I find it absolutely remarkable that West Ham United are currently climbing up the Premier League table – no doubt their fans do, too. When I saw them play at home in January, both the team and the fans, as well as the weather, were strictly miserable. And yet, it was one of the more entertaining evenings of my English soccer tour.
This was because many of the things I love about English soccer were present in abundance: cool old stadium, happening neighborhood, walking distance from a tube, nice folks sitting around me, and pure entertainment by the fans at the game. All this despite West Ham’s utter humiliation on the field.
The game I saw was on January 21 at Upton Park, the second leg of the League Cup semifinal with Manchester City. If you’re already wondering what “leg” and “league cup” mean, you might go over and read my post about the leagues and cups of English soccer. But basically it was a two-game competition, one at each stadium, total goals win. And Manchester City had won the first leg, 6-0.
And it was cold. And a Tuesday. And West Ham were nearly last in the league. That’s why the grand old 35,000-seat stadium was hosting a paltry 12,000 people. 10,000 were depressed, the rest were from Manchester. But I was having a ball. That’s because I had fallen in with some absolutely wonderful season-ticket holders, but we’ll get to that. First let me take you off to Upton Park.
Getting to a game is West Ham is, as with all the London teams, remarkably simple: You get on the tube and then walk a ways. But you don’t go to the station called West Ham. And West Ham is in East London, by the way. (The answer to your next question is, yes, there’s an East Ham.)
The station you want is Upton Park, which must be one of the last of its kind: small and of brick, with all the old metal signs and rails, and only a few turnstiles. It opened in 1877, was rebuilt in 1904, and has the feel of having not changed since then. I longed for time travel, so I could return to the 1960s, when West Ham was the great club in the World Cup-champion England.
Walking out of the station, if you haven’t spent much time in London you might think you’d left it. West Ham isn’t like the others: Emerging from the station at Chelsea, you’re in a gentrified West London area bustling with shoppers. Emerging at Fulham, you’re in a park by the river. At Arsenal, you’re in a residential area spotted with the usual footy vendors. But at Upton Park station, you emerge into what feels like a Muslim country.
I had prepared myself by reading a book called Around the Grounds, so I was looking for a pie shop called Duncan’s Pie Mash and Eels — and what could be more English than that name? The book didn’t tell me that I could choose from several halal meat shops, vegetarian Indian places, street vendors selling things I couldn’t identify, Pakistani shops, Afghan places, Ethiopian ….
This is London the way I really appreciate it. A city of the world, even more so than New York. Sadly, that includes the American contributions to cuisine:
I never found Duncan’s, in part because London streets confuse the hell out of me, but more because I quit looking. (Further research makes me think it closed, anyway.) I decided, instead, for the buffet at Himalaya Restaurant on Green Street.
English was hardly being spoken in that place, nor was it clear how the whole system worked, much less what the food was called. So I focused on the one white face behind the counter, a very helpful woman who immediately figured out my deal: I’m hungry and confused. I pointed at things that looked good, she pointed at a table for me to occupy, and neither she nor anybody else ever pointed out that I had started at the wrong end of the counter.
Here’s the place and my food, which in my notes I described as “Chicken tikka masala, fish with a familiar name, rice with peas. Two mysterious dipping sauces, one kinda spicy and one kinda yogurty. Mango something.”
I was 80% sure the next table over was laughing at me. But I didn’t care. I have long since adopted the Rick Steves mantra about being a bumpkin; folks really don’t mind, in fact they are charmed, and you get fun experiences like a great Himalayan meal with the locals before your English soccer game.
Some more street scenes as I made my way toward the game:
I found a couple of pubs that seemed to be catering to football fans, The Queens and the Duke of Edinburgh. There aren’t many here, and Around the Grounds had said away fans should just do their drinking elsewhere. There is strictly no mixing of colors on game days in English pubs.
Had this been a typical 3 p.m. Saturday game, I would have dipped into the famous Queens Market next to the station, which has been there for well over 100 years. but since this was a Tuesday at 8 game, they were already closing down.
However, had I known about this guy, I would have made it a point to get there. Ladies and Gentlemen, the One Pound Fish Man:
Okay, back to footy. At last, I spotted something helpful on Green Street:
It really makes me sad to even start showing you these pictures and telling you about the stadium, which is officially called Boleyn Ground, but which everyone calls Upton Park for the neighborhood. See, West Ham has played there since 1904, but they are leaving fairly soon, for the Olympic Stadium. (Last estimate I saw was for the 2016 season.) This grand old place will be torn down. They need the money to compete, I get it, and the place I’m sure needs tons of maintenance. But this is like when the Celtics tore down the Boston Garden. Sure, the new place is nicer, but something essential was lost.
Even more, I think this is the Cubs leaving Wrigley or the Red Sox leaving Fenway. West Ham and Upton Park have gone together for more than a century, and I could feel it in my seat-mates at the game, that it will just never be the same. They made jokes about how they’ll have to shout to each other to communicate at the new place. If nothing else, how will the blowing bubbles work at Olympic?
Before I explain that remark, here are some shots of my favorite ground I visited during my tour, the majestic old Upton Park:
I took my seat and was almost alone. Already down by six to the best team in the country (at the time), West Ham fans knew what was coming. This game was a mere formality — one TV pundit called it a “non-event” — and a cold wet Tuesday formality at that. All around the stadium was a collective shrug, a leaning into the wind, and a sense of slogging through something that must be done.
As usual, the seats around me were empty until a few minutes before kickoff; this is because you can’t drink within sight of the pitch in England, so everybody tosses back all the pints they can before taking their seats.
As the teams took the field, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of season ticket holders who were clearly long-timers and very fond of each other – and also quite sad about the state of affairs West Ham are in. I told the guy next to me it was my first time here, and he took off his glove to shake my hand, told all his mates I was a first-timer, then they took turns expressing warm welcome, as well as utter amazement: “Why did you come for this?” Turns out the guy whose seat I was in had skipped this nonsense to play golf someplace warm. Well done to him!
And now, about the bubbles. Many teams have some kind of anthem they sing right around kickoff time. The most famous, I suppose, is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Liverpool. At (blue-shirted) Manchester City they sing “Blue Moon.” And at West Ham, they sing this sad little tune call “Forever Blowing Bubbles.” They’ve been doing it since the 1920s. And, yes, they blow bubbles! They blow them from a machine, but still.
Here’s my video from that night:
In case you didn’t catch the words, here they are:
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
they reach the sky,
And like my dreams, they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere.
I’m forever blowing bubbles.
Pretty bubbles in the air!
I mean, this is supposed to inspire people? It boggles the mind – and yet it is impossibly charming to me, watching grown men sing about bubbles and their dreams dying, because their dads and granddads and great-granddads sang the same thing, in the same place, and then all of them screaming “UNITED” over and over and settling in for a good game of footy.
Before we move on, two stories must be told, both from the Wikipedia entry about all this. In 2006, when West Ham beat Tottenham, it meant Arsenal made it into the Champions League — and the Arsenal people at Highbury Stadium all stood and sang “Blowing Bubbles.” Then, in 1999, 23,680 fans at West Ham all blew bubbles, setting a new world record.
Here’s a better version, with a lot more people on a happier occasion at Wembley. This was after they’d won promotion back to the Premier League a couple of years ago.
This wasn’t a happy occasion. Here are the highlights, if you’re interested.
Manchester City scored about two minutes in, making it 7-0 on aggregate, and from then on, all the entertainment was in the stands. As the score got to 9-0, the City fans entertained themselves with songs like “Blue Moon” and this taunt of the Hammers:
“You only need nine,
You only need NINE!
You sorry bastards,
You only need nine.”
West Ham fans, meanwhile, were either sulking or having a go back at the “dirty northern bastards.” One group of youngsters, in the corner by the City folks, decided to ignore the game and defend their team’s honor with song. But, being English, they did this with self-deprecation:
“It’s only 9-nil,
It’s only 9-NIL!
How shit must you be?
It’s only 9-nil.”
They would take turns going at it, and at one point a City fan was escorted out for a series of obscene gestures. As he walked out, giving the Hammers a few more gestures for the road, they serenaded him with a version of “Cheerio!” to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which oddly enough is a popular choice of tune.
See if you can get it going in your head:
“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio!
Cheerio, cheerio, cheerioooo!
Cheerio, cheerio, cheeriO!
Cheerio …. CHEERio!”
Like I said, this was what passed for entertainment that chilly Tuesday night at Upton Park. Good thing Cup tickets are cheap! I paid 25 quid, or about 40 bucks, for killer seats. (The background image on this post is from my seat.) One good tip, for seeing soccer in England: Get your seats close to the visiting fans. That’s where the action is.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the main guy who had welcomed me was quite the lead jokester of the group. Among the things I managed to capture, he:
- called the ref a sadist for adding extra time to the first half
- said supporting West Ham is like a disease, and there is no cure.
- said, “We’re good on paper but crap on grass.”
- talked about the Allardyce Effect, wherein the presence of West Ham’s manager makes good players go bad.
- Espoused the theory that there’s some kind of radioactive substance under the pitch that makes fans insane and players awful.
- Said to a buddy, “Thank God City are playing their ‘fourths’ (stringers), or we might be in trouble!”
- When West Ham had the ball in City’s box and I said there was still a chance to score, he patted me on the back and said, “Now you’re getting the hang of it. You might become a Hammer! It’s about optimism in the face of all reality!”
- When a City player got hurt and had to leave the field for a few minutes, he yelled out, “Hurry up, West Ham! They’re down a man! Time to make your move!”
The final highlight of the evening was when, down 9-0 with little time left, the West Ham folks in the corner resorted to one of their more odd pastimes: pretending they scored a goal. I’m serious! They sing a little song that goes like this:
“Let’s pretend, let’s pretend, let’s pretend we scored a goal!”
And then they all go mental. In this case, they added on by mocking City’s famous backward dance, the Poznan. (That’s where everyone locks arms, turns their back on the pitch, and jumps up and down — a celebration that originated in Eastern Europe and was adopted by City fans). And here’s City’s response:
Can you make out what they were saying?
“What the fuck,
what the fuck,
what the fucking hell was THAT?
What the fucking hell was that?”
And then they all turned around did a full and proper Poznan, which your humble (and cold) documenter lost by hitting the wrong damn button on his camera. What the fucking hell was that?
Eventually it had to end, and we slogged off into the rainy night after a round of handshakes of good wishes with the fellas around me. Hey, at least we had fun!
Honestly, if you go to London to see soccer, you really should get to Upton Park while you still can. Hopefully they will still be in the Premier League – they’ve been on a nice run of form since I saw them and are probably safe now – but even if they aren’t, go and see this old-fashioned version of English soccer, no matter who they’re playing.
And try to do what I did: be a bumpkin. Eat something you can’t identify, soak up all the atmosphere you can, don’t worry too much about the game, and be sure to say hello to your neighbors.