I do not have distinct memories of my 7th birthday, I’m sure I got some decent presents. With hindsight I am convinced that none of the presents were as enjoyable and impactful as my trip to Upton Park in March 2005. My Dad took me to my first football game on the 5th March: it was a glamorous fixture against Preston North End.
When I reflect upon watching my first game at Upton Park, I recall feeling excited and ready to watch a team which included the lumbering Malky Mackay at the back as well as the unpredictable Stephen Bywater in goal! I feel the appropriate quote to include is one from the brilliant Bobby Robson when he said in response to the question, what is a club?
’ It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.’
Robson’s poignant response to this question embodies how I felt entirely. I had already started to play football and was enthusiastic when on the pitch, but going to my first game cemented my love for the game and West Ham. I have no doubt my Dad informed me that supporting West Ham would come with pain and frustration but with that some very special moments.
A couple of years ago I was having a conversation with my Dad about this Preston fixture, and it was only with the help of Google that I realised we actually lost the game 1-2! In my excitement of watching football at a stadium for the first time, I seemed to think we had won. A player who I grew to love and scored some good goals for us, Bobby Zamora actually scored what was a mere consolation goal in the 87th minute. I recall aspects of the game, I believe Stephen Bywater made a rather inexcusable error which lead to one of the goals scored by David Nugent and Patrick Agyemang. Up until recently, I had also forgotten that the perhaps cult hero figure in the form of Czech right back, Tomas Repka received a straight red card on the stroke of half time. If we had kept eleven men on the pitch for the second half, perhaps we could have turned it around and my first trip to Upton Park would have seen us win. At least my expectations were tempered from the off!
Only a couple of months later we were able to avenge this disappointing defeat as we won 1-0 against The Lilywhites in the Championship playoff final courtesy of another Zamora goal. I am certainly not alone amongst the West Ham fans in the theory that Mark Lawrenson has a vendetta against the club because he supports Preston and we beat them in Cardiff. It seems ridiculous but most weeks when he does his predictions for the weekend games, he predicts us to lose regardless of the team we are playing and the form we are in. I remember seeing the Premier League table from a couple of seasons ago and if it was according to Lawrenson’s predictions, we finished 17th or 18th unsurprisingly because he dislikes us. In reality we finished 7th. I think as it was the farewell Boleyn campaign. My advice to Lawrenson comes in the form of a quote that’s been reworked from an American motivational speaker, Josh Shipp when he said ’Don’t get bitter, get better’
As I’ve mentioned previously, there are some aspects of the 1-2 loss that I don’t remember but I do remember being taken aback by Teddy Sheringham’s skill and calmness on the ball. He was 38 years old when he dropped down to the Championship, and he scored 20 league goals whilst winning Championship Player of the season. I immediately appreciated his composure on the ball but it was probably only when I was older and had watched more football that I properly realised his class and the fact that despite his age he was still one of our best players. Bobby Zamora is one of few players I got on the back of my shirt, as I’ve said I liked Teddy as well as Matty Etherington but understandably my Mum and Dad did not want to fork out that much on the individual letters!
Ultimately, I look back on my first game at Upton Park with very fond memories. Getting the train and tube to the ground eating the snacks my Mum had prepared, smelling the spices along Green Street and the sound of the barriers as we entered the ground. Whilst we did not win the game, I knew immediately that this would be the club for me and that my Dad would be taking me back to Upton Park for many more games.
Have a good week.