Monday, 21 May 2012

ABIDE WITH ME: How I discovered my West Ham Roots

At the weekend, I had the oddest feeling.  West Ham won the play-off final at Wembley, and I was standing in front of the telly, watching the celebrations, with tears in my eyes, tingling all over.  The last time I reacted like this at the end of a football match was when my beloved Dagenham and Redbridge won the League Two Play-Off Final at Wembley, several years before.

But this was West Ham.  Where did that come from?

It got me thinking.  

I am not a West Ham supporter, although my very early years growing up in a West Ham area and have fanatical West Ham supporting cousins meant West Ham were the natural team to follow whenever they played.  My first experience of watching a football match on the telly was the 1975 FA Cup Final between West Ham and Fulham.  I remember making claret and blue paper chains, and having some recollection of watching the match.  I would have been five years old, so don't remember too much, to be honest.  When I thought about writing a book, this scene of watching the '75 Cup Final came into my head and became the essence of the opening scene of ABIDE WITH ME.

Two years after the '75 final, I was exposed to my first live game - again at Wembley.  The 1977 FA Trophy Final between Dagenham and Scarborough.  My dad worked with the Daggers midfield maestro, Joe Dunwell, and I watched us let in two goals in the last few minutes to get beat 2-1.  Yes, even by the end of the game, it was 'us'.  I distinctly remember the heartache and the disbelief..  And the Mighty Daggers have been my team ever since.

I could bore you with many, many of those 'tears in the eyes, body tingling' experiences watching the Daggers since.  But I won't.  

But why the reaction on Saturday when West Ham won?

It was obvious to me it has had something to do with writing the book.  And it didn't take long to dig deeper and find out what it was.  There is a whole chapter in ABIDE WITH ME devoted to the Hammers/Arsenal Cup Final of 1980.  The chapter is written through the eyes of the main character, John, watching from the terraces.  When I'd finished the book, and was in the initial stages of editing, my main concern wasn't the plot, or the characters, or the word-count, it was that this chapter, and all the other West Ham references in ABIDE WITH ME passed the die-hard Hammers test.  To this end, I put an invitation on various West Ham blogs and forums for die-hard Hammers to look at what I'd written, and judge it in terms of how genuine it was.  To my delight, the verdict was unanimously in favour.  Almost to a man, everyone said of the Cup Final chapter 'it was just like being there all over again' - and words to that effect.

This toe in the water began my first relationship to the members of the West Ham online fraternity which has continued through the publishing of this book to West Ham getting promoted to the Premier League a couple of days ago at Wembley.

And there have been the book signings, in which I have discovered the book is being bought almost exclusively to West Ham supporters.  I've chatted to dozens of Hammers over the last couple of months - from Basildon to Walthamstow, Romford to Newham - and had the best time of my life.  And I have found them to be decent, articulate, funny, passionate people with claret and blue running through their very veins.  I have met Phil Whelans from the brilliant STOP! HAMMERTIME podcast, I have met Robert Banks, author of the seminal Hammer's book 'An Irrational Hatred of Luton', I've chatted online with Jeremy Nicholas - legendary stadium announcer at the Boleyn Ground.  I have met an elderly woman at the Newham book signing on the way to the Brighton game, who gave me a detailed tactical lesson on why Sam Allardyce was not the right man for the job, after which she informed me she was off to buy some new knickers. 

You see, this football lark, it never is about the team or the division, or the result even.  It is only ever about the golden thread - in this case, the claret and blue thread - that connects dispirate groups of people, tens of thousands of people, ordinary people, extraordiary people, in a common emotion.

I was going out Saturday night at the same time supporters were coming back off the trains from Wembley.  And there were blokes, mates, fathers, sons, waiting for them.  And they were hugging, and punching the air, tears in their eyes.  

Blokes.  Lads.  Geezers.  Fantastic.

Here's a bit of ABIDE WITH ME that sort of shows what I mean.  It's moments before kick off at the 1980 Cup Final.  West Ham were in the Second Division back then, and Arsenal were one of the best teams in the whole country . . .

'Brass band’s out, marchin up and down, playin brass band shit. Then they stop in the middle of the pitch, all still, and start playin Abide With Me. I quickly turn to the bottom of page two in the programme where they've writ the words, and me and Dad sing it out together. Every man around us is singin hard. All readin the words off the programme so you can tell not a fuckin one of us goes to church or nothing. But here they are. Here we are. Men. Singin for our lives.

'Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide;
When other helpers fail; and comforts flee;
Help of the helpless; O abide with me.

I'm so choked at the end of that first verse, can't barely get through the next one what with the tears runnin down me face. Dad's the same, and for the rest of the singin, we're just holdin on to each other. Man and boy. Father and son.
I hope to God we win. Hope to fuckin God. Can't stand to think what it'd do to Dad if we don't. See, when you're watchin it on telly or listenin to it on the radio, you can just turn it off. Kill the feelin. But when you're here, you're part of it, and it gets so it's a part of you. And there ain't nowhere you can fuckin hide.
A roar goes up right round the ground, like the sound of a buildin comin down. And here they come. Looks like we lost the toss for kits cos we've come out in our away kit. All white with light blue trim. Bit poofy, but we can't do nothin about that now. Dunno why, but Arsenal's wearin their away kit an all. Yellow shirts, blue shorts. About level as far as the poofy stakes go, but I reckon we might just've nicked it.
Everyone's lined up, and Bonzo's takin some suited up geezer to shake hands with our lads. Paul Allen looks littler than Becky, and the Arsenal look so fuckin huge, sort of steady, like they know all they gotta do is turn up. And it ain't just me wonderin why Johnny Lyall's playin Psycho up front on his own. I mean, one up against the Arsenal. We ain't got no chance of fuckin scorin with that.

Me heart's batterin me on the inside, hurtin. And I got Dad tremblin right next to me, closer than skin.

Whistle blows.

Here we go.'

I will always be first and foremost a Dagenham supporter.  Always.  But my experience this year following West Ham - most specifically following the emotional journey the supporters have taken - has rekindled in me something of that day watching the '75 Cup Final as a littl'un.

It gets a bad press, football.  And rightly so, sometimes.  But there is nothing else in this country that unites so many people in joy, anger, resentment, disappointment, euphoria, and laughter as football.  It is the catalyst that bursts open the banks of damned up feelings and lets them come roaring to the surface, unashamed.  

And I am proud to be amongst its fraternity.

NB. The above two paragraphs apply to every team in this country, from Sunday League to the national team.  Every team except Chelsea.  Obviously.

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