Please tell me I’m having a bad dream. Th is can’t really be the end for my beloved Boleyn Ground? Ever since the closure was first announced I knew it would be hard to accept when the time finally came, but I didn’t think it would be this difficult. It feels like a funeral
I can picture the priest as he turns from the coffin to a mourning congregation: ‘We are gathered here today to remember a beloved friend, to give thanks for her life, to commend her to our merciful redeemer, to commit her to the bulldozers and to comfort one another in our grief.’ What, I wonder, would he take as the theme for his sermon? Perhaps he might be inspired by the words of Timothy in the Book of Job: ‘We brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing out. Th e Lord giveth, and Karren Brady has taken away.’
Actually, to be fair to Timothy, he didn’t mention Baroness Brady by name – but you don’t get quoted in the Bible by badmouthing members of the House of Lords. Maybe the clergyman would even throw in a psalm from Hymns Ancient and Modern (well, Modernised in this case). Th e Lord is my shepherd/ He leads me by still waters like the River Lee and will guide me in the paths of righteousness to Stratford/ Th ough I walk through the valley of the shadow of Westfi eld/ I will now have to change at Mile End and get the Central Line/ Or take the fast train from St Pancras/ Although that costs a small fortune/ You are my rod and comfort still/ You have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full/ But not the FA Cup this year sadly/ Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life/ And I will dwell in the Olympic Stadium for ever.
If this were a funeral, it would be the final farewell to a proper lady. Some say that, at the ripe old age of 112, her time had come. But there are those of us who believe she still had plenty of life left in her, and could have gone on for many more years had she been given the love and attention she so richly deserved.
I first got to know her more than 50 years ago, and it’s fair to say she’s had a few facelifts since then. She had a few “gentlemen friends” in her time as well. Bobby Moore; Sir Trevor Brooking; Sir Geoff Hurst; Martin Peters; Billy Bonds, John Lyall – she knew how to hobnob with the very best. She had to put up with a few less appealing characters, too. But a funeral is not the place to go into all that. We’ll save the gossip for the wake in the pub afterwards.
Like all memorable characters, there are various sides to this particular lady. I first became acquainted with her via the North Bank ¬– complete with concrete terracing, crash barriers, the peanut man, pushing and shoving, singing, more singing, and no idea that one day it would all be gone. Then I discovered the Chicken Run and a brand of humour so dry you could have been in the Sahara Desert.
Over the years I have explored all parts of the Boleyn Ground. Each section has a distinctive feel about it. It’s like any family: we may not all be the same, but we have a common cause. We are the West Ham family – and she was a mother to us all. It’s not uncommon at a funeral for the mourners to be asked to spend a moment or two in quiet reflection, recalling the cherished moments they shared with the loved one they have just lost. We will all have our own memories of this wonderful old lady: goals, glory, disaster, disappointment, triumph – she’s given us all of those. And a whole lot more besides.
When I close my eyes I see the imperious Bobby Moore leading out his team, ball under arm, the personification of self-belief; I see the main gates draped in all things claret and blue to mark his untimely death; I see Hurst and Peters in the centre circle leading the official tribute to our greatest ever fallen hero before a bitterly sombre game against Wolves.
I see another captain – the awesome Billy Bonds – buccaneering through the mud to make a crucial tackle. He slides in, wins the ball, springs to his feet and immediately looks for Sir Trevor. Brooking angles his body to receive the pass, allows the untouched ball to slide past him as he uses his muscular frame to shield it, and then brings it under instant control as he turns and powers away from a desperate defender. Look again and I see Paolo Di Canio’s unforgettable goal against Wimbledon; I see Liam Brady scoring with his last shot in his last game, leaving the ref no choice but to
blow the final whistle a minute early as ecstatic supporters piled on to the pitch in celebration. I see Pat Holland run half the length of the field to score a brilliant solo effort and save us from FA Cup humiliation against the giant-killers of Hereford. The images of times gone by flash up so quickly it’s hard to record them all. I see Gordon Banks saving Sir Geoff ’s penalty to deny us a place in the League Cup final; I see Ray Stewart smashing home a spot kick at the other end to send us into an FA Cup semi final – and ultimately on to Wembley itself; I see Adrian ripping off his gloves with the swagger of a matador before converting the winning shoot-out penalty against Everton.
Now the memories are cascading like a waterfall. I see the knowing smiles on the faces of all around me when Mr Moon is in the ground – and the even wider grins when he leaves the stadium. I see an ocean of claret and blue scarves hoisted high as Bubbles reverberates around the terraces of yesteryear; I see replica shirts swelling with pride as the same anthem rises in tribute from the modern all-seater stands that followed.
And still the recollections come flooding back. The unlikely 4-1 victory under lights against Liverpool in the League Cup; the sickening relegation from the top flight six months later. Phil Parkes and Allen McKnight. Julian Dicks and Rigobert Song. Pop Robson and Marco Boogers. Alan Devonshire and Nigel Quashie. David Cross and David Kelly. Good times, bad times. The ups and downs. The West Ham way.
Clearest of all is my memory of a game long-forgotten by most. It was against Bolton Wanderers in 1997 – the first time I took my son to Upton Park. My fabulous father-in-law was in the next seat. Three generations, side by side at the home of the Family Club. You never forget that.
But now there can be no new memories of the Boleyn Ground. It really is over. The time has finally come to commit her body to the pages of history. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Please, forgive the moisture in the corner of my eye. Farewell, my old friend. We will remember you. Rest in peace. * Brian Williams is the author of Nearly Reach The Sky – A Farewell to Upton Park BBM