Friday 30 September 2016

Paul Hayward: Emotion of Upton Park farewell proves too much for some

Violent minority choose the worst possible night to return and ruin the party, writes Paul Hayward

Paul Hayward

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

A young West Ham fan watches on as police control the crowd following a disturbance outside Upton Park. Reuters / Eddie Keogh
A young West Ham fan watches on as police control the crowd following a disturbance outside Upton Park. Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Damaged seats after West Ham's last Barclays Premier League match at Upton Park. Nick Potts/PA Wire

Yards from the statue of the great Bobby Moore, another England defender filmed the disturbance through the window of Manchester United's "smashed up" bus. Chris Smalling, who recorded the bottle throwing by West Ham fans on his mobile phone, probably expected more from his visit to Moore's old manor.

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Such is the perversity of tribalism that many of the West Ham supporters who pelted United's coach will cheer on Smalling and Wayne Rooney at Euro 2016. Smalling plays in Bobby Moore's old position and Rooney is the England captain, a post held by West Ham's most illustrious figure.

But on this night they were the enemy. The outer layer of their bus's windows was smashed and one spectator reported a "frightening" press of bodies as fans, police horses and vans became gridlocked around United's stranded coach. Later, mobile phone footage showed United players lying on the floor of the coach for shelter. One or two, it should be said, seemed amused.

This was meant to be a report on West Ham's farewell to Upton Park, or the Boleyn Ground, as it has become again in the last week or so. In retrospect, we should have guessed the streets around the stadium would be mobbed by people wanting to turn it into a mass outdoor knees-up.

They sang, they drank and then a violent minority did what violent minorities do: ruined it for everyone else, and certainly Manchester United's players and coaching staff, who were bombarded and delayed on the way to what should have been a nostalgic evening.

There is no escaping the reality that pre-match mayhem, which delayed the kick-off until 8.30pm, diminished West Ham's last night in this classic English football ground, one of the few that can claim to have been hit by a Doodlebug in World War II.

Upton Park is an extension of the working-class community in which it sits. Turned the other way, the social history of the borough has been shaped by the unique character of the club and its unfulfilled dreams: the popping bubbles of an institution that used to avoid taking itself too seriously.

The blockheads in the street, as Ian Dury might call them, succeeded only in besmirching West Ham's name and stoking up United. "There is a lot emotion now among the players," their manager, Louis van Gaal, said before the game finally got under way.

"I'm sure West Ham as a club will be disappointed with what the fans have done," added Rooney.

Yet West Ham were the ones to seize the initiative, scoring through Diafra Sakho after 10 minutes.

Before West Ham could take the lead, David Sullivan, one of the two owners who forced such an advantageous deal at Stratford, committed a succession of howling gaffes. He blamed United for turning up late (officials from Manchester claimed the coach had left their hotel 10 minutes early).

Sullivan even said: "If you check the coach there won't be any damage to it." The driver will disagree. Frankly, the hooligans also fed the preconceptions of those who associate West Ham with an older story of organised violence and racist infiltration.

And these scenes were hardly likely to assuage public anger about the huge cost to the taxpayer of granting West Ham a 'sweetheart deal' to take over the Olympic white elephant. All in all it was a PR disaster for the club, which Sullivan exacerbated, and the sensible mass of supporters tried to ameliorate by whipping up a wonderful din.

The laying to rest of Upton Park was part touching civic ritual, part last blast of passion in a ground that has staged 2,389 games and seen 4,535 goals over 112 years.

Indivisible

The public address system here still regularly crackles with requests for people to move cars ('could the owner of a black VW van, registration number…'). And traditional stalls still line Green Street on the walk from Upton Park station. They sell sweets, programmes, badges, fanzines and the ubiquitous hot dogs and burgers. These businesses feel indivisible from the club, the community, the history of a non-gentrified area whose claim to global fame remains its contribution to England's 1966 World Cup win.

Outside, Gary Firmager, the man behind the fanzine 'Over Land And Sea', wrote autographs on his final cover, which carried the tribute: "Thank you for the memories, beautiful people. One world, one nation, one love."

This was issue No 629 and there will be no more. "Every home game for 27 years," Firmager's assistant boasted. Inside, one fan wrote: "I will have on my person a trowel to dig up a piece of the pitch … I will also be carrying a set of acetylene cylinders and a burner so I can cut through the metal and nick my seat."

This was a reference to the offer by David Sullivan and David Gold to sell the seats here to fans for £50. The fanzine writer continued: "£50 to buy it off the Double D's! Robbing gits to the end, that's a cool £1.5 million they will earn just for selling lumps of plastic."

So although most West Ham fans have come round to the idea of moving to a bigger, more glamorous home, the old independent, anti-corporate spirit survives.

The same can be said unfortunately for the bottle-throwing mentality of the 1970s and 1980s: a curse that chose the worst possible night to return. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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