The HamburgHammer Column
With no football to look forward to in the coming weeks and likely months, Iain has asked us to still keep the articles coming somehow. And as I cannot discuss recently played West Ham games, missed chances, wrong formations, weird starting lineups, not even local Hamburg football including Concordia (all those games have been cancelled too, until the end of April at least), well, I might just have to travel back to good old 1996 instead.
Which was and forever will be one of the most important years of my life.
Mainly because I discovered West Ham United in 1996, I saw my first game at Upton Park and got hooked/sentenced for life there and then.
It certainly was one of the most intense years ever for me personally as I was living away from home for a significant number of months (18 in total) for the first time in my life. It was the first time this Hamburg lad got taken out of Hamburg. A social experiment. An experience. A journey.
A fish out of water comes to mind, but thank God it didn’t stay like this for long…
Thinking back, it has to be said I probably never felt more alive, neither before nor after, than during my time in Barking, Essex in 1996/97 (of course I also spent time in Central London, Cardiff, Pembrokeshire, Norwich and some other places during that time).
Back then every day was like a big adventure for me, but also a rollercoaster of emotions – with new things learned, seen and heard every single day. Improving my spoken English, the understanding AND the speaking bit, was key, practising this on the job, literally, with my colleagues in the Barking office presented me with the challenge of having to cope with English accents the likes of which I hadn’t encountered yet (Cockney, Essex, Estuary) – not at school, not while being a trainee at the shipping company I was working for at the time in Hamburg, not when watching English-language films without German dubbing.
So I was always alternating between feeling like being on top of the world due to working only a few stops on the District Line away from Central London, for me still one of the most interesting and great cities in the world to this day, and suffering painful bouts of homesickness: Terribly missing my parents, my brother, my mates, even the sights and sounds from back home in Hamburg.
It didn’t help much when speaking to my folks via my landline phone in the Barking house I was staying in.
No mobile phones back then. Sometimes a flatmate would kindly take a message from your loved ones for you when you had been out and about in town, missing the phone call while doing some shopping, sightseeing or taking a walk in the local park.
That homesickness almost naturally drove me to football as a welcome distraction because the English brand of the beautiful game enjoyed legendary status among football enthusiasts in my neck of the woods back then (Kick and rush!). And like most Germans I was very much into football despite not having been very gifted as a player myself, being a left back at SC Poppenbüttel for a few years when I was a young lad.
Luckily, when arriving in England I wasn’t strongly bonded with one of the two big clubs in Hamburg as my dad had merely been an armchair fan who had never taken much of an effort to get tickets so that my brother and I might have an actual matchday experience and eventually support either of those two clubs.
We only ever watched a game with my dad inside a ground once if I remember correctly – and that was at a Concordia home game around 1990.
So, with my heart free for a proper football relationship and several of my claret and blue supporting colleagues at Hapag-Lloyd rabbiting on about West Ham during our tea breaks I decided fairly sharpish in March 1996 I would buy a ticket for the upcoming home game against Manchester City on Saturday, March 23rd – and find out if West ’Am could be my home from home, my surrogate family in England. A perfect match, on and off the pitch, maybe ?
At that point I only had been away from home for three weeks!
As most of you will recall, we won that game 4:2. Iain Dowie scored twice, skipper Julian “The Terminator” Dicks added another with a piledriver from outside the box with Portuguese loan striker/photo model Dani providing the final nail in City’s coffin who were destined for relegation that season. They had three Germans on the pitch that afternoon, but it didn’t save them.
And I was past the point of saving too – I had hopelessly wholeheartedly, foolishly fallen in love with West Ham United, the club colours, the singing of Bubbles, the humour displayed by the fans, the passion on the pitch, the raucous atmosphere in that weird and wonderful stadium (I had to look past a supporting pillar during my first game, I still saw everything as I was pretty close to the pitch still, even from the West Stand Upper).
I was even impressed with seeing police horses in action which were unheard of in German football at the time, police dogs for sure, fierce Alsatians on duty for local derbies, they were a common sight on German matchdays, but horses ? Not really.
The rest, as they say, is history. So, what was different, football-wise ? It’s funny what you remember from your own matchday experience from 24 years ago and what you can only remember after refreshing your memory by watching highlights of the game on Youtube or DVD.
There were only three substitutes allowed on the bench back then, if I remember correctly. The Upton Park pitch in March 1996 showed precious few patches of green and quite a lot of brown, muddy spots (like the St.Pauli pitch used to in those days).
There were only just over 24.000 fans inside the stadium, but at times it sounded like at least 15.000 or so more. That noise bowled me over…and it got me hooked, wanting more of it.
News on the club in the days before the internet were hard to come by.
You actually had to buy a newspaper in the hope they might have some West Ham related bits in the sports section that day and you used to eagerly wait for the latest issue of Hammers News Magazine to arrive on the shelves of your local newsagents once a month, picking it up from WHSMITH at Barking Station in my case.
Pubs ? As far as Barking was concerned I was surprised how many pubs there were back then, I hadn’t expected quite so many outside the city centre.
Back then I used several of those, a main one to watch the football and to drink with the colleagues on a Friday night (Legends), others to enjoy a Real Ale (The Spotted Dog, The Bull) or take mates or family members when they were over from Germany (The Barking Dog or The Spotted Dog).
From previous visits I knew that pub culture was a big thing in England, but there were around ten pubs crammed into a relatively small area in Barking back then and I wondered how on earth they all found enough trade to thrive. A few years later, of course, plenty of those pubs were boarded up, so I guess that answers the question.
Of course back then West Ham were losing a lot of games and spent the majority of the 1996/97 season fighting relegation, just like today. But it all used to be part of being a Hammer, taking the rough with the smooth. Knowing deep down you’d never really challenge for the title, but beating the big boys occasionally was very much on, same as going on a decent Cup run or just cheering on the players running their socks off against opposition with players five times as expensive as the West Ham squad was certainly good enough in those days. It felt good to support the local team, the likeable underdog from an East London community where tourists rarely stepped off the tube to have a butcher’s. Everybody’s second team.
The club of Moore, Bonzo and Brooking.
Thing is, it was easy to accept all the shortcomings back then because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t miss the internet or social media in 1996 because it simply wasn’t available yet. The talk over a pint after the game was the 1996 version of social media.
You didn’t get riled up about news coming from the West Ham board or even another club being run better than yours because all those news and bits and bobs weren’t readily available unless you bought and read plenty of newspapers, fanzines and club magazines or listened to the phone-in shows on the radio.
Now, with Sky and BT Sports, with social media, twitter accounts, blogs and forums plus all the usual debates on TV and radio you are exposed to all the football news and rumours 24/7.
Again, this is the reality now and we have to live with that. The media will never return to its 1996 version. And us fans, we have grown older as well and changed with it. Some more than others, but none of us is the same person today than they were 24 years ago.
We all use the internet regularly now, without even thinking about it much anymore, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog.
Who of us actually still buys the same newspaper (paper version) every day without fail ?
Who of us is still using a landline phone – and no mobile phone as well ?
In some cases this 24/7 overkill of news and rumours can be frustrating, annoying, tiresome, but in other cases it can also be very useful, entertaining and worthwhile.
So, was I happier as a West Ham fan in 1996, compared to 2020 ? Not really, it was different for sure back then, but as always with West Ham there were ups and downs.
For me, certainly, it was more exciting in 1996 as my Westhamification was merely beginning to take shape, everything was brand new back then, everything was fresh and interesting, it was like going on a date with West Ham every weekend, learning more about the club every week and I will never forget the first time I was able to join in singing Bubbles at Upton Park all the way through because I finally knew all the words…;-))
Back then, I have to say, the stadium wasn’t a massive factor in my supporting West Ham, simply because I took the place for granted and as we all know, there are things in life we only begin to miss once they’re gone.
Like with a loved one you sometimes argue or fight with, but once they’re taken away from you by a twist of fate, that’s when you start to realise how lucky and happy you were to have that person in the first place…
Let’s all hope then that eventually we will get our football back. And our West Ham. Only now we are all beginning to find out how big a part football plays in our everyday lives and weekend routines. After all, it’s only 22 blokes in shorts kicking a ball, but we still love it to bits, don’t we ?