The heat is on – and not just because summer has put in a rare appearance. A spending spree has raised expectations at Upton Park, but so far money hasn’t bought Hammers happiness, as Barney Ronay reports
Money: does it ever really make you happy? Heading towards Upton Park through the exciting new infrastructure of the Greenwich peninsula prompts this kind of question. South London’s former dockland has been ambitiously made over of late. Money hasn’t just been spent, it’s been recklessly slathered around the place with a loaded pallet knife. Here and there it even covers some of the cracks. There is probably some kind of comparison here with the new model West Ham United. At its old industrial heart, Greenwich now has the Millennium Village, known for its gleaming white dome, symbol of an aspirational spending beano that never quite got where it wanted to go, but did spark off a whole load of aggravation. West Ham, these days, are fronted up by Eggert Magnusson, the Icelandic businessman also known for his gleaming white dome, symbol of an aspirational spending beano that… well, you get the idea.
The transformational power of large injections of cash has certainly been a major theme of West Ham’s year. This kind of thing does raise questions. Will spending £47 million on new players really make your team any better? Does a £5.5m fine make it all right to play Carlos Tévez? And just how much does it take to stop all that going to court? It’s perhaps hardly surprising that the atmosphere around Upton Park, even in early season under a blisteringly hot August sun, turns out to be slightly fraught. This doesn’t feel like a place that’s entering a happy new dawn of a brighter tomorrow where the only way is up. The place feels unsettled and, at times, downright narked; almost indistinguishable, in fact, from being cooped up in a corrugated plastic stadium with 30,000 rather pissed-off sunburnt men. So is it the money? Or is it something else?
This is West Ham’s second home game. There really hasn’t been time for things to start going badly, or well, or anything else. The season hasn’t begun properly; it’s all a million miles from the grim business of February and March. And if anything it’s Wigan who should be feeling a little nervous. Since last season they’ve lost a manager, their best young player, Leighton Baines, and the overspill from the tills of a nationwide sportswear chain, with Dave Whelan’s sale of his stake in JJB Sports. In the meantime they’ve gained Chris Hutchings, a nice man whose record in the top flight reads one win in 12 games before getting the sack at Bradford seven years ago. Wigan’s future looks uncertain in a way we might have to get used to with these kinds of single-ego clubs, where continued access to one man’s deep pockets makes the difference between hob-nobbing it in the top flight and pretty much going back to what you were doing before.
Today, Upton Park station looks a bit like the departure lounge at Luton airport in early June. There are white ankles everywhere. Everybody is wearing shorts. Everybody has spanking new white trainers on. Every-body’s skin has a radioactive pink glow. And almost everybody is wearing a replica shirt, the most common name on the back a defiant “Tévez”. A lone Wigan fan in sensible shoes winds his way meekly through all the claret and blue. Inside the ground the amazingly loud PA system is pumping out party tunes at the kind of volume that hits you right in the chest. The atmosphere isn’t exactly festive, but there’s definitely a familial feel to the place, even down to the dog-eared stands covered with the kind of corrugated plastic you might find on a home made kitchen extension from the 1970s.
There has been talk of developing a new ground; a site around the nearby Royal Mail depot has even been mooted. The place does look a little tatty, it has to be said. A trio of low-rise brick blocks of flats loom above the far stand, beyond which the leafy sprawl stretches away towards the east. It all looks quite spiffy next to the rumpled old Boleyn Ground, with its giant tarnished silver Meccano struts and panicky patchwork of corrugated plastic sheets.
Sitting up near the roof on a day like this, as the players interrupt their warm-up for the first of the afternoon’s endless round of drinks breaks, it’s like being trapped inside a tropical greenhouse. In front of me a man with very white ankles wipes his face with his replica shirt. The digital advertising board around the edge of the pitch begins spewing out the words to I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles and suddenly it’s a genuine East End singalong as pretty much the whole ground joins in for a rendition, complete with waving arms and a cappella section, ending with a triumphant “PRIEEBUBBLESSSIIIIIINEEEEEEAIAAAAAGH!”
As the team sheets are read out, the biggest cheers are for local lads Mark Noble and Bobby Zamora, but also for Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer, which probably gives a few clues as to the general mood around the place after a summer in which West Ham, much like Craig and Lee down the years, have found themselves cast as all-purpose villains by the footballing public at large.
Looking at Wigan you feel that Hutchings has decided if they do go down this season, at least it won’t be because they weren’t tall enough: Emile Heskey and Antoine Sibierski look like a pair of bailiffs. Possibly awed by their sheer size, the home crowd are still edgy. An early misplaced pass is greeted with howls. Soon the men with white ankles closest to me rouse themselves for a few choruses of “Your support is fucking shit”. Which is, to be fair, not far off. The Wigan fans fill about a third of the small section they’ve been given. They’re punching above their weight when it comes to noise, though, what with the home support settling down to a bit of quiet fretting and moaning. Below me Bellamy chases down a back pass and an entire stand rises in anxious approval.
Still, as befits an ambitious and upwardly mobile home team, West Ham are soon on the attack. Scampering, hunched and constantly aggrieved, Bellamy already looks like the best player on the pitch. He wins a corner, which Noble takes, flanked by no fewer than four stewards who squat like crouching lions in a ring around him, just in case he’s mistaken for David Beckham, Madonna or the Pope by someone in the crowd.
There’s a huge “Deano!” cheer as Dean Ashton appears for an extended warm-up. He does an incredibly weird slow robot walk – presumably a hi-tech thigh stretch – which, surreally, he keeps up even while a throw-in is taken right next to him.
Half an hour in, it’s still 0-0 and the mood is just lightly tetchy. An entire family near me seem to be specifically appalled by Zamora; not his performance today, just the general idea of him. There are cries of despair before the ball even reaches him and fury when he touches it. Caught up in all this, it comes as a genuine surprise when Wigan have their first attack, Sibierski heading narrowly wide. Until now the visitors have been barely noticeable. They may have won their first two games of the season, but this is a Wigan team so inoffensive you can forget you’re even watching them.
Bellamy strikes back immediately, putting the ball in the net from an offside position: cue a thrillingly demonstrative rant at the linesman, which involves waving his arms around his head like a man frantically swatting gnats. At the next stoppage someone in a blue tracksuit begins hurling water bottles on to the pitch and suddenly next to him there’s Hutchings at last, dressed in a salmon-pink shirt and black trousers, like he’s on his way to a wedding.
At this stage Wigan are still little more than a backdrop to West Ham’s terrible struggle with whatever it is that’s making everyone so uppity. Even from the top of the stand you can hear Bellamy shouting “Ay, ref, fookin ’ell!” over and over again as Chris Kirkland dallies on a goal-kick. The problem is the home team don’t seem to have it in them to just score a goal and settle every-body down. The digital advertising board starts scrolling the words NEW LOOK AWAY SHIRT and you think: “Yeah, good idea. Let’s just look away for a bit.”
Out of nowhere Jason Koumas scurries forward and hits a shot that clips the post. The seats around me are almost silent as the mini-roar from the commendably hyperactive knot of away supporters is heard at last. It’s a false dawn, though: the ball bobbles across to Heskey, who balloons a shot that hits the word “Antigua” on an advertising board in the second tier of the stand.
Half-time is a relief for everyone. Men with very white ankles shuffle past looking hot. On the pitch Lee Bowyer and an unidentified player spend 15 minutes kicking a ball backwards and forwards between them in exactly the same way at least 100 times with absolutely no variation. You do sometimes wonder about footballers.
Both teams have been poor. West Ham, though, do take this “academy” business seriously and as the game restarts with an up-and-under there are a few cries of “to feet!” and “give it on the fucking floor”. There’s applause for a dinky little passing triangle. But a big cheer then comes for a thumping tackle by Noble, the busiest player in either midfield. This is immediately topped by the roar as Ashton reappears on the touchline, now doing shadow kung-fu inside an invisible box, and looking very much like a popular performing lunatic. Soon he’s actually on the pitch, along with Bowyer. By now the sun has begun to cast a long shadow across the pitch. The ground has the feel of an allotment. If you ignore all the incredibly vexed and agitated men, it’s almost restful.
Then, out of nowhere, Wigan score a brilliant goal. From a long throw-in Paul Scharner performs a spectacular overhead kick, pummelling the ball past Robert Green. One corner of the ground goes bananas, while everyone else swears quietly to themselves. But just as the first wave is starting to troop out of the ground – there are still 15 minutes left – Bowyer guides the ball home after a nice little pass from Luis Boa Morte and good work by the hulking Deano. Around me there’s the usual uproar. Men embrace. Someone on the big screen lifts his shirt and does the big fat stomach grab. Down below, Alan Curbishley performs a stiff and awkward jig, looking a little like his elbows are tied to his knees.
And that’s about it. Pretty soon we’re all filing down the grubby gangways on to the main road, where groups of disgruntled-looking West Ham fans top up their sunburn and eat chips in thoughtful silence. On the tube platform a man in a pair of shorts and a claret-and-blue shirt says: “I’ll tell you what. Curbishley… Sunset… Fuck off and stay there.” It seems fairly harsh after one escape from relegation and three games of a new season, but there are glum nods of assent. More likely, everyone’s just glad to be going home. It’s too hot for all this: the overheated stand, the aggravation and, above all, the feeling of giddy, fearful expectation. West Ham may be rich. But on this evidence, they’re not feeling any better off yet.
From WSC 248 October 2007