Monday, September 8, 2008
At the time, I thought he was joking. Now, after two full seasons of purgatory in the Dr Martens’ Stand, I’m not so sure. All the signs were there on that dank March evening. The football was woeful – Marlon Harewood was having one of his barn door games - until Teddy Sheringham opened the scoring in the 76th minute with a free kick into the top left corner. Game over? Of course not. Several more chances were spurned before Crewe equalised with minutes to go.
Even so, I loved every minute, because some of my earliest football memories were the stories my dad told me of visiting Upton Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and singing Bubbles, and being so close to the action that you could reach out and touch the players whenever there was a corner. More than that: although everything about me was Scottish, I was an Essex boy, born in my mother’s bed in Harold Wood, on a Saturday as the football results were being declaimed. How could I not support West Ham?
My family moved back to Scotland before I had any memories of Harold Wood, but I always had a pride in my birthplace, even when I was being threatened with violence for supporting England (a result of my fondness for Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst rather than anything genetic). And, when my primary seven class came on a school trip to London, visiting the zoo, the Tower of London, and standing inside the gates at Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard, the most exciting moment for me was the knowledge that the hostel we were staying in – which had table tennis, girls, and Hot Butter on the radio – was in Chigwell, not far from the home of the sainted Sir Bobby.
A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage back to Harold Wood, to the house where I was born. My mum drew me a map, and I found the place soon enough: turn right out of the station, up past the library and the parade of shops where my Doric-speaking grandmother had baffled the butcher by asking for hough, a meaty Scottish delicacy which has yet to make it to the East End. And there it was. I loitered outside the door, and looked for the place where the neighbours’ chicken coops would have been, but I felt nothing. I had no recollection of the place.
But all that changed, just before kick off, that March evening at Upton Park. The teams came out, the chorus of Bubbles swelled, and I thought about my dad all those years before, singing that sad song about impossible dreams. I felt a sudden surge of emotion. It felt like I had come home, like the players were close enough to touch, and everything was as it should be. And then Crewe Alexandria equalised.
[A version of this was published in the West Ham United programme].