Growing up as a West Ham fan in Bristol during the 2000s was to actively make yourself a target for playground mockery. With fans of City and Rovers as rare as a magnanimous press conference from Jose Mourinho, my Big Red Club supporting classmates took delight in countless defeats against teams few primary school children have any real conception of (Rotherham, Gillingham, Oldham).
It was no exaggeration to suggest that supporting the club accounted for 90% of my personality during school, my enthusiasm for the Hammers directly inverse to my own footballing ability. After years of discovery at university, conservative estimates say this proportion now stands at 70%.
Like many young fans, football was the portal through which a multitude of emotions were first discovered and life lessons learnt – even today, watching West Ham regularly provides one with the mild disappointment of a middle-aged man discovering his favourite song on the radio is by Ed Sheeran. However, it also taught you about pride, belonging and sticking together through thin and thinner.
This last point cannot be stressed enough – once relegation was confirmed in 2011 (the day before my sixteenth birthday), one friend idly asked me which team I was going to support now. While the merits of competitive tiddlywinks had never seemed so tempting, it was a question only a person not indoctrinated into football fandom could ask.
Ultimately, supporting a team as frequently hapless as West Ham provides an early grounding in the realities of life. Here are five matches that shaped my own outlook:
West Ham United 2-2 Arsenal – Saturday 24th August 2002 (Premiership)
I have vague recollections of watching this on The Premiership, ITV’s ill-fated highlights show that fuelled a short-lived appreciation of U2. Sadly, Andy Townsend and his tactics truck were absent. This was a thrilling match and one that distilled the essence of supporting West Ham into ninety minutes – you cannot say I wasn’t warned from an early age.
Facing the league and cup holders Arsenal, a team packed full of talented individuals were excellent for over an hour and led 2-0 through Joe Cole and Freddie Kanoute. As so often, West Ham had raised their performance to ‘obscene levels’ against superior opposition – the trio of Cole, Michael Carrick and Trevor Sinclair less of a midfield than a symphony orchestra.
Despite Thierry Henry netting a spectacular goal, West Ham quickly won a penalty to restore their two-goal lead only for Kanoute to scuff a mole murdering effort down the throat of David Seaman. It was probable that an incapacitated badger would also have saved it.
Cue a time-honoured collapse. Arsenal equalised two minutes before the end and defeat was only avoided through a string of saves from David James. This was arguably the game that saw romantic notions of the West Ham Way die. Minutes away from an impressive victory, the Hammers did not win at home until late January and were relegated with a points total unmatched since. The playing squad has rarely possessed similar levels of potential as on that sunny August afternoon.
An early lesson in suppressing premature excitement.
Reading 3-1 West Ham United – Saturday 12th March 2005 (Championship)
Last November a housemate accompanied me to our match at Burnley. The resulting afternoon provided numerous tropes of West Ham awayday that are strangely reassuring in a constantly changing world: a freezing cold day in northern England, insipid defending, meek surrender on the pitch, gallows humour in the stands and a delayed train back home. It seems unwritten that for every awayday success, there will be five more which provoke a similar reaction to banging your head on a door frame. My housemate had a great time.
This match was the first of such days, also cementing my irrational dislike of Reading Football Club that supersedes almost all others. Rivals in the play-off race, Reading had not won a league game since Boxing Day and faced a West Ham team whose efforts that season redefined the word ‘underwhelming’. With depressing predictability, the following ninety minutes left the Reading fans more gleeful than Montgomery Burns after a hit of laughing gas.
Dave Kitson, the type of striker for whom playing against the Hammers is akin to discovering water in the Sahara, scored a hat-trick – the first of which involved leaning over a hopelessly mismatched Hayden Mullins to nod home. The consolation effort from Teddy Sheringham was deemed so irrelevant it was not included on the season review DVD.
Yet, my main memory from the day was of our supporters themselves. Whether acting from belligerence, perverse pride or protest, the song ‘We are West Ham’s Claret and Blue Army’ reverberated around the Madjeski Stadium, pointedly excluding manager Alan Pardew. Here, the lesson was that the performances of the team and actions of the club rarely deserve the loyal backing they receive.
Liverpool 3-3 West Ham United – Saturday 13th May 2006 (FA Cup Final)
West Ham United 3-4 Tottenham Hotspur – Sunday 4th March 2007 (Premier League)
Inadvertently, the sentiment behind supporting an unsuccessful club was best described by John Cleese. During the 1986 film Clockwise, in which Cleese plays a strictly punctual headmaster called Brian, the apparent West Ham ‘fanatic’ utters the immortal line ‘it’s not the despair. I can cope with the despair. It’s the hope that kills you’. It is a quote that speaks to your very soul and the very essence of human experience. It also perfectly encapsulated a staggering late winter’s afternoon over a decade ago.
Even by West Ham standards, this match was ridiculous. Rooted in the relegation zone, having been winless in the league since Christmas, the Hammers took the game directly to their North London opponents. Having been fortunate not to have fallen behind early on, a sprightly Mark Noble opened the scoring after rifling home from a deft touch from the Adam’s Apple of Carlos Tevez.
Minutes before half-time, Tevez hooked home a free-kick to double West Ham’s lead. After a tumultuous experience in East London, the Argentine’s first goal for the club was met with rapturous celebration – in scenes reminiscent of a slightly flabby Hulk, Tevez ripped off his shirt and jumped joyously into the crowd, the striker quickly buried under a sea of Burberry.
The mood at half-time felt too close to over-confidence for comfort, a sense of cockiness usually held by those walking directly into the path of a banana skin. So it proved. Tottenham started the second-half reinvigorated and were soon level – firstly from a Jermain Defoe penalty, mindlessly conceded by Lee Bowyer, which was followed by a classy team effort finished by Teemu Tainio. As if delivered by an overseeing power keen to reinforce order, the decision to live briefly in the moment had been ruthlessly punished.
Just when events appeared to be heading one way, another twist. With ten minutes remaining, another Tevez delivery was met by the bald head of Bobby Zamora, diverting the ball into the net. 3-2. Having diced with disaster, it appeared it would be West Ham’s day after all.
Not quite. As the clock ticked into its final sixty seconds, Tottenham won a cheap free kick on the very edge of the penalty area. Dimitar Berbatov, a player so languid he appeared to be without bones whatsoever, proceeded to curl an exquisite effort beyond the despairing efforts of Paul Konchesky on the line.
Two more vital points dropped? If only. As West Ham frantically searched for a winner, a wasted corner led to Defoe racing up the pitch with only one defender to beat. His shot was saved but ran desperately into the path of the trundling Paul Stalteri, who bundled home an improbable winner. Having been denied Champions League football the previous season after defeat at Upton Park, Tottenham proved that revenge is a dish best served cruel.
West Ham, having performed so valiantly, had produced a masterclass in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A cartoon in the following day’s Daily Mail depicted fans leaving the stadium and walking straight into the Samaritans office. Objectively speaking, this was one of the most thrilling matches of the Premier League era and one that provided the impetus for West Ham’s miraculous escape from relegation.
Objectivity does not stop an eleven-year-old boy weeping into his Sunday dinner.
West Ham United 4-0 Manchester United – Tuesday 30th November 2010 (League Cup)
Tony Pulis is not usually renowned as one of life’s great philosophers. However, when addressing fan disgruntlement during his time at Stoke City, the Welshman observed that ‘if you’re given steak and chips every day, steak and chips become the norm’. Ignoring the fact Pulisball is about as appetising as uncooked rice, Tony had hit upon an essential truism: that most joys of life are dulled by repetition. Many great moments and experiences are magnified by their rarity.
Take football. Witness Chelsea supporters regarding finals as the minimum expectation rather than generational events. Witness Manchester City greeting domestic cup success with an increasingly indifferent shrug. As incomprehensible as this opinion must be to the spoilt element of their online fanbases, they are missing out. Success is enhanced by the tribulations that precede it. Finishing tenth one season does not count.
Which leads me to my final choice. As exasperating as West Ham ultimately are, they do have the redeeming tendency to produce unexpected triumphs. None more so than this League Cup quarter-final in 2010 – hosting Manchester United, who had won the competition in the two previous years, West Ham demolished the league leaders 4-0 with a display described by The Guardian as ‘rampant’.
Jonathan Spector, an extraordinarily unremarkable utility man, opened the scoring with a header that was his first career goal in English football. His second arrived fifteen minutes later. The unforeseen transformation of Spector and the falling snow that dusted the pitch added to the surreal nature of the occasion. The only object redder than Ferguson’s nose was his United branded bobble hat.
This time West Ham did not collapse when two goals ahead. Assisted by the sporadically decent Victor Obinna, Carlton Cole achieved his own double in the second half and gave Jonny Evans such a roasting that the Northern Irishman could have been served with potatoes and seasonal veg.
It must be stated that this was not a vintage Manchester United team – their title winning team that year was forgettable by their standards and their reserves played in this game. However, our own line-up contained Hammers legends such as Pablo Barrera, Radoslav Kovac and Tal Ben-Haim and finished rock bottom of the league. This was still a thrashing more shocking than a January heatwave.
Best of all, it riled the hordes of plastic United fans at my secondary school. Upon walking into class the next day, the smile across my face betraying efforts to exude an air of false modesty, one lad exclaimed ‘pipe down you runt!’, indication that my very presence had gotten under the thinnest of skins. Sadly, the success of your football team does not stop some people from being irredeemable pricks.
My emotions that day provided my final childhood lesson – that, despite it all, I wouldn’t swap supporting West Ham for anyone else.