I took my youngest son to Upton Park on Saturday (to see West Ham versus Newcastle) and came away more angry than I’ve ever left that ground before, which – believe me – is saying something.
No, it’s not because we lost. It’s not even because this defeat meant my six year old’s introduction to the Boleyn Ground involved lots of angry people booing and shouting (and even swearing). That said, observing coarse and terse football fandom through the eyes of a six-year old does make the whole environment seem more shocking: starker, harder, more brutal.
It’s because I realised that West Ham had lost something I truly loved about that club: it had lost its values.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a starry-eyed fan assuming we all own the club, when it’s really the play-thing of a few millionaires. I realise full well that we are no more than the punters – there to be relieved of our hard-earned cash in a myriad different ways (as attested by the £80 on tickets and £50 in the club shop).
Yet part of the deal is that – as fans – we’re allowed to claim something of the club that’s far deeper than mere ownership. It’s something money can’t buy, though it can seemingly lose. And that’s its values. We are surely all part of a club’s values. And these – under the current ownership and management – have completely disappeared.
My son’s rite of passage on Saturday echoed my own – some long forgotten Saturday in the 1970s in which I too broke my football match virginity. Of course, we lost: this time 2-1 at home to Coventry City, although all I saw was the back of grown men straining forward to see over others (my father had been too mean to buy seats so we’d stood in the West Stand).
I cried – as did Eddie on Saturday.
However, on the way back my father told me about the pride many East Londoners (and those further afield) had in the team. He told me it was nicknamed the Academy of Football: so called because of the purity of its football and the way everyone in the club was dedicated to the nurturing of young talent. West Ham didn’t always win he said. But they always played well – eschewing the rough-n-tumble of many football clubs in the era of Billy Bremner’s Leeds United.
This was the club of Bobby Moore, he said. Moore was the finest footballer England has ever produced. He was a gentlemen footballer – a man every boy looked up to and every wife admired. And he’s the only man (before or since) to have lifted the World Cup in an England shirt (thanks to four goals all scored by West Ham players).
West Ham’s emphasis on youth had won England the World Cup, he said. The tough East London streets around the ground (contrary to popular belief West Ham is in East London not the East End, which stops at the River Lea) produced many great footballers – as, in more recent years, it has boxers and athletes.
West Ham’s roots were some of the deepest of any English club’s, he said: those hammers on the badge had nothing to do with the name West Ham (another popular misconception) but owed their place to the team’s heritage as the Thames Ironworks FC: a shipmakers at the junction of the rivers Lea and Thames (hence the “Irons” nickname more-often used by the fans). This was also important because it set West Ham apart from other London clubs: as the team of an industrial area more akin to a northern city than the rest of London.
In fact, East London (now Newham) – with its docks and heavy industry and irrepressible working class humour – was the south’s Liverpool, he said: another city more-than-proud of its footballing excellence and heritage.
Finally, I was told that West Ham was a well-run club: stable, not flash (unlike some of its neighbours). At that time – in the mid-70s – West Ham was on its fourth manager since 1902: an unheard of claim in English football, even then. Yet that was part of its values, which mattered.
So while West Ham may lose too often, he said. The club means something to its fans. It has strong, deep and unbreakable values that it upholds, which means the pride in West Ham comes less from the scant silverware and the wayward results – and more from the things it does and the way it behaves.
Of course, as I trudged home with my six-year old, I would have loved to have passed on this oral tradition: introducing him to what it means to follow West Ham. Yet I couldn’t. Because those values seem to have entirely disappeared.
Where have they gone Mr Gold, Mr Sullivan and Ms Brady? I’d like to know what you’ve done with them because I want to tell my youngest son the truth about West Ham. He, unlike his older brother (who opted for Arsenal to be in with his schoolchums) wanted to follow his father’s team. It meant as much to him as it meant to me. But there’s nothing there for his pride to invest in.
Sure, it says The Academy of Football on the gravel around the pitch – the manager Sam Allardyce (our fourth in five years) even walks over it to and from his dugout. But the lovely passing, neat triangles and midfield creativity was all coming from the men in black and white on Saturday. West Ham – despite having some seriously skilful players on the pitch (Joe Cole etc) played like a hungover Sunday-team on Wanstead Flats. Balls lobbed into the box – one after the other (all failing to find their target). That’s until Andy Carroll came on. Our missing target man – back after injury. Hurrah! Yet he immediately signalled to our goalkeeper to not even bother with the other outfielders – just hoof it up field towards him. That’ll do!
Of course, Sam & Co may explain that this is due to the ever-lengthening injury list. Yet why, in that case, did they blow almost their entire pre-season transfer budget on this single route-one target man? Why has the entire team been constructed around this one-trick pony that promptly became injured (some trick!)?
Yes, I understand the financial pressures. We must stay in the premiership blah! I also understand that Sullivan and Gold (East Londoners both) inherited a financial mess after West Ham became an extraordinary victim of Iceland’s financial meltdown. Yet that’s to miss the point: perhaps one missed also by the vice-chairman Karren Brady due to her celebrity distractions.
Most West Ham fans – myself and my father before me – were used to seeing West Ham lose: even used to relegation. What they took most pride in, however, were the club’s values, which are nowhere to be seen. And, as I say in What’s Stopping You? and repeat in Get Things Done (out February) – without values you’re as good as lost.