Football fans love their tribes, and their derbies, and having local rivals to define themselves against.
So it is always a shock to come across someone who goes against the flow and supports two less- than-friendly neighbours – but former West Ham defender Kenny Brown is one of that rare breed.
‘I’m a West Ham fan and I always will be, but I’m a Millwall fan too – I’m in a unique position,’ Brown, who also played for the Lions and has been their head of coaching for five years, told Blowing Bubbles.
As the son of one of West Ham’s most famous and popular players of the 1960s, Ken Brown, young Kenny, now 53, was born into claret and blue, and is making sure the family tradition is passed on, but today he is as happy with the Millwall blue as he is with the West Ham claret.
When son Luis joined Arsenal’s youth ranks, Brown tweeted “no kissing the badge, will always be a Hammer”, and as someone with a foot in both camps, he says the Irons and the Lions have more in common than fans may want to admit.
‘The clubs have both gone through the mill in different ways. I like the passion of the Millwall fans, that’s how West Ham used to be – I remember my time at West Ham as a great time to be there, when there was still standing at Upton Park. It’s a very different experience to that now and the two clubs have gone down very different routes, but they are similar in some ways.’
Before there was Kenny Brown, for 14 years there was his father Ken Brown, who made almost 400 appearances for West Ham, and along the way won the old Division Two title, FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Kenny was born just as his father’s West Ham career came to an end in 1967, as Ken followed former team-mate John Bond to Torquay, but Kenny was still raised in the West Ham tradition.
‘I was weaned on West Ham and what it meant to the family and to dad,’ he said. ‘When he went down to Torquay we stayed up in Essex, in Cranham, and whenever I would go to Upton Park with him to see a match, I was always made to feel very welcome because of what he had done at the club. That made a big impression on me.’
When Bond moved to Bournemouth to take over as manager, Brown senior followed, and the family relocated to Dorset, then later upping sticks to move to Norwich, where Kenny Sr, now aged 86, enjoys his retirement today.
‘In those days you followed the work, but as a youngster, there were a lot worse places to have been brought up than Bournemouth and Norwich,’ said Kenny.
Brown Jr’s playing career began at Norwich, for two seasons, before three seasons at Plymouth, and although he never had any ambition to play for West Ham, it was always a tempting prospect.
‘I was a West Ham fan, and of course whatever you do in life, the thought of following in your dad’s footsteps always appeals to kids,’ he said.
‘It was always special to play West Ham, especially at Upton Park and you always came away thinking “it would be great to have those fans behind you, not against you” but as a professional, you concentrate on your career.’
Eventually, though, fate intervened, and in 1991 Brown found himself on the road to Upton Park – even if it was in a somewhat faltering way.
‘I’d had three great seasons at Plymouth but it was a lot of travelling, and I’d just won player of the year, so I decided I wanted to move on and didn’t sign a new contract,’ he said. ‘In those pre-Bosman days, if a contract was offered, you couldn’t just walk away, so I had to stay and see what happened.
‘Billy Bonds was West Ham’s manager then, and when he bumped into dad, he asked him what my situation was, and he explained how I wasn’t in Plymouth’s plans.
‘West Ham had a lot of injuries, so he asked if I fancied joining on loan. That was Tuesday, we talked about it on Wednesday, on Thursday I signed a one-month loan and on the Friday I was training, it was that quick and simple.’
The West Ham Brown joined in 1991 was a club on the up, having been promoted as runners-up in Division Two the previous season, and about to compete in what would be the final season of the old Division One before the Premier League came along. Except they failed to compete.
‘After promotion, we only signed three players – Mike Small from Brighton, Mitchell Thomas and, because of injuries, me on loan.
‘I doubt they would have signed me otherwise, but you need a bit of luck in life and that was mine. I started the season as right wing back, stayed in the team and when West Ham asked for a second month of loan, Plymouth said they would have to buy me, so they did.’
That season was an infuriatingly inconsistent one, played against the backdrop of angry fan protests at the Upton Park bond scheme, and it was no surprise when the team were relegated after just one season back up.
‘I remember one point where we had a great midweek win over Aston Villa and then lost at home to Notts County a few days later, which just summed us up – great under the lights but too often on a Saturday we were inept,’ he said.
‘We never got a decent run together and it didn’t help that all the protests were going on, which meant there wasn’t a great atmosphere. The bottom line is that as a group, we weren’t up to it, and didn’t score enough.’
But there was one final twist in the tail of a wretched season, and Brown applied it, scoring the winner as an all-but-relegated West Ham team picked themselves off the floor to beat Manchester United 1-0 at Upton Park with what United boss Sir Alex Ferguson called an ‘obscene’ effort, tripping up United’s title ambitions right at the death, allowing Leeds to win it on the final day.
‘United had one game in hand, so if they won they’d go top right at the end of the season,’ Brown said. ‘We put in a performance like we knew we were capable of, but hadn’t done enough all season, and ended up nicking the goal.
‘It was nice to give the supporters something back like that and send them home happy, they deserved it.’ And then, of course, West Ham went to Coventry on the final day, lost, and were relegated.
That summer, Bonds added Harry Redknapp to his staff and avoided a repeat of the previous summer’s signing mistakes, and the team bounced back up to the new Premier League at the first time of asking.
‘That was a fantastic time to be at the club,’ he said. ‘The bond scheme had been put to bed so there was a real feeling of freshness, Bill added some quality, we were more adventurous going forward, the season started well and it just continued.’
The first season in the Premier League was solid if unspectacular, but things changed in summer 1994 when Bonds, the man who had brought Brown to the club, left and was replaced by Redknapp and Frank Lampard, and although he did not make radical changes, the combination of some imaginative signings and the emergence of a stunning crop of young talent meant the next few years were a turning point for the club.
‘That summer people were feeling that things were a bit brighter, but we were up in Scotland for pre-season and there was a bit of a feeling that something wasn’t quite right,’ he said.
‘Billy left quite quickly and after a lull, Harry and Frank took over. He didn’t change much, but everyone could really relate to him and once we got a few good results, nobody looked back at what had happened, or why, it was just about being professional.
‘For me, the biggest change was that this was the time more foreign players started to come, which changed our mindset a bit. Over the next few years, we brought in players like Slaven Bilic and Marc Rieper, who turned out to be hugely important in bringing about stability.
‘We also had characters in the dressing room like Don Hutchison and John Moncur, and Julian Dicks came back from Liverpool, so it was a combination of characters and a more ambitious approach.’
In addition to the signings, there was the homegrown talent. ‘In 1996 the youngsters got to the FA Youth Cup final, with Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard in the team, so we knew good things were happening underneath us, and from the first time you saw those two on the training ground, it was clear they were special,’ he said.
‘Frank had talent, but still had some developing to do, but from the outset Rio stood out – he was so athletic and could play in so many places, he didn’t look out of place from the moment he arrived. I saw them come through – we knew they were good, but I don’t think anyone realised just how good they would be.’
With the future clearly in safe hands, after five years at the club, Brown, now approaching 30, began to consider his options.
‘I was offered me another year’s contract but I needed to start more games,’ he said.
‘I wasn’t one to go banging on the manager’s door complaining, but as a senior pro who was training but not playing, it got me down so I wanted to be involved somewhere else.
‘I had a short loan at Reading, where Jimmy Quinn and Trevor Morley wanted to sign me, Keith Rowland and Steve Potts, then Birmingham came after me.
‘Mike Newell, who had just come to us on loan from them, warned me against signing permanently saying the club was a mess, but I wanted to play so I went on loan, and after a month I thought “I can do this” and signed permanently, but it wasn’t the best move,’ he said.
‘The facilities were so poor in comparison to West Ham, and the squad was far too big, so when Trevor Francis called me in one day and said Billy Bonds was interested in taking me to Millwall, it was a simple choice.
‘Our first child had just been born, and there’s no better feeling than to be wanted by someone like that. It was great to work with him again.’
The new era, however, did not last long. ‘We ended that first season poorly, but I didn’t expect much change, then the club got rid of Billy and brought in two Millwall old boys, Keith Stevens and Alan McCleary, and it was soon apparent I wasn’t in their plans,’ he said.
‘My second season was spent not playing, and two seasons after being in the Premier League I was training with the kids in League One.
Even when they did finally decide to let me go, it was on deadline day, giving me hours to find a new club,’ he said. Gillingham came to the rescue, and that was where Brown’s professional career in England came to an end.
After some time abroad and in non-league, in February 2016 Brown returned to Millwall’s coaching staff, where he remains until this day. ‘I enjoyed my football there, I don’t class that last season as any taint on myself or the club, so I’m not bitter about it, they brought me back in and they’re happy with what I’m doing here,’ he said.
Although Brown may be on the Millwall payroll these days, West Ham is still a large part of the family history, something of which he is immensely proud. ‘My kids are West Ham fans, they know dad played there, and so did grandad,’ he said.
‘For me, one of the greatest moments was when dad received his lifetime achievement award from the club in 2018. That was amazing, something the whole family could share,’ said Kenny.
‘I never got to see him play so for us all to be part of that moment and such an accolade, that’s something you will never be able to take away from us all as a family.’