In a world ripped asunder by the evil spectre of Covid where do we turn for distraction; A pleasant diversion that concentrates the mind on something different?
From the earliest days of lockdown, football almost matched the pandemic for column inches. It was rightly dismissed as trivial and meaningless when lives were being lost.
But it also fulfilled a vital function as fans longed for the restoration of some normality. When Project Re-start began I felt a childish knot of excitement in my stomach. It was a grip on reality and true indication that our passion for the game was undiminished.
It was no surprise the repulsive European Super League was seen off in a matter of days because it threatened something we hold dear.
Our football community was threatened by voracious money machines that failed to understand the game’s significance.
A closed shop that excluded ambition and a dream we might see our team reach the pinnacle of achievement? Everyone was rightly appalled by the idea as the destabilisers were placed firmly back in their box. My chest expanded with pride, fan power had for once defeated the bean counters.
As a season ticket holder at West Ham, my mind drifted back to the home game against Manchester United in September 2019.
I was walking up to the flatpack horror they call the London Stadium. Stratford Walk on matchday was always a sea of claret and blue; however two replica shirts clearly stood out from hundreds in my field of vision.
Two guys had an identical message on their shirts. It simply read Dad 1946-2019. It struck me what an important role the club plays in people’s lives.
As ‘Dad’ passed away their support for West Ham is an act of remembrance; a place to keep their memories and savour the ones yet to come. It’s not exactly going out on a limb to assume ‘Dad’ took his boys to games and nurtured an enduring passion in the process.
‘Dad’ would have been 12 years old when West Ham were promoted to the top flight in 1958; and in his late teens when they won the FA Cup in 1964 and European Cup Winners Cup in 1965.
To see Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst in their pomp would have produced many ‘I was there’ moments. No memory would be greater than the glorious summer of 1966, when fans could say with some justification West Ham 4 West Germany 2. He would have witnessed the ups, down and inbetweens; but also two more FA Cup wins and the emotional closure of Upton Park in 2016.
Looking around the London Stadium B.C. (‘Before Covid’) there were constant reminders of the life cycle.
Pre-match announcements were beamed through jumbotrons at either end of the ground. Newborns sporting claret and blue baby grows; a couple tying the knot wearing matching West Ham shirts and long standing fans like ‘Dad’ who have sadly passed away.
In another era they might be called parish notices, but now have the corporate sheen of 21st century marketing appearing between sponsors’ soundbites and deafening refrain of Come on you Irons!
West Ham have regularly appeared in the final will and testament of fans, who stipulate their ashes be scattered at the hallowed grounds of Upton Park. The Boleyn Stadium is no longer there but one corner of Green Street will forever hold the spirit of souls who spent countless afternoons roaring the Hammers to victory.
Commemorative Champions Stones cover the north east corner of the London Stadium. For a fee fans could mingle alongside club legends with their own engraved granite stones. I looked upon the practice with utter disdain; it was a commercial exercise to exploit fans’ sentiment for the club.
Why have someone’s name carved into a stone only to be trodden on, rained on and targeted by local pigeons? But I’ve since realised there is something deeply profound in the act which has a degree of perpetuity.
These stones are effectively memorials as fans gain permanent representation at the club’s home. They become symbols that mean more than a cold headstone in a lonely graveyard.
With fans finally returning, they will invoke a sense of pilgrimage. Not just to see West Ham play but to capture a personal moment when they find these stones.
Once upon a time I would rush past and wonder why they lingered for so long. But I now understand their significance; it was an opportunity for quiet reflection.
We should remember those we have lost in the places they were happiest. For a football fan what could be better than at the club they supported all their lives?
If pop music provides the soundtrack to our lives then football is the timeline; where fans don’t measure calendar years but seasons that start in August and finish in May.
The game becomes a refuge and diversion from life’s realities. As those tribute shirts so clearly demonstrate, football is a common reference point for multiple generations in the family. And in bereavement we find solace and comfort from our team however they might be playing.
A particularly exciting season beckons for West Ham as they prepare for our first meaningful European campaign in 15 years. I look forward to simply taking up my seat and not having to enter a ballot for the privilege. But Covid still weighs heavily and I wonder how many seats will never be reunited with their occupants?
Nevertheless, football remains a celebration of life and a sense of community that brings people together.
Never was it more apparent when Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest at the Euros. Every fan watching across the globe was willing him to pull through.
At that precise moment there would have been similarly stricken individuals who could have used our support. But they weren’t lying on a football pitch with pictures beamed live into millions of homes.
We suddenly became a united family because of our shared interest in a remarkable sport. The realisation dawns that football can mean absolutely everything and nothing at the same time. It’s a paradox that confronts us whenever we pull on a replica shirt or click through the turnstiles.
So when Saturday (or Sunday, Monday or maybe Wednesday) comes we will be there. Because football is a reminder of the life we hope to lead once again; where we can scream, shout and berate players who miss open goals; and glory at the inanity of a simple game that stirs the soul.
It may well be the last diversion on people’s minds but it’s a liberty we should all cherish.
‘I can’t wait for European nights under the lights at London Stadium’
So after nearly 18 months, I was delighted to finally return to the London Stadium to watch Moyes’ Boys take on Atalanta in our last pre-season friendly along with thousands of other Hammers.
The last game I saw was the 3-1 win against Southampton at the end of February 2020. Yet strangely, I didn’t feel especially emotional; I was just glad to be back on familiar territory.
Walking up to the stadium was a comforting experience; the faint hum of ‘Irons’ in the distance is an indication of normal service being resumed.
As is the hideously long queue for the club shop, and the constant struggle to breathe in and out once I got in there.
E-tickets were issued for the match and entailed printing the ticket out or scanning the image on mobiles.
But nobody realised that some mobiles are too big to go through the turnstile scanners. Utter confusion ruled until I (and other fans) finally got in after two falls and a submission.
I settled into my usual seat in the Billy Bonds Stand and enjoyed watching our men take on the Serie A team, who I was quietly impressed by.
The loudest applause was predictably reserved for Mark Noble in his final season with the Hammers.
I may be gripped with a deeper sense of emotion for the first home games in the Europa League when we can start dreaming of those magic nights under the floodlights.
The truly memorable games that may enable the fans to take ownership of London Stadium.
But with an alarmingly thin squad one has to wonder how far we might progress. Nevertheless it’s great to be back in the old flatpack stadium again.