The 20th anniversary of the 1999 Youth Cup Final has reminded me how old I am. It has also served as a reminder that my relationship with West Ham United was a lot different 20 years ago.
In 1999 I was in my pomp as a West Ham fan. I travelled to every away game and rarely missed a first-team fixture. I was lucky, I had a job that allowed me a certain amount of flexibility – and it meant that not only did I go to 99 per cent of first-team matches, I also saw a good number of reserve games and youth team matches as well.
In 1996 I went to some of the early rounds and to both legs of the semi-final against Wimbledon to see Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand inspire The Hammers through to the final against a Liverpool team that Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher. The first leg of that final ended 2-0 in Liverpool’s favour, and ultimately 4-1 after the second leg at Anfield.
West Ham were then South-East Counties League champions in 1996 and 1998. It was apparent that in a competition where resources are destined to change by virtue of players’ ages, and therefore, by definition some years would be better than others, Tony Carr was building a scouting network and a coaching methodology that would stand the club in good stead for years to come.
With Ferdinand and Lampard firmly established in the first-team by 1999, the ever-moving stream of talent now looked to the likes of Joe Cole, who had already appeared for the first team, along with Michael Carrick, Stephen Bywater, Richard Garcia and Adam Newton for success. The personnel are well documented elsewhere, but it is important to put into context just how excited we were at the time by these young talents coming through.
West Ham had a tradition of nurturing young talent, hence the “Academy of Football” label. But in these guys it was clear we had something extraordinary which, paired with Rio and Frank junior, could form the core of a very exciting young team. Three nil up from the first leg at Highfield Road, we did not bother with such formalities as tickets, because, I believe, it may have been that our season ticket would be sufficient to gain entry that night, but the game was deemed important enough for Sky Sports to turn up.
We went through our normal routine of a few pints in the Miller’s Well, opposite East Ham town hall, then made our way down to the Boleyn about 20 minutes before kick off. As we walked down Barking Road it became obvious that we had something of an event on our hands. There was an atmosphere and a crowd amassing, the like of which I had not seen for a first team game for many a year, let alone a youth match.
I attempted to gain access to my usual seat in the Bobby Moore Lower but it was obvious from the queues this was not going to be achievable before kick-off. I think the original plan had been to open just the Bobby Moore stand and the old West Stand. By the time kick-off approached, the whole stadium was opened up and I eventually found a seat in the upper tier of what was then the Centenary Stand, latterly the Sir Trevor Brooking Upper. The match was well under way by this point – the boys passed it around with a swagger and a confidence of a team that knew they were good. I remember very little of the game itself, but I remember the atmosphere and the sense that this was a real moment in the club’s history that had to be savoured.
Having amassed a record 9-0 aggregate lead, and with a few minutes to go, stadium announcer Jeremy Nicholas informed us that there would be a ceremony on the pitch after the match where the cup would be presented to the winners ‘whoever they might be’.
I know Jeremy and I know he would never have meant to offend, but in his autobiography, he described how Gordon Strachan took exception and had him pinned up against the wall in the tunnel demanding an apology. The official records say the attendance that night was 21,000 – but I did not see a spare seat.
It’s also worth remembering that Coventry City side had some great players too. They’d reached the FA Youth Cup Final for a start. Goalkeeper Chris Kirkland went on to play for Liverpool and England. Defender Calum Davenport had two spells at West Ham and Gary McSheffrey made over 200 appearances for the Coventry first team and also played for Birmingham City and Leeds United.
But this West Ham side pulverised them. It was one of the stand-out moments from my time at Upton Park.
Robert Banks new book, “An Irrational Hatred of Everything” is out now and available from Amazon.