Goodbye to Boleyn
I bought a black eye-patch (I’ve just had an eye operation) to frighten off any Man United hooligans at West Ham’s ‘farewell’ match at the Boleyn Ground last night. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about them. It was ours who spoiled the day - attacking the Man U bus with bottles as it drove into the ground. West Ham's co-chairman - the ex-pornographer David Sullivan, brought up as it happens in the same East London suburb as I was - blamed the visitors for being late. (He’s since retracted.) My son and I didn’t see any of the violence, and only learned of it as we were leaving, through a cordon of riot police. The game had had been a wonderful occasion, and - almost incidentally - a terrific match: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, then 3-2 to the Irons. Joy was unconfined. Until we got out. As so often, it is the hooliganism that has made the headlines.
West Ham has always been known as an - even the - ‘academy’ of skilful and clean football; the legacy of the late, great and good Ron Greenwood, in the era when those dour cheating thugs of Leeds United were winning everything. But the Hammers’ supporters include a group who style themselves the ‘Inter City Firm’, whose passionate rivalry with the equally violent and racist ‘Millwall Bushwhackers’ - slogan: 'Everyone hates us and we don’t care’ - can be bloody. (Luckily West Ham and Millwall are in different divisions just now.)
Last night’s match was the Irons' last at Upton Park before they move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, which, among other things, is far more approachable by bus. One of the sparks last night was the difficulty the Man United coach had threading its way along narrow Green Street, through crowds of supporters, to the ground. (It would have helped if they’d planned to arrive earlier. I got there in good time, and I came all the way from Hull.)
The Boleyn Ground is cramped: not only its environs, but the ground itself. Its capacity is only about 35,000, small for a top club these days. It has huge attractions for those who can get in: from the front rows you can touch the players, and the atmosphere is intense. The walk from Upton Park Underground station to the ground passes between small terrace houses, many of them turned into chippies and pie and eel cafes, which make walking along it an olfactory as well as a visual and aural delight. It’s a journey into the past, and into my own past. I shall miss it terribly. I’ve supported West Ham for 60 years.
It isn't only the cramped approach to the Boleyn Ground that has sealed its fate. It’s the commercialisation of football generally. Originally a working-class game, well suited to the sort of venue the Boleyn Ground occupies now, it has been bought up by the capitalists in order to exploit it. In parallel with this, there is the gentrification of the East End of London, pushing up the monetary value of West Ham’s present real estate, which is very unlikely to be used in a way that will benefit the typical East Ender: with genuinely affordable housing, for example.
And so the capitalist juggernaut rolls on, the Boleyn Ground its latest victim. It may be worth the move to Stratford if it prevents scenes in the streets like last night’s. But the warmth and comradeship and humour and smell of frying onions may not be there either. We’ll all be too far from the play, with a wall of capital between us and it.