East End boy

I should support Hibs. But I love Celtic. And I look out for Brechin. However my soul belongs to West Ham United.

By Alastair McKay

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Supporting a football team is not a rational choice. If it were, I would be a Hibernian fan. It was, after all, the Hibs team of the early 1970s that my dad took me to see, and those evening games at Easter Road formed my love of football. The games are now statistics, but fragments of memory remain. I remember the walk from the car as we journeyed to Easter Road, the view over the stands towards the Calton Hill monument – Edinburgh’s Disgrace – and the glow of cigarettes in the darkness. One game was a 4-2 victory over Hajduk Split in the 1972-3 European Cup Winners’ Cup. The internet tells me Hibs won 4-2, before contriving to lose the second leg 3-0. The following year, I saw a scoreless draw against the great Leeds team led by Billy Bremner.

I don’t remember the details. I remember the floodlights. But I know I loved those trips to Easter Road. I even remember the frisson of embarrassed excitement when I tried to encourage Hibs’ winger Eric Stevenson with a shout of “Stevie Wonder”. I’m not sure my dad found it funny. He wasn’t a shouter. Neither was I after that.

And here we come to a distinction between liking a team and being a fan. I liked Hibs to the extent of adopting Pat Stanton’s lucky habit of tying his right shoelace first. (I still do). But Celtic had my heart. Why? Because young boys don’t gamble. They like to win. But also because of Jimmy Johnstone. In Wee Jinky, Celtic had a footballing genius who looked like he had stepped out of The Beano. He was five feet four, with freckles and red hair. At least I think it was red. The television was black-and-white. So I supported Celtic. I was too young to cheer their 1967 European Cup win, but I remember crying in the solitude of my bedroom when they lost the 1970 final to Feyenoord.

But here’s the thing. I still look for Celtic’s scores. I want them to be better than they are. But my soul belongs to West Ham United. Why? It’s a complicated question with a simple answer. Although I have a Scottish name, a Scottish education, Scottish parents, and Scottish skin that burns before it freckles at the thought of sunshine… Although my introverted passive-aggressive personality is calcified around the flinty Calvinism of the North East… Although I suffer an aversion to pleasure in all its forms (my other Scottish team is Brechin, because my grandad used to take me to Glebe Park, and my mum’s Auntie Elsie, who wasn’t her Auntie, used to wash the team’s strips, and the joke about Brechin was that they were the strongest team in the Scottish league, because they held all the rest up)…

Although all of that, I grew up understanding that I was a Cockney. My dad, who was from Montrose, used to school me in basic rhyming slang. Apples and pears, plates of meat. For a while, he was an economic migrant, marooned in London. I was an EastEnder, having been born in my mother’s bed in Harold Wood on a Saturday, just as the football results were being read out. Inauspiciously, West Ham lost 3-2 to Sheffield Wednesday, before an Upton Park crowd of 26,453.

My support of the Hammers wasn’t always pure. Children are emotionally promiscuous, and I tried to increase my chances of success by also following Leeds and Manchester City. The only English strip I had in childhood was a Man City change strip which made me look like a Miss World contestant. When Leeds wore little pendants on their socks I had those, with the number 7. But underneath, I was West Ham. They had Bobby Moore, who won the 1966 World Cup (and Geoff Hurst, who baffled the Russian linesman). Four years later, Bobby Moore’s performance against Brazil was like a footballing moon landing. The satellite pictures had an extra-terrestrial tint, and David Coleman sounded as if he was was commentating into a Cresta bottle, but the beautiful game was never more other-worldly. On YouTube, it is possible to re-live the moment where Jairzinho ran the length of the field, only to have the ball stolen from the tips of his toes by Moore in what is now considered to be “the perfect tackle”. Imagine that. The art of defence, made beautiful.

Bobby Moore came from another planet. And yet, a couple of years after that World Cup, my primary seven class went on a week-long trip to London. We did the sights: the changing of the guard from inside the gates of Buckingham Palace, the zoo, Heathrow, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s (through the bus window) and I didn’t believe any of it was real. London was a place on the television. I was impressed by believable details – the Nestlé chocolate machines on the Underground – and I remember the sense of longing, as we imagined getting it on with, or perhaps just talking to, the exotic girls from another school who were staying in the adjoining room of our dormitory in deepest Essex. We scratched at the door while “Popcorn” by Hot Butter played on the radio. The next morning, the bus drove through Chigwell, and the driver announced that we were going past the street where Bobby Moore lived. It was amazing, because Bobby Moore didn’t live. He was a phantasm in claret and blue.

So much for childhood. Since moving to London 12 years ago – an economic migrant – I have been a season ticket holder at West Ham. It has been an education: often boring, occasionally thrilling, frequently exasperating. There have been moments of exhilaration – the 2006 FA Cup final in Cardiff which was stolen in extra time by Steven Gerrard (and lost when an exhausted Marlon Harewood couldn’t nudge the ball into the Liverpool net); the 2012 play-off final at Wembley; the false prospectus of the Icelandic owners and the (dubious) signing of the Argentine superstars Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano (who couldn’t displace Hayden Mullins in the West Ham side). There was the boredom of the Alan Curbishley years, the self-harm of the Avram Grant period, the aesthetic betrayals of Fat Sam. And then came Slaven Bilic, bringing with him Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini as the club staged a year-long farewell to the famous old stadium that my dad had visited in the months before I was born. There was a lot of talk over that year about family tradition, sons remembering their dads, and the places where they used to sit.

I wish I could have gone to see West Ham with my father. But I go to see them without him, and every time I hear the crowd launching into a chorus of the Irons’ pessimistic anthem “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, I remember what my dad used to used to say.

“The pitch was a lot closer to the fans back then,” he’d tell me. “When someone took a corner, you could reach out and touch them.”

You can still do that at West Ham.

You can still reach out.

You can still dream, even as the chanting of the crowd reminds you what happens to dreamers. l

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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