I first went to watch the Irons in February 1961, a 4-0 defeat of Everton at Upton Park. I was hooked and I’ve been a fan ever since. At that time the crowd consisted of largely working-class men from the East End of London, many of them east London dockers. Indeed, the club seemed to represent the whole of that working-class quarter of the capital for most of its inhabitants — sorry Orient fans, but it’s true!
Over the years the club’s fanbase has changed dramatically and in the 1990s I was looking for something to research for my doctorate. I was working and studying at Leeds Metropolitan University at the time and had joined the Northern Hammers Supporters’ Group (now the Trans-Pennine Irons Group), so decided to use them as the basis of my research.
I was fascinated by the fact that supporters at such a distance from the East End could support the Irons. Some were part of a cockney Diaspora that had originally come from the East End, but many were not.
Over the years the fanbase has spread across the globe and with 175 supporters’ groups on every habitable continent (there are none in Antarctica — yet!), they have more overseas fan groups than Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.
When I retired, I decided that I was going to research why my club, who hadn’t won a major trophy in 40 years, had such a wide following, why people had become fans of the club in the first place and what their degree of commitment to the Irons was. The result is West Ham United: From East End Family to Globalised Fandom which has just been published.
To provide a context for understanding the making of football fandom in the East End of London, I start the book by explaining the history of football fandom in general from the 19th century through to the present day. I go on to discuss the economic, political and social factors that shaped the culture of the East End and the notion of the ‘East End family’ as well as the culture of support for the Irons.
Indeed, back in the 1980s the American historian, Charles Korr, wrote a fascinating history of the club in which he said that, because of where it was located, the club had ‘political overtones’. I then examine the changes in the East End that led to ‘the great exodus’ and how the club provided a long-distance ‘magical recovery of community’ for the cockney diaspora.
I also examine the adoption of support for the club by fans with little or no family connections to the East End, which I describe as a ‘magical discovery of communion’. I then set about gathering evidence using a variety of research methods and tools in order that I could check various sources against each other to get a more rounded picture.
It’s known in social science as ‘triangulation’, but you don’t need to worry about that. I gathered some qualitative evidence from the internet, particularly from posts on a West Ham thread on reddit.
Following that were the responses I got from the secretaries/leaders of 20 supporters’ groups across the globe. This information formed the basis of the kind of questions I asked in a survey of a self-selecting sample of West Ham fans across the globe.
I wanted to know how they came to support West Ham, why they supported West Ham rather than a more ‘successful’ English Premier League club, why supporters’ groups were formed and why overseas followers joined such groups. I also wanted to know why support for West Ham was greater in some countries than in others.
Some were clearly ex-cockneys, but many were not. I was interested in the characteristics of these long-distance supporters. Were they still predominantly young, working-class men, what was their employment status, did they originally come from the East End and did they study at university? If, as Charles Korr claimed, West Ham had ‘political overtones’ in the past was this still true and what were the political leanings of such West Ham fans?
The responses that were given for starting to support West Ham could be categorised into about 20 different reasons; some because of a connection of some sort to the East End to the more trivial reasons such as liking their name/colours/kit/logo.
Whatever the reason, it was evident that supporting West Ham was not a passing phase, with the overwhelming majority suggesting that supporting the Hammers was very important in their lives and that they had supported the Irons for more than 20 years.
‘…working-class, traditional club’
Almost regardless of their own social class position, the majority thought that West Ham was a working-class, traditional club. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority described themselves as part of the ‘West Ham Family’.
Whilst the overwhelming majority didn’t go to watch live games at the London Stadium on a regular basis, not surprisingly for those who live in far-flung places across the globe, a majority of them go to extraordinary lengths to watch all their games on television, whatever hour of the day or night they happened to be on in their respective countries. Many of them watch games collectively in bars and clubs in their own countries. It is also the case that new media plays a big part in where such fans get their information about West Ham from.
Overall, my research suggests that overseas fans are not ‘inauthentic’, ‘plastic’, ‘cardboard’ johnny-come-latelies, as some people might assume. Like all of us, they are ‘West Ham ‘til they die!’