End of story
Sunday 14 February 1999
A "full house" meant standing for 90 minutes with your arms pinned to your sides. When the crowd swayed you swayed. If the crowd sang, you sang. (Sid told me that before the war one of these songs included the embarrassingly subservient line: "We minds our manners and we spends our tanners.") If there was a near miss, 42,000 people went "ooh!". The atmosphere generated by this close-knit mass of partisan humanity was electrifying. King Olaf of Norway was so impressed by it he used to fly in for home games.
I was nine when Sid first took me there. It was the first game of the 1966-67 season - at home to Chelsea - and we arrived late. We managed to get in: but at the top of the stairs we were confronted by a solid wall of backs. So Sid did what a lot of dads in his situation used to do. Without warning, he picked me up and posted me, like a letter, over the top of the crowd, so that I found myself swimming down a steep hillside of heads.
Grasped by eager hands, and encouraged by beery expressions of goodwill, I was pulled over the heads towards the front. I went head first, doing a sort of slow breaststroke. The willingness of so many strangers to help an enterprising young nipper get to see the game, and the sight of the unexpectedly green and immaculate football pitch towards which I was headed, astonished me. Once the match began, the noise made by the crowd reminded me of waves crashing and receding on a pebbly shore. Hooked immediately, it was my first experience of being in a crowd, and gave me a lasting impression of the essential kindness of Londoners. The only slight drawback to the afternoon's events was that the streakers were both men.
Sid took me often after that. We'd get there early and he'd sit me on a crash barrier and point out the fights to me. I can remember my knees trembling uncontrollably with the excitement of it all. In the late 1960s, some of the fights at West Ham attained epic proportions, ebbing and flowing dramatically across the terraces before, during and after the game. I always liked it best when the police took part, because their co-ordinated assaults on the crowd were carried out with elan and vigour. Sometimes the fights were far removed from where Sid and I were standing. At other times we had to move smartly out of the way.
And what have we got now? Plastic seats. Plastic seats paid for with plastic money which barely encompass the big bourgeois bums that rest on them. Plastic seats supporting people too sober and respectable to shout, let alone to fight. We have a game so dominated by Sky TV that the referee takes his signal to kick off not from his linesman, but from an outside broadcast technician standing on the touchline. We have a game called the "people's game", which strikes me as odd, because most people that I know can't afford to go and watch it.
A game of football watched from a sitting position is a very different game to one watched standing up. It is less exciting for a start. It is also virtually impossible to do "Knees Up Mother Brown". Or "The Hokey Cokey". And nobody shouts or dances anymore. Shout out nowadays, or dare to stand up, and a policeman might amble across and ask you to leave. It'll be "No Smoking" in a minute.
Today, the atmosphere at Upton Park has gone. Once one of the most intimidating grounds in the country, it is more like a graveyard now - deathly quiet and full of stiffs. Don't talk to me or Sid about the people's game. It ceased to be a people's game the moment they made us all sit down and watch it.
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