Riot police greeted my last leaving of the Boleyn Ground on Tuesday night. Certainly incongruous with the party atmosphere inside the stadium, it was clear something more disorderly had been going on outside.
My reflective stroll to Upton Park station spoilt, it’s taken me until now to get my thoughts together on the momentous move of West Ham United FC from Green Street, E13, to an Olympic Stadium with its own postcode (E20): and more deeply on West Ham itself – not least the club’s not always positive role on my psyche.
In truth, West Ham and I were made for each other, something I can explain through its choice of anthem. Listen to Liverpool’s “you’ll never walk alone” and you’ll hear the strains of a sometimes misunderstood city – of a people that feel ignored and abused but have a collective spirit all of their own. This is our tribe, they are singing – and we’re sure of the warm embrace of belonging somewhere, even if that somewhere has its troubles.
Yet listen to “I’m forever blowing bubbles”, and the West Ham anthem is delivering a different message. It’s also one of feeling misunderstood, but it’s one of frustration. The key line is midway – the one delivered with the greatest gusto: “fortunes always hiding”, we sing, “I’ve looked everywhere”. As yet another chance for glory slips by, often to our richer neighbours, it’s sung as a lament for the clubs’ near-permanent nearly-man status.
But notice the “I” and not the “we”. This is not about the team – or not just about the team. It’s about the denizens of East London (now including much of Essex). It’s about the individual West Ham supporter: a person used to seeing others take the prize, while they toil on – always looking, always trying, but never quite pulling it off.
Of the major London clubs, West Ham is the most working class. Being London, however, this doesn’t result in the same class-consciousness or sense of collective endeavour you’ll find in Liverpool. Economic dislocation in London is an altogether more individual affair. Many West Ham supporters have been locked out from traditional forms of advancement (such as education and the professions), making them reliant on altogether more “entrepreneurial” pursuits, not always strictly legal and certainly denigrated by those more fortunate. It was no coincidence, for instance, that posh leftie Emily Thornberry MP revealed her disgust at white van man’s flag flying – with the unnoticed flag (beneath the others) being that of West Ham (see below).
But white van man is an individualist, He belongs to no club because no one’s that comfortable letting him in. In Dad’s Army – while it was always the ineffectual and insipid “boy Pike” that wore the claret and blue scarf – the character most West Ham fans identified with was the spiv Walker. Here was a man living on his wits, finding his way despite having neither the breeding nor education of his superiors. He was useful, resourceful and productive, but – make no mistake – they’d have rejected his application to join the local golf club.
Geography is important here. While I’ve always claimed Liverpool and East London have much in common, their hinterlands couldn’t be more different. While the mighty city of Liverpool has been forced back behind its barricades by economic decline and dislocation – hence the brotherly anthem – East London has always been the capital’s sink-estate. Go east, west, north or south from Upton Park – whether to the gravel drives of Kent and Essex, the glass and steel condos along the river or the gentrifying “period properties” of Hackney and Islington – and affluent optimism pervades the air. Walk down Green Street meanwhile, and the streets reek of downtrodden pessimism.
My point is that West Ham is the outsiders’ club. We’re the misfits – the “cockney rejects” of lore. Of course, London has always been a city of contrasts: of rich and poor, foreign and indigenous – like most global cities, in fact, only more so. And those contrasting groups all have their clubs. The clubs in modern London include those for the rich – usually in St James’s and Mayfair (Carlton Club, Annabel’s or Mahiki for example); and the trendy – places such as Soho House, Shoreditch House and the Ivy Club (or even the Garrick). Even immigrants have their own clubs – whether backrooms with a pool table or cafes serving cuisine for the homesick.
Yet there are those prevented from joining any of these clubs. Traditionally, they instead tied their loyalties to London’s professional football clubs. Except that – even here – prices and demand (and their central locations) turned two of them (Chelsea and Arsenal) into further realms of exclusivity. Indeed, when I hear that so-and-so is a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates, it’s with a knowing inner nod, these days, that I note their educated tones, smart clothes and professional credence.
But not so West Ham. Here was a club for those where, indeed, fortunes always hid. And even if they didn’t, they always looked perilous or there was some suspicion that our fortunes were somehow ill-gotten (as no doubt, sometimes they were). To my great pride – to the point of tears streaming down my face just thinking about it – here was the club for London’s unclubbable. We weren’t posh. We weren’t trendy. But, whether it was Ken’s Café, The Boleyn PH or just standing on the Barking Road outside Nathan’s – we still had somewhere to call our own.
And that leads me to my biggest reflection from Tuesday night – on thinking about that last stroll up Green Street (where my father lived as a boy) towards Upton Park station. Is West Ham still the outsiders’ club? Can a 60,000 world-class stadium set in its own park ever house a club for misfits – for rejects? I’m not so sure it can.
Certainly, David Gold and David Sullivan – the club’s two local-boy chairmen and chief protagonists of the changes underway – will always be outsiders. Mr Gold, to his credit, even provided the cover quote for my book on helping genuine outsiders succeed, called The Outside Edge. They both certainly “get it” – with even David Sullivan’s reaction to the problems outside on Tuesday night the classic embattled response of an outsider (summary: trust the toffy-nosed United to turn up late and spoil our party etc). Good on him – if United hadn’t been late they’d have been no problems, of that I’m certain.
But we’re moving on. And up. And I worry that also means we’re, at least mentally, moving out. I admit, part of my thinking here is down to my failure to secure a season ticket for the first year – leaving it too late to get myself on the “priority list” (I applied in September 2015 – while only those applying before June 2015 were in time, I’m told). So I’m left feeling somewhat excluded from even this club, which is perhaps fitting given that it’s no longer a club for outsiders, though I guess any club owned by the two Davids will always have something of a misfit hue (at least I hope so).
So I’m glad we’re going but it’s still sad to say “farewell Upton Park”. It’s been – emotional.