It’s a few minutes before three on a mid-winter’s afternoon and what little daylight that’s left is fading fast. You’ve been looking forward to Saturday all week, and it’s here at last. Now you are impatient for the game to get started.
Perched towards the top of the Bobby Moore stand, you shift your gaze beyond the confines of the rapidly filling stadium towards the north-east, where the slate grey sky has merged seamlessly with the colourless landscape below. And, with a sudden chill in your heart, you are gripped by the terrible realisation that everything is about to go horribly wrong. There’s no logical reason for this surge of pessimism. Everything up to this point had been fine.
The players looked sharp enough in the warm up. There are a couple of injuries, but that’s to be expected at this time of year. The opponents are mid-table, and their away form is woeful. Even the ref is one you can live with. You are prone to the odd superstition, but things had augered well on the way to the ground. It’s not as if the Tube had let you down again.
Sure, there was the usual hold up waiting to get into the station, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Better still, you actually managed to smuggle that bottle of mineral water past the security guy on the turnstiles for once, and you’re grateful for a swig of it now. You thought your mouth was dry because of the salty bacon in the sandwich you’d bought from the burger stall. Now you know the cause is something different. Not panic, exactly. More a certainty that today is going to end in bitter defeat. You’ve had this feeling before, and you’re rarely wrong.
You try to shake it off by singing Bubbles at the top of your voice. You give them an ear-shattering “Come On You Irons” before you resume your seat, and try to tell yourself that things will be all right. You even brighten up as we win a throw in their half.
Then the bloke behind you starts to moan to his mate. He, too, is of the opinion that we won’t have scored if we’re still playing this time tomorrow. You know he’s right, but you don’t want to him hear say it. He’s still saying it 10 minutes later, by which time it’s become clear the last time he set foot inside the ground Scott Parker was still in the team.
You want to turn round and say something, but you keep your thoughts to yourself. Another pass goes astray in midfield and, in the defensive scramble that follows, we’re forced to concede a corner. You have no doubt that this is the moment they will score. We’re still one down at half time, and you can’t be bothered to fight your way to the bar to get a beer. Instead, you remain in your seat, grateful that the moron. behind you has gone. Sitting alone, quietly, you try to make sense of it all.
You’re a traditionalist at heart, and you believe that 3pm on a Saturday afternoon is the right time for a football match to kick off. The TV schedules made a mockery of all that with 12.45pm and 5.20pm kick offs, and you know you should be grateful that your body clock won’t be thrown completely out of synch by one of these untimely fixtures.
Furthermore, by being here you not required to help with the Christmas shopping – not today, at least. But this is a dismal performance on a dismal day, and you’ve seen too many of those over the years. Sod tradition. A 3pm start may be great for everyone else, but it clearly doesn’t suit West Ham. The second half is under way when the bloke behind returns to his seat, disturbing everyone in his row and clumsily kicking the back of yours as he does so. You are on the point of exploding – why do you waste your Saturday afternoons like this?
Then, it’s as if a giant filament is suddenly illuminated inside your head. The answer is so simple you wonder why no one has ever thought of it before: we should play all our games under lights! You get a different crowd at evening kick-offs – not quite the uncompromising support of an away game, but certainly not as many whingers. There’s a totally different feel about the whole experience. The team simply plays better. Who doesn’t love a game under the floodlights at Upton Park?
We’ve all got our favourite evening match. The 4-0 thrashing of Man Utd in the snow two seasons ago, perhaps? Or maybe it’s the 2-0 victory in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Ipswich that took us to the Millennium Stadium in 2004 – my god, the ground was rocking that night.
Mine is a League Cup tie against this weekend’s opponents. It was almost 25 years ago, but I can picture the goals as if the game were played yesterday. More interestingly, perhaps, I recall the feeling of total confidence that we would win. It enveloped me like a warm blanket on a chilly November evening.
This was Liverpool, remember. They were the reigning champions. And, back in those days, the big boys didn’t put out weakend teams in cup games – they wanted to win them. More to the point, the Boys of ’86 had become the Bozos of ’88, and we were deep in relegation trouble. Even so, well before we took our seats in the West Stand, I just knew we were going to triumph that night. It wasn’t hope – it was absolute certainty.
A rare sensation for any West Ham supporter, I know but it’s a fantastic feeling when it happens. My optimism was well founded. So, if the floodlight effect is going to win us cup games, it can do wonders for our league form too, right? Well, wrong, actually. At least if recent performances are anything to go by.
In the Saturday-Tuesday grind of the Championship, we had five home games that kicked off at 7.45pm – and didn’t win a single one of them. Four draws and a defeat against Ipswich produced a miserable return from a possible 15 points. The 5.20pm starts saw us beat Derby 3-1 and draw 3-3 with Birmingham in a real roller-coaster of an affair. Those old fashioned 3pm kick offs, however, were really good for us. Played 11; won eight; lost two; drew one; goals for 26; goals against 13. Points: 25.
But who needs ice-cold statistics when your heart tells you something different? Floodlights lift Upton Park out of the gloom and transform it into a theatre, where you’re entitled to expect a happy ending. Just don’t use that old theatrical expression to wish the players good luck beforehand. If you tell someone to break a leg at West Ham, they probably will.