Nostalgia

Yesterday finally arrived. The day many of us had dreaded since the first say of the season. The final match at Upton Park. It was a journey I had made hundreds of times before, but yesterday it took on an added significance. I took the day off work as I didn’t want to risk not making the kickoff. As it turned out, that would have been the least of my worries.
I couldn’t settle down to do anything in the morning. If I wore a watch, I’d have spent most of the morning looking at it.

I left Tunbridge Wells at the ridiculously early hour of 2.30pm. Traffic was light and at around 3.45 I pulled into the garage forecourt on Barking Road where I had been leaving my car for the last twenty-five years. Having said a final goodbye to the boys who have become friends over the last few years, I found myself tearing up as I walked up Barking Road towards the Boleyn for the final time. ‘For God’s sake, pull yourself together’, I found myself thinking as my lip continued to quiver. I’ve always been fairly lachrymose, but if I was starting to get emotional at the first fence, goodness knows what I’d be like at full time.

The next part of my pre-match ritual was to visit the Newham Bookshop, which is just opposite the World Cup statue at the junction of Green Street and Barking Road. As usual, the booksop manager, Viv, was sat at her place behind the counter. I clicked a picture of her and we had our usual chat about the state of the book trade. She has sold thousands of books that I’ve published over the years, so my visits usually involve me playing the part of salesman, telling her which books my publishing company is planning to bring out.

I told her I had been involved in discussions with a major West Ham figure about publishing their autobiography. Even though the Hammers may be moving, I suspect her shop will still be one of the main sales outlets for it.

Viv told me that West Ham fans had been milling around since 9am and some were getting very tanked up.

Emerging from the shop there were certainly a huge number of people wandering around, although I saw little evidence of drink having much effect. But then again, I was a couple of hours ahead of the Man U coach arriving…

I made my way along Green Street, taking copious amounts of pictures as I went.

There was Gary Firmager, signing copies of the last ever edition of Over Land And Sea. He had a queue of people so I just touched him on shoulder and wished him luck. He’s one of the real characters we’re all going to miss.

OLAS has been part of my matchday reading ever since I first got a season ticket in 1992. I wrote for it a little in the 1990s and I suspect without it I wouldn’t have had the idea of starting this site.

Around 4.40 I reached Ken’s Café. The queue wasn’t too bad and after a few minutes Simon Walters, political editor of the Mail on Sunday and a good friend of mine arrived.

He would be sitting next to me in the stadium.

Before long we reached the counter to order our respective fryups, just as I had been doing for the last fifteen years or so. Carole, who is the co-owner of Ken’s, looked as if she could break down at any minute. I gave her a little parting present and found myself tearing up again.

Carole listens to my radio show and isn’t backward in coming forward about telling me when she thinks I have done something wrong. Her whole family are truly wonderful, and around nine of them work there on matchdays. They’ve all become friends over the years and I’m going to miss them terribly. I hope we stay in touch somehow.

Around 6pm it was time to leave. Carole and I hugged each other. I couldn’t speak. I also couldn’t look back. I doubt I wasn’t the only one. It was like leaving a beloved old house for the last time.

Simon and I walked the couple of hundred yards down to the stadium. The queue to buy the last edition of OLAS was something to behold. I could see Gary F was also finding it difficult to control his emotions as he signed the front covers.

As we walked onto WHU territory I remarked to Simon that there were far more people around than usual. Presumably many people had just come down for the experience. They can’t all have had tickets. We milled around the front of the stadium waiting for them to open the doors, which they didn’t do until 6.40, which I thought was far too late, given the number of people waiting to enter. Again, more pictures to take – going through the turnstiles. The concourse. I even saw one bloke taking a selfie while he was taking a piss in the loos. Luckily it was of his face. I said to him “Now I’ve seen everything.” He grinned. “Gotta be done,” he said. If you say so, mate.

And then it was time. Time to mount the steps (and taking a picture of course) into the ground itself. I well remember the times I have climbed those steps and looked back to the person with me at a match for the first time to say: “You’re about to undergo a semi-religious experience.” I suddenly remembered the time I first took my mother to a game. Funny the things you think of at times like that.

I took my seat – X202 in the West Stand Lower. It’s just inside the Trevor Brooking Stand half, ten rows or so back from the dugouts. It’s a great position to view a game from. Sadly, the equivalent seats at the OS are all corporate, so from next season I’m over the other side in the 1966 seats. Front row, upper tier, on the half way line. Or the Royal Box, as I’m calling it.

Strangely, I felt quite calm, and less emotional than I had been during the course of the afternoon. More pictures to take, naturally. Simon and I couldn’t understand why the teams weren’t appearing for their warm up. It was only when I looked at Twitter I understood why. I’ll write about the United Bus vandalism and hooliganism in a separate post. I’d rather keep this blogpost clean.

The match was all we had hoped it would be but feared it would not. David Hautzig has summed it up brilliantly, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I would go so far as to say it was probably one of our best performances of the season. It was a real team display and you could make a case for any one of five players being Man of the Match. The first twenty minutes saw us play some stunning attacking football, and we could have been three up at half time. Oh how we were all willing Andy Carroll to slot home that one on one chance. Payet and Lanzini were at their imperious best and Manchester United were simply not at the races. I can’t recall a single shot from them in the first 45 minutes.

Half time came and I said to Simon that this was typical us. We play them off the pitch, get a goal but the second just won’t come. I predicted they would get the next goal, and sadly I was right. Well done to the prat in the Bobby Moore who wouldn’t give De Gea the ball back. Had they not done that, he might well have made a different kind of goal kick, and they might not have scored. Actions have consequences.

Although Man United came back into the game, we still had much of the possession and continued to create chances. Their second goal was a right mess and should never have been conceded. Martial constantly got too much room down the left and in the end you have to say that Randolph should have done better. 2-1. I feared the worst.
I needn’t have done as we struck back almost immediately through a wonderful Antonio header. “We’re going to win this,” I whispered to Simon. He gave me a quizzical look.

Simon Walters enjoys West Ham's winning goal!

Let’s face it, we’d all have settled for 2-2 at that point.

But we didn’t have to settle, because in the 80th minute Winston Reid got on the end of a Payet (I think) cross and the ball slipped through De Gea’s fingers. Cue mass delirium. I had dearly wished to be able to cheer one final goal at the Boleyn. This means we had got to cheer three. Against Man U. Fabulous.

And for once there was no doubt in my mind that we could hold onto that lead, although I did have a smidgin of a doubt when I saw Enner Valencia coming on rather than James Collins.

The last 14 minutes went by much more quickly than usual and that was it. The last kick of football at Upton Park.

Virtually everyone stayed in their seats. Someone who sits two rows in front of me turned round to shake my hand and wish my luck at the Arqiva Radio awards next week. He listens to my show everyday. I had a chat with the thirtysomething brothers in front of me who take their three sons to every home game. One of them sits his SATS today. I told him if he gets tired to just think about his evening and that will give him the inspiration he needs to pass. Their celebrations of each of the three goals will long stay in my mind.
The closing ceremony eventually started and apart from a very annoying microphone malfunction it turned out to be very enjoyable. Some bits were a little pedestrian, but overall it did what it needed to do.

Perhaps the most moving part of the whole evening was when the marching band played ABIDE WITH ME, and the big screens showed a list of all the players who had played for West Ham but are no longer with us, ending of course with Bobby Moore. Once the crowd caught on what was happening there was a constant stream of applause. I looked across to Simon and he was quite tearful, as was I. Who said hacks have no emotion?!

As the Cockney Rejects played us out, there was a little bit of me thinking, oh, is that it? But it, indeed it was. And off I trotted back down Barking Road, the journey I had taken hundreds of time before. In the car, through the Blackwall tunnel, back to Tunbridge Wells. Back to a partner who just couldn’t relate to anything I had just experienced. I just don’t think he understands.

Farewell Boleyn. It’s been a blast.