Flying So High: West Ham’s Cup Finals

“It must be a very short book!” is the usual response to the title of my new e-book Flying So High:

“It must be a very short book!” is the usual response to the title of my new e-book Flying So High: West Ham’s Cup Finals. But the advantage of West Ham not making too many cup finals — the book features seven — is that each game says something unique about the fan culture and footballing values of the time.

The ‘White Horse’ Cup Final of 1923 between West Ham and Bolton was the first ever game at Wembley and has strikingly modern themes: fanatical fans, a stadium completed just three days before the final and some very iffy security (though G4S were not involved). More than 200,000 blokes in fl at caps broke past the flimsy barriers and filled a stadium with a capacity of 125,000. It’s amazing there wasn’t a Hillsborough-type disaster. Yet the press ignored thousands of fans bunking in and instead concentrated on the heroism of Billie the white (actually a grey) horse and rider PC George Scorey and the rousing reception given to the King. Another remarkable fact is that rather than demand the game be replayed, as it clearly should have been because the crowd were encroaching on the pitch throughout the game, West Ham meekly accepted the result rather than be seen as “bad sports”. If only Sheffield United had felt the same way about the Tevez affair.

West Ham’s next appearance at Wembley was the 1964 FA Cup Final against Preston North End. The programme has a full-page advert for Double Diamond. The mainly male fans are all wearing suits and ties, though sometimes they’ve added plastic bowler hats, rosettes on jacket lapels, rattles and a few early banners. We really did only have one song in those days. After 33 minutes comes the fi rst chorus of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. It’s slower and more melodic than the modern version, with a highpitched tone to the collective voice. In the 1965 European Cup Winners Cup Final the fans have three more chants, “Sealey!”, “We want three!” and, borrowed from Liverpool, “E-i-adio we’ve won the cup!” Bobby Moore wears manhoodhugging pristine white shorts and the team are clean-shaven with sensible partings. Off the pitch the swinging sixties are starting and commentator Kenneth Wolstenhome is astonished by the sight of “a lady photographer” behind the goal.

By the time West Ham reach the 1975 FA Cup final against Fulham it’s all changed again. Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard look like roadies for rock bands, Fulham’s captain Bobby Moore had huge sideburns and there’s a large billboard advertising Rizla cigarette papers. Alan Taylor, newly signed from Rochdale, scores twice for the Hammers and at the end there’s a pitch invasion by jubilant Irons fans. Trevor Brooking is wearing a claret and blue top hat as he’s carried around the ground during the team’s chaotic lap of honour. Youths in fl ared denims stand before a banner reading “It’s Mervyn’s Day”. A bloke in a white lab coat confi dently walks away with the corner fl ag while Billy Jennings is chaired by youths with Paul McCartney sideburns.

The West Ham fans are fenced in at Wembley for the 1980 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. There’s more aggro in the fan culture and the favoured chant of the day is “He’s only a poor little Gunner/ His face is all tattered and torn/he made me feel sick/ so I hit him with a brick/and now he don’t sing anymore!” But there are still plenty of home made banners, reading: “Hitchcock’s Dead but Psycho Plays On”, “Trevor Brooking Sells More Dummies than Mothercare”, and the more poetic, “The Greatest Players in the Land are Captain Billy and his Band. That’s Frank the Lamp, Alan Dev, Paul and Stewart and Tricky Trev.” Trevor Brooking’s header seals it and 17-year-old Paul Allen cries all way down the Wembley steps.

By the time of the 2005 Play-Off Final and the 2006 FA Cup Final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium the game has changed completely. Football has been through the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the Taylor Report, all-seater stadia, the Premier League, middle-class fans, gates going up instead of declining, and the advent of live Sky TV coverage.

The FA now has “official partners” with their logos on the rolling electronic hoardings around the pitch. The fans have jester hats, hammers painted on cheeks, Trevor Brooking’s head on a stick, cross of St George flags, and “CUP FINAL 06” on the back of replica shirts. In the Champions League era the FA Cup needs its reputation restored and West Ham do just that in a thrilling 3-3 draw that would have been a memorable win, but for Lionel Scaloni failing to hoof the ball into Row Z. Another new innovation is the penalty shootout, which West Ham won in my dreams.

The 2012 Wembley Play-off Final charts further changes, with promotion no longer decided by league places alone and this game now the most valuable in world football, worth some £40 million to the winners. The fans now have claret and blue fuzzy wigs, a “Sex and drugs and Carlton Cole” banner, and a West Ham scarf placed on the statue of Bobby Moore outside Wembley. Ricardo Vaz Te gives the Irons their “Aguero moment” and Kevin Nolan collects the trophy with a fl ag tied round his neck as if it were a cape. The whole team wear pre-printed “Nothing Beats Being Back” t-shirts and there’s music as they receive the trophy with Paradise by Coldplay playing over the PA. “Para… para… paradise! Whoa whoa!” Fireworks explode on the pitch to celebrate West Ham’s fi rst victory at Wembley for 32 years and it’s another great day.

Writing Flying So High: West Ham’s Cup Finals was a great excuse to watch the old DVDs of the finals and rummage in my attic for antique programmes, but mainly it’s given me a chance to appreciate the one constant factor in the changing face of football – West Ham’s brilliant fans. Get your hands on a copy of Flying So High on Amazon.

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