East London primarily means West Ham when you are talking football and for the purposes of this series, we will stay north of the river. I must include Leyton Orient here as well despite the fact they are now not a League club. May 2014 saw them involved in a League One play-off second leg against Peterborough at what I will always call Brisbane Road. It’s a pleasant spot overlooked by tower blocks almost above the corner flag which of course meant heaving balconies. A fairly frenzied atmosphere witnessed a 2-1 victory taking them through to Wembley, pitch invasion post-match as well. For NI readers, Ulster interest had goalscorer Conor Washington and Grant McCann on the subs bench. Clearly, McCann had family there as a huge personalised Ulster flag was visible amongst the provincial blue hordes. I hope they return to the league.
After Anfield, where a company I once worked for had seats, I have been to West Ham more than any other English ground due to the youngest son being a Hammer. His maternal side of the family had a chap called Stanley Earle who played for them in the twenties so one of the family was always going to follow them. Interestingly enough, his only cap for England was against Northern Ireland in 1927 at Belfast’s Windsor Park.
My father-in-law had written to the club informing them of the connection and on my youngest’s first visit there in April 2006 there was a photograph of my son and the backstory in the programme. Marvellous stuff. I should also mention the warmth of the East End fans when they found out we had travelled from across the water to see their team. You don’t get that everywhere.
The boy came out with a classic line as we edged down Green Street and Upton Park came into view. The sort of line that only eight-year-olds think of –
“Daddy, my face isn’t big enough for my smile.”
The club shop was like heaven to him. The match wasn’t. A grim 0-0 against Charlton only memorable for West Ham’s Teddy Sheringham’s 40th birthday that day.
However, that wasn’t my first visit to the Boleyn ground. The first one in August 1979 was quite a different ballgame. As a perhaps foolhardy youngster, I left my mother and sister at some London show and headed along the District line to Newham to see West Ham v Chelsea. Scary. You could feel the blades in the air. Fear bounced off walls at people, senses at full ninety making them move in a tense fashion. The ground represented safety; the streets represented danger in the open.
Stood a few terraces back to the right of the goal, it was hard to see the six-yard box because you were so close to the pitch. Chelsea won 1-0 playing in yellow and green and scored through a lad called Gary Johnson. Not a name to chime through the decades but I came across him on the news a year or so back. He had been abused by one of the coaches in his youth. It didn’t make a positive story by any means. What I do remember was a mushroom of space developed in the midst of the Chelsea support as clearly, the WHU Inter-City Firm had got in amongst them. It was good to get back to the centre of London in one piece.
The next visit after the 2006 visit was three years later against Manchester City in March 2009 won by WHU with a Jack Collison goal. England and Essex cricketer Graham Gooch sat beside us. The young lad always enjoyed the area outside where the players stopped for autographs. Vincent Kompany and Robinho were in that City side along with future Hammer Pablo Zabaleta. A year later Stoke won by a sharp piece of Ricardo Fuller finishing for a 1-0 so the youngster was learning what following West Ham was like fairly quickly.
My final visit to Upton Park was in February 2012 to see another goalless draw against Crystal Palace where Wilfried Zaha was particularly lively. I can see why many miss Upton Park. A proper football ground welded to the community practically and emotionally. The thing that struck me through all these visits was that there was more or less a different manager each visit. It struck because as a youngster West Ham went through so few managers. Basically, it was Ron Greenwood and John Lyall.
Which brings me on naturally to the London Stadium in Stratford which I visited for David Moyes’ first game as manager at the end of November 2017. A 1-1 draw against Leicester seemed to suit the blandness of the surroundings. However, it certainly can manage a fair racket as the WHU fans were being supportive for the manager’s first home game. But one can see how it depresses folk though, I venture that if the team is winning most fans will put up with anything. I have also done a tour of the inside and again, as West Ham do not own it, you can see how it will be a while before the vast approach concourses are filled with love and emotion. Such is modern football.