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Going to West Ham in the late sixties and early seventies was quite a different experience compared to today. Many of the older fans who read this article will remember fondly some of the memories and hopefully comment on some of the things I have forgotten. It may be some of their experiences may be slightly different? For the younger readers it will hopefully give an insight on what the experience of a game at Upton Park was like 45 years ago.
Foreign players were rare in our domestic league in this era and players wages were not extravagantly higher than a good standard wage. Players would often stay at their clubs for ten years or more and if they reached this milestone, testimonial games would be played so as to give them the proceeds of the gate takings to help them start their new careers after football. Many ex players from those days would use the money to buy a pub or start up a small business.
My journey as a youngster would start in Loughton and a change at Mile End on the tube would have you at Upton Park in around 40 minutes. The walk down Green Street was an experience in itself. Everywhere you looked there were stalls selling old and new programs, scarves, bobble hats, badges and rosettes etc. The smell that drifted from the hot dog stalls was quite over powering. If you wanted to go to Upton Park on a Saturday it was likely you would have to start queuing from about 1pm for a 3pm kick off. In those days it was all standing except the Upper West. If you did decide to get to the game around 2pm you would find the queues on the western side of the ground reach right down to Green Street. Apart from the season ticket holders in the seated Upper West, it was cash to get in and if the ground was full you missed out. My own first experience at the Boleyn was delayed a few weeks as my dad thought it OK to arrive at the ground at 2.30pm for a game v Liverpool. Sorry, all doors locked – Full House!
Bobby Moore had his own sports shop across the road from the ground and the Hammers official merchandise store was located in a caravan parked to the side of the Western entrance. Prior to the game the “monkey peanut” sellers would circle the exterior of the pitch as buyers would send their money down via other fans and the peanuts passed up the same way or thrown to them if the vendor had a good arm!
By 2pm the crowd would be in good voice and Bubbles was only one song that would echo around the ground for an hour. The North Bank was the main area for the vocals but the old Chicken Run (East Stand) was often a sway with our favourite song. Traditionally the South Bank was the area for the away fans and for an hour or more before the game the chanting taunts would to and fro incessantly between the rival fans. Into the seventies and West Ham fans made a presence in the South Bank as well, stemming mainly from the catalyst that was soccer hooliganism. Prior to this it was not uncommon for the South Bank to be completely filled by away support when playing the bigger clubs. Around 2.30pm the British Legion band would come out and play near the players entrance, central to the West Stand. The only time most fans were paying attention to the band was when they started to play Bubbles as this was the signal that the teams were on their way out onto the pitch. It was around this time that the newspaper reporters and photographers would file around to their normal positions of behind and to the side of the goals.
From my recent visits back to watch West Ham there is no doubt that the singing and atmosphere created in the ground is many decibels below the old days. The all-seater stadiums have certainly created a safer and more comfortable experience but to be honest I think today’s fans are missing out on what a truly incredible fever pitch a football game can deliver. The upside is that attending a football game nowadays is relatively safe, unlike in the days of skin heads and soccer hooliganism. The truth is that following West Ham home and away in the early seventies, you would be watching football shrouded in a threatening atmosphere that tended to hang over games like a dark cloud, ready to burst.
I was at the final game of last season against Reading and despite it being the last game of a what was a successful season, the atmosphere was a touch sterile. I know one thing for certain. The pitch the players played on was in better condition than Bobby Moore or Geoff Hurst would have enjoyed on the FIRST game of any season 45 years ago. In those days the pitches would deteriorate after October and by January very little grass existed in the penalty areas. I also watched at half time as fans would be scrolling on their I phones to see what the scores were at other matches. Back in days past we would wait anxiously to watch the numbers go up in the corner of the North and South Banks as you checked your match program to decipher what game was A, B, C or D etc. If Spurs v Forest was match D for example and the half time scoreboard showed 0-1 next to D, a big cheer would go up as we knew the Spuds were in trouble!
The scarves tied to the belts of fans have been replaced by replica shirts. The hard men of football have been replaced by diving cheats. Mud bath pitches have been replaced by pristine oversized bowling rinks. The crowd surges and swaying has been replaced by the”excuse me mate – can I get by you”. That anxious wait for 6pm and the Evening Standard late edition to hit the newsagents to find out the other scores and updated tables, replaced by instant results on our phones. Were they the good old days or the bad old days?