This time next year, according to Del Boy Trotter, we’ll be millionaires. For me, 12 months down the line is going to seem like a large step closer to the poor house.
At the start of the season, you never know what the last day is going to bring. Well, not at West Ham you don’t. This year it will be a sense of relief at having not just survived on our return to the Premiership, but having done so in a way that suggests we might actually be in for a period of stability. Sam Allardyce’s direct style of football is not to my taste – I’d rather see the ball at Trevor Brooking’s feet than aimed at Andy Carroll’s head – but it certainly beats the clueless rubbish that was served up by Avram Grant and Gianfranco Zola.
Previous years have brought a whole array of emotions when the curtain has come down and supporters are spilling on to the pitch, despite all those fruitless appeals to stay off. Under the useless Grant, there was the despair of relegation – just as there was under the blameless Sir Trevor. Last year there was the uncertainty of the playoffs.
Those of us with long memories can recall the joy of being promoted directly, without having to endure the cruellest lottery the football authorities could have dreamed up, then celebrating accordingly on the final day of the regular season. And, in the days before the world went mad and it was decided the game’s most prestigious knock-out tournament should be concluded before the league programme was completed, there was even the excitement of an occasional FA Cup final to look forward to after the battle for precious points.
Next year, when we play our final game, I suspect my over-riding feeling will be one of melancholy. Because after that we will have just one more season at the place I have considered to be my spiritiual home for as long as I can remember. And in 2015-16 I’ll be chalking off each game at Upton Park in the same way a condemned man scratches the wall of his prison cell to mark the passing of his last days on Earth – knowing the hangman’s noose will inevitably be wrapped around his neck at the end of it all.
We are repeatedly told the new stadium represents a bright new future. But I don’t want to go. According to the good folk who run West Ham, moving to the Olympic Stadium is the only viable option. Perhaps they are right. But, call me an old cynic, I’m always wary when people tell me there is no alternative. What worries me most is that we are selling our major asset, and putting ourselves in the hands of a landlord. How many people willing choose to sell their house and move into rented property?
Upton Park – or, to dignify it with its correct name, the Boleyn Ground – is far from perfect, but the defects can be put right. It has been redeveloped before, and could be again. The obvious way to increase the capacity from its present 35,000 is to build a new East Stand. As recently as 2005 this was still very much on the cards, to the extent that planning permission was being sought
The idea then was to use the extra space that became available when the old West Stand went west – both literally and metaphorically. That happened in 2001. It was replaced by a new construction, which was repositioned several yards further back to allow more elbow-room for the playing surface. (I much preferred things when fans were closer to the pitch down both sides, but I can understand why opposition players and shortsighted linesmen didn’t). That isn’t going to happen, of course. The Boleyn Ground, home of West Ham United since 1904, has been sentenced to death – and no one is going to save it now.
Curiously, the reasons given for the move to the Boleyn from the Memorial Ground in Canning Town, where West Ham had first played after starting life as Thames Ironworks, are the same ones being put forward to justify uprooting to Stratford. At the turn of the 20th century, impressively whiskered directors were arguing that the site they had earmarked in the borough of East Ham would be more accessible for supporters; would allow bigger crowds to watch the games and enable the club to become a major force in the land. Sound familiar?
What most of the world now calls Upton Park takes its name from a castle that wasn’t really a castle at all. It was a rather strange looking affair, built in 1544 and boasting vague connections with the woman over whom Henry VIII lost his head before deciding she must lose hers. Some say Anne lived there, others reckon she merely visited from time to time. Either way, it carried her monicker – so when West Ham leased the property and the grounds in which it stood, the Boleyn Ground was an obvious address.
When I first went to the Boleyn Ground, back in the 1960s, I used to stand on the old North Bank – which was cheap and allowed you to look like a hard case without ever running the risk of direct confrontation with the opposition hooligans, who were parked at the other end of the ground. I didn’t discover the Chicken Run until the 1970s and when I did it was love at first slight. No one was spared the insults that came flying out of there like machine gun bullets; opposition players; officials; even our own players.
Actually, it was especially our players – particularly the ones who were judged to be failing to put in the required effort. It wasn’t just the barbs themselves that lifted this abuse into an art form, it was the timing with which they were delivered. If taking the piss had been an Olympic event, these boys would have won every gold medal going. The only time you didn’t want to find yourself in the Chicken Run was on one of those rare occasions that saw the sun shine on E13. In fact, it’s a problem to this very day in the East Stand. Unless you have the foresight to go armed with a peak cap, you have to spend most of the game shielding your eyes with your hand when it’s sunny. From the other side of the ground it looks like a parade ground saluting its commanding officer.
Which is quite amusing for them, but a becomes a bit annoying if you have to do it for an entire game. The old South Bank used to be the poor relation, which is perhaps why the away fans were housed there. Back in the heyday of hooliganism, that’s where West Ham’s serious psychos went in search of aggro. There is a story that the Boleyn Ground is haunted by one of Anne’s maid’s. But when I go in the stand that now graces the southern end of the ground and is named after the most famous figure in our club’s history, the ghosts I see wear braces, bovver boots and Ben Sherman shirts. To be honest, I won’t be sorry to leave them behind.
The West Stand has been suffering something of an identity crisis in recent years thanks to the wonders of corporate sponsorship. When it was rebuilt it was named the Doctor Martens Stand, which must have pleased all those former skinheads who had stomped around in DMs back in the 1970s. That deal ran out in 2009, and for a couple of years it resumed its former unimaginative but geographically accurate title.
The West Stand was not to be left in peace though, and is now the Alpari Stand. However, I have to say that as sponsorship deals goes this one leaves something to be desired. I for one have not got the first idea who Alpari are or what they do – and I can’t be bothered to find out, even though I was sitting in one of their seats when Robin Van Persie scored the most offside goal I saw all season to deny us a well-deserved victory against Man Utd last month.
In Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy did finally become a millionaire. Call me a plonker, but I wouldn’t swap places with him, though. All the money in the world couldn’t buy my memories of the Boleyn Ground.