It is not often you see grown men cry, particularly the sort of shaven-headed burly blokes with tattooed knuckles that tend to follow West Ham, but there are plenty of tears being shed as the Hammers leave Upton Park after 112 years.
Moving to the Olympic Stadium is a positive one for the club and will enable them to have more money and buy better players.
But leaving Upton Park is an emotional upheaval, almost like a death in the family. I know because I have been going there since 1966, when ‘we’ won the World Cup — that is the West Ham of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, and Martin Peters who were central to England’s win over West Germany.
Bobby was a good friend of my Dad, the former journalist and commentator Peter Lorenzo. He would come round to our house for a cup of tea and a chat — imagine that happening with today’s superstars!
So I was always a bit closer to the club and the players than the average fan. I remember going for the first time with my dad in 1966, and I felt very privileged because I could go in the press box with him. When he became ITV’s first commentator I would sit behind him in the gantry, sometimes correcting him, even as a nine-year-old.
I rarely paid to get in back then. Dad had a great way with the old commissionaire who welcomed the directors and special guests. He would say to him “Hello Ernie, how are you and how is Mabel (his wife)?” and the commissionaire would smile and usher me through.
When I was older I used to go on my own or with friends and stand in the North Bank or the Chicken Run, which was where opposition players would get dogs abuse. I remember Lee Dixon telling me once about when he was injured by the side of the pitch, a big tattooed thug was effing and blinding but he was also holding a little boy’s hand. Lee took exception to this and said: “How can you call me an ‘effing so-and-so” when you’ve got an eight-year-old boy there?” The fan bent down to listen to the boy and then said to Lee: “Because he thinks you’re an effing so-and-so too”.
That’s what it was like — there was no place for the fainthearted and the atmosphere could be incredibly intimidating, especially in the old stadium before they moved the main stand. It died a bit for me when they rebuilt that stand. Alvin Martin told me opposing teams hated playing there because of the closeness of fans to the pitch, the roar that would go up. For a night game you could multiply that to the power of 10. The last time it was like that was this season when we beat Spurs — we would have beaten anybody that night.
It is a different game now, faster, more frenetic. I used to love dribblers like Harry Redknapp and Johnny Sissons, or great passers like Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire. What a combination those two were. Even now when people asked me who was my favourite player, I tend to get raised eyebrows when I say Devonshire. He was that good. There were lots more goals then as well. I remember a 5-5 draw with Chelsea which was a classic West Ham performance and they are still doing that today, conceding as many as they score.
I was at the game on Saturday when they lost 4-1 to Swansea, who hadn’t won there for over 50 years. That to me was the ideal send-off because it was pure West Ham. People have already been saying their goodbyes. I was chatting to an old friend by the pie stand and he suddenly looked sad and said “I’ve got to go.” It was like a wake, a strange atmosphere.
But nothing was as strange as the night we played behind closed doors against Castilla in 1981. There had been crowd trouble in the away leg so no fans were allowed at Upton Park that night and it was eerie, like a ghost game. I was one of the few who was there because I was in the press box, and I’d never realised up that point how much players shout at each other, constantly talking — man on, pick him up, take him out — that sort of thing. I realised that night how important the crowd is to the game, and they always said the crowd at Upton Park was like a 12th man.
I’m not sure everyone has taken it all in, seeing it for the last time, never having to go to Upton Park tube station again. The place is full of memories of friends and family, so that is why leaving it behind is like a death in the family.
The move to Stratford is good for the club but I wonder if they’ll have the same atmosphere. There certainly won’t be the same memories, which for me are all about going along with my dad, as a little boy, marvelling at the noise and spectacle of it all.
We have to move on, and that is the price of progress I suppose. But there will never be anything like it again. n Matt Lorenzo has produced a documentary film “Bo66y” about Bobby Moore, to be released later this month. He is campaigning for him to be awarded a posthumous knighthood.
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