West Ham wave goodbye to Boleyn Ground on a chaotic, delayed but fulfilling East London night

11 May

The roar from the crowd split the air like forked lightning and into the fading light, out came the ghosts. There, striding out beside Mark Noble, there was Bobby Moore, the ball tucked under his arm, gazing up at the old chicken run, crossing the touchline and breaking into a jog.

There, pointing his finger and dishing out fierce instructions to Cheikhou Kouyate, there was Billy Bonds, his socks already round his ankles, mud up his legs and hair round his face.

And there, swinging their arms and rocking their hips, Dimitri Payet and Frank McAvennie, having a laugh about something or other, wondering which of the two it might be who’d set the night alight with a flash of languid magic.

The stands were full of ghosts too. Dads and grandads, brothers, mothers. There for one last look at that lime green oblong shining in the dusk, alive with a hundred years of fraught desires, spread out against the sky one final time before the bulldozers come.

Most West Ham fans will happily indulge the cockney creation myth. The pie and mash and jellied eels and pearly kings and queens, though it bears scant relation to the lives they lead.

The memories they made one last pilgrimage to honour are of the wonders of sport, more than the mundanities of life.

Of Alan Devonshire, dancing up the middle of the pitch as if the world around him had been switched into slow motion. Of Phil Parkes leaping suddenly sideways, tipping a wicked shot on to the bar.

Of a Julian Dicks penalty erupting like a meteorite. Carlos Tevez, shirt off, bounding into the crowd. And that immortal flash of sinewy Italian thigh, suspended in midair, lashing the ball towards the far corner and landing on his feet in a world gone mad.

They were made to wait. Anger, hope, disappointment, joy, despair and every other human emotion that’s been trodden in with the chips and horse shit down Green Street since 1904 was getting raked up from lunchtime, the ground softened by a steady rain of lager from plastic pint pots.

When the West Ham coach arrived at the corner of Barking Road it saw a throng of thousands, crowded at the foot of the Legends statue, Moore not just on the shoulders of Hurst and Peters, but of everyone. It took the coach twenty minutes to get the 200 yards down Green Street, Noble waving all the while from behind the dark glass, young Bangladeshi women leaning out of windows above newsagents, taking pictures on their phones.

It took the Manchester United coach even longer, and while it waited it was pelted with bottles, smashing the tinted windows. Kick-off was delayed by 45 minutes. Not every hangover from football’s night before is worth the nostalgia.

In the moment before kick-off, Upton Park was as loud as it’s been in 25 years. Not even a brass band playing Abide With Me beneath a roll call of West Ham’s deceased players could break the Bobby Moore Stand from its endless refrains of Bubbles, at least until Moore himself appeared on the big screens. That got their attention.

They chanted Ludek Miklosko’s name on kick off, then Di Canio’s, then with ten minutes gone, Aaron Cresswell intercepted a poor clearance, Diafra Sakho had fired the ball in to the bottom corner, and the great goodbye was on.

Many are wondering why Upton Park has been eulogised in this way. It’s not like this story hasn’t been told before. In those hallowed places where terraced houses give way to rising floodlights once stood Roker Park, Filbert Street, the Baseball Ground. Many still do stand, Selhurst Park for one, Vicarage Road. That West Ham looms so large in English football culture is the bittersweet burden of disappointment.

Manchester United should have won a World Cup. So should Liverpool. Barcelona has, Bayern Munich has twice, Juventus three times. Ajax have made it to two finals. Little old West Ham eh?

The ghosts were made flesh at the end. Fireworks and flamethrowers went off, the disco lights were switched on and they drove them on to the pitch in claret and blue hackney carriages. Martin Peters. Alan Devonshire. Ludek Miklosko. Steve Potts. Sir Trevor Brooking. Billy Bonds. They put Paolo di Canio under a spotlight on the mark where he hit that volley.

Off we go then, to face football’s bright new future, with its taxpayer funded corner flags and ‘world class corporate hospitality right on the doorstep of Canary Wharf.’ 

‘Bigger ground.’ ‘Grow the club.’ ‘The next level.’ These are the buzzwords to cling on to, as you try not to notice that the behemoth that is Villa Park, and quite possibly St James’s Park too are about to exit the Premier League, Bournemouth are doing fine and Leicester City are champions.

Try to forget the words of Slaven Bilic, from only Monday. Our new home ‘will never be a fortress.’ Will never be ‘hostile.’ Here, as David de Gea celebrated his team’s equaliser, bottles landed in his area. Terrible behaviour, but good luck trying it in the Olympic Stadium.

The players came out too in the end. Mark Noble thanked the staff, like good East End boys do. It was approaching midnight by the time the crowds turned their backs and went home.

Only the ghosts remain, waiting for the bulldozers. You can join them if you like. If you’ve got a few hundred grand for an unaffordable starter home in a lost bit of London, you might catch Tony Cottee doing your ironing, Paolo Di Canio watching your pasta as it boils, McAvennie sniffing round the drinks cabinet. 

That’s it. Fortune no longer hiding. It’s 1.6 miles away in Stratford. It’s got Europe’s largest TV screens and a £200m roof. We had a laugh looking for it though didn’t we.

The record books will show you Winston Reid headed the winner. That West Ham took the lead then came from 2-1 down to win 3-2. But already there’s 30,000 West Ham fans who will spend the rest of their lives telling you they saw different. That it was Frank Lampard Senior that picked up a loose ball with ten minutes gone, and threaded it through not to Sakho but to Tony Cottee, who slipped it quietly past De Gea.

With 15 minutes to go, they’ll swear they all saw Trevor Brooking hanging in the air at the back post, nodding it home. And then, with ten minutes of life left on the Upton Park clock, that centre half, up for a set piece, shoving his way into half a yard of space?

Naah. Couldn’t be.

Could it?


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