Brian Belton is the author of several best selling books about West Ham.
How did you become a Hammer?
I guess everyone sees this differently, but for me supporting West Ham is something you are born to rather than ‘become’. As a baby my mum sat with me in our yard in Sampson Street, E13 on a spring Saturdays and sang ‘Bubbles’ to me along with the crowd that could easily be heard from where we were. She tells me that when there was a big cheer for a home goal that I’d bounce up and down in my pram and cheer as well. My dad was a goalkeeper in the West Ham Boys side that was coached by Ernie Gregory. Who else was I going to support? Like so many other supporters I ‘am’ West Ham (and West Ham is me). West Ham till I die? West Ham from the moment I was born! But I have good friends who were born from Bangladesh to Trinidad, from Hong Kong to the Falkland Islands whose footballing affinities lie with the inextricable Irons. However, my argument (which they broadly agree with) is that they born to it too. You see there are dozens of East Ends; they exist all over the world. I have a long term pal who was born in the South African East London. His first football shirt put Irons over his heart and there they have stayed (although Orlando Pirates play a surrogate role). Perhaps it is something about being ‘on the edge’, or feeling akin to those who continually punch above their weight or identify with the striving to make something potentially mundane beautiful and exciting. West Ham supporters arise organically but their share a particular ‘soul-nature’ (you can recognize it because it’s claret and blue).
Your first game?
I was taken to my first game at Upton Park by my cousin, Steve, and a few of his mates. I was not really supposed to be in the ground being in my fourth year and my ‘carers’, well, were more than twice my age. However, the dad of one of Steve’s pals worked on the turnstiles and got us in about an hour before the game. We were squeezed up on the ‘shelf’ of the North Bank for the initial Upton Park game in West Ham’s first Division One match for more than 36 years. It was 25 August 1958 and the Wolves of Wolverhampton were the old gold clad visitors.
The first thing that hit me was the shear colour of it all – the turf, the strips and the crowd. I knew the players faces and could recite the West Ham side that had beaten Middlesbrough in the last game of the Hammers promotion season without fault and recall getting on Steve’s nerves as every time a West Ham player received or won the ball I shouted out his name.
It was close to half-time when I yelled ‘Musgrove’ as he picked up the ball on my right (West Ham were playing towards us in the first half). He seemed to run like lightning before sending a perfectly weighted pass to Vic Keeble (‘Keeble!’ I hollered). I can still see him look up for a split second that has lasted the better part of 50 years. His cross blasted into the middle of Wolves goal mouth below us. I found myself shouting ‘Dick’ as the tall Scotsman dodged a challenge before, about 20 feet from the goal-line, in a flash, cracking the ball with a satisfying ‘Tump!’ into the back of the Wanderers net. Unfortunately I don’t recall seeing John Smith’s goal.
How many games do you get to?
I’ve never been a season ticket holder. It feels like joining something and I’m not a great joiner of things. But it also goes against the spirit that first took me to Upton Park; I’d be obliged to sit in the same seat every time I go to a game and as someone who has always gone to football to watch the crowd as much as the game that was never going to suit me. Family, friends and friends of friends loan me their tickets when they can’t make it or I buy in advance (this is usually when my kid and wife come with me). I often find myself sitting with visitors when I cadge on a Gooner or one of my associates who is a Spurs fan. At away games it is not unusual for me to be found sitting with the home crowd. It is relatively easy to get into games at Bolton and Wigan for example. I like talking and listening to different people at matches, it gives me sort of cross sectional view of why people support and keeps me in touch with how people feel about things.
Most memorable moment?
I’ve been present at every final West Ham have made since 1964 and I suppose I should say one of those. The Cup Winners Cup final in 1976 was a great game. Like many of the Irons’ finest moments it was a defeat, but we did it fabulously. But my most memorable moment was something a long way away from that match in time and status.
I used to go to reserve games at West Ham’s Upton Park ground. They don’t do that anymore, the pitch is saved, in the main, for first team games. I started attending reserve games when I was about five or six. My four or five mates and me would play for the Hammers against Spurs, Arsenal or, for some reason I can’t recall, Estudeantes de la Plata in the FA Cup final in Castle Street, E13, waiting for gates to the North Bank to be opened at half-time allowing us to ‘flood’ into the near deserted edifice. The North Bank stood where the Centenary Stand now overlooks the Iron’s sacred turf and from its forsaken, yawning entrails we’d watch snatches of the game between mimicking first-team match days, crushing up together behind a single barrier, shouting warnings like, ‘stop bumming me’ and loudly questioning, ‘who’s pissed in my pocket?’ whilst imploring the claret and blue second string to, ‘Coom-yon-uuu-Iiiiionnnnzzz!!!’. Other distractions from viewing West Ham’s twilight regiment of future and past being pulverised (memory’s a bitch) included games of ‘he’ and standing directly in front of lone pensioners. We would look at these old boys in counterfeit shock as they pelted us with a comfortably predictable deluge of verbal filth. We would also mime ‘crowd riots’ (a challenge for such a small group with a collective age of 35) or line-up one behind the other and ‘do pushers’, sending all of us tumbling down the stand like over-coated dominoes. Another favourite pastime was congering up and down the near uninhabited concrete chanting, to the tune of the Seven Dwarves classic, ‘Hi-Ho!’; Mile End, Mile End, Mile End, Mile End, Mile End…(such performances could go on for an near twenty minutes and occasionally more than an hour). This was the mantra of the ‘Mile End Mob’, a collection of youth gangs that would meet at Mile End underground station to become West Ham’s travelling buccaneer army of the 1960s. The ‘Mob’ was made up of the young tribes of weekday rivals from Stepney, Canning Town, Whitechapel, Dagenham, Hornchurch and all the ‘villages’ North of the River, East of the Tower, an area still then pock-marked by the ravages of the blitz and continuing poverty. Come the next first-team game, this conglomerated ‘crew’ would crush together onto the North Bank to renew their collective allegiance to the mighty Hammers. One day we would join their ranks and carouse around the urban wastelands of England celebrating being ‘us’. But on that winter’s evening, as the flood-lights of the Boleyn Ground broke through the icy mist that shrouded London’s docklands, maybe 500 dawns into the ‘swinging’ decade of the last century, we were far too young to be part of that. Our ambitions were set on becoming ‘Snipers’, the under-13 (more or less) cadet core of the ‘Mile End’. It was just after singing and swaying to the Sniper hymn, Snniiiipuzzz! Snniiipuzzz! that I got knocked unconscious.
In time with our homage my little choir pointed towards what was then the enclosure where visiting supporters would be directed, the despised South Bank (that would eventually metamorphose into the Bobby Moore Stand). The South Bank would be transformed into the ‘home end’ in a rather lame effort to break the cult of the ‘Mile End’ and control match day trouble. The tactic was to mark the end of the MEM, but it gave rise to its more malevolent successor, The Intercity Firm.
Our ‘Sniperian’ sonnet had been going some moments when the ball was murdered by the chest of West Ham’s Johnny Byrne. The stained sphere fell, seemingly as slow as a leaf, to receive a mighty belt from the Byrne right boot. The shot screamed towards the goal, but with the lightest kiss atop the away side’s bar, the oscillating orb cannoned on…straight towards…me. I don’t know how, when or why I decided that I wound head the ball back at Byrne, but spreading both arms wide, I pushed my compatriots aside and flung myself towards the on-coming missile. I saw it spinning in the air, turning like some mad banshee, it screamed its coming and I knew I would make contact; I would meet this challenge and connect with my team. I would be totally Hammered! The last thing I remember before leather met cranium was marvelling that so much turn could be applied at such great force; then the lights went out, at least in my diminutive, infantile nut anyway. In the expanse of my childish unconscious I had a little dream wherein Percy Dalton (the peanut man) was arguing with the West Ham manager Ron Greenwood about the state of the buses, Ron was calling in Yogi Bear to arbitrate, him being smarter than the average bear, when illumination was restored. I awoke looking into the face of Johnny Byrne. Like, England international, most expensive footballer ever, Johnny f****** Byrne! ‘You okay sonny?’ he asked looking concerned. My modest firm were standing round in awe, little Colin Jones, the amazing two foot Trinidadian, smallest giant in the East End, was mutely holding out a crumpled piece of paper and a blue, betting office pencil. Byrne had jumped out of the fantasy realm of the pitch into the stark reality of the North Bank; he had crossed the divide of dreams and run up the terraces to where I lay. ‘Yeah’ I said, trying to pretend that my flight down twenty feet of terraced hardness had been deliberate. I was planning saying something like, I do that all the time John when he remarked, ‘Good header’ and gave a little chuckle as he helped me to my feet. ‘Thanks’ I replied with all the nonchalance I could muster. He signed Tony’s scrap of putrid papyrus and trotted back down to where the other players were, quite rightly, looking up at him from the other side of reality. That autograph would be with Colin forty years on. He carried it into eternity in the top pocket of the suit he wore as he was cremated in little Catholic chapel in New York after a long battle with an evil illness.
My first conversation with Johnny Byrne would not be the last, but our next chat would be separated by the tumult of my teenage years and John’s combustive reign in world football. But we never really parted. As I followed him and his West Ham, we were all Hammers. Incited by Bobby Moore, our coming was felt like the distant thunder of Zulu army jogging, inextricably, across the veldt. At the best of times, just when the opposition thought it had heard the last of the Irons, the portentous presence of Moore would coagulate in the middle of the park and the buzz of swiftness around the ball would start, eliding out space and enveloping it, Byrne, Hurst, Boyce, Sissons, Brabrook would dazzle, dizzy and confuse to weave the Hammers back into contention. Sophisticated in assault out of defence, passing along the ground with intoxicating accuracy, rarely did the ball take flight; darting runs carried it to rock the enemy like lightening bolts from the claret and blue. A collusion of deft passing and on-the-ball skill was their only authority. That West Ham side had the ability to generate an idyll of football. Never had so much soccer anticipation been stirred to be so thoroughly sated. I wrote Budgie’s biography a few years ago (Burn Budgie Byrne). For me he was one of the most talented players that ever graced the claret and blue.
Have you met any Hammers players?
I think it is more than a hundred now. From the earliest days of the club’s existence players would coach in local schools after training in the afternoon. My school was just a few minutes walk from the Boleyn Ground and Clyde would take that stroll to coach us on Southern Road playing field, now the home of Newham United. So he was one of the first I met. He worked alongside another Hammers pro, George Andrews. Clyde would coach on the run, playing alongside us, constantly chattering tips and instructions. George would stand on the sidelines. Clyde’s quiet Barbadian tones were not at all foreign to us, my school boasted dozens of ethnicities, but we had no experience of ‘deep Caledonia’ culture. This being the case, the only thing we could understand from Scots George was his screamed Highland war cry “Will Ye Nay Stoop Shooootin’!”
Later, drinking in the Black Lion in Plaistow I bumped into Bobby Moore and John Charles. I had met Bob many times as he and quite a few other players (Harry Cripps, Malcolm Allison and Noel Cantwell) used to buy shirts from my father’s stall in Queens Road Market when I was very small (dad bought high quality shirts and sold them at a very small profit, but made more money on the ties and cuff-links that went with them). He would now and then come round to our house with the likes of Danny Blanchflower and Ken McKinley (the West Ham speedway captain). Ken would purchase a couple of dozen shirts to sell at Custom House stadium. As a young teenage I’d very occasionally see Bob at the Ilford Palais and a few years on I often saw him at the Room at The Top (also in Ilford). He’d always say hello and when I was with a girl would chat and buy us a drink – nothing to do with the girl of course.
I met fifty of the players from the 1950s when I wrote Days of Iron (which was an honor and an education) and of course, over five years working alongside John Charles, I met quite a few former players. But Black Hammers led me to interview the likes of Bobby Barnes, Anton Ferdinand, Marc-Vivien Foe and Shaka Hislop.
Favourite current player?
I like Mark Noble, but I’m not alone there am I? He is a fine player, but what I like about him most is that he personifies what West Ham is about. He’s a Hammer through and through; born in Canning Town and coming up through the youth sides. If the day comes when we end up like Manchester United, Chelsea and Portsmouth having half the side made up of players from one particular team (in their cases West Ham) it might be time to start restricting myself to attending Academy games. Once a Hammer always a Hammer; Tevez, Cole, Carrick, Rio even Lamps, no matter how much their current clubs might boast about them as ‘their’ players, in the background, tapping on the back door of their consciousness, there will always be the nagging knowledge, ‘they are Hamsters!’
Describe last season. How did it affect you?
I loved it! Every minute. I loved Carlos and everything he did. I loved that we made him Hammer of the Year. I loved how Curbs led us home. I loved watching Mr Bean moan in harmony with Kevin McCabe (Sharpe went blunt) and most of all I loved watching Dave Whelan being all northern and outraged. Well worth £5.5m. The worse thing was old Yoda saying he was going to fight all the way and then fell on his knees to plead guilty to a charge that some alleged could not have been made to stick. That story is of course still to be fully told.
What are your hopes for this season?
Old Russian saying – ‘hope is the last thing to die’ – I hope we can finish above Portsmouth and Tottenham. I hope we qualify for Europe. I hope people will start to appreciate Alan Curbishley a bit more and remember we stayed up under his leadership and how that run in last season was truly magnificent – given our situation it must rate as one of the best performances ever by a West Ham team.
Choose your all time Hammers Eleven
Always a difficult one; you gonna pick the players you love or the best players (not necessarily the same thing). Also, are you going to look to the likes of Len Goulden, Ernie Gregory, Ted Hufton, Vic Watson, Sid Puddefoot and Danny Shea, the great players of the pre-war period? I’ll go for my best XI from the last 30 years, just to keep it a bit straightforward:
Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Julian Dicks, Billy Bonds, Alvin Martin, Alan Devonshire, Ian Bishop, Frank McAvennie, Carlos Tevez, , Trevor Brooking, Tony Cottee
I might have included Paulo Di Canio, maybe instead of Cottee or McAvennie, but the Nazi salutes of late don’t seem in the best interests of the game – Controversial selection – Ian Bishop. But ask the players who see him as one of the most talented Hammers ever.
What do your colleagues make of your support for West Ham
I work in higher education and as a person with a passion about identity in sport am probably am a bit of an oddity in this sphere. As such folk mostly ignore my connection with West Ham (although it is hard not to know about it I guess). I try not to sing ‘Bubbles’ at degree ceremonies in Canterbury Cathedral and this is probably appreciated. I think Football is still seen as something essentially masculine, although my mum is the greatest supporter of West Ham in my family and given the strides in the women’s game internationally, but also amongst young women from working class background in the East End and like areas across Britain, I’m not sure this is much more than an out-of-date prejudice. There has also been some wonderful work done recently on the history and social impact of women’s football; to name but a few; A Game for Rough Girls: The History of Women’s Football in Britain – Jean Williams , Boots and Laces: An Insight into Women’s Football in England – Maysun Butros, The Dick Kerr’s Ladies – Barbara Jacobs, Offside?: The Position of Women in Football (Behind the Headlines): The Position of Women in Football (Behind the Headlines) – John Williams and Donna Woodhouse , Out of Bounds: Women, Sport and Sexuality – Helen Lenskyj, A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football – Jean Williams, I Lost My Heart to the Belles: Story of the Doncaster Belles – Pete Davies, The Game and the Glory: An Autobiography – Michelle Akers, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World – Jere Longman and the new book about Hope Powell, Dream to Win.
Complete this sentence: The thing I hate about West Ham is…I don’t hate anything. Some things are hard to take sometimes; the increasing commercialization of the game (although that has always been there) but perhaps more than that the lack of local players coming though, especially from our local Asian community that has some wonderfully gifted players. I saw one little bloke playing in the street (a rare enough thing these days) not 5 minutes from the ground; he looked like Jimmy Johnstone on the ball. As a youth worker in East London over the last 30 years I have seen hundreds like him; why hasn’t at least one of these kids come through?
Complete this sentence: The thing I love about West Ham is…
That they are mine.