Graham Martin Johnson
Filed: Wednesday, 23rd May 2012
By: Staff Writer
Graham Martin Johnson is the author of a new book about West Ham United entitled 'Any Old Iron', a collection of stories and personal memories from the author's 40-plus years as a loyal, dyed-in-the-wool Hammers fan.
KUMB sat down with Graham to talk all things West Ham and discover what drove him to write and publish his own book. Firing the questions on behalf of KUMB.com was Graeme Howlett...
Graham - You're neither a professional writer nor a journalist, so what was it that inspired you to write 'Any Old Iron'?
Over a number of years, from about 2003, I'd go to away games on mini-buses with friends. I used to butt in and add my bit in throwaway conversations if I felt it was relevant to the discussions. Two friends, Dave the Post and Tony Goode asked me about the stories. After a period of time, one of them said to me: "Graham, have you ever thought about writing about your stories?"
I said "no, of course not" - because I hadn't. Then months after, someone else asked me, then someone else - but none of them had talked to each other and I took that as a complement. So I started thinking about it and started writing a little bit - and once I'd started I couldn't stop! All it was, was football - the games, how I became a West Ham supporter, my experiences over the previous 40 years home and away. Tony Cottee and Alan Devonshire have endorsed it and Len Herbert has been blinding to me. He was so helpful to me and I really appreciated that.
One of things I really liked about the book is that it's written as if you're talking to a bloke in the pub recalling your memories. Is that something you deliberately strove for or is that just the way it turned out?
One of the things I didn't do when writing the book was look at any other books. I don't read a lot of books anyway, but I certainly didn't visit any libraries. I wanted it to be mine and I didn't want to be influenced. This book is self published, I wrote every word, and I spent hours just writing and re-writing it.
So how did that work, because you're in full-time employment? How did you find the time to write it?
I work from home - I run a courier business - so sometimes I was able to do that. Often I work in the evening and sometimes into the early hours including Saturdays and Sundays. But after a while I got so involved in it I couldn't wait to get back to doing it. It literally put me through everything; I cried, I laughed I cheered, I sang - God knows what the neighbours thought!
The book doesn't always follow a strictly chronological order - was that deliberate or just the way it turned out?
I think it was the way the book sent me, it wasn't deliberate. If it's out of date order it's because it felt fitting to be [that way]. If I'm going to start writing about the boys of '86 or my best ever games then it's not necessarily going to be in date order. Did I realise I'd done it like that? I'm just a regular bloke who's never written a book before.
You say you never checked or read any other books but some of your memories in 'Any Old Iron' are quite specific. You must have a very good memory, because you even mention the specific cost of travel on certain journeys?
But I do say in the book that it's my recollections! I know that I paid £1.50 for Fulham [1975 FA Cup Final] because I sold the ticket for £2.50! I spent ages looking for a West Ham or Fulham supporter because for me, you don't do touting. That day I made a C90 cassette on which had Bubbles, West Ham United; Bubbles, West Ham United; Bubbles... and that's all we played in the car all the way there!
You also talk about the whole build-up on Cup Final day, which was great back then. You'd stick the telly on in the morning and even if you didn't have a vested interest you'd be glued to it!
Saturdays stopped for FA Cup Finals. The build-up; the towns and how they were decorating their roads; the coaches leaving the hotel; the coaches arriving at the ground - everything. Now? You get league programmes on the same day as the FA Cup Final. The FA Cup Final last week, at quarter past five? Liverpool supporters have got to get back to Liverpool - what's that all about? The Charity Shield commenced the season and the FA Cup Final finished it. And it's not a Saturday sport any more, as I speak about. TV dictates because of the money - and it'll always go where the money is.
Can you remember your first West Ham game?
My first ever game was against Fulham in 1968, with Alf Garnett there! I'll always remember the North Bank singing "Alfie Alfie, Alfie Alfie Garnett". My first away game was at Tottenham, in November 1969. We were living in Bermondsey at that particular time; Leon Nicholson, a friend of mine said, "Graham, do you fancy going to Tottenham?" It was Peter Grotier's debut and Jimmy Greaves scored [the only goal], it went through his legs! I was also at Grotier's final game for us in 1974.
Although was living in Bermondsey in those days my family were from East London, the Isle of Dogs. I was born in the East End maternity hospital which was along the Commercial Road - just outside the mile to be a proper Cockney, as the crow flies - and moved [South of the river] at seven months old. We were moved away because of dampness; five of us were living in the same bedroom. So I was always a West Ham supporter.
How was that as a West Ham fan, because you must have been fairly unique around Bermondsey and Eltham?
I never had any issues. None whatsoever. I went to school in Deptford and that was Millwall, Charlton, Tottenham, but I never had any problems. I made it quite plain that I was a West Ham supporter. I respected others - Leon, who followed Tottenham and so on - although when he got older I found out he started to follow Millwall and used to run with their lot.
But kids could do anything they wanted in those days. At eight years of age I was walking around Trafalgar Square. You went out in the morning at half-past seven, came home at six o'clock at night either damp, wet, or because you were hungry! Your parents didn't worry about you and we just got up to anything and everything.
You travelled to Europe for the 1975/76 European Cup Winners' Cup campaign, which features extensively in 'Any Old Iron'. There's a lovely picture of you and a friend in Frankfurt where you appear to be dressed as soldiers, with a great big Union Jack?
We were walking the streets of Frankfurt. The bloke I'm standing with is Chris Stone, sadly he died last week. I hadn't seen him in a long time, but his wife phoned us to say he'd left all his West Ham stuff for us. He was also a steward at Manchester United; apparently when Paolo Di Canio scored that 76th minute goal [at Old Trafford] in the FA Cup, instead of looking at the crowd as the stewards are supposed to he was giving v-signs to all the Manchester United supporters!
And of course the return leg against Frankfurt at the Boleyn Ground is often referred to as the ground's greatest night ever?
That was a night when I stood there up in the North Bank; it was chucking it down! Keith Robson's goal when the ball goes behind him and the crowd goes "aaahhh" - then he smacks it!
In one of many anecdotes in the book you talk about being marched around the pitch at Highbury after being pulled out of the crowd for over-exuberant celebrations, but you're more worried about your employer finding out than anything else as the game was being recorded for ITV's 'The Big Match'?
I was up in Arsenal's North Bank along with hundreds of other West Ham supporters that day. Alan Ball smacked it and [Mervyn] Day saved it - I think we were 1-0 down at the time - and that was that. The copper saw me and I was an easy target; I wasn't trouble, they could see that. So when I was being walked around the ground, I was more concerned that I had my LEP t-shirt on! Fortunately there was no comeback from that. I watched the programme the next day and thought "this is not the sort of advertising my company wants"!
That was nerve-wracking for me because I wasn't any trouble, but there were louts being thrown in there. I remember this one Arsenal supporter; he was giving it large and when he came in I thought "oh here we go", because they didn't keep the Arsenal and West Ham fans separate, they just threw you in the pen and that was it. But he calmed down and in the end they let us out ten minutes from the end. But there hadn't half been some disorder that afternoon, the West Ham fans went mad.
In terms of hooliganism, it was rife in the period covered by ĎAny Old Ironí. Was that something you felt was unnecessary, a hindrance that took something away from the football?
That's the sort of question I wasn't ever expecting to be asked but I can certainly answer it! Any time from the age of 12, 13 to the age I was when it was all kicking off I never really knew any different. I was certainly never a part of it, even when going away on the football specials to places like Wolves and West Bromwich Albion. I remember coming back from West Brom once, bricks started flying through the windows from one of the bridges! I would only ever go to West Ham to have a chant and a sing - I've never thrown a punch at anybody. I just loved the football. Other than being run and chased I've been fortunate!
But I was at Newcastle when the petrol bomb went off, that was something to behold. We were up amongst the Newcastle supporters and we kept ourselves to ourselves that day - but when that petrol bomb went, everybody around us knew we were from London. The Newcastle supporters were so done in by what they'd just witnessed, for that guy was on fire up to his waist. But the guy was caught and I believe he got three years.
And there's the story about when you decided to go to Southampton - but you had no idea how to get there?
Yeah... We were on completely the wrong road - the A3 instead of the M3! I came home early from camping and my dad wouldn't give me my pocket money so we ended up walking all the way to Wandsworth - and it was one o'clock by that time!
In the book you list two teams of your favourite players. In one is Tim Breacker, who was one of my favourites yet massively underrated. Now you list him in your 'AA' side, I guess?
They're both 'A' sides! To me if you played them against each other it'd be a 2-2 draw. I did those teams the way I'd do it if I was a manager; I mean you've got to put Brooking and Devonshire together, and you've got to put Brooking with 'Pop' Robson. Were you surprised I put Tim Breacker in there?
Well as I say, I was a big fan - but not many people seem to rate him. Perhaps because he was part of a fairly crap side? I was wondering why you chose to select two teams - was it just the case that you simply couldn't bring it down to one XI? I guess when you have to choose between Devonshire and Di Canio...
As I write in the book - doing a personal all-time West Ham dream team is difficult so I'm doing two! It's not an all-time 'A' and 'B' - it's two 'A's. I've chosen two 4-4-2 formations for composure, balance, flair and understanding and I've only chosen players from the years I attended.
Well let's do this now then! You can only pick one player for each position - Graham Johnson's definitive West Ham XI. I'm putting you on the spot now!
Okay! Well Parkes [over Ludo Miklosko] in goal. Frankie Lampard [over Julian Dicks] at left back - and that'll take loads of criticism! Ray Stewart over Timmy Breacker - because of the penalties, more than anything else. Alvin Martin [over Steve Potts], the best centre-half I think West Ham have ever had. Shame he never got more England caps.
And as good as Tony was, Bobby Moore over Gale is a no-brainer?
Yeah. He's a nice guy to talk to, is Tony; he's also endorsed my book. And I've got to go for Martin Peters [instead of Mark Ward]. Bondsy instead of Geoff Pike - although I think Geoff was very unlucky not to win Hammer of the Year in 1981. [Trevor] Brooking goes without saying [instead of Graham Paddon] and I'd go for Alan Devonshire every time over Paolo Di Canio - shoot me down West Ham fans as much as you like!
And let's pick two from four out of the front men - Hursty, 'Pop' Robson, Cottee and McAvennie?
Hurst and Robson... but Cottee's done my bloody foreword, how can I do this to you Tony!? Perhaps I have done an 'A' and 'B' team - I'm going to get slaughtered!
If you had to pick three games from the whole period covered by 'Any Old Iron' as favourites, what would they be?
Eintracht Frankfurt, definitely. Also Ipswich at Stamford Bridge in 1975 to get to the [FA Cup] Final and Everton up at Leeds - the [FA Cup semi final] replay when I came off the motorway, meaning I watched the Final from a hospital bed! My mate Wolverhampton Steve, who was in hospital with me [back then] sent me a text the other day and said, "that's the first time West Ham have won at Wembley since we watched them in bed together!"
And if you had to pick three favourite away grounds?
I like Goodison Park, I've been there for a night game and just thought it was a nice ground. That and the Millennium Stadium and Old Trafford, both spot-on stadiums.
So how did you go about getting the book published?
I was reading an article in the [match day] programme back in 2006 and they were asking if anyone had any stories. West Ham printed my stories in the programme but they made a number of mistakes. That disappointed me because of the lack of attention to detail - plus I never got back my personal possessions, my photographs etcetera. I just thought, "hang on, I want to put this right" so I started writing a book - and that was it, once I started thinking about Leon Nicholson and the old Bermondsey days and so on... I was almost doing it for myself.
What advice would you have to anyone else who's thinking of following in your footsteps and publishing their own book?
I don't know whether I could give them any advice. I never had a clue until someone mentioned self-publishing and I contacted three or four companies. But with Spiderwize, I liked what they said they could do for me - and I feel sorry for them because I must have been the biggest pain in the backside! What I also liked about them is that they always got back to me within a matter of hours and as someone working in business you want a reply, you want an answer. I spent hours writing, re-writing the book and they got back to me and said "yeah, we're interested in it". It's all self-financed but Spiderwize offer packages including things like editing services, image services and cover design and they guided me from beginning to end. And their patience with me was immense! But I think they also felt my passion and my love for West Ham.
And are there any plans for a follow-up?
It's funny the amount of people who have asked me that. I've been extremely flattered by them in the sense that there's interest in it - not in sales though, they've got to part with money then, haven't they! Bur seriously, it's been really interesting and I've had a lot of people say they're really looking forward to 'Any Old Iron 2'. I've had a guy from Brazil contact me about the book and another who went on holiday to Turkey who wrote to say he's looking forward to the second one. Should I ever do one, it's a long way down the line.
I suppose that essentially you've covered everything in 'Any Old Iron' - it starts when you were a kid and finishes when you stopped going in 2008. What was it that made you, a massive West Ham fan, give it up in the end?
I found that the West Ham support had changed. They'd become biased and they weren't appreciative of the other side. It wasn't football and West Ham - now it was just West Ham, and I've always been a football fan. When we were on the telly, even if we lost it was more about the way we'd played. In 'Any Old Iron' there's a letter than Wally St Pier wrote personally to my dad [rejecting me as a triallist because I was too young] and to me, that was what West Ham was all about. But once money gets involved in anything it's never the same afterwards. Money can destroy friendships and separate families.
But it had been building up for a few years before then. And I think the people sitting around me must have noticed the change. I wasn't as conversant, I wasn't getting as involved. One of the final nails in the coffin was the Tevez and Mascherano affair - and I think it was a shame that [Alan] Pardew didn't carry on because I think he would have done good things at West Ham. I still maintain that after Roy Hodgson, Pardew will be a strong contender for the next England manager.
And of course in the book is your certificate from when the North Stand closed; do you feel that perhaps a little bit of you died with that?
Yes and I think that's a brilliant observation. From 1994 it was never really the same although it certainly wasn't a dramatic change. That little 'dig', even though I perhaps never knew it myself - that illness was creeping in. Someone posted a picture of the old ground on Facebook recently and it hurt to look at it. You know, when you were going in that North Bank and that geezer was throwing the peanuts...
Looking ahead now, how do you think West Ham are going to do next season now they've been promoted?
I think it all depends on what happens in the summer. They'll certainly have to raise their game and they will be up against it next season. But even if they get three or four decent players in I've got reservations. They'll definitely struggle, as most clubs do. Ok, this year none of them went down - just, in QPR's case, but just is good enough.
And what are your thoughts on Sam Allardyce?
Well he certainly wouldn't have been my first choice, he's not my man. I remember when it was Bolton or West Ham to be relegated and we drew 2-2 with Birmingham whilst Bolton played 'Boro and he was dancing and doing a jig... I know that was then and now's now. But what I will say about Sam Allardyce is that the last few times I've been listening to him being interviewed I'm liking what he's saying. So I could be swayed, but at the moment I'm not so sure. I guess in a roundabout way it's like when you meet someone and you're not too sure about them first of all, but as time goes by you think "hang on, he's not such a bad geezer"! And I do hope I feel like that because Sam Allardyce has never played the football that I want to see - but then again, what managers have down at West Ham United since the Lyalls and Greenwoods?
One final question, Graham, and then we'll wrap up - and I think I know what you're going to say anyway...
I don't know the question so I don't even know what I'm going to say yet!
Your view on Stratford and the Olympic Stadium?
No. In one word.
I knew you were going to say that!
No. To me, once you move ground you've moved away from West Ham, Upton Park, you're severing historical links. Ask Wimbledon about Milton Keynes, they think their history stopped then. No, I want to stay in Upton Park at the Boleyn Ground.
ĎAny Old Ironí is out now priced £8.99 (+ p&p) and can be purchased directly from KUMB.com by following this link.