Somewhere in the back of my fast-fading mind is the recollection that the most successful club manager this country has ever seen once stared into the bottom of his glass of Chateauneuf du Pape and moaned to anyone who would listen that West Ham always played better against Manchester United than when they faced other teams.
He may be right. During his reign we’ve scuppered their chances of winning the league twice and turned them over in both cup competitions. Perhaps there really is something in the notion that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team that brings out the claret and blue devil in us. West Ham’s first league game against Man Utd was on December 25, 1922. The second was on December 26. Just imagine: back-to-back fixtures on Christmas Day and Boxing Day – at a time when rotation was something you did with the vegetables on your allotment, not with vegetables who have agents.
Can you picture the likes of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie being told to forget about unwrapping their presents because they’ve got a game that afternoon – with the prospect of getting on the bus to London and doing it all again the following day? Forget the oft-mentioned hairdryer; Sir Alex would need a blowtorch. For those who are interested in such details, the records show that in 1922 we won the first game in Manchester 2-1, but lost the return fixture 0-2 at home. How West Ham is that?
The first ever competitive game between the two sides was in the FA Cup – and we won that one as well. Sadly, history does not record whether the Man Utd keeper of 1911 looked like a man trying to hail a cab when he was beaten in the way that Fabien Barthez did as Paolo di Canio slid the ball past him 90 years later. If only they’d had YouTube back then.
Our cup run this year was short and sweet, of course. But we were magnificent in the first game against United and would have won had it not been for a last-minute equaliser of breathtaking quality. I think we should have had a penalty in the Old Trafford replay as well. When the third round draw was made, many West Ham supporters were disappointed to be paired with Manchester United. Not me. I’d much rather play them than one of the small fry from the lower divisions. Our record is not exactly spotless in such games.
My first experience of having to endure a giant-killing that amused the rest of the nation while throwing me into a well of depression was against third division Swindon in the 1967 FA Cup. I was 10, and took these things personally. West Ham went to the County Ground for the thirdround replay with all three of our World Cup winning heroes in the side. And they came back with their tails between their legs after being turned over 3-1 in the mud. I tried to console myself with the thought that this was a once-in-a-lifetime disaster; a team that contained the likes of Moore, Hurst and Peters, and which had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup only a couple of years before, would never allow itself to suffer that sort of humiliation again.
Two years later we went to Mansfield in the fifth round of the cup. Not only did we have the World Cup winners, we had Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds in the side as well. What could possibly go wrong? This time we failed to score against our third division opponents, while they got what was now becoming the customary three. The Swindon defeat had been hard enough to swallow. Mansfield was far worse. My Chelsea-supporting schoolmates were now, like me, two years older – and starting to master the art of taking the piss. I’m not saying they were all that subtle, but they were remorseless.
Not a day went by until Man City beat Leicester in the final without me finding a slip of paper – in my desk; in my satchel; in my pocket; even, once, in my football boots – with the simple message: Mansfield 3 West Ham 0. Children can be very cruel. School life didn’t get any easier when we went down 4-0 to Blackpool in the infamous third round cup tie of 1971. As soon as young West Ham supporters are old enough to understand the spoken word, they are sat on their father’s knee and told the cautionary tale of being spotted in a nightclub hours before a televised cup game against a team from a lower division.
Toddlers brought up to be claret and blue sit, hushed in disbelief, as they learn how the mighty Bobby Moore and his mate, Jimmy Greaves, were on their way to their separate beds when a cameraman from the Match of the Day team told them the pitch was iced over and there was no chance the game would take place the following day. Sympathetic dads, who know how easy it is for a couple of quiet pints to be misconstrued, make it plain that there was nothing wrong with rounding up a couple of team-mates and heading for a nightclub run by a washed-up boxer.
They stress that the lads hardly touched a drop between them. One of their number – the saintly Clyde Best – was actually tee-total. But all that counts for nothing when a bunch of northern mischiefmakers scrape away the ice, enabling the game to go ahead with the inevitable consequences. Having had this conversation with my own children, I can testify how hard it is to keep the lump out of your throat as the story unfurls.
Because what happens next simply goes to underline the fact that you really can’t trust anyone in this life. A number of West Ham supporters who had travelled up for the game are necking pints of Robinsons ale when Moore & Co walk into the 007 club. No doubt they are thrilled to be in the presence of West Ham’s finest at the time – but they get the right hump when the Irons capitulate the following day. So one of them phones a newspaper, and the story becomes headline news.
Now, as a journalist myself, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this – but one or two of my colleagues are partial to a drink themselves. In fact in 1971 you could be fired for being found sober at your desk. So the thought of a newspaperman with a liver like a laceup football flicking the fag ash off his typewriter and settling down to a write a story about a living god and his loyal acolytes who’d enjoyed a few hours of innocent relaxation is one that still troubles my professional conscience.
Let’s hope Lord Leveson ensures this sort of thing never again happens to the fine young athletes who represent West Ham United. The next three years at school weren’t any better for me. The education authorities had taken the decision to raise the school leaving age from 15 to 16, so when we lost 2-1 to Stockport County the kids who would have otherwise left to follow their careers in plumbing, carpentry or petty larceny were still my classmates.
They were most disgruntled by still being there – and our defeat at the hands of a fourth division side in a League Cup tie was one of the few things that brightened their lives. Thank you lads, for sharing your joy with me. That match, of course, is not be confused with the 2-1 defeat at Stockport in which Ian Dowie scored an own goal that is still regarded as the finest of its kind by many. There’s a 25-year gap between those two games, in which we rarely wasted an opportunity to find ourselves on the wrong end of a humiliating defeat by a team from the lowrent end of the Football League.
The pick of the bunch? Hmm, that’s tough – why don’t you choose one? There are certainly plenty from which to make your selection:
Hull City 1 West Ham 0 (1973) , Hereford 2 West Ham Utd 1 (1974) , Fulham 2 West Ham 1 (1974) , West Ham 1 Swindon 2 (1978) , Newport 2 West Ham 1 (1979) , Watford 2 West Ham 0 (1982) , West Ham 2 Barnsley 5 (1987) , Torquay 1 West Ham 0 (1990) , Crewe 2 West Ham 0 (1992) , Barnsley 4 West Ham 1 (1993) , Luton 3 West Ham 2 (1994)
Trust me, it doesn’t get any better after 1996. In January 1997, West Ham went to Wrexham for a third round tie that had a touch of the ’71 Blackpool game about it. The pitch was covered in snow and barely fit for purpose. In fact most of the country was covered in snow, and almost half of the third round games were cancelled. But the Match of the Day cameras were there, naturally suspecting an upset, so the Welsh club pulled out all the stops to ensure the fixture went ahead.
Somewhat surprisingly – and much to the annoyance of the MOTD– we got away with a 1-1 draw, courtesy of a goal from Hugo Porfirio. So it’s all back to Upton Park for the replay. Third tier opposition at home after surviving a tricky tie at their place? Surely we already had one foot in the next round, where our opponents would be the lowly Peterborough – possibly our name is on the Cup once more! But no, that’s not the West Ham way. We lost 1-0 after a truly dreadful performance that left Harry Redknapp looking more lugubrious than a bulldog with toothache.
Shall I go on? I can see this is really starting to hurt. Look, I’m sorry about all this – I know you can’t take much more – but in all honesty I can’t really walk away without mentioning the 1-0 home defeat to Oldham in 2002. Or the 2-1 loss at Chesterfield in 2006. Then there’s the 2-1 beating by Aldershot at Upton Park at the beginning of last season. Glenn Roeder; Alan Pardew; Fat Sam Allardyce. The managers may change, but the pain’s the same.
Of course, it’s a long time since I left school, and I no longer find scraps of paper reminding me of the score inserted in inappropriate places when we lose. But it’s still no fun going to work after results like that. Lower league opposition? Forget it. Give me the likes of Manchester United any day. Compare all the times we’ve been bitten by the underdog with di Canio’s winner in the Old Trafford cup tie, or Tevez’s goal as we completed the Great Escape – or even Ludo’s fantastic performance between the sticks when we denied Sir Alex the Premiership title in 1995 – and I think you’ll see what I mean. So, come on Fergie, can we play you every week?