‘I’ve absolutely no idea how I ended up as a Hammers’ fan’

Julian Shea talks to the voice of F1 about his passion for West Ham

His job as Sky Sports’ voice of Formula One means David Croft is a man with a working life and globe-trotting schedule that makes him the envy of millions of motorsport fans.

But for all his engagements at some of the most prestigious and glamorous venues in world sport, there is one place where his heart always remains — or rather two, since West Ham’s move from Upton Park to the London Stadium. Quite how the 46-yearold’s lifelong love affair with West Ham began, however, is something of a mystery, as Croft revealed to Blowing Bubbles in an exclusive interview

‘I’ve often thought about this — why would a boy growing up in Stevenage in the 1970s, with a Sheffield United-supporting dad, start supporting a second division team from East London — and I’ve absolutely no idea,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t even as if I had any West Ham-supporting friends, so I used to take a lot of stick about it, but once we won the FA Cup in 1980, it became clear that I had backed the winning horse. Although of course football is like the Grand National, there are always plenty more fences to fall at, and this is West Ham we’re talking about, so I’ve seen plenty of that over the years!’

The full impact of how far Croft’s love of the club has taken him was underlined at the end of season awards dinner. ‘I was working there, and at the end of it Ray Stewart, one of my absolute heroes from childhood, came up to me and said how much he wanted to talk to me because he’s a huge F1 fan,’ Croft said. ‘I said to him “you’re Ray Stewart — I’ve wanted to talk to you for the whole of my life!”.’

Before becoming part of Sky’s F1 coverage team, Croft was a frequently heard voice on BBC Five Live, covering a wide variety of sports, including football — and sometimes, West Ham. But whilst to many fans, being paid to watch the side you love sounds like just about the perfect way to earn a living, Croft says it is a path fraught with danger. ‘It’s not good to report on your own team because you get too involved,’ he explained.

‘There was one game against Sunderland where I was reporting for Five Live and I compounded my stupidity by having a tenner on Joe Cole for the first goal. ‘When he stuck it in the net, I was doubly delighted so I got straight on the line to report it to the studio and gave my goal description on air, only to then look up and see that the flag had gone up and they’d kicked off again – it was only after I came off air that it was pointed out to me.

Commentating on a home match against Fulham was another shocker. Trevor Brooking was my co-commentator, so it should have been a perfect night but they turned in one of the most inept performances of the season, it was spectacularly awful. ‘I said to Trevor at half time that he could go if he wanted – it was the worst commentary ever as neither of us could focus on Fulham being quite good, as we were terrible. Even the Hammerettes — a propaganda stroke worthy of the Soviet Union to distract fans — didn’t work that night.

‘Another time, I remember getting up at 3.30am one Saturday to do a Five Live shift before going up to Tranmere to see us lose 1-0 in the FA Cup, and I was there on “that night” at Stockport too — I really should stop going to away games in the north!’. Having joined Sky in 2012, Croft has a busy schedule of global travel covering races, which means getting to games is not quite as simple as it used to be, but whenever he can, he is looking out for corners of foreign fields which are claret and blue.

‘Martin Brundle is a big West Ham fan, which I didn’t realise until we started working together, so we’ve had some great nights at games together, and one of best F1 photographers, Darren Heath is an Iron too,’ he said. ‘Wherever you go in the world, stick your shirt on and you’ll soon find the others. There are pockets of West Ham support everywhere. I’ll always wear a badge somewhere and I never shy away of my allegiance when talking on air. I’m proud of it — they’re not the most successful team but they’ve given me huge fun, excitement, misery and heartache. Relationships come and go – but West Ham is for life.’

And on the subject of enduring love, Croft is a huge fan of West Ham manager Slaven Bilic — and has been for a very long time. ‘I met Sam Allardyce several times, and he was a really nice guy so I won’t have a bad word said about him, but it was obvious, particularly towards the end, that he was a bad fit for West Ham. When Bilic was appointed, my first thought was “about time too”,’ said Croft. ‘He was a great player who left the club far too early – I felt privileged he was a defender in our team.

‘It was obvious he would do things different to Sam. We needed something different, so I was prepared for anything, but I didn’t think he’d be quite so good so soon. ‘When we won at Liverpool last season, I was away with my wife in New York for the weekend, and she asked if I wanted to find somewhere to watch the match, but I thought “it’s Anfield, we know what’ll happen” so I didn’t — we went to Tiffany’s instead. I couldn’t believe it as I got the score updates, and I’m not sure their staff were ready for my goal celebrations – three times — but they even let me sing Bubbles, quietly!

‘The best thing he’s done is restore belief to the team, we always believe we can come back. It wasn’t perfect last year, but now we’ve got a squad who believe in themselves and in him. He’s a quiet character but who speaks with passion, and the players listen.’ And of that squad, there are no surprises for guessing who is Croft’s current favourite. ‘If Dimitri Payet was on the opposition, you’d applaud him — but he’s not, he’s playing for us, and he’s exactly the sort of player we love at West Ham,’ he said.

‘He plays with his heart on his sleeve, and he loves being part of what’s happening at the club. There’s more hope for the future now than I’ve ever known at the club.’ Work commitments permitting, Croft will be part of that future, and so will his sons. ‘I’ve got season tickets for me and my boys for the new stadium, so it’s a great time to be a West Ham fan — of course it’ll never be the same as the Boleyn, which was part of my growing up, but we’ve said our goodbyes. The final game couldn’t possibly have been any better, and I left the ground for the last time with no regrets. Now it’s time to look forward to the future with the best squad we’ve had in years,’ he said.

‘There’s been 30-odd years of hard graft at West Ham for the likes of me, and now we’ve got the manager, the squad and the resolve to face up to the future. For years, we’ve been singing about how fortune’s always hiding — not any more it isn’t. We deserve this.’

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