Nostalgia

Right, in the last few days we have seen some fantastic contributions from Dan Coker, Goatygav and Mike Ireson and a lot of what the boys said was the kind of stuff I had intended to put in my column. So I will just say at this point that it’s a blank canvas approach for me when it comes to David Moyes.

I hope he gets the most out of our current squad and should he be able to do this, hopefully he will get the chance to develop and carry out a long term strategy in terms of building a decent footballing side at our beloved West Ham United.

So, with not even the entire squad back at training yet due to the international break, let me take you along with me on a little trip down memory lane, just where it leads into Green Street and the Barking Road, let’s mind the gap, step out onto the platform at Upton Park Station to quickly check our watches (smartphones and internet yet to hit the mainstream market) before turning right, joining a sea of claret and blue: It’s Saturday, March 23rd 1996 and West Ham are playing Manchester City at home.

You may not be aware of it yet, but as you enter the stadium you are going to share the matchday experience with a first time guest, the fellow who will eventually leave the game as HamburgHammer, but who entered the Lyall gates as just a young German geezer, feeling a bit homesick, being stuck in Barking and trying desperately to distract himself by attending a football game, after having already seen the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, the British Museum and all the usual tourist destinations.

English football had an almost mythical reputation back then – every two months or so as a special treat they gave us Krauts ten minute highlights of a selected Premier League game in the Sportschau, Germany’s version of “Match of the Day”, games like Man United against Liverpool, Spurs against Arsenal or Villa against Nottingham Forest.
The big names. Watching English football in Germany in 1996 was like gold dust. Rare. Special. An occasion to be savoured, if only for ten brief minutes.
The football was so much more intense, physical and pacy, compared to the Bundesliga. I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. In the flesh. For 90 minutes.

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As most of you will know already, I had chosen West Ham as it was only two stops away on the tube from Barking, because they were the local side and because many of my colleagues supported them and had told me bits and pieces about the club during our teabreaks (remember them?).
Plus the ultimate clincher I could actually manage to still buy a ticket a few days before the game.

The ground, at that time, was going through a massive transformation. The cardboard turrets were not yet gracing the Western approach to the stadium. The Bobby Moore Stand was still reasonably new, having been built in 1993. The newest stand was the aptly named Centenary Stand which had just been opened the previous season.
At that point there were still supporting pillars in the West Stand Upper where my seat for the occasion was. Back then you could easily get yourself to the ticket office in your lunch break a few days before the game and could get yourself a ticket without having to be a club member or having some other sort of official attachment to the club.

If I remember correctly I paid roughly the same for my seat then as I do now: About 25 quid. I was in the West Upper near the corner flag, almost in touching distance to the Bobby Moore Stand.

The lineups were as follows:

West Ham: Miklosko, Bilic, Breacker, Dicks, Rieper, Rowland, Bishop, Williamson, Hughes, Dowie, Dumitrescu. Subs: Sealey (GK), Dani Carvalho, Potts

Man City: Immel, Brightwell, Frontzeck, Curle, Symons, Brown, Clough, Kinkladze, Lomas, Summerbee, Rosler. Subs: Quinn, Hiley, Mazzarelli

You should notice several things here:

a) Only three substitutes allowed in those days.
b) Man City didn’t even bother to put a substitute goalkeeper on the bench.
c) In Dani we had a Carvalho in our squad back then, even though he was not a £30 million rated holding midfielder. But he arrived from Sporting nonetheless…
d) By rights I should have supported City that day as they had THREE fellow Germans in their starting XI.

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It’s funny how there are certain things you clearly remember when it comes to watching your first West Ham game while completely forgetting about others. For instance it wasn’t until I watched highlights of the game on youtube again that I realised how awful the condition of the pitch was on the day. It was almost as bad as St.Paulis pitch which was notoriously shabby, muddy and bereft of grass at the time.

I also don’t remember that there were only three substitutes on the bench around that time, but I suppose it didn’t register as peculiar as it was just the order of the day.
For me of course it wasn’t a normal game for a variety of reasons. First of all as a debut visitor you are highly occupied with taking in a lot of new information and impressions with all your senses: The sight of the crowd and the four stands towering over the pitch, the sounds from the tannoy, crowd noises, singing, even the smell from the burger vans drifting in through the corners…

After all, I was watching a team of strangers, playing league football in a foreign city of a foreign country, in a stadium I hadn’t been to before. Exciting!

I knew from highlights on the telly what West Ham’s colours were of course and I almost immediately had fallen in love with claret and blue – it was a unique combination of colours to my eyes, later of course I learned that in Britain alone there are several clubs sharing the same colours and In Turkey too, but there isn’t a German club playing in claret and blue to my knowledge.

Then there was the constant singing of one particular song (Bubbles) which I was desperate to join, but didn’t as I couldn’t figure out all the words straight away – cut me some slack, it was my first game! But I loved the fact it wasn’t the worn out old “You’ll never walk alone” which even in 1996 was being sung by several fanbases in Germany already. Here was a unique song, reserved for one particular team and sung with a degree of pride and passion that it almost brought a lump to my throat.

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Then of course there was the little matter of a football game to follow and my eyes needed some time to adjust to the sheer pace of it all. I also had to get used to the game being allowed to flow, with challenges being deemed fair that most German referees would have rewarded with a freekick and a booking. Again, I loved it!
And what about those fullbacks ? In Germany most of them rarely crossed midfield, here a certain Tim Breacker was running up and down the wing the entire game as if he had a little built in Volkswagen engine driving him forward.

And there was a striker called Iain Dowie who on that day looked like the best striker in England, scoring twice in lethal fashion, I suppose first impressions can be deceiving.

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The official attendance figure was 24.017 but it sounded like twice as many, the noise was incredible, especially when Dicks scored with that piledriver of a shot.
I reckon in that moment at the latest the die was cast, I knew I would come again. And again. Even when soon enough some proper crap games came around I was already sucked into it too much to turn back again and run. I was stuck with West Ham and they were stuck with me.

Portakabin Shop

The week after my first game I went to the club shop which at the time was the portakabin affair pictured on the left. The ramshackle exterior did fit the club though and it reminded me a lot of the St.Pauli club shop. In the portakabin I got my first two Hammers shirts, the Centenary home shirt with #2 Breacker on the back and the away shirt without name or number, the light blue one with the two claret hoops. In the following weeks and months I returned both to games and the club shop and got West Ham related presents for my family, sweatshirt for my brother, pint glass for my dad, coffee mug for mom and I also told them that for my stay in London I had found a home from home.

Funnily enough, in the days before internet and social media it was very hard to get your fix of West Ham rumours. I was always looking forward to the latest monthly edition of Hammers News Magazine, sometimes I also bought a fanzine and then of course there was teletext. In a way it could be frustrating at times, but on the other hand it wasn’t the sheer constant madness and mayhem which the internet and social media have brought with them.

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Another crazy thing is that back in 1996 I didn’t socialise with fellow fans. I am sure I must have crossed paths with plenty of you good people on matchdays (I got a season ticket in the 96/97 season), but I never went for pre- or post match drinks in the usual watering holes near Upton Park. I usually headed straight back to Barking, picked up a Kebab or Chinese takeaway along the way to 15 Wilmington Gardens and that was pretty much my matchday done and over with.

Sometimes I had a celebratory pint in one of the various Barking pubs (hardly any left now) when we had won, but those occasions were few and far between when I started out as a born again Hammer. Not an awful lot has changed in that respect in 20 years, but so many other things at our club have.
I don’t have to spell them out to you again. You all know.

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I don’t think I chose West Ham, I got picked by fate. Most of us become fans that way. Or maybe we all have been sentenced by destiny to forever follow this nutcase of a club.

I could never have imagined when I went through that turnstile in March 1996 that I would be writing a regular column for fellow fans on a thing called the internet 20 years later, from my flat in Hamburg. I could never have imagined I would still be going to West Ham games in 2017, albeit in a different stadium, I never thought we could or would leave The Boleyn Ground. Ever.

I also could not foresee that I would one fine day meet so many great people who share my love for West Ham, so many years after getting my first claret and blue fix.

Some of the most common questions asked by West Ham fans begin with the famous words “What if…?”.

So let me close out our time travelling walk down memory lane, just where it leads into Green Street and the Barking Road, with a question I have asked myself numerous times since March 1996.

What if Iain Dowie hadn’t scored twice that day, what if that piledriver from Dicks had sailed over the bar and what if Dani had fallen over his own two feet instead of scoring late in the game from a tight angle ?

In short: What if West Ham had drawn or even lost that first game I attended ?

Would there even have been a second time for me, a third game even, many more games actually and subsequently a lifelong love affair with this club and its fans that is still going strong ?

I’d like to think so. After all, for West Ham it’s never been purely about winning or losing a game of football. It’s just as much, or perhaps even more, about how you do it. Which by the way has always been the approach of my slightly more local club, Concordia Hamburg, too.

For my first ever West Ham game EVERYTHING pretty much fell into place on the day which is quite rare and unusual for our team. So I do feel very grateful and honoured that I was given the opportunity to witness a 4:2 win in my first visit to Upton Park. Nobody warned me back then about the rollercoaster ride I was about to embark on.

Nobody told me I couldn’t get off the ride whenever my tummy felt slightly squeamish. But I’m actually glad no one did.

I would have had to miss that amazing feeling when shooting out from one looping knowing the next crazy turn just lies ahead before yet another looping on the way. COYI!!!

PS: Unfortunately I forgot to buy a programme of that first game and so far I haven’t been able to track one down. So should one of you have said programme of the Man City game of March 1996 and would be willing to part with it and sell it to me, plse let me know in the comments.