Dear Mr Bonds, I hope you don’t mind me writing to you again like this. It’s been some years since my last letter, but I’d hate you to think I was pestering you.
I’m not sure if you got the first one. To cut a long story short, I needed to tell you that you’re my hero. Sounds a bit silly coming from a man of my age I know, but there you are. I’ve looked up to you for all my adult life, and I wanted you to understand why. This time, the reason I felt compelled to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, finger to keyboard) was to say how pleased I am that West Ham United – the club to which you have given so much – has finally recognised your inestimable contribution by naming a stand after you.
As luck would have it, it’s the stand I sit in (why do they still call them stands now we all have to sit down?). Incidentally, this might amuse you. When my wife and I went to buy our season tickets before the move to Stratford we were told by a cheery young lady with an Australian accent that the club wanted the east stand to be known as “The Kop”. Seriously! The West Ham Kop? I ask you! I imagine we weren’t the only ones who reacted somewhat less than favourably when told this astonishing news.
Anyway, it’s officially the Billy Bonds Stand now, and I was thrilled to be there when you officially opened it before the Newcastle game. Shortly before you cut the ribbon, and as the ‘Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army’ chant rolled around the ground, I noticed a little lad next to me – clearly at his first West Ham match – standing on his seat.
Tentatively, I asked the boy’s dad if I could tell his son a short story, to which he agreed. ‘Almost 30 years ago I stood on my seat, just like you’re doing now,’ I told the boy, whose eyes widened slightly at the news. ‘We were at an FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, and we sang Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army that day, too.’
At which point Dad’s face lit up. ‘I was at that game as well!’ he told his son proudly. To be honest, Billy (I do hope you don’t me calling you Billy – “Mr Bonds” just seems too formal somehow) no one who was there that sunny Sunday afternoon in 1991 will ever forget it.
Somehow, that one match seems to sum up all that it means to be a West Ham supporter – and what you, as the personification of all things good about the club, meant to us. We were playing Nottingham Forest, of course. You were the manager – you knew that!
Remember how Tony Gale muscled Forest’s Gary Crosby off the ball with just 22 minutes gone? That happened directly in front of me. I could hardly believe referee Keith Hackett gave a foul, and I was astonished when he reached for his pocket. You can’t give him a yellow card for that, I thought. And I was right – it wasn’t yellow. It was red!
In the West Ham stands there was nothing but fury. Even the Forest fans were baffled by this astonishing decision. As a second division team – albeit one that was destined for promotion weeks later – we were very much the underdogs against a classy first division outfit managed by the mercurial Brian Clough. It was a tough ask with a full team; down to 10 men we had no chance.
Yet the lads on the pitch dug in, and their devoted followers got behind them.We had the main stand and the Holte End. Choruses of Bubbles came out of both. The singing was punctuated with frequent, desperate, calls of Come On You Irons.
We weren’t asking – we were telling. And our boys responded – getting forward when they could, but then chasing back; all of them throwing themselves into tackles; harrying; fighting for every ball. George Parris even came close to scoring.
Then the cry that was to dominate the afternoon went up. ‘Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army!’ The response came back, with interest: ‘Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army!!’ There was still the occasional burst of Bubbles, but this wasn’t a day to fade and die. Increasingly, the claret and blue army chant took hold.
At half time, astonishingly, we were still 0-0. Out came the cigarettes and the Murray mints. Some tried to convince themselves we could yet get out of this with a draw, and then stuff Forest in the replay. I don’t think anyone really believed it, though.
Clough certainly didn’t. He reorganised his team during the break, making sure their 11 would out-pass our 10, rather than engage in the sort of street fight that was clearly suiting us.
In our heart of hearts, we all knew what was coming in the second half – and we steeled ourselves for it. We weren’t any old army: we were Billy Bonds’ ultra-loyal Claret and Blue Army, and we weren’t going to go quietly. When the whistle blew to start the second half, every West Ham supporter in the ground was standing. And then it started it earnest.
Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army! The martial rhythm that underpinned the words was provided by stamping feet and clapping hands. Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army! You put your shoulders back, stuck out your chest, declaimed your allegiance, and waited for the response. Which always came. Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army!
And so it went on, the volume increasing slightly with every repetition. When the same Gary Crosby who had been involved in the incident that sparked the outrage scored Forest’s first four minutes after the restart, we all knew our duty.
As they rejoiced over their goal, we continued to celebrate the magnificence of supporting the most wonderful football club in the world. Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army! No one faltered. The goals kept coming, but we never missed a beat. Billy Bonds’ Claret and Blue Army! Louder. And louder. And louder still.
By now we weren’t just standing – we were standing on our seats. When Stuart Pearce scored Forest’s third after 70 minutes we watched their supporters jump from theirs, arms aloft. But we couldn’t hear their cheers.
The noise in the West Ham stands was so great we simply drowned them out. It was truly bizarre to watch a large group of grown men and women jumping for joy, while not having to listen a single decibel from them. With no sound to accompany their celebration, they looked faintly ridiculous – and the pain that always comes with an opposition goal just wasn’t there for once. It was as if their fourth and final goal never happened in our part of the ground.
We may have been losing on the pitch, but we were victorious in the stands.
When the final whistle went, many seemed slightly baffled about what to do next. We saluted our team, gave the referee one last volley of abuse, and considered the options.
As we shuffled out I heard one guy ask his mate if they should go on into the city centre for a tear-up. ‘Nah, let’s go home,’ was the simple reply.
It truly was a special day, Billy. One of so many you gave us as a player and then manager. Now you have a stand bearing your name, bookended by two other enclosures honouring West Ham legends you played alongside.
You, modestly, would probably disagree – but in the eyes of so many of us you are actually the greatest of the greats. You did more for all those who love West Ham than you can ever imagine. I know I speak for the entire Billy Bonds Claret and Blue Army when I say we really can’t thank you enough.
If you enjoy Brian Williams’ regular column, look out for his two brilliant books, Nearly Reach The Sky and Home From Home