Just nine days short of 480 years since another Boleyn met her end, on a Tower Green scaffold one sad Tudor morning, the curtain finally fell on West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground last night. It was the climax of 112 years of East End football history, fittingly topped off with a thrilling late victory and then the obligatory lasers and fireworks – spectacular high jinks, warming the cockles before the cold reality of the bulldozers moving in to do their grim work.
Poor little Queen Anne was snuffed out by a French swordsman imported specially for the occasion by her kindly husband King Henry VIII. One swing of that fine blade left la Boleyn shorter by a head – and it was deadly twin thrusts from another Frenchman that could have cut short the farewell celebrations at the Boleyn Ground. West Ham had taken an early lead, but two goals from French prodigy Martial threatened rudely to poop the Hammers’ party. Fortunately, not least for this hardly unbiased viewer, the Irons roared back with two late goals to secure victory and put the Champions League hopes of Manchester’s finest back in their own hands. What a game, what a night. But then, chillingly, comes the bleak reality of the following day.
Watching such a thrilling match and then such an emotional farewell event had me wondering how those Hammers fans were feeling as the night and the occasion went by. There must surely have been a slightly unreal air about the place. Is this really the last time? Is this familiar old place really going to be torn down pitilessly, along with all the memories of good times and bad? Those questions must inevitably have gone through thousands of baffled, barely believing cockney minds.
I have my own recollections of the Boleyn Ground – or Upton Park, as it was also known. Only a few, but marked each time by a Leeds United win, which obviously makes for good memories. And enough of those memories to make the place quite familiar to me. So even I can hardly credit the fact that, so soon, it will all be gone. But if I had to guess, based on my own forty-odd years of football fandom, just how those West Ham fans were feeling last night, I’d wager there was a lot of sadness and a sea of tears after the jubilation of victory, as the loss of a beloved place of worship started to sink in. And, I ask you, how on earth must they be feeling this morning?
It’s a bit hard to put myself in their shoes. The nearest comparison I can make is that last occasion, before the suits brought in the seats, standing on the Kop terraces against the Wendies. That was emotional enough. I literally can hardly imagine how I would feel if Elland Road itself – my second and spiritual home since 1975 – was condemned to be rased to the ground. Words would not be able to express the awful emptiness I would feel, the nightmare sensation of being cast out of my comfort zone, never to return. It came close enough – too close for comfort – to actually happening, with a firm proposal to relocate put to the vote in the 90s. For me, it didn’t really hit home or seem real at that time. I truly know that now.
I know it, because of what I saw in the coverage of the Boleyn’s last game. Because it’s a stadium I’m familiar with, I was suddenly forced to contemplate the same grisly fate befalling Elland Road. It’s a simply horrible thought. It certainly gave me nightmares and, this morning, I really feel for those displaced, dispossessed Hammers fans.
Some will point to the grandeur of their new surroundings at the Olympic Stadium. Well, whatever floats your boat. And there’s the small matter of 52,000 season tickets sold already ahead of the next campaign. The Hammers are moving up to a different level, it’s a whole new ball game now. So it may well be. But is it worth it? Well, you could rebuild the Bernebeu or the Camp Nou in Roundhay Park and, for me, the answer would still be no.
It’s a bit different for us. We’ve been the best, on more than one occasion, and we’ve sustained that excellence at a fortress called Elland Road. So much of what Leeds United have achieved is part of the concrete, the steel, even the hallowed turf of that venerable old stadium. Maybe it would have been harder for us than it’s turning out to be for those Hammers who said “goodbye” last night. But honestly, I doubt it. I think it’s going to be very hard indeed on those fans, once the dust has settled.
All I can say for myself is that last night reinforced for me the emotional pull of Elland Road, the fundamental attachment I so strongly feel for the place. I’m quite certain that the same is true for thousands of other Leeds fans. Perhaps it takes being a spectator at an event like last night to really bring home what being at home is actually all about. And what losing that home would heart-breakingly mean.
Hammers fans still have their memories; they’ll still be able to replay the mind’s eye video of countless great matches and famous victories. But the place where all those things happened will soon be dust, and there’s an awful finality to that. When the place is gone, the memories will be harder to put into their proper setting. Even ghosts need a place to float around in.
Every time I see Elland Road, a thousand precious memories become real again for me – some pretty bad ones too, make no mistake. But they’re all part of that fund of recollection any football fan builds up, and they’re inextricably linked with that loveable ramshackle old stadium, with its incongruously shiny newer bits. Even they’ve been with us over a quarter of the club’s lifetime. I love every inch of the place, down to the last rivet and the smallest blade of grass. Part of my life would be gone, if I had to go through what the Hammers fans went through last night. What they’re only starting to get used to this morning.
Congratulations to West Ham, on a fine victory and a fitting way to mark the end of an era. I’m really pleased for you – and yet I’m sorry for you too. God knows I’d love the experience again, of beating that lot and reducing them to misery. I’ve always loved that. But – at the cost of a large chunk of my soul? I think not. I really think not.