As a responsible parent I am often asked at what age a father should take his child to their first game. Actually, that’s not true. I can’t claim to be particularly responsible and I’ve never been asked about the best time to take a kid to a match. But I’m going to tell you anyway, because I have strong feelings on the matter.
I was given no parental guidance whatsoever about football as a child – my old man just wasn’t interested. He was hard-working, sober and rarely beat my mother; but when it came to the important things, like which team to follow until the day you die, he was a total failure. My choice of club was left entirely up to me – and nearly 50 years later I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about how my life could have been ruined at such a tender age.
In the early Sixties Tottenham had won the double; Man Utd were still being swept along on a post-Munich tide of sympathy; Liverpool were an emerging force. I could have ended up supporting any one of them – imagine the horror!
Then there were the family connections. When parents fail you, your godparents are supposed to fill the void. My godmother lived a stone’s throw from Craven Cottage, but fortunately for me she couldn’t give a monkey’s about football otherwise this Saturday I may well have been at Upton Park in the Fulham end (I was going to say “standing in the Fulham end” but, of course, the Cottagers are terribly polite and sit down when asked).
More worryingly, my godfather supported Chelsea, and that could have had disastrous consequences for me. (You will have gathered by now I am not originally from East, East, East London. But, in my defence, I did marry a proper Cockney girl and, after studying hard, I successfully took the East End citizenship test and now have a full passport.)
Luckily for me, an impressionable eight-year-old in 1964, the FA Cup final came at just the right time. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Cup final back in those days. It was about the only game ever shown live on telly, so people took it very, very seriously.
For some reason I’ve still not fathomed out to this day, most of the kids where I lived got behind Preston North End (Yes, I know they were the underdogs, but Preston North End?) So, being a natural born rebel – if not a Cockney rebel – I went for the other lot and the rest, as they say, is history. (Although it’s a good thing we weren’t playing the south end of Preston as well that day, or we never would have won.)
All of which meant that when I had children I wasn’t going to take any chances about which team they support. Watching football on the box is all very well, but there’s nothing like seeing it in the flesh – particularly when you’re a kid. The thrill of reaching the top of those steps and seeing the stadium spread out before you for the first time is etched on every fan’s memory. Combine that with the roar of the hamburgers and the smell of the crowd (I may have got that the wrong way round) and you are hooked ‘til the end of your days.
Some parents, in my not so humble opinion, do take their offspring to Upton Park too soon. Many of those little ‘uns are clearly no more than four, and you can tell by the vacant looks on their tiny faces that they have about as much idea of what’s going as Avram Grant ever did. But leave it too long and they’ve started watching TV without you and have fallen in love with the likes of Arsenal, Man U or the Spuds. The shame of that.
I reckon the perfect age to blood them is six, and I’m happy to say it’s worked for me. Both my kids first went to Upton Park at that sort of age. As a result, my 20-year-old son is now claret and blue through and through. My daughter, admittedly, doesn’t like football – but I know that were she ever to regain the faith she would come back into the West Ham fold rather than opt for some inferior sect.
My son, Geoff, had been pestering me for while to take him before I decided the time was right, so I set him a small examination to make sure he could concentrate for the full 90 minutes.
On the day he was born we had played Liverpool. Somewhat unreasonably, I felt, my missus had refused me permission to go, simply because she was having a baby. But, happily, the game was being shown on TV and my best mate recorded it for me. (Later I had to admit my missus had been completely right about me not going – the game ended 0-0 and McAvennie missed a sitter.) Geoff’s test was to sit through the recording of this game without wandering off or falling asleep – which my boy passed with flying colours.
His reward was to see West Ham play Bolton Wanderers, newly promoted to the Premier League and still some years away from appointing Fat Sam as manager. So why not one of the glamour clubs? I hear you ask. Because I didn’t want his first game to end in defeat, that’s why. I planned for him to have the lifetime of emotional pain and misery that I have endured; I certainly didn’t want him put off at the first hurdle.
It was a proud day for me. Not only was I taking my son for the first time, my father-in-law was with us too. Three generations of Irons sitting side by side – don’t tell me West Ham will ever be anything other than a family club.
For the record, we won 3-0 with goals from Berkovic and Hartson (2). Geoff and I reminisced about the match as we sat on the steps outside the Tesco Express in Empire Way enjoying a quite pre-match aperitif before the play-off final and he reminded me how I had hoisted him in the air after one of our goals. I thought nothing more of it – until I found myself celebrating Carlton’s opener several feet higher than everyone else in the south-west corner of Wembley, courtesy of a rugby-style lift by my 6ft 4in son. How time moves on.
You never forget your first West Ham first game, do you? Unusually, perhaps, mine was at Stamford Bridge rather than Upton Park. For three years, comforted only by my collection of Topical Times football annuals, I unsuccessfully tried to persuade family and friends to take me across London to see my idols.
Finally, guilt got the better of my godfather and he agreed to take me to see them at Chelsea. I suspect he thought he could still convert me to his way of thinking, but he was far too late by then. Not only had we won the FA Cup, but by 1967, of course, we had added the Cup Winner’s Cup and World Cup to the trophy cabinet. Besides, when I saw Bobby Moore in the flesh for the first time I knew I was in the presence of God.
Ferguson; Bonds; Charles; Peters; Cushley; Moore; Burkett; Boyce; Brabrook; Hurst; Dear. Sub (not used, if I remember correctly): Sissons. Scorers: Dear 10, Hurst 50, Peters 70. We won 3-1.
Those were heady days. Two weeks before, the BBC had launched Radio One, complete with Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Young and Ed “Stewpot” Stewart.
With Radio One came Radio Two, Three and Four, of course. Shame the Beeb didn’t stop there, really. Just think, without Radio Five we wouldn’t have to put up with 606 and all those moaning football fans. It’s not like you ever hear a West Ham supporter complain