3for3’s Dan ‘The Mekon’ discusses his life as a West Ham supporter, his one-man boycott of West Ham league fixtures, and why he felt the time was right to return this year.
First of all, I openly admit it: I’m not exactly a regular down at the Boleyn Ground. I never have been in fact; when I was a kid the arse fell out of the building trade which meant my family could barely afford food some weeks, let alone a jaunt up to Upton Park. I’ve been a card-carrying West Ham fan my entire life though; the old man wouldn’t have stood for anything else. My first ever jaunt to Upton Park was with a friend and his parents in 1995 – a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea doing little to dampen my awe at the amazing noise that echoed around the Centenary Stand and how much greener the pitch looked when viewed through my own two eyes. Not even the referee’s ludicrous decision to disallow a clear Trevor Morley goal was enough to put me off – I loved football and I loved West Ham.
I attended sporadically over the next few years, a couple of Premier League games along with a memorable 3-0 drubbing of Wimbledon in the Worthington Cup the outstanding memories, but what I didn’t realise was that an innocuous 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday on 13th December 1997 would be notable for two reasons: 1. it was the first match I’d seen without parental supervision, and 2. it would be my last league game at Upton Park for almost 15 years. The reasons were innocent enough at first – I was fourteen years old with no discernable income, and money was tight around the house. I didn’t see a live match at all in 1998, and 1999 saw me attend Wembley twice for Euro 2000 qualifiers, as well as a return to the Boleyn with a freebie ticket to the 1999 FA Youth Cup final, where a Joe Cole-inspired Hammers Academy side thrashed Coventry within an inch of their lives.
I didn’t attend the Boleyn Ground again until the winter of 2009, when a couple of mates informed me that tickets for our Carling Cup game against Macclesfield were only a tenner. I jumped at the chance and got my money’s worth; our team played so badly that extra-time was required to finally defeat the plucky League Two-ers. Our form had started its meteoric plummet into the depths that would see Avram Grant guide us to the somewhat flattering position of 20th in the Premier League in 2011, and I saw further evidence of how desperate things had become in 2010 when, to my utter dismay, only an injury-time goal from Scott Parker saw us overcome the mighty Oxford United, once again in the Carling Cup. Worse than the defeat though, was the giant black cloud that seemed to be hovering over Green Street.
Everything was expensive, the advertised tickets for upcoming league matches were extortionate, and everywhere you looked inside the ground people were angry, sad or frustrated. It was surreal; had it only been a decade ago that the ground beneath my feet was shaking to the cheering and singing of the notorious West Ham fanatics? It felt like a lifetime. Even at only half-full (it was a second round League Cup game, after all), the disenchantment around the stadium was palpable – as my wife remarked on the night, you could almost taste it. I got chatting with a season ticket holder sitting next to me, a man who’d attended almost every home game for the past forty years, and he looked positively ashen. It was the worst display he’d ever seen, he said. Even in seasons spent locked at the foot of the table, even during unsuccessful promotion campaigns, he’d never seen the team, the crowd or the entire club look so utterly defeated. I’d been gone so long that I’d missed the club’s slide into depression, and I left that night vowing silently to myself never to go again.
Relegation duly followed and along with the long-overdue sacking of Grant came the departures of many of the club’s overpaid, underachieving ‘stars’. We’d been emphatically and unceremoniously dumped out of the top division, but the fans were surprisingly upbeat. Here was a chance to wipe the slate clean, a chance to start again. It took a while, but the optimism overwhelming the club before the start of the 2011/12 season even began to consume yours truly. I tuned into the opening game on TV and it was all obliterated in an instant. Sam Allardyce’s negative tactics at home, our team’s all-too-familiar inability to take their chances… it was so frustrating. As the season wore on though, I heard peculiar things from our fans: we were playing good football. There were long balls going forward but this wasn’t the kick-and-run Allardyce had employed at Blackburn and Bolton; this was purposeful and designed to get the midfield involved. We got it on the deck and passed it. Our infuriating slide from 5-point lead to playoff certainties was an irritation, but as we got closer to our ‘promotion decider’ against Hull I made a momentous decision – I had to see it for myself.
I grabbed a ticket in the Trevor Brooking stand for £32 – not too bad. The seat was behind the goal we attacked in the first half, a decent distance back and off to the side, so the net wasn’t in the way. A copy of the fanzine and a burger from the van outside came to less than a fiver, and this was money I could spend. I wasn’t a kid who’d saved enough pocket money to get a ticket and nothing else anymore; I was a man with notes in his pocket. Even the walk down to the ground from Upton Park station felt different; the supporters were younger, they were all decked out in scarves and shirts and flags and ridiculous jester hats, and they all wore an expression I’d not seen in this part of the world in over a decade: a look of optimism and hope. Inside the ground the atmosphere was electric; even 45 minutes before kick-off and half-full, a roar greeted the players onto the pitch for their warm-up. And when the teams walked out and ‘Bubbles’ started up over the PA, I thought my heart was going to explode. For the full 90 minutes I sang like I’d never sung before, to the point where my voice was croaky for the entire following week. It didn’t matter that it pissed down for the entire 90 minutes, it didn’t matter that things died down a bit once we heard the Southampton score, we went out there and won 2-1 (despite a few late scares) and, most surprising of all to me, we played well. We got it down and passed it, the long-balls to Cole were intelligent and followed up by our midfield, and despite failing to go up I knew we had a team capable of winning the playoffs and going back up to the Premier League.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve missed watching my team play in the league, win or lose. Cup games are a strange beast – watching your team struggle to beat a side they should be trouncing at a time when they’re struggling only serves to exacerbate the negativity, and judging my team’s plight at those times only made me feel even more distanced from the club. It’s the league games that are the accurate barometer of a team’s position, and the way the fans picked themselves up and sang themselves hoarse after a season of frustration and irritation reminded me why I loved it so much, and made the 15 years I spent in my armchair almost feel worth it. One thing’s for sure: promotion or no promotion, I’ll be back a few times next season.
Dan Shoesmith is the co-host of the 3for3 podcast and host of X-Calibre on 1Radio.org, and currently has his fingers crossed that his mate comes through with a Playoff Final ticket. You can follow him on Twitter @3for3_ and @BigDan_83.