I first got to know Mark when we were 12 and 13 years old. A school friend of mine lived on the same road, so he was initially a friend of a friend, but we soon became mates. He was still on Arsenal’s books at the time, but pretty soon he signed at West Ham. A lot of the local clubs wanted him, but it was always inevitable that he’d end up at West Ham – we were both local lads who were such big fans of the club – Mark from Beckton and me from East Ham.
I lived even nearer than Mark, I used to be able to hear the Upton Park roar from my garden as a kid. I know the story about him walking to the ground for the earlier games in his career, but I’m not quite sure about that, as it was a bit of a trek from where he lived next to the Beckton Alps. Over the years, we must have played 100 games together in the various youth teams right up to the reserves. He was always good on the ball, but he wasn’t the biggest of lads – and it’s those bigger lads that often stand out more at that age.
That said, the one lad who did stand out as having the lot was Chris Cohen. He was the one that everyone knew would go on to make it, and he ended up playing about 15 first team games before any of the rest of us became involved. But credit to Nobes, he was determined not to be left behind, and aged 15, you’d see him staying behind at the training ground for an hour or so doing extra training.
Eventually though, our times came, and Mark was obviously the next in line having gone through all the age groups and performed well for the reserves. We were both on the bench for the Southend game, having travelled with the first team squad and been non-playing reserves previously – but there was something different about the game. An excitement beforehand, both our families were in and whilst Upton Park wasn’t packed, it was a buzz to think about playing in front of 25,000 for your boyhood club.
Alan Pardew was manager at the time, and he never used to tell you if you were going on before the game, but we all felt it was only a matter of time until Mark got his chance – and sure enough with about 20 mins to go he went on for Luke Chadwick. I was so happy for him, but also a bit apprehensive as I thought it was my chance too – especially when Pards called me back from warming up. However, he blew a fuse because I didn’t have my shin pads in, which only took a few seconds to slide in, and my chance was gone, and I never did get to set foot on the pitch for West Ham’s first team.
I was back down with the reserves, and the youth teams the following week, but once Mark was in, that was it – he wasn’t looking back, and was in and around the first team, becoming a regular by the end of the season and even coming on in the Play Off Final. Loan spells followed, before becoming a mainstay in the team during the Great Escape season. His emotion during the Spurs game was typical of him. He was the club and the club was him. He was a leader almost as soon as he was in the first team.
He always had been, although ironically during the youth teams, I was always captain. We had different leadership styles – Nobes was never a screamer and shouter, he led by example. Not to say that he was quiet, us East London boys are always talking. That’s probably why he was almost like a senior player despite his young age. That, and the fact he just represented the club so well. He was like a link for the foreign players to understand the club – the perfect way for them to understand what it meant to people.
He was very close to Carlos Tevez, taking him under his wing. He was the same with Yossi Benayoun and has maintained that role, as you’ll have seen with Dimitri Payet recently too, and Lingard’s recent comments show it’s still happening. In fact, you only have to look at the influence he’s had on Declan Rice – every interview you read, Dec praises him, and says how much he’s learnt from him. Mark properly mentors him.
He’s a great knack of knowing when someone needs a rocket, and when someone needs an arm round his shoulders, and that’s exactly what he’ll be doing for Declan – and probably Ben Johnson too! It’s amazing to think that 17 years on from that debut, he’ll still be in the first team. If you asked him, he’d probably say it’s gone beyond his expectations, and that he would have been happy just to play once for West Ham, but I’m not surprised at how well he’s done.
I’m so so proud of him, and what he’s achieved, and of the small part I may have played in his journey. The only thing that amazes me is that he never won an England Cap. It’s never changed him though – he’s still in touch with all the boys from the old days – Chris, Me, Trent etc. We don’t speak all the time, sometimes it’s a year or so between contact, but whenever you do see him, or chat to him, it’s just like the old days, and like you saw him yesterday.
He’s a decent, humble guy – as was shown at his testimonial. To have that kind of day, and to give that much money to the charities was an incredible gesture, but true to the man he is. And it was amazing to be involved.
I’d messaged him about eight weeks beforehand saying not to forget me when assembling his all star team, but I never actually expected to be a part of it.
I’d heard from one of the lads involved about a week beforehand that there might be a slot for me, but I was adamant, if he wanted me, he’d call, so I didn’t really believe it. When he did eventually call me, it was the Saturday, two days before the game, and I was on shift in the factory I worked at, eating some sandwiches out of a tinfoil wrapper.
‘Alright mate, fancy 15 mins on Monday?’ was what he said on the phone to me. I was made up, even if I was ill prepared for what actually turned out to be 35 mins. But if you look at that day, he involved me, Rob Hatton and Shorty – all of whom were mates form the youth teams that never got a chance to sample that atmosphere. He knew how much I’d wanted to, and he gave me that chance. Inviting me wasn’t for his benefit, he did it for me, and I’ll always be grateful.
I’m also grateful that I got a chance to demonstrate who the better penalty taker of the two of us was. Don’t believe me – just ask Adrian! As his career comes to an end, I think we need to acknowledge what a legend he’s been. Look at who our club has – Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking.
But aside from those three, who else has done for the club what Nobes has done? One stand still doesn’t have a name – maybe they’ll name it after him, who knows, but I’d like to think they’d commission a statue of him at least. For me though, I won’t need the statue. I’ve still got my memories of the lad I went through the youth teams with, and even went to college with. Well, I say that, West Ham liked to send their youngsters to college, and we were meant to go to certain classes once or twice a week.
I remember that we used to have to have a monthly appraisal, which was designed to keep both our parents and the club up to date. These had to be collected in person for us to pass on. I remember the first one, when we went and got them, and without thinking had just handed them to our folks, only for both to say the same thing: ‘It was nice to see that in collecting their reports, they finally managed to find their way to the classroom this month’.
Neither of us were particularly academic, so instead of going to lessons, we’d been spending our time at Romford Snooker Hall instead. He’s also the same lad that I used to pick up for training in an old, blue F Reg Fiesta. The lad who once told me that if he ever made it, he was going to buy one. Funnily enough, he never did.
But as I say, I’m so proud of him and what he’s achieved, and how he’s pushed on. After a brief couple of loan spells at Southend and Hereford, I was released by West Ham, and played non league football for a few years before packing it all up when I was 30.
Eight years on, I run one-on-one coaching sessions for youngsters, and am hoping to set up an academy in the next year which I do alongside the role of Assistant Manager at Harlow Town. Outside of football, I also work as a retained firefighter. But my love for West Ham is as strong as the day I joined, just as I know Mark’s would have been, had he not made it either.