West Ham, from father to son

The first time I saw West Ham play live in a European competition was as a teenager on 16 December 1992. There were just 7,123 people at Upton Park to witness the Hammers take on Pisa for the final game in Group B of the Anglo-Italian Cup, a competition for English and Italian second division clubs.

The match ended in a 0-0 draw and the Hammers failed to make it through to the next stage of this meagre tournament. It set the tone for supporting West Ham over the next 31 years. A repetitive story of frustration and disappointment that only took an unexpected twist when our trophyless run, spanning more than four decades, was broken in Prague on 7 June.

I started thinking about that cold night in 1992 a lot after West Ham’s triumph in the Europa Conference League final this summer. Why would this essentially irrelevant game become lodged in my mind when there was a meaningful achievement to contemplate? It only struck me recently that I was linking the two games because they represented the completion of a personal journey.

My father and I started attending games in the post-Italia '90 and Taylor Report era, when there was a changing mood around football in England. But there was another, more private and profound, reason for us to start going to matches. In the wake of my mother’s death, we were looking for ways to communicate and bond. She had been the emotional centre of our family and in her absence we both retreated a little from life and each other.

We started going to the odd game in 1991 and bought season tickets at the Boleyn Ground the following year. My father had been a West Ham supporter since the 1960s, when he came to England from Greece as a student. He studied at – what was then – East London Polytechnic and some of his classmates took him to Upton Park to watch the legendary team that included World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters.

He was taken in as much by what he experienced off the pitch as what he saw on it. He appreciated Cockney humour and the straightforward nature of those he met, reminding him of the people he grew up with in Greece – mostly Greek refugees from Asia Minor who had to rebuild their lives from nothing by relying on their hard work and wit.

Like so many parents, he passed his love for a specific football club down to his child. I have done the same with my son, navigating some challenging moments when the more successful teams supported by his schoolmates started to appeal to him. "Don’t worry son; we may not win much but when we do, it will feel like ten of theirs," were the best words of encouragement I could offer as I tried to shut down any thought of him switching allegiances.

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I knew what I was talking about. My first memory of the Irons is watching Sir Trevor Brooking stoop to head the winner in the final of the FA Cup against Arsenal in 1980. I ran straight into the garden to recreate the moment – a memory that has stayed with me through the decades; a well that I drew from many times while wondering whether we’d ever win anything again.

Regardless of our longstanding love of West Ham, going to Upton Park regularly with my father was a major commitment. We lived on the other side of London, and travelling to and from the ground involved spending three to four hours in the car, edging torturously through congested streets and tunnels.

We invested this time not just for the excitement of the game and the sense of unity that supporting a club generates for all fans, but also because it brought the two of us closer together. We found that for a few hours we had something we could talk about effortlessly. The sports coverage on the car radio provided the chord progression for our improvised conversation. The drive to the game would be filled by the rhythmic discussion of what might come.

On the drive back, if West Ham had won, words would be rattled off like drum solos. Following defeats, little needed to be said. Instead, the final scores and match reports from around the grounds filled the silence.

It was on these journeys, ensconced in metal and glass, that my father and I forged our relationship in the absence of my mother. Crossing London, we discovered that we had more to share than just our pain. In the city’s sea of traffic, we began to understand we were in the same boat, needing each other’s company. Our chats about football would form the basis of discussions about other things, allowing us to eventually express ourselves more fully.

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As the years progressed, and I was able to drive myself to games, my father came less frequently, eventually not attending at all. But the pattern of our conversations at home would remain the same: West Ham first, any other football matters second and the rest afterwards – that is, if we felt like discussing other issues. In fact, the cadence that we had established in the car travelling to and from the Boleyn Ground continued even when we found ourselves living far apart, on opposite sides of Europe.

Following a West Ham victory, one of us would call the other to discuss, with relish, the merits of the team’s performance. After a defeat, though, the phone wouldn’t ring. There was no need to say anything. The disappointment could be shared without exchanging any words. By now, we knew what the other was feeling. Football granted us that understanding.

Although this was a very personal experience, on a recent visit to Upton Park I got the sense that many others must have shared similar stories and pathways to needing West Ham in their lives, despite the team’s capriciousness. It was my first visit since the Boleyn Ground was knocked down in 2016. I know I’m not alone to be dismayed at the sight of that rickety but soulful stadium being replaced by blocks of flats: A million memories swapped for a thousand aspirations.

At least The Boleyn pub is still standing, as it has done since 1899. Along with the murals of Brooking and Billy Bonds, and the statue of Bobby Moore holding the World Cup aloft it helps generate an aura around the neighbourhood. The stadium, programme sellers, hat and scarf stalls, burger vans and other matchday paraphernalia are gone, but there is still a palpable spirit in the air if you walk along Green Street or the Barking Road. You can sense this was a place where people congregated to replenish their souls.

Yes, they came for the football and the ritual of it. But they also came so they could be together, not just with the rest of the crowd, but with their family and friends. They came so they could share something with the people they loved, to have someone to embrace in joy and cling on to in despair. So many relationships were moulded in this manner down the years – my father and I among them.

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Sharing in West Ham’s ups and, mostly, downs pulled us through the roughest patch in our lives. Even without being able to celebrate a trophy for so long, it was the constant and the point of convergence we needed. The trophy came, eventually. And when it did, it felt like the culmination of an arduous journey. And, yes, it did feel like ten of theirs.

Like thousands of Hammers fans, we would have loved to be in Prague for the final against Fiorentina in June. But it was never likely, not just due to the lack of tickets, but because my father, in his eighties and increasingly frail, is in no condition to travel. So, with my son we watched the game at the old man’s house in Athens, knowing that this was probably the last ever chance we would have of being together to watch the Hammers lift a trophy.

On the final whistle, as in thousands of homes in east London and across the world, over land and sea, there was a cascade of emotions. And like others, the only words we could find were ones of disbelief: "We’ve done it, we’ve actually done it!"

Only, for my father and I, these words had added resonance. West Ham had been so closely linked to our personal grief that it felt we too had completed a long quest through difficult, barren times, culminating in three generations of our family sitting on a warm June night feeling happy, beaming with joy. I sensed one circle, in its formative stages on that December night in 1992, nearing completion and another, linking my son and I, taking shape.

Of course, we didn’t discuss any of this. In truth, few words were exchanged amid the joy and amazement as we watched the celebrations unfold in Prague. Football did the talking for us. And, as it had done for so many years, our fallible but compelling West Ham gave us the words we were looking for.

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