The Iron Liddy Column

I was thinking about what Sean said in bed yesterday morning …. hmm, perhaps I should rephrase that. See the trouble that bad grammar can get you into?!

I was in bed yesterday morning thinking about the fact that Sean had just referred to the new East stand in the OS as ‘Kop style’ in his article on Claret & Hugh and as comments started to trickle in I could see that I’m not alone in being unhappy about the term. As a West Ham supporter who has already bought my seat in the East stand I have a particularly vested interest in what it’s called and I admit that it did rankle when the term ‘Kop’ was bandied about during Karren Brady’s marketing videos and at our presentation at the reservation centre back in May.

As I lay there pondering the issue I realised that I didn’t even know where the name ‘Kop’ originated. Being a bit of an anorak when it comes to etymology I decided to Google. No doubt many of you football buffs are already cognisant with its origin but I hope you’ll bear with me while I share the story for the benefit of those who aren’t, because it is actually quite an interesting piece of football history.

To me the Kop has always been synonymous with Anfield and I’ve always presumed that it was peculiar to that stadium; so I was surprised to learn that the first time the term was applied to a football stand was actually at Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in 1904. A local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop.

The Battle of Spion Kop had been fought four years earlier during the Second Boer War on 23rd and 24th January 1900. It was fought between the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces on the other, during the campaign to relieve the nearby city of Ladysmith. Spion Kop was the largest hill in the region, being over 430 metres (1,410 ft) in height and it lay almost exactly at the centre of the Boer line. If the British could capture this position and bring artillery to the hill then they would command the flanks of the surrounding Boer positions. As it transpired, it was a British defeat.

Of all the Boer War battles Spion Kop retains an appalling notoriety for the incompetence of British leadership and the slaughter of the small number of men engaged on each side in the struggle for the top of the hill. The battle graphically showed the failure of the British Army to understand the requirements of modern warfare as their tactics failed to cope with powerful long range artillery and magazine rifle fire. In addition it highlighted the need for proper systems of communications and reconnaissance, as well as maintenance of chains of command in action and training and leadership at all levels.

It is also famous for being the battle during which the young Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi found themselves on the same hillside. Churchill was a journalist stationed in South Africa and he had also been commissioned as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller after his well publicised escape from Boer captivity. Churchill acted as a courier to and from Spion Kop and General Buller’s HQ; while Gandhi performed the role of stretcher-bearer in the Indian Ambulance Corps he had organised.

Although the common English name for the battle is Spion Kop, throughout the Commonwealth and its historical literature the official South African English and Afrikaans name for the battle is Spioenkop. Spioen means “spy” or “look-out”, and kop means “hill” or "outcropping.”

In 1906 Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards pinched the London journalist’s term for Arsenal’s bank of earth when he wrote of a new open-air embankment at Anfield:

“This huge wall of earth has been termed ‘Spion Kop’, and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot.”

The name was formally applied in 1928 upon construction of a roof. Subsequently Liverpool FC fans have credited the Kop with being a memorial to the fact that it was members of the Lancashire regiments who fell during the battle but in fact regiments from all over the UK were present and also suffered losses.

Further research revealed a bigger gap in my knowledge of football grounds than I originally thought. Although it was the first terrace officially named Spion Kop, many other English football clubs and some Rugby league clubs applied the same name to stands in later years. Villa Park’s old Holte End was historically the largest of all Kop ends, closely followed by the old South Bank at Molineux, both once regularly holding crowds in excess of 30,000. In more modern times work was completed on Hillsborough’s Kop in the mid 1980s which, with a capacity of around 22,000, made it the biggest standing area in Europe at the time. After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the Kop was the last part of the Sheffield Wednesday ground to be converted to all-seater accommodation, the change finally coming in 1993 to comply with new FA Premier League regulations following the Taylor Report. This had the effect of halving the capacity, but the Hillsborough Kop remains one of the largest single tier stands in Britain.

A full list of British grounds with a history of a Kop stand can be found here: Spion Kop Stadiums

Worried that it was just me who was oblivious to the history and existence of Spion Kop stands in British football grounds and that my article would have you all tutting and yawning, I quizzed Mr Lids. He also didn’t know the origin of the term or that it was applicable to any ground other than Anfield. So cheers Sean, thanks to you I learned something new in bed yesterday morning that my husband couldn’t have taught me! ;)

So now we’re all up to speed on Spion Kop stands I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured with it as a name for our new East stand at the OS. ‘Iron Kop’ might have a bit of a ring to it in parodical terms but it’s not exactly auspicious is it? The site of a British defeat due to the incompetency of our leaders. Not only that, you can’t help but think of a seething mass of Scousers whenever the name is mentioned. Nah.

So we need a name for the East stand. The North and South stands are already taken care of and will proudly bear the names of our heroes Messrs Moore & Brooking as they do at the Boleyn. No doubt the West stand will be the Betway stand for the foreseeable future but the East remains nameless, as far as we know.

Inevitably the question has already been posed and I’ve seen many calls for it to be called the Chicken Run in order to retain the links with our past. As a sucker for nostalgia myself I can empathise with that desire but the compact, almost cosy image that the name conjures up seems too incongruous with the vastness of our new East stand somehow. Personally I think it would be good to have at least one stand with a brand new name to reflect both our history and our new era and that the ghosts of the Chicken Run are better left swaying gently in the past.

So instead of getting out of bed to feed the cats and make the tea I lay there thinking laterally. With a founder fortuitously named Arnold Hills that would seem an obvious choice, what with the word ‘kop’ being Afrikaans for ‘hill’. In your best Julie Andrews voice: “The Hills are alive with the sound of Bubbles ….” Perhaps not.

This set me off thinking about hills and high places in Newham ….. Beckton Ski Slope? Nope, that’s just taking the piste. Probably the highest points games at The Boleyn have been watched from are the flats in Priory Road or the block that used to stand behind the North Bank; which was famously, and dangerously, used as a grandstand when West Ham played Hereford in an FA Cup fourth round replay in 1972. ‘ealf and Safety? That’s for yer bloody pansies innit, as dear old Alf would say.

Hmm, The Priory? That sounds like an appropriate place for 20,000 poor souls hopelessly addicted to West Ham with little chance of recovery. I don’t think I want to sit in a stand with a name that’s synonymous with rehabilitation though ….. in the words of Luther Ingram, if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

What about our shipbuilding heritage? Surely that’s a rich vein of inspiration I pondered. A bit of horizontal Googling revealed that the final battleship to be built by Thames Ironworks was HMS Thunderer, the last and largest warship ever built on the River Thames. The Thunderer? That isn’t a bad name for a wall of noise. However, further reading revealed that before she was built Thames Ironworks had been struggling for some time, with most orders going to the Northern yards. Arnold Hills threatened parliament with the prospect of some awkward questions and as a result Thames Ironworks received the order for the Thunderer. Although it was a very important and prestigious order, the building of HMS Thunderer broke the shipyard. Even though Britain was in the grip of a massive naval shipbuilding race the banks withdrew their loans and the Thames Ironworks shipyard at Bow creek went into bankruptcy, causing massive unemployment in Blackwall and Canning Town. Not such a good omen then.

Next I began to think about the characteristics of the battleships themselves and hit upon the idea of The Broadside. As I’m sure you know, the broadside is the side of a ship and specifically the battery of cannon on one side of a warship. Additionally, the term broadside is a measurement of a vessel’s maximum simultaneous firepower which can be delivered upon a single target. This is calculated by multiplying the shell weight of the ship’s main armament shells times the number of barrels that can be brought to bear. Perfect, so our maximum simultaneous fan-power from The Broadside of our new stadium will be 20,000 x as loud as we can bloody sing. WE ARE SLAVEN’S CLARET AND BLUE NAVY!! That’ll confuse the buggers and blow them out of the water.

By now the cats were scratching the carpet in hunger and my husband was beginning to stir so it was time to abandon my solitary brainstorming session to the conclusion that there really is no better name than The Boleyn Wall, which is already a popular choice among many West Ham fans. It tells the story of an important part of our heritage and would ensure that the name of our home for over a century stays on the lips of our fans for generations to come. We may not be taking the castles with us physically but metaphorically we could create a formidable fortress of fans with The Boleyn Wall.