Elegy For Upton Park
The departure of West Ham football team from the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park after more than a century, prior to a move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, is an event of such momentous import that Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien could not resist going down after the final game to capture the drama outside the pitch while I interviewed a fan to get a personal testimony of this historic watershed.
The Gentle Author - How did this all start?
West Ham Fan - I’ve been a West Ham Fan since I was seven. A friend of mine was a West Ham Fan so I became one too, but I only started coming to the Boleyn Ground about ten years ago when I could afford a season ticket, and now I’m there every Saturday, every home game and the occasional away game too.
The Gentle Author – What is the appeal of West Ham?
West Ham Fan – They’ve obviously got this connection with the World Cup because of the players that were in the England team in 1966, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters & Geoff Hurst. And there’s a wonderful history going right back to the dockers and the Thames ironworks playing in the team. From the moment I got my season ticket and started going regularly, I realised it’s such a friendly club. You go in there and sit down with this group of people, and they ask ‘Who are you?’ and you are welcomed into this new family. Now if I can’t go on a Saturday, they want to know, ‘Where are you? Are y’alright? What going on?’ Everyone there is really friendly, even though the reputation may have been slightly tarnished now and again in the eighties… (laughs)
The Gentle Author - What is the significance of Upton Park?
West Ham Fan – Upton Park, or the ‘Boleyn Ground’ as we call it, has been the stadium West Ham have been at since the beginning in 1904 and it’s a wonderful place. A lot of people were very opposed to leaving and there was a big campaign not to go because of the history which surrounds it. You’ve got the Bobby Moore statue across the road and fans have this real love for it as somewhere they’ve been coming for years and years. The fact that West Ham were going to move out was too much for some people. Over the years they have improved the stadium, so one side has been built up but there’s another side that they call the ‘Chicken Run,’ which is quite an old stand that could have been redeveloped. I think West Ham could have stayed if they had wanted to, but the lure of the Olympic Stadium as somewhere more commercial and more high profile was too much for the owners.
The Gentle Author - What are your feelings about the move?
West Ham Fan - A lot of fans are very upset but I am on the fence – I can’t compete with people who have been going there since 1966 and have this long affinity. I think it’s a wonderful place and it holds a place in my heart - it’s that Saturday morning feeling and that buzz as you’re walking out, going to see West Ham, but I think this is a new exciting chapter beginning. Let’s see how it goes. I’ve already looked at my seat. The seat I’m at now is very close to the pitch but the seat I’m going to have is very far away so I’m never going to have the intimacy I had at Upton Park.
A lot of people have a Saturday routine. There’s Ken’s Cafe where fans have a meal every time they go to West Ham and the Boleyn pub where they go and have a pint. It was a whole day out, not just going to watch the football match. But this is all going to change and their routines will go out the window. It was a complete experience, of getting on the train with the other fans, the crowd, the buzz, the stalls, the shop – a lot of people went in the shop and you’d see them carrying bags with the latest kit. How this is going to translate over to the new stadium I don’t know. I know a few people who are not going to go…
The Gentle Author - Were you at the final game?
West Ham Fan - Yes, I was there. It was quite chaotic getting in, there were fans everywhere. I got off the tube at Upton Park and it took me half an hour to get up the road that normally takes ten minutes because there were people everywhere celebrating and being sad, making the most of the last game. I got in the stadium and it just happened to be one of the best games West Ham have played all season – we beat Manchester United 3-2. So the game was absolutely wonderful, then afterwards there was this big celebration with fireworks and all the players coming in. I think for a lot of fans it was very, very emotional, leaving for the last time but, for me, it was like leaving a place of work where you don’t believe it until you start in a new place. When the new season begins, that’s when it will really hit people – when they go to the Olympic Stadium. It was a wonderful night, a special occasion but a sad evening too. There were lots of tears and lots of people very upset. There were a lot of grown men crying that night.
The Gentle Author - When does the new season begin?
West Ham Fan – The new season starts in August. We’ll go from a thirty-five-thousand-seater stadium to a sixty-thousand-seater stadium and it’s going to be full, so there’ll be lots of new people coming to see West Ham along with fans who’ve been going since they were kids. It also enables cheaper seats so more families can come. In front of me, there’s three generations of West Ham Supporters and I love that.
When the stadium closed there was a big auction and they offered fans the chance to buy their own seat. I was delighted to get mine, R35 – which is a plastic seat in a presentation box that I can keep in my cupboard and occasionally get out and sit on when no-one’s looking.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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