One year in and the endless articles and arguments about our new stadium is already a tired and thinly-wearing old format. I for one have stumbled gradually and begrudgingly to a point of acceptance. It’s time to let go. The future is here, there’s no more holding it back. Even Concorde has become a museum relic these days.
The Boleyn unquestionably gave us an edge. If you weren’t in claret and blue the chances are you didn’t want to be playing there. There’s no doubt, that moment Winston Reid rose up and blew the roof off the old place we were spending our joker, our top trump card for the final glorious time. The noise of the home crowd will hopefully return more regularly as we finally come to terms with our new identity. The win over Spurs went some way to convincing me of that, but it will never echo in quite the same way. The opposition will at times be intimidated but they’ll never have to smell the Stella Artois and beef burgers on the fans’ insult-hurling breath as they prepare to take a corner. The pitch, from now on will be an open, lush arena that the best teams will relish playing on. If we in the stands can’t make it feel quite as tight and constricted as Upton Park then it’s up to the team on the field to do their bit too. They need to grow into their new space and start producing a brand of football that can do justice to the support and once again be capable of overwhelming some of the best players this league has to offer. Only then will the London Stadium cease to be a jolly day out for the visitors and start becoming anything like the bear pit of the old East-End.
But we are not alone in this torment of nostalgia. I’d bet my house that the fans of the majority of clubs who’ve converted to the somewhat sterile modern stadia will look back through those rose-tinted glasses and say “We’ve not had a day as good as that since the old terrace came down”…..and they’re right. The memories may be sweet but a quick glance at the trophy cabinet will tell you that we won plenty of battles in our old fortress, but we didn’t win too many wars. My passion for all it stood for has to realise that if we are ever to take ‘the next step’ it needs to begin with a base that will attract new players, new fans and increased sponsorship and investment.
I’ve seen a lot of games at a lot of grounds both old and new, countless matches that I went along as a neutral hopeful of witnessing a little bit of history. Occasionally I got lucky. However, all the moments that I remember vividly, not necessarily the ones that made the back page but the ones I really felt at the time all happened in what can only be described as ‘proper old grounds’… It could be my age. I’m just old enough to be able to look back on a generation who I watched make their debuts as a teenager and one by one, in recent years all hang up their boots and get put out to stud. I’ve listened with some scepticism in the past to my father, his pals and many others of his age reminisce about the true greatness of the likes of Moore, Best, Charlton and Dalglish. I never believed that they matched up to the Premier League talismen of my era. But now I reflect on afternoons watching Le Tissier, Cantona, Giggs and of course Paulo Di Canio, I find myself spouting forth the same rhetoric as them, just with a different cast. And as important to me as the legends themselves are the iconic stages that they graced. Was there just a little more romance if you had to crane your neck and peer round a pillar to watch a free kick go in? Did low tin roofs that leaked in the rain more than compensate by reverberating every roar and every song? Of course they did. No-one will ever make me think otherwise but it has to be acknowledged for what it is, and that’s ever increasingly a thing of the past.
Whether it’s to keep up with the games front-runners or merely to obtain a safety certificate the new layout is an inevitable upheaval every club has to face sooner or later. I’ll keep watching this watered down modern version though, because I just love the game too much to have any choice in the matter. Find your solace in the recollections that the billionaire investors of football can never take away from you. I’m certain you have them, as do I. And when it all seems lost on some turgid and sterile Saturday afternoon when we’re one-nil down at home to Stoke remember your club, the joy of the game and those experiences that bring you back time and time again. I’ve no doubt we will eventually forge memorable moments in the new stadium. Until then I don’t see anything wrong with glancing over your shoulder fondly without kidding yourself that it would all be fine right now if we’d just stayed at Upton Park. I’ve got a few glimpses of games gone by that I’d like to share, just as a reminder that it only takes a few seconds for something to happen that can restore your faith and that sometimes it can come in the most unexpected places.
West Ham 2 V 3 Sunderland – FA Cup – Upton Park – 26/2/92
Following a decent away draw the replay was under the lights on a bitterly cold Wednesday night. We lost this game in the end to a very good Sunderland side that would eventually go all the way to Wembley before losing in the final to Liverpool. It may all seem fairly unremarkable to you but mid way through the second half Mad-Dog Allen unleashed a 25 yard equalizing drive that I will never forget. I heard the thumping strike of the ball followed by a deafening roar that was never beaten for volume in any other game I ever saw at the Boleyn. I’ve long since forgotten the defeat, but I’ll never forget the sound. In that solitary minute, for the effect it had on the packed jubilant crowd, we may as well have just won the cup.
Barcelona 1 V 0 Sampdoria – European Cup Final – Wembley – 20/5/92
My first ever experience of non-British teams, albeit in the cauldron of the old Wembley Stadium. Even the dog track that kept you that bit further back couldn’t spoil the notion that you were watching a game of enormous magnitude beneath the famous old two towers. We had seats in the heart of the Barcelona section, bang on the edge of what would turn out to be the crucial penalty area. I watched the best nil-nil of my life fought out by two teams containing the likes of Mancini, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Guardiola, Vialli, Lombardo and Bonetti. 112 minutes gone and just as penalties seemed inevitable Ronald Koeman rocketed a 20 yard free kick into the top corner to win the trophy for Barca. No curl, no up-and-over, no giving the keeper ‘the eyes’, just a flat out bullet. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before or since. The continental style goal roar was so loud and guttural it crackled in my ears like I was listening to it on a pair of cheap headphones. We all went ballistic. I learnt every Spanish swear word in the space of thirty seconds. In the dugout, Johan Cruyff calmly lit another cigarette.
Millwall 1 V 3 Derby – Playoff Semi-Final 2nd Leg – The New Den – 18/5/94
Who doesn’t love it nowadays when Sky turn their cameras on suffering, defeated fans. This wasn’t just a defeat. This was box seats for the fall of Rome. A colleague of my dad had chucked us a couple of tickets for what promised to be a crunch affair and it exceeded all expectations. The New Den was exactly that, New. By the standards of the time it was plush, look at it today and it still retains all the characteristics of a classic English league stadium. Millwall, two down from the first leg conceded two early goals and as the game approached half time in front of an already visibly frustrated and hostile crowd Pat Van Den Hauwe wrong footed his keeper with a back pass that trickled in super-slow motion into the far corner. Time stood still for what felt like minutes, but in just a few seconds all Hell broke loose. We were sat three rows from the back in the upper tier of the main stand. I’d noticed a very vocal Millwall fan in a bright yellow jumper about twenty seats to my right much earlier in the game, mainly because of his choice vocabulary. Within fifteen seconds of the own goal crossing the line he was on the pitch making his way across to the penalty spot in front of the away fans where he proceeded to make gestures involving both hands and every part of his anatomy below the waist. This was the cue for a night of endless pitch invasions, violence towards players and an all out declaration of war on Derby County and the police. I witnessed the whole wonderfully ugly mess from the relative safety of row Y. No doubt the commentator for the match would have been uttering those immortal lines “no one wants to see scenes like this”…but I did. And it was Brilliant.
Leicester 1 V 3 West Ham – Premier League – Filbert Street – 22/1/00
Probably the most unremarkable game of the lot in terms of its importance. It wasn’t that I was watching Ferdinand, Lampard, Cole and Di Canio play together. It wasn’t about them even being bolstered at the back by Razor Ruddock. It was simply down to my mate buying the wrong tickets that put us in row 2, behind the goal in the home end where Paulo Wanchope would go on to bag a brace rounded off in style with Di Canio sealing it with the third. I had to celebrate the whole thing internally, no emotion on my face, my hands firmly in my pockets all the while bubbling up inside like a dropped can of coke. The discontentment and mutterings of the opposition fans that surrounded me on all sides only further fanned the flames of this incredible feeling of superiority I had over every other man, woman and child that shared the stand with me that day. Filbert Street was a rickety old shed of a ground but it had character in abundance and an unwavering, loyal set of followers that called it home. It’s always nice to celebrate with your own kind, but I do recommend trying it amongst the enemy at least once. It’s totally gratifying.
Celtic 3 V 4 Juventus – Champions League – Celtic Park – 31/10/01
Need I say more? If you’ve ever been to a 4-3 game you’ve probably witnessed something extra special. With all its modernisation Parkhead has lost none of its atmosphere and for me remains the pinnacle of partisan crowds on the British Isles. Even the ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade we sat among in the padded hospitality seats sang from beginning to end. This was about as good as it got at Celtic for Henrik Larsson and Martin O’Neill. The domestic silverware was great but never quite matched up to a big European scalp. I don’t need to go into details. It was the four-three-see-saw you’d imagine. Sharing it with 60,000 elated Glaswegians just made it infinitely better.
Sheffield Wednesday 2 V 1 Preston – Championship – Hillsborough – 3/12/16
My only experience in the last decade of football how it used to be. These days I live just outside Sheffield and consequently my sons have taken Wednesday to their hearts though I always ensure they hold a soft spot for the Irons. A hugely historical and rather rickety old stadium well past its best. Weeds grew freely in the home end where we sat immediately behind the goal. The game was crucial, with both teams scrambling for the final playoff spot and it had a little bit of everything. Two early injuries and substitutions put Wednesday on the back foot, despite this they were ahead within ten minutes. The referee soon lost the home fans with some curious decisions, capped just after the hour with a Forestieri red card for an off the ball incident seen by no-one in the whole ground bar the linesman. The South Yorkshire faithful were now baying for blood. On 80 minutes Wednesday were awarded, then converted a penalty right in front of us but it came at the cost of yet another injury. All out of subs, they were now down to nine men. The whole kop end knew it was going to be backs against the wall and the place just got louder and louder. Within two minutes Preston pulled one back and continued to lay siege. The crowd were unrelenting, fuelled by what a huge sense of injustice the almost inevitable equaliser would be. As the clock ticked past the 90 Eoin Doyle and Jermaine Beckford, both wearing the yellow of the North-enders inexplicably came to blows over a simple misplaced pass and both got their marching orders to rapturous cheers of joy and relief in equal measure. Wednesday held on and we left with 25000 others all feeling pumped up like we’d overdone the steroids. The tram home was just a constant re-iteration from every group of supporters that none of us had been to a game like that in years. For my boys aged nine and seven it was just their second game, the first having been painfully dull. This one I’m sure will be the moment they look back on 30 years from now and say “that was it….that was the day I fell in love with football”.
So sit tight and never forget it was the fans that made those grounds what they were. One day when everyone else is also sitting in their own giant, pre-fabricated concoction of steel and digital screens just like us, we may just be one of the noisiest and most hostile grounds on the circuit once again.