Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Saturday saw a Shanahan rite of passage as I took my son to his first match at Upton Park - some 32 years after I made that same pilgrimage with my dad. My early memories of watching West Ham are from precarious vantage points in the 'Boys Enclosure' or from a wooden seat, normally behind a pillar, in the old West Stand.

Growing up in Wembley, it was always a trek getting over to the East End to see the Irons and one often accomplished in secret in my early teenage years, as my parents would never have let me travel so far on the tube on my own.

My baptism into the Hammers brotherhood started when my mum and dad became friendly with Alan Stevenson - West Ham's centre half of the late '60s/early '70s. Autographs and a picture followed, and when Sarah Philips, my next door neighbour, got me a signed photo of Geoff Hurst, it was clear that there could be only one team for me.

For my fifth birthday I got my all-time favourite West Ham kit - the light blue one with two claret rings around the chest. From that day on, I was Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds, Harry Redknapp, Tommy Taylor and the rest!

I suffered the agonies when Stoke knocked us out of the League Cup in a semi-final replay in 1972; enjoyed the rapture when Alan Taylor's double salvo brought the FA Cup back to the Boleyn Ground in 1975 - and experienced one of the greatest days of my life when Billy Bonds lifted the Cup on a humid May day at Wembley in 1980. How do I remember it was humid? I know, 'cause I was there!

I was there again in '81 for the League Cup final and since then I've witnessed West Ham's shallow decline - no more Cup success and a position clinging on to the play-off coat tails in the Championship Division - division 2 in old money.

It was a pain once again getting over to Upton Park on Saturday. Once we got on the tube, it should have gone direct to Upton Park station. But signal problems necessitated three changes before we were strolling down Green Street, breathing in that heady whiff of half-cooked burgers, kebabs and burnt onions.

Sad to say that racism is alive and kicking on the streets of East Ham and there was an unpalatable undercurrent suffusing the atmosphere around the ground. Ok, only a tiny minority are actively and openly hostile on the multicultural streets surrounding the ground, but there appears a passive condoning of their bigotry.

But nostalgia was the order of the day as I steered Rory around the West Ham museum, revelling in the successes I'd witnessed in my youth, and learning more about the proud history of the club founded from the workforce of the Thames Ironworks.

It brought a smile to my face to hear Saturday's team running out to 'Knees up Mother Brown' and, of course, they kicked off to a rousing chorus of 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'. But for the 26,000 punters present, this was no east end party.

Long gone are the days of Brooking, Devonshire, Parkes and Martin - the last generation to bring silverware to the Hammers. McAvennie and Cottee are mere memories - and even the more recent heroes, Di Canio, Defoe, Cole, Carrick and Lampard junior are all plying their trade elsewher4.

Whereas my first Hammers team featured England's captain Bobby Morre, with Billy Bonds, Frank Lampard, Trevor Brooking, Clyde Best and Pop Robson, on Saturday, the Hammers' only 'star' was the ageing Teddy Sheringham, withdrawn at half-time, out of sorts and off the pace.

Preston were worthy winners.

My very first sight of West Ham live was a 0-0 draw at QPR on September 4, 1973. I was nine and a half and fell into life-long love for a bunch of underachievers. I've probably seen more games featuring Oxford and Wycombe over the years, but my heart lies at Upton Park.

Somehow, I can't see Rory being quite so besotted with the pride of the Boleyn when he's pushing 41!

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