Sports

Upton Left: West Ham Fans on the Approaching End of an Era

Next May, West Ham United will say goodbye to the ground they have called home for more than a century. We spoke to long-time fans and asked for their perspective on the Olympic Stadium move.

by Kit Caless
Nov 19 2015, 3:20pm

Photos by Kit Caless

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

A football ground isn't simply a strip of grass surrounded by seats.

It is haunted by the ghosts of previous games; of dinks and megs, belters and screamers, own goals and hat tricks. Grounds exist in the past, visited only by the ghosts of the present when the turnstiles turn and the singing starts. At once an action factory, at another a memory freezer.

The Boleyn Ground (aka Upton Park) is no exception. Hosting West Ham United's matches since 1904 these memories are woven tightly into its concrete body. However, next season, the club are upping the upright sticks three miles to the swanky Olympic Stadium in Stratford. On a grey, drizzly Saturday afternoon I went to the Black Lion pub, a famous Hammers establishment in Plaistow, before the home game with Everton. In its spacious concrete garden I asked some of the Irons faithful about the move.

Tucked between Green Street and the Barking Road, the Boleyn Ground is firmly rooted in the geography of its area. Pubs within a mile of the ground are rammed on match days, cafes and bookies and newsagents a flurry of business. Cut the tarmac and it bleeds claret and blue.

The Olympic Stadium, by contrast, is next to Westfield Shopping Centre, surrounded by manicured scrubland, a canal that eats trolleys for breakfast and a polished turd of housing developments that look like they've been airlifted in from San Francisco.

Gary (left), Dean (right) and a fellow Hammer

Dean tells me he's been drinking at the Black Lion for a long time. "We'd consider staying drinking here. We were just joking about going from drinking pints in a scrap yard, to a nice glass of chardonnay in a champagne bar. The West Ham fans, we're all going up market whether we like it or not!"

Dean was initially really against the move. "I've been coming here since I was seven years old, so that's 45 years; I didn't want to move. But you know, it's not my choice, and you've got to move with the times. In my life, my family have moved all around, I've moved around – this place, Upton Park, it's the one place I've always gone back to. The one constant."

His mate Gary chimes in, "It's still a shit hole though. Transport links are poor, parking is poor. Once you're in the ground, the atmosphere, everything, it's fantastic; but the rest of it is shite."

"But I'll miss all that now too," laughs Dean.

I suggest that Arsenal fans went through a similar experience. Gary dismisses me. "You can't compare like with like. They're a corporate entity, we're a football club. The impact of the corporate thing for West Ham won't be massive like at the Emirates. The move won't change the club."

Lee, Nicky, and Aiden

Lee, a regular for 20 years, tells me that the Lord Stanley pub down the road will be putting on shuttle buses to the ground. His friend Nicky said the move is, "difficult because there's so much history at Upton Park and all that, but if we want to move forward, a bigger stadium is the one." The man who first brought them drinking to the Black Lion, the silvery haired Aiden, interrupts: "It's difficult to know what to think until we've got in there. But boy, the final game here is going to be real lump-in-the-throat stuff. I've been coming here for 45 years, so it's going to be very emotional."

I suggest things changed pretty fundamentally when Upton Park went all-seater in 1989 and the last of the standing terraces were removed.

"Yes," Aiden said, "but you were still going to the same place where you've got a continuation of history. Each time you sit down you can think, 'I've seen Trevor Brooking on this pitch, I've seen Bobby Moore. Then you consider that in a year's time it's going to be a block of flats and it's sad. But I tell you something I won't miss – the catering at Upton Park is shit. It's the worst shit."

A new stadium needs a good start. Does emotion come with a sense of history, or through new actions? Arsenal spent a huge amount of money moving to the Emirates. Their opening game was a 2-0 loss to, you guessed it, West Ham. Lee said, "I'm sure if we're at the Olympic Stadium and we're challenging for the top six and the honours, it won't make a difference."

John, Adrian, a friend, and another Dean

Another Dean said, "you're also talking about West Ham fans here, they're a different breed to the Arsenal mob. We'll be a little bit noisier. Don't worry about that. The point is, we have to progress – we're never gonna progress at Upton Park. You've got to compete for the top four; you have to be in the mix."

As we walked to the Boleyn Ground in time for kick off, through the back streets, round the houses, something felt like that intangible notion: community. There are no posh flats, no sculpted paths and no 'wild flower meadows'. Just a Premier League club situated in a place where regular people live regular lives.

And, as if a metaphor was slapping me hard in the face, as the match started, the sun appeared from behind the clouds.

Fans make their way to the ground

* * *

West Ham draw 1-1 with Everton, with two excellent goals in the game. Later that night I caught up with Joe England at a book launch in Waterloo. Joe is a lifelong West Ham supporter and editor of a new fanzine, 5MANAGERS, which celebrates the remarkable fact of West Ham only having employed five managers from 1904 to 1989 (more recently they've had five in the last nine years!) It's a 'one season only West Ham fanzine with one aim: to celebrate the end of an era; our time spent watching football in E13.'

"5MANAGERS," Joe said, "is about the ground as I knew it as a kid and into the '70s and '80s. Since 1993 the ground has been redeveloped, so it's not the same place anyway. If we had moved to the Olympic Stadium in 1989 then it would have been much more of a shock."

Joe drinks at The Victoria on Plaistow Road on match days. He tells me that Trudy and Woody, who run the Vic, have already acquired a new space close to Stratford in preparation for next season. You can't keep the echoes of old victory piss ups in a new establishment, but at least seeing a friendly face behind the bar would help.

Joe sells his 5MANAGERS magazine and a literary magazine called PUSH outside the Boleyn Ground. He says he's worried that there won't be that opportunity in Stratford, but thinks there will be spaces somewhere. "If people don't want that American sporting experience they will find a way of recreating what we have already."

Joe England with a copy of 5MANAGERS

Perhaps that's what it's all about: familiarity. Change is fine so long as some thread carries through. Journalist Amy Lawrence told me recently that, "when Ajax left De Meer for the Amsterdam ArenA, their form on the pitch suffered for a while. For Arsenal moving from Highbury to the Emirates, the bare concrete and lack of 'personality' at the ground was sufficiently disconcerting for the club to spend millions of pounds essentially decorating. What they called 'Arsenalisation' was something necessary to help the process of making everyone connected with the club feel at home."

Throwing some West Ham shirts at the pubs in Stratford won't replace the pre-match atmosphere at the Vic or the Lord Stanley, but it might make it easier for Hammers to settle down into their new drinking neighbourhood.

Joe says, "It's up to us to make that atmosphere happen. Boca Juniors and Borussia Dortmund are great examples of the fact that when you get that intensity going amongst the fans, it doesn't matter what stadium you are in. West Ham fans have always moaned at our lack of ambition – not reinvesting after the '85-86 season is a good example. The move is an opportunity to grow."

There's a poem in 5MANAGERS called Same Difference by Chip Hamer that seems to sum up the mood of all the fans I met.

She went dancing

Down The Bridge House

On Mods Mayday

We bowled down the Barking Road

For pie n mash

At Nathan's

Sniped down

To Plaistow Station

After the game

Well, I liked

The Olympic Stadium

But for football

It's a stretch

They've put some money

Into Stratford but

When you

Nip out back

For a gypsy's

It still feels the same

Geographical and architectural space will evolve, but if you can still have a beer with your mates and sing for 90 minutes... well, plus ça change.

* * *

Top Upton Park memories from the fans:

Adrian: "West Ham winning 8-0 against Sunderland in 1968 when Hurst scored 6 goals."

Dean: "Paolo Di Canio's scissor kick. A wonder goal."

John: "The one I remember most was the first one I went to with my mates. Ian Dowie got a goal for Southampton and got us relegated!"

Gary: "Eintracht Frankfurt in '76. The rain, the noise, the atmosphere."

Aiden: "The night I went onto the pitch after we played the final home game of the season in 1986. Ray Stuart scored a penalty, 2-1. Incredible emotions."

Nick: "Literally last week when we beat Chelsea 2-1. That'll stay in the memory for a long time!"

Tom: "[Goalkeeper] Adrian's penalty last year. Freezing January, FA Cup replay against a bogey team."

Joe England: "So many to choose from! I think 2004, the second leg of the playoff against Ipswich. There was this buzz about the ground, like a swarm of 40,000 bees. We were in the Bobby Moore upper and this noise, this buzz, didn't stop. It wasn't the greatest game. We won 2-0, but I've never heard anything like that noise. Even when it was terraces. Ask anyone who was at that game about the noise. Amazing."

Dean: "It's the other things that I remember the most. There used to be this geezer who walked through the ground selling peanuts, like he was a [drug] dealer. He'd talk out the side of his mouth, as he went passed you, 'peanuts'! And if you stayed after the game, you'd see all these peanut shells all over the floor."

@KitCaless