Goodbye to Boleyn

Bernard Porter

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.


  • 11 May 2016 at 6:49pm
    rae donaldson says:
    Just a small demurral:Leeds United's 13 years under Revie produced two Division 1 titles, one FA Cup and two Fairs Cups. It's impressive enough but hardly deserving of the phrase 'winning everything', especially when you compare it to the periods of dominance enjoyed subsequently by Liverpool and Manchester United.

  • 11 May 2016 at 10:06pm
    CasaCaliente says:
    The "dour cheating thugs" comment is disgraceful. Is it what the LRB considers civil discourse? The Internet is cesspit enough without this standard of comment from LRB writers.

    • 12 May 2016 at 5:20pm
      mototom says: @ CasaCaliente
      Don Revie's team reflected his own morality - Leeds were famously filthy, none more so that Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner.

      Revie himself faced numerous allegations of seeking to bribe opponents right from the start of days at Leeds.

      Dour cheating thugs seems fair comment.

      Leicester City's recent victory feels like the cynical forces in professional football have, if only temporarily and apparently, been defeated. A similar feeling was present among football fans when Chelsea beat Leeds in the FA Cup in 1970.

    • 13 May 2016 at 6:36am
      CasaCaliente says: @ mototom
      Filthy? What an odd adjective to use. I'll give you another another one: absurd, which pretty much sums up your comments regarding Chelsea in 1970. Did you watch the first match at Wembley, in which a sublime Leeds were, as does happen in football, extremely unlucky only to draw? Or the Old Trafford replay in which Chelsea played with a great brutality in order to upset a technically much superior team?
      There's a much better tale regarding Revie and his team, which gets lost in all the 'Dirty Leeds' received wisdom. How was it that such an exceptionally talented team won comparatively so little, including failing to win the European Cup? Leeds supporters would tell you that they were cheated out of numerous prizes, when really only the 1973 European Cup Winners Cup final falls squarely in that category. The bizarre failings of the referee in Paris in 1975 were of a different order, as was when the Football League insisted that a game in which Leeds could have sealed the double be played 48 hours after Leeds appearance in the FA Cup Final. But more than that, it's the effect on the team of Don Revie; having assembled a once-in-a-generation team at a club that had previously achieved nothing at all, he repeatedly brought them to the verge of winning multiple trophies in the same season, only for them to fail again and again in their final matches. Rarely could it be said that they were the poorer team in the crucial games they lost , bar Celtic in 1970, but the fact they failed at the last so often must surely point to some defect in Revie’s management. A flawed leader, then, rather than a cheat, but that’s lost due to the received wisdom surrounding Leeds. Maybe somebody should write a proper study of Revie, rather than hagiographies of the likes of Brian Clough, whose homophobic bullying of John Fashanu is now forgotten, marvelling as we must at his troubled genius.
      I too was heartened by Leicester's triumph, but it could easily have spun in a different way had the media chosen, owned as they are by billionaire one-percenters from Thailand, famously among the world's more corrupt and unequal economies, and with their talismanic striker having a history of violent conduct and racist behaviour.
      History is a set of fables agreed upon.

    • 13 May 2016 at 8:18am
      CasaCaliente says: @ CasaCaliente
      Apologies, that should be Justin Fashanu

    • 13 May 2016 at 5:30pm
      picklewick says: @ CasaCaliente
      You mean instead of CasaCaliente?

    • 14 May 2016 at 12:23pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ CasaCaliente
      Leicester's owned by billionaires, but the team was assembled at the cost of less than one Andy Carroll (to use a topical example), which is surely the more pertinent point.

  • 11 May 2016 at 10:48pm
    Graucho says:
    Even we non-Hammers supporters are grateful for their oustanding contribution to England's world cup victory. Leeds under Revie were certainly a bete noir for Brian Clough. If you haven't seen The Damned United, it's very entertaining.

    • 12 May 2016 at 9:33pm
      gary morgan says: @ Graucho
      Well said Graucho. 'The Damned United' fine though it was, occasioned in book version a legal complaint (upheld) from Johnny Giles (no, I can't see why); and a less than favourable response from "Young Nigel" (Clough. No, I don't know that either).
      Agreed about the film, even Alan 'Sniffer' Clarke lauded Michael Sheen's astonishing performance as the great Brian Clough, Revie's nemesis.
      Oh, as usual the actors playing the footballers were the false note, each at least 10 years too old and a stone overweight.

  • 12 May 2016 at 9:04am
    Harry Stopes says:
    In my experience - hearing them sing it at another lost ground, Maine Road - Millwall fans always felt that "no one likes us, we don't care."

    • 12 May 2016 at 9:58am
      Chris Larkin says: @ Harry Stopes
      Having the dubious pleasure of being a Millwall fan myself you are indeed right. It is 'no one likes us...', or indeed NOLU in abbreviation.

    • 12 May 2016 at 11:02am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Chris Larkin
      Was it you that smashed up the jewellers on Wilmslow Road?

    • 12 May 2016 at 2:23pm
      keith smith says: @ Harry Stopes
      Its ages since I've seen Millwall play, thank god, but I always liked the song. Sung to the tune of 'Amazing Grace' it is plaintive and sad:

      No-one likes us
      No-one likes us
      No-one likes us
      We are Millwall,
      We don't care

      Incidentally, as well as the shame of having Carroll up front West Ham are managed by Slaven Bilic, who committed one of the worst bits of cheating ever - in a World Cup semifinal no less. Its on YouTube:

    • 12 May 2016 at 4:06pm
      Chris Larkin says: @ Harry Stopes
      I prefer jellied eels to jewellery, Harry.

  • 12 May 2016 at 10:22am
    David Timoney says:
    The ICF and the Bushwackers have long been just another part of the footy heritage industry rather than a reality. Organised firms are history, notwithstanding Tuesday's "tribute".

    Despite the criticism of the "capitalist juggernaut", this post reinforces that industry with its eulogisation of the team of the 60s (who usually finished in the bottom half of the table) and the habitual denigration of Revie's Leeds (who were no more thuggish than many teams of the era and considerably more skillfull).

    By the way, the "academy of skilful and clean football" is now led from the front by Andy Carroll.

    • 12 May 2016 at 9:41pm
      gary morgan says: @ David Timoney
      You are not denying that Mr Bilic has West Ham playing a stylish brand of football are you? Why not mention Lanzini, Payet and many other rather fine footballers WHU has?
      In fact while the Leeds team was considerably more thuggish than most, they were unusually cynical, that was what especially got people and why Clough hated Revie.

  • 12 May 2016 at 10:57pm
    David Timoney says:
    Chopper Harris? Are you having a laugh?

    • 13 May 2016 at 7:24am
      rae donaldson says: @ David Timoney
      Many teams had so-called hard men- Tommy Smith,Nobby Stiles, Peter Storey, Mike Doyle come to mind-but Leeds had more than one and the whole squad took regular instructions from Beelzebub himself.

    • 13 May 2016 at 2:34pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ rae donaldson
      Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter...

  • 12 May 2016 at 11:51pm
    Simon Wood says:
    This is the best thread since the LRB beat the TLS in 1979.

    • 13 May 2016 at 9:07am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Simon Wood
      Well, we haven't seen Godwin's law in operation yet - although rae donaldson has mentioned Beelzebub...

    • 13 May 2016 at 10:25am
      David Timoney says: @ Alan Benfield
      Didn't Hitler once turn out for Leeds United reserves?

    • 13 May 2016 at 2:15pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ David Timoney
      No, but I think he may have tried out for Liverpool in 1912.

    • 14 May 2016 at 12:09am
      Graucho says: @ Alan Benfield
      Well it is a game with only one ball.

    • 16 May 2016 at 1:05pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      Well, Graucho I'm glad to see the legend of Hitler's monorchidism see the light of day again, and in a football free-for-all to boot. One funny writer had it brought it about by Ernst Roehm stepping on the wrong place with a heavy boot as the two plucky lads were ducking for cover during the failed putchs in 1923. I'm guessing "Sieg Heil!" is a banned fussball chant in Deutschland.

    • 16 May 2016 at 1:18pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      Well, Graucho I'm glad to see the legend of Hitler's monorchidism see the light of day again, and in a football free-for-all to boot. One funny writer had it brought about by Ernst Roehm stepping on the wrong place with a heavy boot as the two plucky lads were ducking for cover during the failed putchs in 1923. I'm guessing "Sieg Heil!" is a banned fussball chant in Deutschland.

  • 13 May 2016 at 2:32pm
    Colin says:
    I'm actually quite impressed with LRB's readers in that not one has "called you out" via the old "22 grown men chasing a ball about" trope.

    I'm confining my football supporting to the Ryman League these days, (and not that hipster haunt Dulwich Hamlet either) and will happily call up a plague upon all of West Ham - Taxpayers' FC - Millwall and Nasty Leeds.

  • 13 May 2016 at 5:36pm
    picklewick says:
    A hugely nostalgic occasion for West Ham Supporters no doubt. This was, and still largely is, a club with a fairly homogeneous working class fan base originally in the docks area of the East End and then spreading out into suburban Essex. To have supported the club for sixty years must take Bernard back to 1957-8 when the Hammers were promoted for the first time in their history to the old First Division with a young Bobby Moore making occasional first team appearances. Nearly all the players through to the 1970's were local schoolboys from the rich hinterland for recuitment in Dagenham, Barking and West Ham itself.

    • 13 May 2016 at 8:17pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ picklewick
      Absolutely! With reference to this, readers might be interested in this blog post of mine (originally on the LRB Blog):

  • 15 May 2016 at 9:43pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I think if there were any merit in communism, capitalists would have been onto it long ago and sold shares in it. People do not stand around helping each other, going "Are you all right?" and "Can I get you anything?" They want to get on in life.

    I have been to my mate's in New Cross today from Camberwell, a journey of a mile and a bit, to see Millwall handsomely beat Bradford in their first play-off leg. He has Sky. I am tempted to find the money to attend the second leg in person, even offer my services.

    And today a Manchester United game was called off because of a bomb planted by global terrorists - but of which brand? West Ham is now a global brand. So is IS, ISIS and all the rest.

    It is true that the demise of pubs and football grounds has something to do with the ever-quickening whirl of global capitalism. My feeling, too, is that communal spirit is dying out along with those who can remember the Second World War and its aftermath.

    I'm not sure what I'm saying, really. But buy me a pint and I'll tell you more.

    • 16 May 2016 at 11:54am
      Graucho says: @ Simon Wood
      The generation of Brits that fought WW2 was in my not very humble opinion the finest this country ever produced. They had grown up during the great depression, survived the horrors of war and were determined that their own children would not have to suffer such deprivations. Well the road to whatever being paved with good intentions, the me generation voted in Mrs. T and began the process of unravelling all these good works and ushering in the world of devil take the hindmost capitalism. Mr. B did little to reverse matters and Mr. C is carrying on where Mrs T left off. Clogs to clogs in three generations and it was ever thus.

    • 16 May 2016 at 12:36pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Simon Wood
      I'm not sure either.

    • 16 May 2016 at 1:17pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      Because we have the same phrase ("greatest generation") applied to same age-group (those who went through the Depression and WWII) over here, I'll raise a point that's always bothered me. In spite of their toughing it out in difficult times and contributing to the defeat of the firm of Hitler & Mussolini (I say contributing because most of the accolades should go the evil empire when it was under the guidance of the third member of the firm), that generation must have been singularly deficient in child-rearing skills, having parented those who became the me-first folks. What went wrong, or is it just the normal sine-curve of human history? I'd reserve the "greatest" tag for all those folks in the USSR (and maybe Poland as well) who had to survive both H and Stalin.

    • 16 May 2016 at 10:29pm
      Simon Wood says: @ Harry Stopes
      Capitalism is inevitable, natural, even, but heading the leather ball of nostalgia is bad for the brain.

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