Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Why I am a West Ham fan

My father took me to my first football game when I was about six years old. He was born in North Landon and was a passionate Spurs fan. The game was against Arsenal. I stood on a stool at the front and I watched the game through the curved railings that was on the top of the wall.

I only have a few visual memories of the game. I remember Ron Burgess coming up very close to me in order to collect the ball to take a throw-in. He was bald headed and looked very old. This was a time when young men did not shave their heads and few suffered from premature hair loss.

The second image I recall was of the long shorts worn by Jimmy Logie. It must have been a huge disappointment for my father when I told him that I preferred Arsenal’s red shirts to the boring white of his team. He must have been a tolerant dad because I received an Arsenal shirt as a birthday present that year.

It was another couple of years before he took me to White Hart Lane on a regular basis. When they were playing away from home he took me fishing. My older sister still feels angry about how my father took me out every Saturday. However, in those days, it was vitally important for sons to be trained to have the same interests as their fathers. His father would have done the same for him if he had not been killed in the First World War when he was just a child. All three of us, as first born sons, all had the same Christian name.

If you are to believe the theory of “filial imprinting”, or what John Money has accurately called “the lovemap”, I should have become a fan of the Spurs. But it never happened. I suspect the main reason was that as we were living in Chingford at the time, most of my mates supported West Ham.

The second factor was that my father was killed in a road accident in 1956. My father’s brother and my mother’s brother took it in turns to take me to White Hart Lane. However, if my father could not turn me into a fan, my uncles definitely couldn’t.

After the death of my father when I was eleven we moved to Dagenham. This was a place where it was extremely unusual to find a non-Hammers fan. It was the largest council estate in Europe and every boy wanted to play for West Ham. It was seen as our main route to success. It was either playing professional football or working at Fords. The teachers, who had no chance of controlling our behaviour by dangling the possibility of academic success in front of our noses, resorted to using the prospect of fame and success on the football field. I remember on one occasion John O’Rourke being paraded around the school in the kit he wore on his debut for England schoolboys. He also appeared on stage during one school assembly. He followed three boys who were caned in front of the whole school. That sums up the moral message of the school. The choice was between public humiliation or mass adoration. For those without the necessary football skills, this was no choice at all and for most working-class children, schooling was about the lowering of aspirations and the production of factory fodder.

John O’Rourke wanted to play for the Hammers but unfortunately for him he never caught the attention of the West Ham scouts and he was forced to sign for Arsenal. He then moved onto Chelsea but it was not until he reached Luton Town that his career took off (64 goals in 84 games). Then came Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Coventry City, Queens Park Rangers and finally Bournemouth, but he never made it to the Hammers.

As soon as I was old enough I used to go to Upton Park on my own. This was a very different experience from attending matches at White Hart Lane. I had found my cultural home. One of the first games I saw was against Manchester United on 8th September 1958. I still remember the pre-match announcement over the tannoy that Bobby Moore would be playing his first game for the club. We were not aware of the drama that had been going on behind the scenes. Billy Lansdowne and Andy Nelson were both injured and the obvious replacement was Malcolm Allison, who had been the club captain until he had been taken ill after a game against Sheffield United in September 1957. Doctors discovered he was suffering from tuberculosis and he had to have a lung removed. Allison returned to the club and played several games for the reserves but with only one lung he struggled with his fitness. The other possibility was a 17 year-old Bobby Moore.

Ted Fenton asked Noel Cantwell who he should select for the game, Allison or Moore. Cantwell, who was very close to Allison, surprisingly, opted for the young untried player. Allison was never to forgive Cantwell for what he considered a betrayal of friendship. Moore recalled in his autobiography: "I'd been a professional for two and a half months and Malcolm had taught me everything I know.... When Malcolm was coaching schoolboys he took a liking to me when I don't think anyone else at West Ham saw anything special in me... I looked up to the man. It's not too strong to say I loved him."

Moore added: “It somehow had to be that when I walked into the dressing room and found out I was playing, Malcolm was the first person I saw. I was embarrassed to look at him… For a moment I wanted to push the shirt to him and say ‘Go on, Malcolm. It’s yours. Have your game. I can’t stop you. Go on, Malcolm. My time will come’.“ But he didn’t, and the beginning of his career brought an end to that of his mentor. Allison was never to play another first-team game for the club.

Moore later confessed: “I went out and played the way Malcolm had always told me to play… Be in control of yourself. Take control of everything around you. Look big. Tell people what to do.” West Ham won the game 3-2 (John Dick, John Smith and Malcolm Musgrave got the goals) and although Moore did not have an outstanding game, he became my first football idol. Partly because of the immaculate way he played but also because he looked like the way we wanted to look, whereas most of the players reminded us of our dads and uncles. I suppose he was like an older brother who was tuned into our teenage culture.

West Ham had just won promotion to the First Division. They had been a Second Division club since the 1931-32 season. Fans were apprehensive about how we would cope as Ted Fenton had constructed a team that played very direct football. This included two fast wingers (Mike Grice and Malcolm Musgrove) and three goalscoring inside forwards (Vic Keeble, John Dick and Billy Dare). The Hammers scored 101 goals in the 1957-58 season with 40% coming from Keeble and Dick.

The only change Ted Fenton made to the format in the First Division was to bring in Phil Woosnam, a creative inside-forward from Leyton Orient, to replace Billy Dare. West Ham had a great season finishing in 6th place. An amazing achievement considering that it was their first season in the top division for over 25 years. Keeble and Dick were once again in great form scoring 47 of the club’s 85 goals.

I was only 14 years old but I was in love for the first-time. In the words of Nick Hornby: “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it."

In his 1929 novel, The Good Companions, J. B. Priestley explained what it was like to be a football supporter in a working-class area: “It turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates, and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgments, like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.”

West Ham good form was not to last. In the 1959-60 season they finished in 14th place. Ted Fenton’s time was coming to an end. After another poor season, Ron Greenwood was brought in as manager. His first signing was Johnny Byrne from Crystal Palace. This was a statement of intent and it heralded the beginning of the West Ham way of playing. The pinnacle of this was winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup on 19th May 1965. I was lucky enough to be in the crowd at Wembley that day. However, for younger members, I would urge you to watch the DVD of the match.

It was one of those occasions where my football pleasure was in the “present”. For most football fans the excitement comes from thoughts of the future. As with gambling, the punter needs the odd success to feed the addiction. In his fascinating book “Those Feet: An Intimate History of English Football”, David Winner helps explain the motivation of a passionate football supporter. “One doesn’t instinctively think of football as a narrative form, but that’s a large part of the game’s appeal: it’s a vast, never-ending unscripted drama. As spectators, we yearn to know what happens next. Every free-kick, corner and penalty has dramatic tensions. To fans, the progress of their team is more involving than any TV soap, and much less predictable.”

David Winner misses out one important aspect of being a football fan. The true fan is far from being a passive observer of the soap opera that we call football. We desperately desire to be the scriptwriter of this drama. We want in some way to shape these events. That is why we are so keen to show our opinions by cheering or booing the manager’s decisions. It is our way of selecting the team. We also try to influence the tactics employed by the manager by posting on this forum. Deep down we hope that Zola and Clarke visit the forum to find out what they need to do to bring success to the club.

However, being a West Ham fan is not just about winning cups or titles. If it was the passion would decline during the long periods of failure. The real pleasure of being a West Ham fan is those moments of beauty you see on the pitch. It was a West Ham fan, Alf Garnett, who once said: “football is a working class ballet.” It was meant to make us laugh but like the best jokes, it reveals a kernel of truth. Football, when played the right way, is a visual treat, a thing of beauty.

Like ballet, the beauty of football is in the movement. This takes many forms. Bobby Moore gracefully moving across the pitch to intercept a pass or Trevor Brooking floating across the Upton Park grass with the ball at his feet and with his head held high looking for an unmarked comrade.

Probably the most wondrous sight of all is when several players combine to create beautiful patterns. That is what happened when Carlton Cole scored the goal at Wigan last Wednesday. It was as good as anything I saw under Ron Greenwood and John Lyall. It has taken an Italian, himself a master of the beautiful game, to give us the kind of football that we have so long craved.

1 comment:

  1. BlueHost is ultimately the best web-hosting provider for any hosting plans you require.