Tag Archives: Olympic Stadium

West Ham Farewell Party Confirms the Love For Elland Road   –   by Rob Atkinson

Elland Road

Elland Road, THE place of worship for thousands

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. 

Advertisements

As West Ham Say Goodbye to Upton Park, Memories of a Leeds Fan – by Rob Atkinson

wright hammer

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Happy Wright

Tonight we bid a sad farewell to Upton Park, or the Boleyn Ground, long-time home of Olympic Stadium-bound West Ham United. The ‘Ammers, as they’re known locally, have usually been obliging victims for Leeds United teams of most eras, and were particularly notable as lenders of a helping hand towards the end of our title run-in of 1992, when they defeated Man U in a game that turned Alex Ferguson the deepest shade of exasperated purple I’ve ever seen. So it’s fitting, as another proper London football ground bites the dust, that I should write a little about the ‘Appy ‘Ammers; some of my fondest memories are of victories there, particularly this MayDay romp in 1999.

It was an encounter, played out in front of a packed Boleyn Ground crowd of 25997, that found Leeds United in a rich run of form; ten games unbeaten since an early February reverse to Newcastle at Elland Road, after which they had reeled off seven consecutive league victories followed by three draws on the trot. The Whites’ determination to get back to winning ways after those six dropped points was exemplified by the fastest possible start.  A mere twenty seconds had ticked by when the ball nestled in the West Ham net, put there emphatically by the ebullient Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who ran at a retreating Neil Ruddock before finishing neatly with a left-foot shot past Shaka Hislop. And then the game went ever so slightly mad.

Jimmy’s goal apart, the first quarter of an hour had seen both sides engaging in tackles which tended on the thuggish side of enthusiastic. West Ham’s Eyal Berkovic was a victim early on, and Lee Bowyer was on the end of a clattering as the home side sought revenge. Then Ian Wright, no stranger to controversy and the disciplinary attentions of referees, led with his elbow when challenging for a high ball, and copped for a yellow card that looked a lot more justified than the second yellow he got after only 15 minutes, following an altercation with Ian Harte, Harte, Harte. So Wright was on his way back to the stand after a mere quarter of an hour, loudly protesting the injustice of the case and hell-bent, as it turned out, on venting his frustrations on the décor in the ref’s room. 

For the next half-hour, leading up to the interval, Leeds proceeded to make a one man advantage look anything but as West Ham pressed them back, causing panic in the away defence as the promptings of Berkovic and Paolo di Canio created some decent chances to possibly level the game. Leeds had managed to be distinctly the poorer side in that opening 45 minutes, and yet – as if to prove once again what a daft game football can be – they hit West Ham with a sucker punch in first half stoppage time. David Batty appeared to have committed a foul in midfield which might well have justified a booking had the ref not totally ignored it and waved for play to continue. Harry Kewell duly obliged, picking the ball up wide on the left and mesmerising the overstretched Hammers defence before cutting the ball back from the by-line for Alan Smith to convert gleefully.

2-0 then at half time and – for once – it had pretty much all gone Leeds’ way. We had been outplayed for most of the game so far, but were somehow two goals and one man to the good; courtesy, it has to be said, of some not exactly even-handed refereeing.

The second half began much as most of the first had been spent, with Leeds on the back foot and defending precariously. Straight away, the dangerous Berkovic bamboozled Jonathan Woodgate, turning him inside out before supplying di Canio with the perfect chance to pull a goal back. 2-1 to the visitors then, but the balance of the play had been with West Ham, and maybe now the momentum was theirs too. None of us could feel over-confident despite a man and a goal advantage, because all of us could recall Leeds blowing such enviable positions many times in the past.

This time, though – for once – we were not to be let down. A rare defensive slip just after the hour from the otherwise excellent Marc-Vivien Foé saw Hasselbaink sprint clear to round Hislop, who then brought him down. Penalty to Leeds and, despite the presence of defensive cover, Hislop was sent off. It was a slightly unfortunate second red card for West Ham, who felt compelled to replace Berkovic with reserve keeper Craig Forrest as the calamities mounted for the home team. Forrest’s first act was to pick Harte’s penalty out of the back of the net, and Leeds were 3-1 up and cruising against 9 men. Foé, we will remember, sadly died four years later at the tragically young age of 28, from an unsuspected heart condition whilst representing his country in the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Now at last Leeds started to dominate as a two-man advantage would suggest they should. The best goal of the game arrived on 78 minutes, Bowyer hitting an unstoppable right-footed shot from twenty-five yards, which curved slightly as it found the corner of Forrest’s net.  Just a minute later, Alf-Inge Haaland sprinted on to a Hasselbaink pass into a massive amount of space on the right hand side. Unchallenged, he was able to advance into the penalty area and beat Forrest with an accurate shot just inside the far post.

The eight outfield players in claret and blue were clearly finding the pace too hot, and suddenly there was room aplenty all over the pitch for Leeds to exploit, and exploit it they did.  Aided by the fact that the Hammers – to their eternal credit – were still trying to attack Leeds in spite of their depleted resources, Leeds were granted the licence to ping the ball about, always able to find a man or two in space, making the tired home players work overtime to chase possession as the Upton Park faithful bayed their hate at the referee. Truth to tell, we could easily empathise with the ‘Arrassed ‘Ammers; far too many times down the years we’d been in their shoes, watching impotently enraged as some git of a ref casually destroyed our afternoon. It was somewhat bizarre to watch the situation unfold in reverse – but what the hell. We made hay while the sun was shining, and happily the team was doing the same.

The game had long been over as a contest and, at 5-1 up with no credible opposition to deal with, Leeds seemed intent solely on playing out time. Smith still managed to miss a passable chance to make it 6-1 and Clyde Wijnhard contrived to get himself booked, eliciting maliciously ironic chants of “Who’s the bastard in the black” from the jubilant Leeds fans, who displayed an ironic gallows humour not altogether appreciated by the home supporters. Finally, hothead Irons defender Steve Lomas allowed his mounting frustration to get the better of him, launching an agricultural challenge in the direction of Harte and duly collecting his marching orders to reduce the hapless, helpless Hammers to eight at the death.

It had been a strange game, a romp for the Whites on the face of it – judging by the lop-sided score line anyway. But it had never been quite like that; not that our awareness of having been outplayed for long stretches diluted our joy one tiny bit. It’s a sad fact that 5-1 away wins do not come along very often, and we enjoyed this one to the full. We enjoyed it for the whole of the slightly perilous walk back to the tube station, and we were still enjoying it when we beheld the distinctly pissed-off figure of Leslie Grantham heading down the stairway to the platform where we were celebrating noisily. Leslie Grantham, soap-opera legend as Eastenders arch-villain Dirty Den; Leslie Grantham who had done serious time for killing a German taxi-driver; Leslie Grantham, Hammers fanatic, who – despite being accompanied by his two young boys – bore a grim aspect which looked rather as if he wouldn’t mind adding a couple of Leeds fans to that record.

Tactful and understanding to the last of private grief, we wisely kept our distance and refrained from seeking autographs. It had been a memorably bizarre day for Leeds United and an equally happy summer evening awaited us in the sinful fleshpots of London, crap, watery cockney beer and semi-hostile natives notwithstanding.

Dirty Den 1, Dirty Leeds 5.