It is often said that supporting a football team, like being in love or life itself, is like riding a rollercoaster. There is some logic to this – rather than become annoyed by events ultimately outside our control, it can be best simply to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Of course, there are moments during the ride where we curse ourselves for being foolish enough to step on in the first place. However, it cannot be denied that riding the rollercoaster makes us feel alive and lives are ultimately enriched for the experience.
David Squires saw it differently. The Guardian cartoonist labelled the experience of supporting Swindon Town as more akin to fellow fairground attraction whack-a-mole: fleeting moments of hope swiftly smacked down by the mallet of reality, something that chimes with the life experience of countless individuals across the globe.
Telling this to West Ham fans is almost preaching to the converted: we are aware our team is not as successful or trophy-laden as other clubs. Therefore, moments where tangible achievement seem elusively close become cherished and celebrated in compensation, times where the bubbles nearly reach the sky.
One of those moments occurred in May 2004. On a sweltering spring night under the Upton Park floodlights, West Ham overpowered Ipswich Town to reach the Division One Play-Off Final. The match has become remembered in East London folklore for the raw emotive atmosphere stoked by the home support, the type that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and sends tingles down your spine.
For a generation of supporters, this was a night to rival Eintracht Frankfurt in 1976 or Everton in 1991. The fact the Hammers subsequently missed out on promotion has almost become a footnote.
Perhaps the atmosphere that night was the release of two seasons worth of frustration. After an avoidable relegation the year before, West Ham were hopelessly inconsistent in Division One during the 2003/04 season – When Saturday Comes described the attempt at instant promotion back to the Premier League as a ‘catalogue of disasters’.
After sticking by Glenn Roeder following his stroke the previous April, the manager was sacked after an August defeat at Rotherham that was preceded by West Ham’s refusal to use the dressing room facilities at Milmoor. In securing Alan Pardew as his replacement, the board managed to enter an acrimonious dispute with Pardew’s former employers and promotion rivals Reading. The impression that the club considered themselves above Division One football intensified.
This arrogance was misplaced. The star-studded team that had played in the Premier League had been ripped apart by circling vultures and a hastily assembled collection of free transfers, loanees and bargain buys took their place. Call this author cynical, but the likes of Robbie Stockdale, Wayne Quinn and Niclas Alexandersson are never likely to be considered Hammers legends.
The disjointedness of the squad was reflected in the team’s results. Pardew failed to win a match for well over a month upon his arrival, a sequence that saw countless mind-numbing draws and a humiliating collapse at home to West Brom. One match that sticks in the memory was a home defeat to Stoke, where the performance was spineless and inept even by West Ham standards.
Alongside this, star striker Jermaine Defoe was busy collecting red cards like they were Monopoly properties. Eventually, he left the club in the January transfer window alongside England goalkeeper David James. Only Michael Carrick remained of West Ham’s vaunted collection of home-grown players.
Nevertheless, the mood music was not all negative. With the ability of hindsight, it was possible to see tentative green shoots of recovery amongst the barren wasteland of mediocrity.
Pardew’s first signing was Crystal Palace captain Hayden Mullins, while forward Marlon Harewood joined after a prolific spell at Nottingham Forest. In January, Pardew secured the services of Bobby Zamora from Tottenham in exchange for the departing Defoe while Nigel Reo-Coker arrived from basket-case Wimbledon. All four would be key members of the squad that eventually secured promotion and an appearance in the FA Cup final.
However, the good times still seemed impossibly distant. The onset of spring saw embarrassing away reverses at Sunderland, Reading and arch-rivals Millwall, the latter an occasion where centre backs Christian Dailly and Andy Melville were less of a defence than a tearful confession. After an Easter period that saw a stultifying goalless home draw with Derby County and defeat at Palace, it seemed unlikely the pre-season promotion favourites would even make the play-offs.
Alas, the team eventually stumbled across some semblance of form and a collection of late-season wins saw the team finish fourth. A late Brian Deane equaliser at Wigan on the final day secured West Ham a second-leg semi final under the Upton Park floodlights while also allowing Palace into the play-offs through the back door. This seemingly irrelevant detail would later have huge ramifications.
Before then, West Ham travelled to Ipswich Town for their semi-final first-leg. Their opponents had impressed throughout the regular league campaign and contained wily players such as Kelvin Davis, Jim Magilton and a youthful Darren Bent.
During a tense ninety minutes, Ipswich always held the edge over the Hammers and an opportunistic header from Bent sealed a narrow 1-0 victory. The omens for the return were not especially promising – Ipswich had won at Upton Park earlier in the season and nothing in the first leg suggested anything different.
For all his personal and managerial flaws, Pardew was skilled at creating a sense of occasion. After the final whistle at Portman Road, the West Ham boss praised Ipswich fans for the noise generated but archly warned that ‘if you thought that was a good atmosphere then on Tuesday our place will be jumping’.
Pardew made the bold prediction that Ipswich would crumble when faced with 35,000 ‘hostile’ fans at Upton Park, despite the fact that any hostility generated that season had been directed towards the home players. Making a final rallying cry, he predicted the home crowd would be ‘absolutely essential – I know what the place will be like and it promises to be a cracking game’.
Pardew would be proven right. When matchday arrived, all the anger and frustration felt at the club’s decline was channelled into creating a white-hot atmosphere. In a bizarre cameo, a man wearing a beefeater red jacket and a horse rider’s helmet led the teams out playing an impossibly small trumpet. The exact reasoning behind this remains unknown, but the din when the players ran out onto the pitch was more akin to Buenos Aries or Istanbul. Bubbles has rarely been sung with more gusto.
As if matching their supporters, West Ham started the game at frantic speed. After surviving an early let-off when Bent fired wide when well placed, the Hammers dominated a fraught first-half where emotion trumped fluency. Their play was marked by directness and power with Carrick pulling the strings from the heart of midfield.
Steve Lomas hit the bar after connecting first-time with Matthew Etherington’s cross. Soon after, Bobby Zamora seemed certain to open the scoring after meeting David Connolly’s centre with his head. Incredibly, Ipswich keeper Davis showed cat-like reflexes to turn the ball behind and the stadium released a collective outtake of disbelieving breath. Minutes later, Davis again dove at full-stretch to keep out a stinging long-range effort by Dailly.
Despite the pressure exerted by West Ham, the first half ended goalless. As it stood, Ipswich would be going to Cardiff for the final and the Hammers condemned to another year of lower-league football. Pre-match previews emphasised the consequences of failure; the perilous state of the club’s finances meant the fifteen million from promotion and sponsorship were less of a bonus than a necessity.
Pardew acknowledged he would face an ‘unpleasant’ agenda should West Ham miss out. The pressures on him were immense, but that barely excuses his decision to wear a ‘Moore Than a Football Club’ t-shirt on the night. While opportunities to celebrate the club’s most famous son should never be denied, it is very possible that even Liverpool Football Club would have rejected the shirt design as overly sentimental. Even though Pardew had judged the occasion perfectly, this was a rare mis-step.
The match continued with the same intensity after the break. The Hammers quickly forced a succession of corners, ending with the moment that lit the blue-touch paper and elevated the night from intense to memorable.
Carrick, having seen his previous effort defended solidly by Ipswich, decided to play a corner short to the by-standing Etherington. Taking one touch to allow the ball to run across his body, the winger unleashed a ferocious left-footed effort towards the top corner that left Davis with no chance. When the strike rippled the back of the net it was very possible that every window pane in neighbouring Canning Town was smashed by the release of undiluted joy.
Etherington wheeled away as if on fast-forward, ripping his shirt above his head and being mobbed by delighted team-mates. The Hammer of the Year that season, Etherington was often an inconsistent performer, his contribution for the club consequently in danger of being overlooked. Despite remaining at the club until 2009, this was undoubtedly his finest moment in claret and blue.
Demonstrating that West Ham never make things easy for themselves, the period immediately after Etherington’s strike saw Ipswich grow into the match. Bent passed when he should have shot in front of goal and their threat on the break became more obvious. At this point, it was effectively next goal wins.
Happily, this proved to be a West Ham effort. As the game entered its final quarter, Ipswich made a mess of dealing with an Etherington corner and the ball ping-ponged around the area, falling to the unmarked Dailly. After literally taking one for the team, the Scot managed to hook a low shot that squirmed past a host of bodies and into the Ipswich goal.
The stadium once again erupted. With any semblance of restraint long since abandoned, Pardew jumped into the nearest group of West Ham fans. Meanwhile, Dailly fell to his knees and was greeted by teammates uncertain of his wellbeing. Paraphrasing his famous club chant, Christian would not be ‘shagging anyone’s wife’ for a long stretch.
Time remained for one almighty let-off. In the final minute, an effort from Ian Westlake pinged back off the West Ham upright, Stephen Bywater rooted to the spot as if turned to ice. The home fans in the stadium experienced a similar sensation to their goalkeeper. One Ipswich goal would have sealed them the tie on the away-goals rule.
Consequently, the final whistle was greeted with jubilant celebration. After muddling through the season, West Ham had fed off a rabid atmosphere to produce a performance to make their long-suffering fans proud.
Watching their players jump into each other’s arms, the crowd at Upton Park sang one final rendition of Bubbles as hope once again made an elusive appearance on the horizon. It was a fitting end to a night that both drained and enriched the soul.
Defeat to Crystal Palace in the subsequent final was hard to take. In a dour game, a tap-in from the vast Neil Shipperley won the match for the Eagles and West Ham were left feeling impotent after failing to rise to the occasion in Cardiff. Promotion would have to wait for another twelve months.
Numerous commentators have made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that West Ham would be the least affected by the absence of fans during Project Restart, a theory debunked by the Hammers’ hapless incompetence against Wolves last Saturday.
Ultimately football needs fans. Despite the best efforts of life-sapping billionaires, it remains the people’s game with the power to create moments that will keep us warm once the years draw in and our memories are all that insulate us against life’s realities.
Football without fans is life without emotion, a heart that does not beat. Occasions such as the semi-final against Ipswich are the perfect example of this.