Friday, 6 February 2009

West Ham United: The Making of a Football Club by Charles P. Korr

In 1970, I became an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri, an institution that was only seven years old at that time. My teaching responsibilities included advanced level and M. A. courses in Tudor-Stuart England and 17th century Europe. One of the many advantages of being in a new, and growing, department was the chance to develop new courses and get away from the traditional syllabus. In 1972, I organized a very successful conference dealing with the role that sports played in contemporary American society. Two things about it stand out in my mind – the range of serious non-sports issues that were discussed and that I got to be Jackie Robinson’s host for two days. It’s a great thrill to see that the heroes of one’s youth can be even better people that one imagines. Three years later, I started teaching a social history of sports course, one of the first taught in any department of history at an American university.

As a result of the conference, I tried to do some serious reading about sports (especially football) in English society and was very disappointed to see how little there was at that time. That’s when I decided to see if I could start research of my own on the subject. I was returning to England in the summer, 1973 and wrote the secretaries of all the London League clubs to ask if I could talk with them about a possible subject for my research. I got invitations to visit all but two clubs and I met with the secretaries of seven of them. My original plan was to do a social history of football in London after 1945. When I realized that was too big a subject, I decided to focus on one club. Since I wanted a club that had a distinctive, recognizable community, I limited the final choice to West Ham United and Charlton.

It’s no exaggeration to say that my career and my life were changed by an afternoon I spent at Upton Park in July, 1973. I was with Eddie Chapman, the club secretary for a couple of hours. The club had a history that would make it a perfect study for me. Eddie was enthusiastic about the idea and convinced Reg Pratt, the chairman, to help me. I ended up with a historian’s treasure trove. I got free access to all of the club’s financial records and the minute books of meetings from 1895 to 1970. When I began the research in 1974, it was the start of a new career, an involvement for me with both the club and football, and the beginning of friendships that last to this day. I have to emphasize that I did not choose West Ham because I was a fan. The dynamic was just the opposite. I became a fan because I got involved with the club and the people around it. I worked at the club for months over three summers before I saw my first match there in 1976. Over the years, I got to know remarkable people like Eddie, John Lyall, Ron Greenwood, Frank O’Farrell, other former players and a number of long time supporters. I interviewed scores of former players, club officials, and journalists.

Over the years, the club has offered me hospitality and I get to a few matches each autumn. One thrill was to attend the 1980 Cup Final and to be able to buy a ticket for my friend and mentor, S. T. Bindoff. It was his second Cup Final, the first one being in 1923. At that match, I sat behind Jimmy Ruffell, the West Ham winger in 1923.

From the time I got involved with the research in football, I had a couple of things that marked me as unusual in the minds of Englishmen and women who learned of my work – I had no background in football and I had an accent that made clear I was “that Yank who wants to write about West Ham.” I’m sure those peculiarities brought me to the attention of other academics who did research in football and other aspects of British and European sports. When I decided to do all my academic research in the field of sport history, there were very few academics involved in it. Thirty years later, the field has a solid academic base, even though some of the academic snobbery towards “it’s only sports” remains.

My West Ham United book was published in 1986 and went through four editions. I had a wonderful publisher in Colin Haycroft at Duckworth, but he made one small mistake. They let the book go out of print in 1994, the year before the centenary of the club when it was boasting that it was the “club with a special history”.

Charles Korr

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