Football / Fan's Eye View: Steeped in The Stiffs: No. 30 - West Ham Reserves

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The Independent Online
THEY call them The Stiffs. You know, the superstars who can't even make the bench on match days, the would-bes, will-bes, used-to-bes, wannabes and never-will-bes. They are the reserves.

Ever seen them play? Since the winter of '91, I've rarely missed a match. Oddly enough, it started about the time I was made redundant. My overt reason to go initially was to see Dicksy's (Julian Dicks) return after a 14- month injury lay-off, but, if I'm honest, escaping death by daytime TV was the real incentive.

Combination League games were being played at McMillan Stadium that winter because nomadic Charlton were lodging at Upton Park. The first thing I clocked when I took my seat was the eerie quietness of the spectators. I daren't call it a crowd - there simply weren't enough of them for that.

It was then that I broke the law. My crime? I cheered on the team. We attacked, I yelled and everyone around me treated me to a long and savage glare. I was taken aback by its viciousness.

You may be assured to know, incidentally, that, true to Hammers' form everywhere, the reserves throw away matches in the last 10 minutes of a match with the safe, predictable regularity that the first team does.

The fixtures have been back at Upton Park for some time now and things are showing improvement. Restricted to the West Side Upper Tier only, a large pack of us now sit together behind the Directors' Area, including Marc, editor of On the Terraces, Chicken Ron and half the Green Street Cafe Society. It's more than just watching reserve football now, it's a social meeting, too - like a typical first-team crowd. Just like football should be.

We acknowledge familiar boat races, talk West Ham, start rumours, tell tales, describe experiences, the usual. We huddle together in the cold, nurse steaming cups of tea, and some of us even nip out at half-time to the Green Street Cafe for refills. But most importantly, we are embarrassingly loud] We encourage the team during the game, we crack funnies, we start mini-Mexican waves after goals, we yell, we scream, we twist and shout. And, yes, true, we also heckle, give stick, abuse, insult and take the piss out of opposition players and anyone of our mob not giving 100 per cent. Can't say fairer than that.

But our racket has started to provoke those around us. People are starting to look round and grin, to nod approval and clap, to comment and call out, to shout and cheer. And to crack jokes, too. One match, we started a chant of 'Cearns Out]' after the defence blew it in the last 10. Another game, we erupted in a huge cheer after Paul Goddard scored for Ipswich, and, naturally, fell over like he always did for us. So once or twice we have nearly achieved the barest beginnings of atmosphere. Well, almost.

A cluster of old boys gather always behind us. We named them the 'Gooch Gang' because they watch the Essex cricket team in the summer. They're like a dozen Alf Garnetts, muttering complaints and swapping stories among themselves. The other week, I overheard one say to another, 'I tell you, Bert, I see this goal here once - ol' Johnny Dick it was - he dived so low in the box to head it, his nose cut a groove in the mud, straight up he did, Bert, no word of a lie.'

There have been some great afternoons: we witnessed a Millwall fan having a poke at an official and getting spectators banned from the running track at McMillan Stadium; Frank McAvennie shown the tunnel after he snapped at a linesman for an innocuous throw-in decision; the Arsenal game, when we had to use three keepers; Steve Gritt forced to keep goal for Charlton and pulling off a dazzling Banks-style save and, best of all, the bond-holder who was reprimanded by a steward for having his legs resting on his own bonded seat.

The characters, too, never fail to amuse: the ever-scowling directors' steward we christened Waldorf because he looks like the sour-faced old git from the Muppets, a Mexican bandit playing for QPR who provoked every single Western movie one-liner under the setting sun for an entire 90 minutes, a bloke in front of us who is the spitting image of Richard Attenborough, and the linesman who we nicknamed Maurice because he had a beard, bandy legs and kept folk dancing round the flag.

See the fun you are missing? The next time you're free, why not go along? You won't be disappointed . . .

Phil Daniels, of the fanzine 'Over Land and Sea'