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.
Another fine read!
I have been going to ER since the very early 70’s , my brothers ashes are scattered in the south stand goal mouth and one day I hope to join him , I can understand the reason for West Ham jumping in for a steal of a ground , I predict within 3 yrs some Arab billionaire’s will buy out the king of porn, the same thing happened to man City once they “stole” their ground.. but will it be the same ? Ask the man city fans and I think you’ll find not rob..
I know for a fact that a lot of the City old school still mourn Maine Road and the Kippax, Mr. O.
Very fitting,Rob. Tickets were sold out and I sent a begging letter to no other than David O’Leary for 2 tickets to go to Upton Park during our third era of success. I knew where he lived – we did work for him at his house in Hartogate – and he very kindly gifted 2 for me and my lad. Have you contemplated the horror of the looney doing something similar to make a few quid in the future. He might eventually buys the ground back for that very purpose. Sends a shiver up my spine having stood in the boys pen at 10 years old and wondering if I will be tempted to renew season tickets even though I have sworn I won’t if Evans is dumped.
It’s a tough call, mate. When it comes to the crunch, we realise how much it all means to us.
An interesting read Rob and feelings I can well understand. I fell in love with Leeds United in the early 70s from the other side of the world and my first visits to ER were the standout highlight of a European backpack journey in 1981. My immediate response to the inevitable question when I got home, “What was the best thing you did?”, “I went to Elland Rd and saw Leeds play.” Coincidentally, I also saw the great Liverpool team of the early 80’s visit Upton Park during the same trip.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to make three more visits, each carefully planned around the fixture list, selecting dates which would allow me visit ER or enjoy my first away days with the Leeds faithful….me and a few thousand new friends.
I envy those who lived through the great times and fully grasp the reality of change.
“Part of my life would be gone, if I had to go through what the Hammers fans went through last night” and so said the steam train drivers and those who enjoyed the grand old days of steamship travel or those who puffed on a smoke while enjoying a Bogart film at the cinema. Feelings very similar to those I felt when we sold the old family home after my dear Mum passed away.
But we live in the now.
Imagine a well managed club with a state of the art, 65,000 seat stadium that allowed more of the community to watch the team for less money whilst being able to invest in playing resources that could see them compete with, and host, some of the best teams in the world.
While many of the WH faithful will miss the old girl, I’ll bet they won’t miss the queue for toilets with the urinal trough overflowing onto the floor or jostling for poor quality food at half time in forgettable games against the lower half of The Championship or FL1.
I’d even wager some of the Leicester City faithful miss the old Filbert St ground, but I could hear them singing from here as they celebrated this week in the King Power Stadium.
Your counterpoint is eloquent and thought-provoking – and you’re right, of course. I suppose I’m a bit small “c” conservative in that I find change and upheaval very difficult to deal with. I’ve been in a right state several times over things like house moves, changing cars even. And as for bereavement – don’t even go there. Pets or people, it leaves me in bits and I take ages to reassemble. Elland Road is so iconic for me, but I suppose, in time, I’d move on – kicking and screaming. It’s good to get my feelings out there AND get such a measured response, making me look at the other side of the coin. Many thanks and MOT.
PS – my money is still on a fully redeveloped ER though!!
Wouldn’t a fully developed ER be great eh? With a team worthy of the place and a crowd in the 50 odd thousands like when we were kids Rob. Dream on sunshine, dream on.
It’s all about dreaming. Always was.