Tony Hanna's Musings
This week I look back 40-50 years using a few of my previous articles as my inspiration
Going to West Ham in the late sixties and the 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 remind us on some of the things I may have forgotten. It may be some of their experiences might 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 forty to fifty years ago.
Foreign players were rare in our domestic league at this time 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. In 1966 the average weekly wage was just under 20 quid and a top flight footballer was averaging 44 quid with an expected playing career of about ten years. Pubs were often a popular post career option for them. They served as an immediate draw card with the prospect for punters to be served down at their local by a former professional footballer and they also provided an easy continuation of the drinking culture that was rife in the game at that time. I doubt many provided long term financial success however.
The seventies was the era of the skinhead. Originating among working class youths in London in the 60’s, the movement soon spread all over the UK. In the mid to late 60’s hooliganism was starting to become a culture at football grounds. What was later to become known as “firms” became an outlet for many that wanted something much more tribal. No club in England had more tribal fans than West Ham’s. There were a lot of young men and boys around at that time. It was baby boomer time, an era of large families, a product of the end of World War two. Rejecting the austerity of the 50’s and the peace loving hippies of the 60’s, instead seeking their own identity, the skinhead evolved from the hard core mod. The street culture was different then too, in working class areas. Mums and dads didn’t want six or seven kids in their tiny homes when it was light. “Go out and play and make sure you are home by dark”. So the kids piled onto the streets or playing fields if you were lucky enough to have any close by. Gangs formed in many places and kids had to become street wise. Perhaps it was this nous that enabled most of us to tread relatively safely through those football days that were considered dangerous.
My match day 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. However, if you were a young ‘un that needed to get down the front it was a must to be there by 11.30am. What seemed normal then but strikes me now, is how many young kids used to go to games on their own. I was just eleven when I first started going and there were plenty of other loners of similar age in the North Bank with me! With so many kids going, you can take the “official” attendances from those days with a pinch of salt. So many of us were pushed through as pairs in a single turnstile by the operators looking for a few extra quid in their pockets. Occasioanally, if you were lucky, you might get the two and six back yourself. Along with all the other kids I knew that went to West Ham or other football grounds back then, the costs were all paid by paper rounds, washing windows or other odd jobs. Most mums and dads just couldn’t afford pocket money with such large families so you had to work for the football money or miss out. It wasn’t long before I had mates to go with but the scenario was still the same. 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 queues on the western side of the ground 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 Upton Park 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! I still remember how gutted I felt. I had waited months to get to my first match and I was entranced by what seemed a huge ground at the time and having to listen to the crowd singing from inside the stadium before having to make our way home and waiting for another day.
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 nut” sellers would circle the exterior of the pitch as buyers would send their money down via other fans and the bags of peanuts passed up the same way or thrown to them if the vendor had a good arm!
In the early part of this era some may remember “Monty”? Affectionately named after Field Marshal Montgomery he was believed to embark at Barking (perhaps there is a clue there) train station? He would dress in full army uniform and march along the South Bank blowing his bugle to much fun and laughter. It certainly did get everyone in a good mood! By 2pm the crowd would always be in good voice and Bubbles was only one of many songs and chants that would echo around the ground for an hour or more. 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 taunting chants 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. Many of the chants were accompanied by the raucous kicking and banging of the Dr Martens clattering into the corrugated iron that formed the back of the North Bank….”we are the famous, the famous West Ham.” Of course the “Knees Up Mother Brown” has died completely since seats replaced standing areas and the chant “United” has all but disappeared apart from the obligatory two that follow Bubbles.
Around 2.30pm the Leyton County Silver 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. In those days the pitches would deteriorate after October and by January very little grass existed in the penalty areas or centre circle. Then at around 2.50pm Bobby Moore would lead the team out, ball resting on his hip and secured by his arm before flicking it in the air as he entered the pitch and kicking it towards the North Bank –what an inspirational captain he was! The Hammers always liked to have their pre-match kick around at the North Bank end and it was that end they wanted to defend in the first half if we won the coin toss – mainly to have that support upping the volume when attacking that goal in the second half.
In those days there were no mobile phones – heck, we didn’t even have a home phone. Nearest phone booth was half a mile away, if it worked. So, no looking at your mobile for score updates. Best we could manage was a small scoreboard at either end of the ground with letters A-L. The match program would show what letters corresponded to the games being played elsewhere and at half time numbers indicating the score would be placed next to the letters.The biggest cheers came of course if any of the other London clubs were losing, and Manchester United.
From my many visits back to watch West Ham there is no doubt that the singing and atmosphere created at both grounds (UP & LS) has fallen many decibels below the old days. With notable exceptions including Manchester United in the final game at UP and the Spurs game last season, most games deliver a pretty sterile experience in comparison. 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 consistently. The upside is that attending a football game nowadays is relatively safe and the facilities are a World apart, unlike in the days of skin heads and soccer hooliganism. The truth is that following West Ham home and away in the seventies, you would be watching football shrouded in a threatening atmosphere that tended to hang over games like a dark cloud, ready to burst.
Fashion? A typical “uniform” in the early seventies would be a grandad vest with a Ben Sherman shirt and braces. Docker trousers or Levi jeans would be accompanied with Dr Marten boots or “monkey boots” if you could not afford the real thing. There were many other clothes that were fashionable though. These included brogues, loafers, Crombie’s, Harrington jackets, sheepskin coats, Prince of Wales trousers, tonics and brutus shirts. Must admit, I “slummed” it in a donkey jacket, dockers and monkeys! The scarves tied to the belts or wrists of fans have now 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 mass exoduses at half time for refreshments and before full time for quick getaways. That anxious wait for 6pm and the Evening Standard late edition to hit the newsagents to find out the other scores and updated tables has been replaced by instant results on our phones. Were they the good old days or the bad old days? Or a bit of both?