And so it approaches, the very last ‘London Derby’ at The Boleyn Ground. Gooners everywhere know exactly the emotions we Hammers are supposed to be experiencing. But here’s the thing, a bit like when we sold our family home of 22 years recently, it’s only bricks and mortar – nothing more nothing less. Well NO actually. This is nothing like the sale of our 4 bedroom semi nestled in the suburbs of St Albans. This is my bloody ancestral home they’re getting rid of and I’m going to miss it big time.
I should have been a Gooner, all my family supported them, Dad had been a season ticket holder in the 50’s and 60’s. Used to take me along in the mid-sixties, lifted me over the turn style gates and sat me on his knee watching the likes of Jim Furnell, Georgie Armstrong, George Eastham, John Radford et al. But then he stopped going due to Saturday work commitments and my next door neighbour seized the day.
The day in question was Saturday 21st September 1974. My first visit to Upton Park. I will never forget queuing for over an hour to buy my seat in the Upper West Stand as it used to be known. Leicester City were the opponents and walking up the steps from the concourse just felt so different to visiting other grounds. Various family friends had dragged me to all manor of stadia in the hope of a new recruit- Shite Hart Lane, Underhill, Brisbane Road, Vicarage Road, Stamford Bridge (what a shit hole that used to be!). But that day at The Boleyn was just meant to be – I knew I was home. We beat Leicester 6 -2, including a couple from Billy Jennings and 2 from ex-gooner Bobby Gould. How could I be anything but hooked.
So as we move closer to our last ever game at Upton Park, I thought I would recount three special games at the place I call home.
The 70’s were symptomatic of being a West Ham fan. Cup Final win in 75, Cup Winners Cup Finalists in 76 and relegation in 78. But then we began to build a new team as we enjoyed three cracking seasons in the old division 2 and managed to reach another FA Cup final – some of you may remember it (The Cup Final that is, not the new team). Brooking was now in his prime, Devonshire marauding down the wing, the industry of Geoff Pike, the steel and work rate of Billy Bonds and a hard as nails centre forward in David Cross.
Winning the FA Cup once again meant a run out in Europe and after an eventful 2nd round tie against Real Madrid’s second team, Casillas, played at home in front of just 262 spectators in what was known as the Ghost Match, we progressed to the last eight. I was at Upton Park that night for the quarter final tie in March vs Dynamo Tiblisi. A night that for me said everything that needed to be said about true Hammers. We were played off the park. Tiblisi ran rings around a very good West Ham team. 35,000 packed into ground and when the final whistle blew, all 35,000 stood and applauded the Tblisi players for a good 5 minutes as they took a ‘lap of honour’. Of course we were gutted, but this, Big Fat Sam, was truly ‘The West Ham Way’.
Obscene I Tell You, Obscene
By the early 90’s we were becoming a true yoyo club and the 91-92 season was one that ended in relegation. The penultimate game was against Man Utd with the Mancs favourites to pip Leeds United to the First Division Championship. We were already down. We beat them courtesy of a Kenny Brown toe poke and Taggart described our effort as obscene, rightly pointing out that a similar work rate would have seen us comfortably mid table. But that’s who we are – starved of success, denying others had become our reason for being.
And so we arrived at the last game of the 1994-95 season. We were back in the big time (now known as The Premier League) and Jack Walkers millions had set up a superb end to the season as Blackburn and Man Utd slugged it out for the winners trophy. We were comfortably mid table, but Ferguson spent the week recounting the 1992 season ending story and warning his players what they were in for. Public Enemy No.1 Paul Ince was coming back and a season high attendance of 24,700 awaited the clash.
Michael Hughes’s opener mid-way through the first half was greeted with wild celebration. United needed to score twice to have any chance of taking the prize. Roared on by 20,000 manical cockneys (I’d forgotten how crowds had dipped in football in the late 80’s early 90’s), the team made the 1992 performance look like a training ground workout. Ludek Miklosko (he comes from near Moscow) produced one of the finest performances ever seen by a goalkeeper at Upton Park (think Robert Green in our first visit to The Emirates and multiply by two). He was eventually beaten by a Brian McClair header but wave after wave of subsequent attacks were repelled.
Half the ground had radio’s pressed to their ears listening out for the Blackburn result at Liverpool. And to cap off a perfect day, Liverpool scored a last minute winner meaning Blackburn still won The Premier League, but we’d gone and stopped The Mancs.
The joyous scenes reminded me of days when we had won promotion. Ferguson moaned and bitched, Ince cried and we celebrated long into the night.
It’s Happening Again
Which now brings me to the third game and one which all Arsenal fans will likely remember.
7th May 2006. The day when The Scum were convinced they were going to make the top four at the expense of their best friends at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road.
Once again, we had finished in a respectable mid-table position. We had a Cup Final to look forward to the following week and Spurs had assumed we would rest a bunch of players and roll over in case of injury before our trip to The Millennium Stadium.
I can safely say I’ve probably never been so excited before a match at Upton Park. I know Arsenal fans believe they hold the exclusive license for despising Tottenham and their supporters, but believe me, we in the claret and blue area of London run a very close second.
As we were getting ready to go to the game, the news started to filter through that a dodgy pasta was working it’s way through much of the Spurs squad, literally. Doubts started to be aired as to whether the game would go ahead. But due to a combination of the games importance and our impending Cup Final, the match was given the go-ahead.
The atmosphere inside the ground was nothing short of surreal. Grown men’s faces were contorted, saliva foaming from their mouths and abuse was flying in the direction of the blue and white half of London like I can’t remember. Once again, Upton Park resembled Radio City as trannies were held to ears all over the stadium. Thierry Henry put The Arse one up vs Wigan. One Nil to The Arsenal sang 7/8ths of the ground. Wigan equalised and there was an audiable groan throughout the ground, closely followed by mass celebrations from 3,000 pieces of Scum. But then Carl Fletcher put us 1 up from 25 yards. Paul Robinson tried to keep it out, but it’s not easy diving whilst you’re trying to keep your bum cheeks firmly shut.
Somehow Spurs managed to stay in the game, and Defoe drew them level before half time. More goals followed at The Library and at half time, Spurs were clinging on to 4th place and a very short sojourn into Champions League Qualifying.
The second half continued at a furious pace, with Tottscum players visibly wilting. At least two threw up on the pitch. Every Aaron Lennon corner was greeted by a toilet roll being lobbed onto the pitch from the Chicken run. Arsenal went 4-2 up. “It’s happening again” sang three quarters of the ground. Spurs had to match Arsenal’s result. But West Ham looked the more likely to score. And then it happened – The 80th minute and Yossi Benayoun hit a pearler from 10 yards.
Now I’ve witnessed some fantastic moments at Upton Park. Ray Stewart’s 90 minute penalty vs Villa in a Cup Quarter Final, at least 3 Play Off wins, Di Canio’s volley versus Wimbledon, A Clive Allen tap-in securing promotion back to the old division 1. But I can remember no goal being celebrated at wildly as Yossi’s.
And of course, as we approach the end of our era, it is worth remembering that the result that day made for a far better celebration as Arsenal spent the rest of the afternoon saying goodbye to Highbury. I am told that at one point that afternoon, the sound of bubbles echoed around the old ground.
Our last ever game at The Boleyn was supposed to be against Swansea City, but due to our Cup run and a delayed Quarter Final replay coming up next week, we now have the delicious prospect of the last ever Cup and League games being against our old mates from Manchester and both evening games. Somehow I think the supporters have at least one more magical night to look forward to.
And so to Saturday.
We are on a great run, but Bilic is clear that the Cup is our priority. You boys are doing what you seem to do every year – fall away in February and then come back with a rattle in the final few games. I’m a little pessimistic about this one, but I’m going to hold out for an entertaining 2-2 draw with both teams reduced to 10 men (Gabriel and Carroll).
See You at The Olympic Stadium!
written by West Ham Bob