A few minutes before kick off on Saturday, take some time to check out the Swansea fans. You may find a famous face among them. We’re not talking about celebrity supporters here. They are 10-a-penny at Upton Park these days.
Admittedly, you don’t see the likes of John Cleese, Keira Knightley and Barack Obama in the Doc Martens Lower as often as I’d like, but there’s no denying we’ve got a big squad of celebs in the posher parts of the ground. In fact, we could consider letting some of them go in the summer transfer window. Let’s start with Russell Brand. The sight of him sitting next to Sir Trevor in the director’s box in last season’s play off game against Cardiff left me feeling as uncomfortable as the great man himself clearly was too.
You may not see too many showbiz superstars in the Swansea end, but you might clock one of their players if their game at Fulham earlier this season is anything to go by. Their Spanish defender Chico Flores wasn’t picked for the squad who travelled to Craven Cottage, so he decided to watch the game with the supporters instead. Imagine that! You’re minding your own business, quietly reading Blowing Bubbles, and you take a quick glance at the bloke in the adjacent seat to see what you’ve ended up with this time – and the fella sitting next to you turns out to be one of your own players!
Would you talk to them? And, if so, what would you say? I suppose a lot depends on who it is. If it were Joe Cole, for instance, I’d offer him an extra strong mint and welcome him home. But I might also ask him what precisely he thought he was doing when he scored that match-changing goal for Liverpool against us at the back end of last year.
If only he’d known he was on his way back to E13 – he could have blasted that over the bar and nobody would have been any the wiser. There are a few others I wouldn’t mind having a quite word with, as well. I’d remind Carlton Cole that the big white thing at each end of the pitch is called a goal and that the object of the game is put the ball into it.
I’d tell Dan Potts to forget that howler against Sunderand last month, and concentrate on becoming every bit as good as his father. And, with the firmest handshake I could muster, I’d salute Jack Collison for turning out against Millwall just two days after his father had been killed in a road accident. There was a time when you could talk to professional football players regularly – because they lived among the community that paid their wages, rather than in a luxury flat in the fashionable part of town, or a gated mansion in the wealthy suburbs where the security personnel will set the guard dogs on you given half a chance.
When my wife was growing up in East Ham, she lived two streets away from the fabulous Ronnie Boyce, who took time out from working in his family’s corner grocery store to score the winning goal for West Ham in the 1964 Cup final. Even the great Bobby Moore was no stranger to East London on weekdays. He once held open the door of stationer’s Davidson Back in the Barking Road for the girl I would one day marry. She had barely started secondary school at the time, but the captain of England, probably the most recognisable man in the country at the time, still found time to smile and confess that it was his pleasure when she thanked him for his courtesy
These days I find it hard to remember who the captain of England is, never mind picturing him buying his own stationery. Now, please don’t think this is some thinly disguised nationalist manifesto for UKIP. I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock and exclude the overseas players who have made the Premiership what it is today. My complaint is not about the nationality of the players, it’s about how distanced they have all become from the supporters. I don’t begrudge the money they earn either (come to think of it, in some cases, I do) but there is a huge difference between financial security and having so much wonga you can light cigars with a 50-quid note in a nightclub to make the point you are minted.
It’s the youngsters I feel sorry for. When I was a kid, we had heroes who stayed with West Ham for years; that, partly, is how they became heroes. Growing up is hard enough as it is, but it becomes even tougher when – year in, year out – you have to take down the posters of your latest favourite player because he’s moved on to another club for more money.
Of course, there have always been transfers in football. But players are more likely to stay at a club such as ours if they understand exactly what those crossed Irons mean to the supporters, and you only get that by keeping in contact with your roots. I’m thinking of someone like Mark Noble, who is no stranger to the furniture shop run by my wife’s cousin’s husband. At a cricket match, kids can often get a player’s autograph while the game is actually in progress, even at international level.
But when it comes to our national sport, autographhunting youngsters and ticket-buying adults are lucky if they get the merest glance from a footballer as the selfacclaimed megastar speeds away from the club car park.. As a boy, my bedroom wall was covered in pictures of Geoff Hurst. By the time he was transferred to Stoke, I think my dad was worried that I was beginning to develop an unhealthy obsession with a male role model.
A few weeks ago I wished Sir Geoff a happy birthday via Twitter which, while not exactly fulfilling a boyhood ambition, was something. But when you’re out with friends in a restaurant on a Saturday evening it’s hardly a boast to compare with Mrs Loud & Proud’s that she once walked through a door held open by Bobby Moore. But then she’s had all the advantages in life – she was born in the East End.