When Australian comedian Adam Hills first started performing in the UK almost two decades ago he quickly became aware of two things: People always ask you which football team you support, and there is no love lost between plenty of teams – for a variety of weird of wonderful reasons.
Wary of alienating half his new UK friends by plumping for a side they hate, the father-of-two was keen to wait until he found a meaningful connection with a side similar to the one he has for his beloved Australian rugby league side – the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
And it wasn’t until August 2014, via brief stints following Liverpool and Plymouth Argyle, that the Sydney-born comedian found the English football club he knew he was destined to follow for the rest of his life – West Ham United.
‘My manager, Joe Norris, started taking me to Upton Park as Off The Kerb Productions had a box there and these first few games were my first live experience of a football match over here,’ the host of Channel 4’s The Last Leg said. ‘I’d gone to three or four games and enjoyed them but it was a game against Southampton that was the turning point for me.
‘It was in August 2014 and Southampton won 3-1. On the way back to the station, Joe turned to me and said that although West Ham didn’t win, at least I’d got to see a good game of football and a good team playing really well.
‘He thought I’d be happy with that but I replied that I actually felt a bit dead inside after watching West Ham get so comfortably swept aside and I declared I must be a West Ham fan!’
The following week and the photographer for the Last Leg, having heard about his newly-formed passion for claret and blue, turned up with a West Ham goodie bag containing a scarf and coasters with his name on, and his manager bought him a jersey.
‘But what sealed the deal was when Joe gave me a book on West Ham’s history and I discovered the chap who founded the Thames Ironworks, who later became West Ham United, also had the surname Hills,’ the husband of opera soprano Ali McGregor continued.
‘Hills is not a common surname at all. Hill is, but Hills is quite unusual so that really sealed the deal for me then. I knew I had to be a West Ham supporter. The book also spoke a lot about playing the game the right way – the West Ham Way I’m told – and I really liked that.’
Aside from watching a couple of FA Cup finals when he was a teenager, Adam admits English football passed him by until 17 years ago when he started working in the UK.
‘I grew up in in Sydney so I follow rugby league. That’s my sport,’ he said. ‘I support the South Sydney Rabbitohs because it was my dad’s team, and he supported them because his dad supported them because he grew up in the area where you’d grow up supporting the Rabbitohs.
‘When I was three days old my dad brought me a red and green rabbit into the hospital which I still have, and he used to take me to all the games when I was a kid but I didn’t have any idea what was going on.
‘For me, supporting a team in any sport isn’t just picking someone you like. There has to be a real connection there and that’s why when I first got here I didn’t feel a connection to any particular team so I didn’t choose one. I also knew that if I picked a team, I was going to lose half of friends.
‘I remember talking to Danny Julian, who works with Joe at Off the Kerb. He supports Millwall and he was telling me about someone who’d played for Millwall and then went onto play for someone else but he’d asked Danny for tickets to see The Producers in the West End, and Danny sorted him out for tickets.
‘But he said he couldn’t tell any of his mates that he’d done that. He’d told one of his Millwall-supporting mates and was told not to tell anyone else. I couldn’t get my head around that level of hatred for players who have left your club.
‘I’ve taken English comedians to Aussie Rules games and we’ll be watching the game and they’d be looking around and wanting to know where the away fans were and they struggled to grasp how it works with us all sat together.’
Adam, whose first appearance on the comedy scene was in 1989 at the Sydney Comedy Store, believes there are a lot of parallels between West Ham and his South Sydney rugby league team.
‘The Rabbitohs are a real working class team from a working class area. They are the battlers that everyone loves and what I’ve noticed now, certainly in the back of cabs, if they ask who I support, I explain my story and I say West Ham, there’s never any anger. They always say they are all right – we can be friends,’ Adam explained.
‘The Rabbitohs have also moved to the Olympic Stadium so that’s their home ground now so I know what it’s like to have a home ground that doesn’t quite have the atmosphere that you are used to and a stadium that’s out of the area.
‘I’m not sure how much longer they are going to stay there actually but by being at that stadium, what I do know is that they got a really good financial deal out of it, which as well as co-owner Russell Crowe’s money, allowed them to buy better players and get better facilities and they ended winning the Premiership in 2014 for the first time in 42 years – certainly for the first time that I can remember so there’s certainly advantages of having a new home.
‘I’ve been to the Olympic Stadium here in London a couple of times but not to watch West Ham yet. I took Joe to watch Australia v England in the rugby league and it’s not a good sign of an atmospheric stadium when you are watching these two huge rivals of rugby league and you have to lower your voice in conversation because you are disturbing people around you.
‘I’ve heard all the stories about the new stadium for West Ham last season and it’s hard
‘If West Ham had another season like the final one at Upton Park then nobody would have been talking about the new stadium. But atmosphere does count for something.’
Another parallel between the two sides is the fear of having their hopes, dreams and expectations raised only for them to fade and die.
‘I remember being with Phil Jupitus at a West Ham game and we were sitting in same box together,’ said Adam, who along with Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker have completed 12 series of the Last Leg.
‘It was against Man United and I think West Ham were winning one nil and I’ve never seen a man so terrified. West Ham were winning – he should have been emboldened – but it was like they’d done something wrong.
And when West Ham announced they were selling off memorabilia from Upton Park, Adam went to town, snapping up items for himself and friends – including a famous chat show host in America.
‘Perhaps it’s the Australian way of dealing with moving to a new home but I wanted to get my hands on as much Upton Park memorabilia as I could because from seeing the Rabbitohs move to a new stadium, if I’d had something from Redfern Oval, where I watched them as a kid, it’d mean a lot to me now,’ Adam continued.
‘And I have to say I was quite surprised because I thought they would be more expensive than they were.
‘It started off with me wanting to buy Joe a proper present, you know an all-his-birthdays-combined-thanks-for-being-my-manager kind or present. I found the sign that was at top of stairwell with all the corporate boxes with Off The Kerb productions so I bought that as well as the ‘out’ sign from the Trevor Brooking stand and bought something for myself.
‘I then bought something for Seth Meyers too, who hosts the Late Show in the States, because he’s a West Ham fan too.
‘I discovered this because I follow him on Twitter and I was on tour trying to follow a West Ham game backstage and then one tweet popped up from Seth saying what a great goal from Payet.’
As for his route to supporting West Ham via Liverpool and Plymouth, Adam, best known in Australia for hosting music trivia show Spicks and Specks, explained: ‘I was on Danny Baker’s radio show and he asked me what team I supported, and I said I didn’t.
‘He said he had a garbage bin full of every team, in every league – including the Scottish teams, and if someone comes in that doesn’t have a team, you put your hand in and pull out a team.
‘I put my hand in, had a rummage and pulled out Liverpool. I was then proclaimed a Liverpool fan but from that weekend they went on a losing streak that included a goal going in against them that went in off a beach ball.
‘After about 12 months I was on Talk of The Terrace with Kenny Dalglish’s daughter Kelly Cates and I said I felt I might be bad luck and she agreed so she asked me to stop supporting Liverpool.
‘The next week I was on Soccer AM and told them the whole story, they said they had Plymouth Argyle fans on the show who were at the bottom of the bottom league and couldn’t get any worse. I said I’d start supporting them and their fans won the shootout on the show so I felt like I was already bringing them good luck.
‘After I’d been to half a dozen West Ham games, and decided to support them, I vividly remember Danny Julian asking if I wanted to go to a Millwall game and I said I’d love to but that Joe had converted me and I was a West Ham fan and he physically slumped against a wall.
‘I’ve never seen someone react like this! It was like there had been a death in the family. If it was in a movie, you would’ve said he was over-acting. No-one can be that devastated. He put his hand on his heart and said he was shocked and that he was sorry to hear that.
‘Even the email stream between us when you emailed Danny asking for this interview, the suggestions of where we were going to do it were hilarious. This has also been in my diary as an interview with Stinky Arse Fart Bubbles Magazine. There was also an email subject the other day that had changed the magazine to the Great Cockney Fe***tio Magazine.
‘Learning this world of not just football but football rivalries and why teams hate each other has been quite an eye-opener! I know there’s book of rivalries that I need to read to help me get my head around it all.
‘I find the reason for the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall fascinating in that if you go back through history, of them being on either side of river and competing industries, it’s just remarkable. We don’t have anything like that in Australia.