I once likened supporting West Ham to the notion of having a girlfriend who repeatedly cheats on you.
You love them dearly, and with all your heart. But despite the fact they treat you like dirt – repeatedly and without consideration for you – you just cannot force them out of your life. Sure, you want to hate them, you might even believe that you do, but at the end of the day, you know you’ll still love them, faults and all. After all – who else is there? So why do we put ourselves through it? And how did we find ourselves in this situation?
Well, I’d imagine for most of you, locality is the reason. With a catchment area covering the whole of east of London and into Essex, my West Country drawl seems to stick out like a sore thumb, especially when it adds several additional r’s to “Come on You Irons” So how did I come to be a West Ham fan? Usually, I’d be a strong advocate of supporting your local team but I’m born and bred in Gloucester – a little Rugby loving outpost in the arse end of the South West.
As a kid, Gloucester City and Cheltenham Town were the epitome of non league mediocrity – the latter since progressing to lower league mediocrity, the former pretty much as they ever were. So what else was local to me? Bristol City/Rovers to the south, or some serious straw clutching with Aston Villa to the North. Alas, it was to be a different set of claret and blue shirts for me. With no team in the realistic locality, I decided upon the only other acceptable choice of supporting a team – I followed in my fathers footsteps.
A decision that 6 year old me made without being able to fathom the impact it would have! A year later, after seeing my Liverpool supporting friends celebrate title after title, while West Ham languished in 2nd division mediocrity, I asked my dad why we were West Ham fans. Surely I’d put my blind faith in following him for a reason.
Up until then, I’d assumed it was because we were the best side in the world. That must be why all of our family supported West Ham. Right? Wrong! The reason my dad took up the mantra of West Ham should have given me some insight into the future chaos and cock ups that lay in store for me. As a young child himself, my old man sat and watched the 1966 World Cup final with his own father – a Welsh boxing enthusiast who by his own admission hadn’t the first clue about football.
Impressed by the goal scoring feats of Bobby Charlton, he asked my grandfather who he played for. Confused between the goalscorer and the captain, he informed his son it was West Ham, thinking he meant our Bobby. So, thanks to a confused Welshman who’d clearly received too many hits to the head, a dynasty of West Ham supporters were born. There is though, something of a mystique about West Ham. Something strangely alluring. It’s not the team, or the management – certainly not the success – yet the club as a whole just has a lure to them.
My father, 57 now, texts me bemoaning the team after every defeat telling me he supports the fans as much as the team. And there, in a nutshell, does it become clear. We are not just a football club. We are a way of life. We know we are not a great team. A history in which three FA Cups, a Cup Winners Cup and half a Charity shield are the only silverware to adorn our cupboards were all won before my lifetime, none of us are here for the success – the 1999 Intertoto Cup aside of course!
But when we hit the heights, boy do we know how to enjoy them. From the genius of Di Canio to the ferocious competitiveness of Julian Dicks. When the lows arrive, we also treat them with humour and self-deprecation that no other team can fathom. At which other club would Tomas Repka have become a cult favourite!?
Not only that, but imagine for one scary, horrific, spinechilling moment that my Grandfather had correctly identified Bobby Charlton as a Man United player, and I’d grown up supporting them. I’d have become arrogant. I’d have assumed success was easy to come by, and sulk when it wasn’t. I’d never know that other teams were allowed to be awarded penalties, and above all – I’d never know what it feels like to beat Man United. Look at them now – they’re in a crisis.
Have you noticed that when we go to places like Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and The Emirates – we’re the only ones making noise?
It’s because their fans sit there, expecting to win, and expecting to be entertained. Can you ever imagine them starting a chant of “Let’s pretend we scored a goal”? The gallows of humour that transpires from the fans is a part of what makes Upton Park such a fantastic place to watch football.
We appreciate who we are, where we are and who we’re up against. Throughout all the disappointment and let downs, we continue to show our support – never more so than this season. Sure, things are bad – but they’ve been worse. The current manager will eventually leave, as will the current crop of players. But the club will remain, and so will we. As I now turn 30, and the wife informs me family planning is around the corner, it makes me think of the West Ham legacy, and what I would want to happen should I ever have a son.
Will I acknowledge the almost permanent disappointment supporting West Ham brings, and allow him to follow his friends into a sheep like support of a top four side? Nope. If nothing else – it’s character building.