to type and think of the fans as ATM machines, happy to dish out cash on demand.  Take the start of this season where West Ham had qualified for the Europa League for the first time in over a decade.  Tickets for those opening games were priced from £10.  That is cheaper than watching games eight levels below the Premier League.  Consequently virtually every ticket for the three games played at The Boleyn Ground sold out.  A few days after the last of those games was a friendly arranged against Werder Bremen where the ticket prices were doubled.  The attendance? Well let’s just say tickets were available to buy on the day.

The positive vibes the clubs created by announcing a year in advance of the move to the Olympic Stadium with some of the cheapest season ticket prices in the Premier League were seriously undone by the legal wranglings over the exact details of the stadium deal. 26578680771_7a998b40f8_zA walk around the stadium store just shows how much money the owners have tried to make out of this final year at The Boleyn Ground.  Almost every item under the sun had a “Farewell Boleyn” logo on.  Based on the number that had started to appear in the bargain buckets, I guess fans have got “farewell” fatigue.

Every fan will have their own special memories of the ground and meeting up with Dagenham Dan and Brian we spent a fair amount of time taking a trip down memory lane to the most obscure places.  In the fullness of time I am sure I will remember more but for me the five most vivid memories have been:-

West Ham 5 Notts County 2 – August 1978 – My first real season at Upton Park and on the opening day a team inspired by Devonshire and Brooking scored four first half goals to top the league. I assumed from my spot on the lip over the entrance to the South Bank, just in front of the man bar that every game would be as easy as this….

West Ham 1 Dynamo Tblisi 4 – March 1981 – Almost 35,000 squeezed into Upton Park to see one of the finest performances ever witnessed at the ground.  The Russians (now Georgians) arrived for this European Cup Winners Cup Quarter-Final as relative unknowns but undid a West Ham side who had lost just a handful of games all season.  Even now I can remember the names of players such as Chivadze, Chilaya and Shengalia. By the time we reached the ground at 7pm, the North Bank and West Stands were full, but for some reason nobody was using the “away fans” turnstile – the first time I ever stood in that corner of the old South Bank.

West Ham 6 Aldershot 1 – January 1991 – Non-League Aldershot had managed a 0-0 draw in the initial tie in this FA Cup 3rd Round tie and with the replay also to be played at Upton Park I took the opportunity to take my then girlfriend of 9 months to The Boleyn Ground for the first time.  She hated the whole experience of standing on a cold and wet South Bank, despite the six West Ham goals.  I had to act fast to turn a desperate situation around so I proposed, kneeling down in the passenger foot-well of her pink Fiat Panda at some traffic lights in Walthamstow.  She said yes and for the next year I wasn’t allowed near a football ground because we were “wedding planning”.  By the time we drew with Non-League Farnborough a year later at the same stage of the cup, the wedding was off and I was again back on the South Bank.

West Ham 2 Ipswich Town 0 – May 2004 – After the shock of dropping out of the Premier League on the last day of the previous season, West Ham made a real hash of trying to immediate return, losing to sides such as Gillingham, Rotherham United and Millwall.  We scrapped into the Play-offs, winning just five of our last ten and then lost to Ipswich Town at Portman Road in the first leg.  This was the Pardew “Moore than just a football club” era and the noise levels at the ground on the night of the second leg were off the scale.  Etherington brought us back into the tie just after half-time and then Christian Dailly scrambled home a winner with twenty minutes to play to send nearly 32,000 Hammers fans into delirium….”Oh Christian Dailly, you are the love of my life, Oh Christian Dailly, I’d let you shag my wife, she’s got curly hair too”.  Less said about the final in Cardiff the better.

West Ham 3 Newcastle United 1 – September 2008 – In one of the first games of the Zola era I decided to bring my daughter to her first West Ham game.  I gave up my Season Ticket in the Bobby Moore lower to watch a team featuring Ilunga, Behrami and David  Di Michele.  The little Italian shone on that day, scoring two in the 3-1 win but more importantly giving every fan hope that we had found the new Di Canio.  Some of the football played on that afternoon was sublime and hard to forget, unlike the performance two weeks later against Bolton Wanderers where we lost by the same scoreline where it was hard to remember.

There are a host of other games that have less positive memories of course plus a huge bunch of matches that just merge into one.  Any fan could wax lyrical about their team’s performances over the year, with their most memorable games being close to their heart.  Being in the stadium one last time brings all of those to the fore, just like the memories of a dearly departed friend or love one.  As Shankly said, football isn’t a matter of life or death – it is more important than that.  Whilst I wouldn’t 100% agree, I do see on the emotional side where he was coming from.

26578684361_98d38ac4d4_zLooking around the ground before kick off it is still hard to fathom why the club feel the need to move.  With just the old East Stand needing redevelopment to make the stadium a more than comfortable 40,000 all seater, blind ambition seems to have got in the way of sense.  This season has taught us a number of things.  Firstly, you don’t need a massive stadium, nor billions of pounds to challenge (and win) at the top of the table.  The fact that West Ham are still chasing a Champions League spot with three games to go has nothing to do with the stadium but the squad assembled.  Secondly, clubs that have ignored their youth development will temporarily be replaced in the hierarchy.  Both Chelsea and Manchester United have suffered this season, primarily down to the old guard simply not reaching the standards required.  Again, that has nothing to do with the stadium.  Finally, it is about the football club being part of the community – moving to the Olympic Stadium will remove the club from the kill parts of this small area of London.

I get the fact this is about ambition and about being able to compete at the highest level of the Premier League but we also have to be realistic.  Only a small number of clubs can compete for the major honours and we have to go head to head against some of the world’s most wealthiest clubs – the new TV deal will make the rich, richer.  Investment will be required and I am not sure our current owners are willing to make that additional step once the club moves to the new ground.

West Ham United DS 1 Hull City DS 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 25th April 2016
In some ways a crowd of over 10,000 for this game was quite impressive, but with tickets on sale for as little as £4 for adults and only a few more games left in the ground I expected more.  There was a danger that the football would become a mere side-show but fortunately a decent game, punctuated by some excellent performances ensured that a fine balance between nostalgia and excitement was maintained.

26371043240_ee9b71b1c6_zDespite the last-gasp winner for substitute Djair Parfitt-Williams, West Ham dominated the game with the stand-out player being Martin Samuelsen, who impressed back in pre-season in a number of games and was again displaying some of the impressive skills that have seen him play regularly in League One this season at Peterborough United.  At the back, a mature performance from Reece Oxford ensured that it was unlikely Hull would ever be leaving East London with anything more than a point from a goal-less draw.

It is hard to imagine how many of the squad will go onto be regulars in the first team.  Sam Byron signed in a high-profile move from Leeds United, whilst Josh Cullen has been playing at Bradford City.  Whilst the Europa League run last season gave us a taste of the potential future talent at the club, few have been regulars in the first team squad yet.  The fabled West Ham academy production line seems to have temporarily gone on strike, although the purposes of youth development for Premier League clubs has changed so much in such a short period of time to almost being defensive in approach rather than looking to polish the diamonds of tomorrow.

As the rain and sleet fell at the end of the game there were a few fans shedding a tear as they posed for one last photo next to the pitch.  For my final visit there was no queue at the bar at The Boleyn nor was there one to get into the tube station at Upton Park – hardly like old times then.

The Boleyn Ground – 1904 to 2016 – Rest in Pieces

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