Last August partner Jane and I enjoyed a relaxing holiday in a Croatian resort near the town of Poreč. The weather was hot, hotel excellent and scenery stunning. After a summer of shift work for me and an arduous if exciting holiday earlier in the year travelling around northern India we felt we owed it to each other to slob out for a week reading and eating ice cream. The only slight dampener on an otherwise great week was Jane complaining over a toe that was hurting her.
We laughed it off as a touch of gout due to the plentiful supply of free wine with our meals, or maybe, as I joked while we celebrated her birthday on the Tuesday, a touch of old-age arthritis. Arriving back in Blighty suitably refreshed Jane did the right thing by seeing her GP who in turn sent her for tests. It turned out it wasn’t gout, or osteoarthritis but something potentially nastier. The bloods revealed a high reading for rheumatoid factor. Jane was going to live the rest of her life battling rheumatoid arthritis.
Like many people I’ve spoken with since I had no idea what RA is (beyond thinking it a popular Scouse expression denoting the user feels hard done by). A quick bit of research and I learned while osteoarthritis is a wear and tear disease related to ageing and mechanical trauma, rheumatoid (there’s a growing movement towards dropping the arthritis) is an auto immune disease that as well as degrading skeletal joints can also affect eyes, heart and lungs. Similar to lupus, Crohn’s Disease and Guillain Barré syndrome the body recognises its own tissue as pathogens and attacks them.
My initial reaction on receiving the news was fear. Selfishly I considered how I would cope with Jane’s emotional needs and her increased and increasing physical difficulties. Most worrying was my own revulsion toward disability although a more subtle concern (and with more cause as it has turned out) was the disease would over-ride all other considerations within our relationship. Aware of my subconscious belief that to be strong is to deal with something, Jane soon supported me by hiding the full extent of her symptoms – a reaction that owed much to years of dealing with and comparing herself against her emotionally erratic valetudinarian mother. Fortunately over the intervening time, I’ve regained my senses and attempted to persuade her that if she’s feeling sorry for herself it really is ok to express it, especially to me.
The deterioration in Jane’s condition over the past 10 months has been terrifying – with her hands suffering most. Now she can find it hard to grip, particularly in the morning. I attempt every support although sometimes this is difficult. When for instance she rang and told me how she’d sat on the side of the bath in tears because she couldn’t wash her hair, once alone I was weeping my own tears – mainly of fury at the injustice of it all. Fortunately a right knee so swollen it was severely restricting her mobility has calmed down following an uncomfortable procedure drawing fluid out of the knee before firing a corticosteroid back in. Not so happily, support groups on the internet have provided little help, with Jane unready and/or unwilling to read other people’s horror stories.
All of life involves learning and the role I’ve slipped into is that of trying to maintain an evenness of emotional response. That means attempting to prevent the lows becoming unbearable but also the highs mountainous. And there have been plenty of peaks, even if some of them are relative. An early boost was a very good friend of Jane’s meeting socially with an experienced nurse working on a clinical trial unit at the nearest hospital. Through the contact Jane signed up for a drug trial and was able to temporarily avoid methotrexate, the standard treatment for RA. Known as a DMARD (disease-modifying antirheumatic drug) this drug is used in stronger doses for chemotherapy and is obviously best avoided if possible. Although a double blind trial we know Jane is taking fostamatinib due to some small but distinct side-effects.
As an example of the fluctuating nature of life these days the biggest low so far was immediately followed by a high. The care Jane receives on the trial is second to none. And because the disease can affect the lungs one of the myriad tests she took was a chest X-Ray. Checked by an outside agency the results immediately came back “suspected interstitial lung disease”. Following a very distressed phone call at home a quick tap into Google and I was horrified to read an article claiming the main treatment for ILD is transplant. My mum, dad and I rushed down to London from Suffolk on a Tuesday to provide what support we could.
We need not have bothered. Another even more tearful phone call the next day revealed the agency had cocked up their analysis. Jane’s team had pored over the scans and could find nothing at all untoward. I couldn’t be angry about the situation, and do understand why it’s always better to give a positive reading when there is nothing wrong rather than the other way around. As with many of these moments (the joy of finding your mislaid car keys can sometimes outweigh the frustration at losing them in the first place) the emotional positives emerge triumphant. After further research as well as some good advice from my nurse sister I later discovered ILD can be not much worse than the asthma I’ve suffered for all of my life and is in fact a generic term to cover many diseases.
And I suppose that is the point; my asthma isn’t something that bothers me any more than being short-sighted or suffering from migraines and so on. It’s quite likely Jane will have massive remissions between flare-ups and cope quite well. She still has employment at the same job in front of a keyboard and can continue walking both to work and for leisure. Most important however, is the growing realisation of just how much love and support we have around us. Several people have quietly come to me and expressed their concern I might be suffering from a lack of support – but as kind as their words are (and they are massively appreciated) I don’t feel like I need much at all. It’s Jane’s disease. As I’ve said in previous blogs, Jane taught me the value of kindness – now I can repay her.
To much excitement my ticket came through the post this morning and for the first time in 31 years I’m off to Wembley with West Ham. Although we journeyed together to Cardiff’s excellent Millennium Stadium for three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, the League Cup final in 1981 was of a different football age. That match against Liverpool was the Hammers third visit to Wembley in two seasons following an FA Cup win against Arsenal and Charity Shield defeat to the same Anfield outfit. As an example of the different prevailing attitudes our then manager the late John Lyall (by every account a decent man) stole the next day’s headlines after he told referee Clive Thomas (a deliberately controversial referee) he’d felt “cheated” by a decision to allow an Alan Kennedy goal despite Sammy Lee lying in an offside position and interfering with play.
Not a season ticket holder at the time I’d had the presence of mind to claim tickets prior to the semi-final against Coventry via the Sunday league club I played for and unfortunately my dad and I were placed in the Liverpool end. As we watched Ray Stewart slide an injury-time extra-time equalising penalty past Ray Clemence I don’t think I would have bet on it taking over three decades for a return. I certainly wouldn’t have had any idea of the changes in the game I love in the interim. For a start it was another six years until play-offs came into being and not until 1990 were the finals played at Wembley. Even despite the present slight fluttering in my stomach which I know will slowly grow until peaking at dysenteric level some time next Saturday I believe play-offs to be inherently unfair.
Having played 46 games to decide an order of merit it is entirely perverse sides should then enter into a cup competition for promotion. As an example, my team benefited in 2005 from beating first Ipswich then Preston to gain promotion despite finishing sixth. Conversely this year’s final pits us against Blackpool, a team we beat 4-0 and 4-1 in the league. Perhaps there might be a justification if say, the top six sides played-off. But third to sixth seems arbitrary at best. The “reward” of finishing second in the table is less than our day out in Cardiff and doesn’t have the possibility of a trophy. Surely natural justice would legislate against the game of football rewarding failure in such spectacular fashion? But no, play-offs have been deemed a success by TV, and the hundreds of millions spent on Wembley need to be justified, so the FA collectively tug their forelock before counting the cash.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this, the flood of TV money since the second Taylor Report post-Hillsborough has done little for the game. Financial rewards are the highest they have ever been yet because of the huge disparity in reward between placings there has never been more debt – the Premier League alone loses close to half a billion pounds each season. Driven by the insatiable desire of supporters, clubs leverage themselves in order to grab the next rung on the ladder. So prevalent has the borrowing become any club remiss enough to keep a grip on finance is all but guaranteed a slide down the leagues – witness the recent demise of “well-run” clubs Charlton and Crewe. We are constantly told the play-off final is the “biggest prize in football” as if fans measure success in the folding stuff. The claim is of course nonsense either way – far from banking the money, boardrooms will immediately spend it on the wages of players needed to keep the side at their new level.
The ease with which competent foreign players can be bought in has led to a vicious circle of poor coaching in this country and a removal of the admittedly already waning local identity of clubs. As an example, the West Ham side that drew with Liverpool contained four home-grown players (five if you count Alan Devonshire) and seven born within the M25. In contrast, the Hammers XI that beat Cardiff in their play-off semi-final last week consisted of a notable three products of the youth team but a mere two native to London. Little surprise Canning Town-born Mark Noble’s No16 shirt is the club shop’s best seller.
For the fans who attend games the startling improvement in comfort of grounds has come at a heavy price. Although Dad and I are unlikely to forget the rivers of Scouse piss sluicing down Wembley’s rotting terraces, the cost of attending football has, in a total inversion of that which were told prior to the nascence of the Premiership, rocketed. My FA Cup final ticket of 1980 cost me £3.50 or assuming a 40-hour week just over an hours’ work at the then national average wage of £6,000. Today, even the cheapest ticket at £38 for an inferior competition would take around three hours’ work at an average wage of £26,000.
Once it was the Police who decided when games were to be played, now it’s Sky with scarcely a passing concern for supporters. This season’s away game at Brighton – pencilled in at the start of the campaign as a weekend away with or without the missus – was scheduled for a Saturday kick-off. Yet Sky moved the game to a Monday night only after tickets had been bought, travel arranged and hotels booked. So much for their doubtful advertising claim, “Football – we know how you feel about it – cos we feel the same.” Although a qualitative judgement, I doubt many who have experienced 30-years of football would say anything other than the atmosphere at games has plummeted, hence the ever more desperate attempts of clubs and TV to “sell” the game. Thankfully, the owners of West Ham have come out against pre-recorded goal celebrations – even if I suspect this to be a reprieve rather than full pardon.
As a comparison between the games that preceded it and our previous final 23 years earlier the 2004 play-off final against Crystal Palace was illuminating. It was my last match of a 56-game season – the only time I’ve been ever present throughout an entire campaign – and irrationally I felt my commitment should be rewarded with a win. However, unlike the semi-final home leg against Ipswich (brilliantly stage-managed by then manager Alan Pardew to produce an atmosphere) I felt more of a spectator than supporter. Mr Woo juggling a football prior to kick-off had nothing to do with my experience of football, nor did the various other “entertainments” on show, all of which belonged to TV. And despite the 30-odd thousand West Ham present there wasn’t any “heart” to the crowd as you get at Upton Park in the Bobby Moore Lower Stand or the gloriously named “Chav Corner” between the Alpari and Sir Trevor Brooking Stands.
Like John Lyall I felt cheated – and not least as Palace won to complete my worst day as a West Ham supporter. Worse than relegation the previous season and much worse than the shoot-out FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool two years later that didn’t feel like a loss at all. As joyous as it was to gain promotion with a play-off victory against Preston the following season, the post-match emotion was more vindication than victory. And that’s the biggest problem with play-offs – you have so much more to lose than gain.
None of which can stop me being just as excited over going to Wembley as I was 31 years ago. Maybe all this is my fault?
I was standing in the away end at the Valley, Charlton, and it was simply hosing it down as West Ham attempted to hold onto a 2-1 lead with a bit over a quarter of an hour on the clock. Despite an arthritic knee and what pace he ever possessed forever gone former Hammers hero Julian Dicks had been asked to play in an unfamiliar wingback role and was taking a chasing from Addicks right-back Danny Mills. Worse still Charlton boss Alan Curbishley, along with everybody else in the stadium, spotted Dicks’ distress and doubled up on him by bringing on substitute winger John Robinson. When I say “everybody” I mean all bar the West Ham manager. Despite having the useful French wide player Marc Keller on the bench he failed to act – Mills banged one in and Andy Hunt and Neil Redfearn grabbed a late goal each to give our South London cousins a 4-2 victory. I walked back to the car in Anchor and Hope Lane unable to believe any manager worth his name could have been so tactically inept. Soaked to the bone, angry and confused – that Saturday in October 1998 was the day I stopped believing in Harry Redknapp.
My journey with the man began almost 30 years earlier with a match at Upton Park against Stoke City. Seated with Dad in the recently opened East Stand two memories from my first ever visit to the Boleyn Ground remain. A dull 0-0 draw closed with a woman running onto the pitch to attack the referee. Off the pitch my spectator experience, as it would no doubt be called today, was enhanced by the mainly good-natured but relentless barracking of West Ham’s spindly right-winger. “Oi Redknapp! Stick yer tongue out – you’ll look like a zip”, they chortled, “How about starching that number seven on yer shirt – give yer some backbone”, they laughed. For me, versed only in primary school banter it was inexplicable how fans might not treat players as heroes. But even at nine-years-old the truth was as obvious to me as it was them. Harry was chicken.
Redknapp hung around the club for a couple of years more before coming to the same conclusion as all his “admirers” and leaving for Division Three side Bournemouth. His return came from the same club – this time in a coaching capacity and following a spell in the United States – as understudy to manager Billy Bonds while the club languished in the second tier. Following an initial struggle Harry’s presence revived the side as they played with energy and enjoyment, gained promotion and consolidated their position with a 13th place finish in the new Premier League. Bonds jumped/was pushed, Harry took over and the club established itself as a mid-table side over the next few seasons.
Even if there were obvious faults to be rectified (our away form and propensity to fall apart under pressure, for instance) Redknapp appeared to be doing a good job. His buys were astute and our home form remained solid. But Harry’s profile in the media seemed to bear an inverse relationship with his ability to manage the club. Journalists loved the crafty Cockney rent-a-quote even if in person he could be extremely brusque and quick to anger. Along with the fame came a biography and a telling insight into the man – but not in a good way. Ghosted by Derek McGovern it was little more than a series of justifications for a host of allegations many of which were never made in the first place. It was also rather, shall we say, slippery with the facts. Despite claiming to have made “no money out of football” and leaving Bournemouth £2.5million in debt he arrived at West Ham living out of Sandbanks on Poole Harbour, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country.
Fortunately the book also went a long way to confirming personality traits I would argue define his subsequent career. As yellow as he may have been on the pitch, Redknapp is ruthless on an interpersonal level and extremely difficult to deal with. Examples from the book include spats with friends Barry Fry and Peter Storrie. Even Sir Clive Woodward, author of the England rugby side’s 2003 World Cup win, found him impossible to work with as he attempted a role as Performance Director while both were at Southampton.
Club Chairman at the time Terry Brown claims in Brian Belton’s biography Brown Out Harry was tactically illiterate and relied heavily on first Frank Burrows then brother-in-law Frank Lampard. As somebody who went to a lot of away games over that period I’d echo those sentiments. Time upon time we would travel with a 3-5-2 formation – used ostensibly to accommodate a playmaker such as Eyal Berkovic or Joe Cole only for it to quickly become 5-3-2 with three static centre-halves as soon as we came under pressure. After yet another heavy defeat Harry would brush off questions about the performance with claims such as, “These lads wouldn’t know how to defend” and expect nobody to question why he had first bought then selected them. Perhaps his behaviour when “accused” of being “a wheeler and a dealer” by a Sky reporter gives us a clue?
As a motivator Harry employed a pretty simple technique. Build a large squad before dividing it into pariahs and teacher’s pets. Given his force of personality nobody would want to be on the wrong end of a Redknapp tongue-lashing. For the huge majority of players there’s nothing worse than being dropped and I’ve heard several top flight managers observe the only way to motivate them is with the threat of not playing. Multiply that by the knowledge falling out with your boss would ensure you’d never be picked and it’s a pretty useful if ruthless model. A case in point was the previously mentioned Keller – who never enjoyed a run in the team despite some very good one-off performances. Jermain Defoe would no doubt sympathise too.
Perhaps Harry’s vague association with truthfulness was a concern for the FA regarding the England manager’s appointment. When appointed West Ham boss following Redknapp’s sacking, relative unknown Glenn Roeder was asked which attribute he could bring to his new job. “Honesty” was the immediate reply, a declaration that in true Harry fashion led to a series of putdowns in the press. In reality, it was easy to see Roeder’s point, after a nasty training ground fight between Berkovic and John Hartson denied by Redknapp but filmed by Sky a case in point. From my vantage I was interested to witness a TV appearance where Redknapp claimed a whole series of events during a game against Bradford that simply never happened. A former colleague of mine worked for the Newham Recorder and shared a good relationship with H. Post-presser the cub reporter would be summoned to Harry’s office to be told. “What I said out there was a load of bollocks, this is what’s really going on…” An indication perhaps, the man is less the cheerful duffer the press would have us believe but more of a ruthless operator.
It surely can’t be coincidence that every club H has departed have been left in severe financial distress. I’m going to have to be very careful what I say here, especially as a recent court case brought by HMRC absolved Redknapp of any tax misdeeds. Suffice to say, the more money H spent at West Ham the less value we seemed to receive from it. Great signings such as Trevor Sinclair from QPR declined and were outweighed by washed-up rubbish like Titi Camara and Gary Charles. As time went by players appeared to be bought to serve not the team but agents. As an inveterate gambler Harry didn’t seem able to develop from a punt to purchasing solid players. In Tom Bower’s tome Broken Dreams Brown is said to become increasingly frustrated with his signings and offers Redknapp a proportion of any money gained above £15million for the sale of Rio Ferdinand if he would stop buying players. All of which begs the question who was signing the cheques? Scriptwriter and director Tony Grounds is a good mate and pre-match drinking buddy (not that I drink that much) I met through football and would no doubt say his Channel Four film All In The Game about a corrupt football manager had nothing to do with our West Ham. I’d merely invite you to watch it and make up your own mind.
One of Harry’s proudest boasts concerns the players he “brought through” at West Ham. Happy to claim credit for the development of Ferdinand, Frank Lampard jnr, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick – even Defoe – who played exactly 13 minutes for Redknapp – the sad truth is those players were moulded into what they were by the West Ham Academy Director Tony Carr and with the possible exception of Lampard all needed a different manager to develop.
All these things and more are known by FA committee member Trevor Brooking who was a non-executive director of the club for much of Redknapp’s tenure. So it’s hardly likely he would have been an advocate when it came to the Three Lions job. Privately Harry will be fuming. But I rather wonder if there isn’t a tiny part of him that’s glad. For the truth is, stripped of the day-to-day involvement of a football club Redknapp may well have been exposed at the top level – especially as to misquote Enoch Powell, “All managerial careers end in failure.” His honeymoon period would undoubtedly have been longer than Roy Hodgson – the man who got the job – but by God Harry wouldn’t want to lose the people who’ve been his best ally all these years – the press.
Although well into middle-age I still receive a little childish thrill every time I receive an email. It doesn’t matter that many of them are subscriptions I’ve retained solely in order accomplish this reward, the frisson of excitement is just the same each time I hear the chime on my inbox – or trill from the dog and bone. And so it is when the postman pushes something through the mailbox – subconsciously an invitation from Domino’s Pizza to enjoy free boneless ribs with any stuffed crust retains the small but significant soupçon of intoxication I enjoyed from birthdays cards as a six-year-old.
Every other Wednesday the joy is doubled as my subscription to Private Eye flutters into the porch. Having the failings of corporate and political governance demonstrated in black and white keeps me on my toes. Of course my adherence to the brand is in no way diminished by bagging myself a mention in only the second Pseudo Names list. Somebody once said the joy of music is a balanced combination of the expected and unexpected and so it is with Lord Gnome’s finest. A case in point is the running gag of readers requesting ever more ridiculous if relevant excuses to get Ian Hislop to reprint a picture of Andrew Neil sporting a baseball cap and threadbare vest while cuddled up to former Miss India Pamella Bordes.
One of my favourite occasional features is the Solutions item which details the lengths (mainly) small businesses will go to appear contemporary and urbane via the simple technique of describing their business as a solution – usually to a problem which never existed in the first place. As an example while walking through Wanstead a few days ago I spotted a van proclaiming “Mobile Refreshment Solutions”. Phew! What a relief – a sandwich vendor right here and now solving ALL of my cold lunch requirements – even if you can’t spit out your chewing gum in E11 without hitting a snack bar.
If solutions are a waning fashion – hence the decreasing prominence in The Eye – then perhaps they might take up today’s catch-all buzzword – passion. Unlike solutions which ascribe mythical attributes to vulgar operations, passion lowers the status of intangibles such as ability or aptitude and insists perspiration to be an acceptable substitute for inspiration. I used to work for a firm one of whose corporate values (in itself a debatable concept) was a passion to excel – or in common English, a seeming imprecation to work hard rather than work well.
So pernicious, so all-encompassing is the trend it has spread to football where any meaning it once had has so long departed I use it as a flag to denote the user hasn’t a clue what they’re talking about. As US journo Mignon McLaughlin said, “We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty.” That’s not to say I cast any judgement on the person concerned – there are plenty of people playing the game, never mind watching it, unable to comprehend which tactics are being employed or why. No, when it comes to blame for the passion fashion I reckon I need to look much closer to home. Sports journalists are trained to pick and write a story and with some notable exceptions have little understanding of the game they cover. And to be honest they don’t need to – editors want headlines not information.
Nonetheless, I retain the right to criticise those paid vast sums to appear on Match of the Day as they fall some way short of Lord Reith’s claim the BBC’s remit is to educate, inform and entertain. When Mark Lawrenson is given full reign to offer the opinion the next English manager should display passion he’s displaying none of those qualities. Especially when Kevin Keegan – the most passionate of recent men at the Three Lions’ helm – was embarrassingly short of aptitude. You’ll already be tired of my appreciation for Roland Barthes but when he claimed, “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself” he could easily have been talking about a permed striker from Doncaster.
Even before 1953 when goalkeeper captain Gyula Grosics led his Mighty Magyars onto the Wembley turf and proceeded to trounce England 6-3 there’s been a steadfast media belief (ironically reinforced by failure) that states English passion can make up for and conquer foreign artistry. That despite Hungary’s abject lesson reinforced by a 7-1 victory in Budapest a year later. No matter Alf Ramsey – an England full-back that November evening – learned the lessons so well his tactical innovation of removing wingers in a subsequent role as manager led to victory in a World Cup just 13 years later. Of course he was slated by the English press for doing so. No matter either, a throwback to a Victorian ethos of Captain Scott bungling his way into two Antarctic expeditions has led to the England football team in specific and English football in general metaphorically choosing horses over dogs.
As flies to dung the England passionistas will look to players such as John Terry and Scott Parker as best representing the up-and-at-em values of a colonial past. And what could be more apt given these two particular players so obviously belong to a game played decades ago. Brutally exposed without a centre-half of athleticism and defensive quality alongside him Terry’s fist-waving ebullience is alleged to make up for his lack of aptitude. But while good defenders make the game look easy JT relentlessly ensures it appears heroic.
Parker too, adheres to the judgement of Manchester United’s former defender Jaap Stam who while no shrinking violet himself was so incredulous at the dominance of work ethic over ability he famously referred to Gary and Phil Neville (solid pros both) as “busy cunts”. I can’t think of a better description for the type of player most revered in this country. Despite a very good first touch and love for a tackle Parker can barely pass a ball 15 yards and struggles to adapt tactically or technically to any instruction beyond, “Go out and play your game son.” Yet the midfielder was adored at Upton Park and bought by England manager-elect Harry Redknapp as a linchpin for his Tottenham side.
Theologically The Passion refers to the privations of Christ up to and including his execution. Appropriate then the game in England should suffer so badly on the cross of those who desire passion above aptitude.
An ex-colleague for whom I have the highest regard is a strongly active member of the Labour Party and I read her Tweets with great interest. Not so much for details of her personal life – as amusing as they often are – but for the clinical precision with which she will dissect the latest idiocy coming from either Parliamentary or grassroots members. I empathise with her undoubted frustration at believing in a cause so strongly yet being hampered at every turn by disunity, arrogance or stupidity. As trite as it may appear her travails as a political animal mirror mine as a football follower. You see, the truth is I often struggle not to despise people who would no doubt call themselves fellow West Ham supporters.
According to a longitudinal study by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester West Ham season ticket holders are some of the wealthiest around (probably a function of the smallish ground and high demand which has led to relatively expensive ticket prices) yet at the same time among the poorest educated with a low proportion having attended tertiary education compared to other clubs.
As many other fans observe, Hammers are a bit “chavvy” – or to put it another way, working class-made-good. Living as I do in Suffolk the obvious comparison to make is with Ipswich whose supporters tend to be polite, respectful and a lot less raucous. Few self-respecting Irons would be seen dead wearing facepaint or many other symbols of the Sky corporate definition of what it is to follow “footy” even if replica shirts now abound. Town fans are much more volatile in their support – full of bravado when they win the same people disappear upon defeat. Most of all I don’t notice any shared sense of what it is to be a Tractor Boy.
To be West Ham is to be loud, proud and obnoxious. It’s no coincidence one of the most enduring chants over the years has been, “Same old West Ham, taking the piss” Throughout the 70s and 80s the feared ICF (Inter City Firm) came to define the support. Although a mate of mine who ran with them denies any tactical command, “We weren’t organised, we just set our clocks early” there is little doubt the proud boast “30 years undefeated” has some substance.
Contemporary football hooliganism has been all but eradicated but that legacy survives. Unfortunately with a median age over 50 it’s clear the same season ticket holders are still attending with a lost generation of 25-40 year-olds having missed out. Equally regrettably the previous aggression and sense of pride has been turned inwards into a sulky blanket disapproval of easy targets, principally the players and coaching staff. Meaningful protest has been forgotten as fans starved of considered media comment fail to make any connection between events on and off the pitch.
I strongly maintain the best thing about supporting a team, my team, are the people I meet and interact with – they’re the reason I keep going. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the club West Ham supporters seem to invariably choose the wrong option.
Former manager Harry Redknapp was adored by fans despite tactical illiteracy and a hold over then Chairman Terence Brown that allowed him to purchase and sell players not in the best interests of the club but for the betterment of his own bank balance. Admittedly protests were held against Brown – not least during several stormy AGMs. Far more damaging to the club however, were the subsequent Icelandic owners who all but propelled the club into liquidation but were saved any serious disquiet by canny PR. There’s a current revisionist platform that hails Alan Pardew’s reign as manager – particularly as under his stewardship Newcastle are having a good season – but the truth is he was disliked for most of his time at the club too despite taking us to our first domestic final in 25 years.
Although from the same background as the club’s support current co-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold are treated with at best mistrust and worst outright hostility despite being the first owners in the club’s 117 year history to put significant sums of their own money into the club (unfortunately the Icelanders investment turned out to be underwritten by Monopoly money). Current manager Sam Allardyce has the best win record of any manager but appears to be engaging an all-out PR war with his own support.
So it is with unease I view current plans among fan groups to demand a ballot on any proposed move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium in a mirror of the current fashion for TV viewers to ” have their say” in regard to reality shows. Leaving aside arguments over why non-shareholders might believe themselves worthy of representation only the most blinkered could possibly argue against a move on financial grounds. Club revenue will rise and ticket prices drop – hence Orient Chairman Barry Hearn’s antipathy to the move. Players would be more attracted to join the club and the sponsorship profile would rise. For spectators journey times to and from games would be slashed and pre and post-match comfort much improved from the dingy and derelict pubs surrounding Upton Park. Most importantly the increased capacity would enable the club to welcome back the lost fans I speak of.
Objections to the move are ostensibly based on the potential distance from stands to pitch with fans fearful of a diminution of atmosphere. Frankly this is hogwash, the current ground bears no relation to the dark, hostile and intimidating arena I first watched a game from in 1969. I’d suggest the real legitimation – and I’d have a lot more sympathy with this view – is the quite natural fear of change.
Sadly boys and girls, I believe our time is gone and a new generation of support is long overdue. If the club are to maintain traditions perhaps it’s time to ditch ours.
For the past few days Britain has seen itself gripped in the jaws of the worst mass panic since, well, since the last. Following comments that ranged from calculated to outright dangerous (I won’t use the word inflammatory out of respect for poor Diane Hill, the York woman who suffered 40 per cent burns to her body and as this blog is written remains in a critical condition in hospital) the country have been filling cars with petrol in a consumer frenzy only matched by the most recent iPad launch. The irony of “Keep calm and carry on” being the meme du jour is not lost on me.
The mood is best summed up by a woman I was speaking to last Friday who claimed, “This whole thing is ridiculous – there’s no need for people to panic at all.” Before adding, “But I only had half a tank of petrol left so I went out and filled up this morning”. This despite any fuel strike at least a week and probably further away and the pumps not about to run out any time soon. Hers is the schism between what people say and do, nothing inspires a panic like others panicking.
US lawyer and author Christian Nevell Bovee claimed, “Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.” Or put another way, panic is acting out the emotion of fear – and as such is one of the most primitive of reactions. With that in mind it is incredibly easy for those in public life of a malevolent cast to provoke a strong reaction using nothing but fear.
Tony Blair and George Bush used the fear of terrorist attacks to keep entire nations in check and instigate swathes of law that reduced civil liberties. Of course the effect of their pronouncements were not confined to merely us the public but also gave hawkish military leaders all the justification required to embark on their favourite pastime, slaughter.
Newspapers have long profited from selling panic, and just as I was once extremely perceptively informed by a psychotherapist, “The things we fear the most have already happened to us” so those that lap up stories about the latest housing crisis or cancer scare are paradoxically those feeling most threatened.
There is nothing to scare the newly wealthy like a return to frugality. No coincidence for me The Mail is widely read among the aspirational classes. These are the very same people who could not trust comprehensive schools to deliver. Instead they collectively wrecked the nation’s education system by fretting so badly over Ollie and Chloe’s “future” we sleepwalked via a self-fulfilling prophecy into two tiers of provision.
Sociologist Stan Cohen described this behaviour in his classic 1972 text Folk Devils and Moral Panics even if the term itself was first coined by colleague Jock Young. Cohen wonderfully referred to those who benefited from public fear as “moral entrepreneurs”, a brand of creatures brilliantly parodied by the TV programme Brass Eye. So effective was Chris Morris’ parody of the hysteria surrounding paedophilia his efforts turned full circle and the programme was banned, largely due to the efforts of Home Secretary David Blunkett who later confessed he hadn’t watched. Never mind the man is blind, it gave us the viewers the chance to pour scorn on Gary Lineker endorsing the fictional charity Nonce Sense.
If I sound judgemental on the issue then perhaps I shouldn’t. My great fear is a mixture of heights and exposure so debilitating I will never be persuaded onto a roller-coaster. Bridges are a particular struggle with at different times Queen Elizabeth II at Dartford and Brunel at Clifton proving impassable. On a long weekend in Porto such was my terror of the Dom Luís over the river Douro I bellowed Is This The Way To Amarillo to keep my mind off the walk across. Whether the current fuel crisis or my choice and execution of song is more pathetic and demeaning for those involved is for others to decide, even if visits to the wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia proved an effective antidote for the journey back.
Nominating panic a symptom of fear the disease is all well and good until we start thinking about a remedy. I’ve heard it said the opposite of fear is courage or even love but would dismiss both of them. Nor would I suggest the public singing of novelty records is any panacea. No, if we look at fear in its most basic form it seems to me it boils down to one primitive cry – “I want my mum!” When viewed in that light the antidote to panic is surely nurturing.
Even though it was a panicking woman who expressed her desire to grab all the petrol she could and despite The Mail relying on female approval to maintain sales I wonder if women’s most basic instinct is the answer to the fuel crisis and its base instinct. Or is that a bridge too far?
The incident is burned in my memory decades later; hurrying into the noisy classroom following dinner-break as I sat down next to my mate. Being a bit of a scally and in the knowledge I was the only boy in class not wearing long trousers (thanks Mum – seven-years-old and still in shorts) the little bastard pinched my leg. Due to the hubbub I was unaware of Miss Puddefoot’s presence in the room and let out a loud and prolonged scream – the sort you might holler in the recently vacated playground. She was a young teacher; kind and difficult to get on the wrong side of. Nonetheless, she stood up from whatever she was doing behind her desk and glared at me. No preamble, no telling off. “Go!” she commanded, “And stand outside the class.”
This was possibly the worst moment in my life up until then. As a well-behaved and rather diffident boy used to coming top of the form I wasn’t at all accustomed to discipline in school. However, the punishment meted out by teacher was far from my mind. Worse, much worse than her admonishment was the reaction of the class – they were in fits at my ridiculous scream and hysterics I’d been caught. I trooped out of this hell and to the relative sanctuary of the corridor to the mocking of 30 or so compatriots. Face burning red and with my heart attempting to pump its way through a Bri-Nylon shirt I had just enough self-respect remaining to save the tears for outside.
Some might find the incident amusing – I don’t and never have. All my life the very worst thing, worse than pain, worse even than death is embarrassment. Although an emotional response, I consider it a symptom of my own innate humanity this aversion applies not just to my own discomfort but anybody’s. I loathe the works of Woody Allen, am barely able to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and incredulous at the praise bestowed upon The Office. John Cleese may well have considered the writing of Fawlty Towers to have been good therapy for himself but for me it was the reverse.
As a rule, comedians in Working Man’s Clubs made a living embarrassing members of the audience while the alternative lot set about themselves. But when it comes people capable of humiliating everybody in sight you struggle to find a group more demeaned and demeaning than Morris dancers.
I’ve only met one person in my life who indulged in Morris. He and I both worked for a crisis-counselling charity and it was my misfortune to share a duty with him one Monday night. I must confess I didn’t think much of the chap even before he decided (much against any indication I might have given) to show me his “dance” technique. Out came a not-too-clean hanky as he pranced around the small room oblivious either to the impending need of the callers or my disgust.
Dressing up as a horse and poking your equine nose into ladies’ shopping bags is not “hilarious”, but “twattish”. Wearing a pair of cut-off cricket trousers, worn-out dress-shirt and white nylon football socks cannot under any terms represent “heritage”. And if this really is a fertility ritual, why are so many of the participants so old? Even leaving aside rumours of far-right memberships and allegiances I find it difficult to accept any group with even an ounce of nous would be proclaiming their right to black-up in the 21st Century.
But that’s rather the point isn’t it? Morris dancers have no self-awareness. With the exception of buskers – who do it for money – I cannot think of another group so ready to foist their hobby on an unwilling public. You may not like football but at least we retire to an out-of-the-way pitch to indulge. Fishing, the most popular leisure activity in the country, is all but exclusively maintained away from the public gaze. Even trainspotting – the most reviled pastime – will usually take place tucked away at the end of a station platform. Not so Morris men who exhibit an almost fascistic lack of concern for right of access to civic spaces.
As anecdotal evidence I give you an example from my past which also demonstrates my belief nothing in life makes us as angry as others behaving in a manner we forbid ourselves: On my way to rugby training one evening a bit of a hold up in the main square led to me dipping down a side street in order get to the club on time. Having the same idea, a couple of other cars followed behind me only for us all to screech to a halt as we reached the pub at the bottom. For outside the Rose and Crown a bunch of social misfits complete with fancy dress, bells and sticks had commandeered the byway and were exercising their “right” to ponce about in the middle. It was reminiscent of a scene from The League of Gentlemen – only more sinister.
Already late and not in the best of moods I was furious their pastime was denying mine. At the front of a now lengthening queue there was no opportunity to back the car up even if we weren’t in a one-way street, so I revved the engine as something of indication to the assembled extras from Royston Vasey I really would rather like to get about my business. Instead of the anticipated polite parting of the ways and a wave of a hanky I received dark looks and an increase in the tempo of the “dance”.
A quick toot on the horn fared no better so I started inching forward only for the occupants of the road to do the same. The stand-off broke as the bumper of my car feathered the bells of one recalcitrant only for him to plunge to the floor via my bonnet in a dive well worthy of a yellow card for simulation. Fortunately his friends finally got the message as I dropped the clutch and belted towards them.
Watching (and hearing) them scatter was almost as amusing as the look on the Desk Sergeant’s face when I visited The Nick post-rugby to report them – apparently they had already rung me in. Rather reasonably I thought, I pointed out had it been myself and a load of mates organising a political protest without prior warning and blocking the public highway our feet would barely have touched. I never heard any more from the local constabulary – but am willing to bet the bloke who pinched my leg now plays the accordion.
Surveys have long suggested men enjoy watching football as it is one of the few predominantly masculine pastimes that allows males to display a range of feelings otherwise deemed inappropriate. In particular it’s said men can bond at games and share a more gentle side. Admittedly I wasn’t looking all that hard – but I didn’t spot any psychologists at the 1-1 draw between West Ham and Middlesbrough on Tuesday evening. A good thing too; as Dorothy Parker unkindly said of Katharine Hepburn, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” And so it was at the Boleyn Ground with attitudes as extreme as Angst-ridden discontent all the way through to Blazing fury. For the real men at Upton Park you see, it’s all about anger.
Despite a campaign during which the Hammers have seldom been out of contention for a promotion place the team have slipped to third in the table albeit by just two points and with a game in hand over second-placed Reading. That blip is largely as a result of a consecutive streak of five draws at home. No matter the team are on a nine-game unbeaten run and haven’t lost since a freezing January night at Ipswich, the levels of expectation are such this isn’t considered good enough.
Opposing clubs come to the East End fully briefed to “park the bus”, slow the game down as much as officials will allow and defend for their life in the knowledge home “supporters” will soon be bellowing abuse at their own side. The fans want to watch a winning side so they scream at their own players making them nervous, edgy and therefore less likely to emerge victorious. I decided to challenge such a strange set of behaviours and engaged with two of the disaffected seated near to me during the half-time interval.
I started off with a polite enquiry by asking them if they’d played much football. The reply came back in the negative so I suggested (as somebody who has) one of the most important aspects of all team games is confidence – players need to be in a state as Mike Brearley put it of “relaxed concentration” to perform at their peak. No reply was forthcoming to this so I pressed the point and asked why they continually criticise the team despite it clearly having an adverse effect on the players. (Our away performances this season where the more committed supporters have a well-deserved reputation for both turning out in numbers and getting behind the team eclipse our efforts in London).
Here we reached the nub of the matter. “Our football”, I was told, “is shit”. My new friends went on to inform me they had “Never seen such dire football in 30 years of coming here”, before adding “We want some entertainment”. We finished on good terms and with handshakes all round despite their clear puzzlement at my advice that should they require entertaining perhaps Robbie Williams would be a better use of their finances. So far this season West Ham have played 37 games and won 19, over half. Last term we won seven from 38 and the preceding campaign just eight from the same amount. So I’m sorry boys – but you’re talking garbage. And especially when it’s exactly your behaviour that results in opponents doing everything they can to prevent us playing. The parallels with historic and self-destructive working class attitudes towards the workplace, politics and politicians are not difficult to draw.
The common narrative is manager Sam Allardyce produces “boring” football and relies on “long-ball” tactics to win games. Neither is true. While at Bolton Big Sam allied his strong organisational skills and love of statistics to the use of flair players such as Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka. Anybody who has seen the Route One football of teams such as Wimbledon under Dave Bassett, Cambridge with John Beck at the helm or Lincoln under Graham Taylor would be shocked to watch Mark Noble take a free-kick on the half-way line and tap it short to a colleague. Even Stoke in the Premier League would lump it.
Post-match and very disappointed at the result I turned for solace to my old sociology mucker and the inventor of semiotics Roland Barthes. While not smoking himself to death the Frenchman spent much of his too-short life writing about myth and mythology. Not a flowing-haired virgin astride a unicorn plunging through a starlit forest you understand, but a study of how relatively common place objects can attain in public consciousness qualities over and above their actual form as ruling classes establish its values. Pertinently for us Barthes spoke of professional wrestling; believing it not a “real” sport but an acting out of universal themes such as life, death good and evil in a stage-managed “pantomime” where the protagonists project clichéd versions of human weakness.
I’m not for a second going to suggest professional footballers bear any relation to the manufactured “personalities” of wrestling, nor do I believe match-fixing to be anything but the smallest of fringe activities within the sport. But look to our mass media and it’s pretty clear where their priorities lie. Sky Sports routinely talk up matches beyond any reasonable expectation. Newspapers sell by means of fuelling perceived vendettas between managers and players, while live coverage will often concentrate on “issues” surrounding the game as much as the football itself. Style above substance, myth before reality.
Put in that light it is West Ham’s misfortune to possess a highly gifted manager portrayed as academic and dull while at the same time lacking in flair. Perhaps I should not have been alarmed to have heard choruses of “We want Di Canio” towards the conclusion of the match. Massively talented as a player, while at West Ham the now Swindon manager was prone to repeated fits of ill-discipline, notoriously disliked by team-mates and often invented injuries to get out of playing games (particularly up north) if he thought we’d get beaten. Paolo Di Canio’s egomania is considered evidence of a talented individual who despite hailing from Rome is “one of us” while Big Sam’s supreme confidence a negative from “the Northern fat-head.”
As they (too often) say around East 13, “That’s a terrible myth!”
I come from a generation that grew up with little or no knowledge of homosexuality. Throughout my childhood and teens I certainly recognised the existence of gays – albeit mostly via what I’d read in the Sunday newspapers – even if I couldn’t believe anybody I knew actually was gay. I recall my resentment when girls flocked around one undeniably handsome but rather affected boy at school yet it wasn’t until years later it was pointed out to me just why that was.
I feel a fool now for not being more broad-minded, especially as he spent so much of his time away from class with one particular older lad. In this state of ignorance and just as I couldn’t imagine a teacher having any life away from the blackboard, nor did I think for a second there might be a real live poof in my school.
So when we liberals despair of the way society has become ever more intolerant it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in accepting difference. In my late teens skinheads routinely went hunting out public toilets that they might go “queer-bashing”. (No coincidence in my mind so many of the knuckle-boys later left the closet). I can’t remember anyone ever being prosecuted, in fact it seemed the Old Bill were mostly on the same side as they engaged in their own campaigns of harassment.
Compare and contrast with a colleague of mine who took early retirement last year and came out to the entire factory via email on his last day. Despite an environment where the newspaper of choice is The Star the most usual comment I heard was, “So?” That’s not to say there isn’t massive room for improvement – I’m sure my friend Dan who works for a GLBT charity would be only too ready to point out the horrifying incidence of contemporary homophobic attacks both here and abroad.
Not that my first experiences of a gay couple were all that positive. Jak, an old friend blurted out to me over the phone one day that her life had changed dramatically for the better before informing me she was still living with her husband but had moved a woman into the family home and was in love with her. I soon met up with the pair of them and not long after came to realise that Karen, the new woman, hated not just me but all men.
I must confess to prolonging my friendship with the pair of them for far longer than I should in the vain notion being friends with a couple of lesbians gave my right-on credentials a bit of a boost. So it was I endured a substantial amount of abuse from Karen in the name of “honesty” before foolishly retaliating. Pointing out Jak should tell her children about the affair and the pair of them should end their reliance on the husband’s financial support was apparently not the sort of honesty they traded in. Fortunately that experience proved to be an exception, even if it disabused some of my silly and tokenistic notions.
Since that time I’ve learned Bury St Edmunds offers few in the way of interesting and intelligent people of my age that aren’t either gay or married – and I don’t really enjoy the “couples” thing. It is that inherent mistrust of pairs presenting themselves as one that led to my immediate and instinctive view marriage is a failing institution that gays are well out of. Of course, that’s not the point at all; it’s about equality and denial of same due to ones sexuality.
So it is with a sense of despair I hear the arguments against gay marriage in the current public debate. There seem to be two strands, both emanating from the Church. The “marriage is for procreation” stance is so easily picked apart I’m not even going to bother. The second thrust (am I allowed to say thrust in a blog about gay marriage?) claims homosexuality to be a sin against God. Leaving aside the observation The Church has no monopoly on marriage it is instructive to hear what Jesus had to say on the issue. Ah, that would be absolutely nothing then – perhaps his big gay denunciation was pencilled in for the week after Easter?
When Cardinal Keith O’Brien claimed same-sex marriage to be a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” it’s easy to wonder if he possesses even the slightest sense of self-awareness. Does the Cardinal really not realise that tapping “catholic priest” into Google brings up “sex abuse”? And when the same official compared gay marriage to slavery it’s difficult to believe he hadn’t been at the Communion wine.
The despair I speak of comes not as you might imagine, from the paucity of the debate but the lack of more refined discussions about what it means to be gay in 2012. The gay people I’d call friends range in background, class and political views similarly to any sample of my straight friends, albeit the latter group tend to be loaded towards a support for West Ham United. I would hope I judge all of them good or bad not by their sexuality but as Martin Luther King famously said in another context, “By the content of their character.”
So why despite the reactionary view the arts have become all but a gay closed shop is there such a monotone representation of male gays in popular culture? With each appearance by Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady or Alan Carr I wonder if the role model hasn’t extended much beyond John Inman. Where are the bears and chubs on TV – albeit they are clichés too? And as much as I understand that for many men coming out is a process that involves disposing of an earlier character, the screaming queen is such a stereotype. As Michael Musto observed, “When I first came out I thought I would be entering a world of nonconformity and individuality and, au contraire, it turned out to be a world of clones.”
They say the things you dislike most in others are those you despise most in yourself, so before the hypocrisy of a straight man lecturing gays on their behaviour is pointed out to me I would observe this is a journey I’ve taken too – and not a particularly pleasant one either. Through my days at different times as a rugby player, drinker, doorman body-builder and so on, I only became comfortable with my own masculinity once I stopped pretending to be something I wasn’t. A lesson for all of us perhaps; gay, straight or clergy?
Along with the rest of the staff on The Sun’s editorial floor I was bent over a TV screen waiting for IOC President Jacques Rogge to announce who would be holding the 2012 Olympics. It was Wednesday the sixth of July, 2005 – and as I recall, overcast but warm. “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing”, he said. “That the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of … LONDON!”
The British delegates in Singapore leapt up and down in jubilation. Kelly Holmes beat her fists on the table in celebration. At Wapping the tension broke just the same. Well, almost.
Due to the vagaries of the networking system at News International the TVs at the far end of the floor were wired to a receiver a second or two ahead of our technologically challenged loop that covered Online and Features. We heard the cheers from the Sport and News desks before Rogge had finished the word, “city”. No matter it meant a mountain of work for me for the rest of the afternoon (albeit I’d already prepared for much of it) this was London in 2005 and everything was perfect.
My career at The Sun was really beginning to take off as I was given increasing responsibility by my editor. Love was blossoming and I had not long returned from a great holiday on the beautiful island of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro with Jane. Tony Blair was in power and despite my instinctive distrust of the man the housing market was roaring. We all had cash in our pockets and even though his chancellor had declared an end to boom and bust it seemed like boom all the way.
Until, of course everything really did go boom.
And no, I wouldn’t be so callous as to be referring to the events of the very next morning when a tube train I’d been travelling on an hour or so earlier was blasted in two by a religious fanatic from a Leeds chip shop. (Eight people died including the bomber).
Four years later we lived in a post-credit crunch world. I was made redundant and used an amount of my pay-off on psychotherapy to try and understand why. Of course the truth, as Oscar Wilde didn’t say, was simple – as much as I had emotionally engaged with working for a newspaper I loathed they treated me as all corporations do, with complete disregard.
Blair had long since let me down, News International let me down – and the closer we came to the Olympics the more my initial optimism seemed unfounded. And not just because as a West Ham supporter the legacy of the stadium was wrapped in the labyrinthine complexities of finance, law and Tottenham Hotspur.
At least there was still Jane, now paying back my faith in her by proving to me to me just how kindness can be a strength, a notion I’d fought against all my life. Her recognition of the Olympics is important living as she does in east London just three or so miles and three stops on the Central Line from Stratford.
The borough of Newham where the stadium is being built is the third poorest in the country with children growing with a 27 per cent rate of “severe poverty”. Yet the average price of a house in the borough is over £220,000. Jane lives in the relatively affluent Redbridge and works for a legal costs consultants yet cannot afford to buy a ticket to watch the Olympics. Nor can many of the locals despite them all paying for the event via their increased council tax.
The promised “legacy” from the Olympic Village, earmarked to be used as social housing seems to shrink by the day. Just how many of those homes, now owned by the Qatari Royal family do we think will actually serve the community and not scores of incoming businessmen eager to work closer to the financial centre of London?
At least there’s the “regeneration” provided by Westfield – a huge shopping complex to the east of the stadium. Jane and I visited a couple of Sundays ago and I must say we were as delighted as ever by the great food on offer at Busaba Eathai. But something strange was afoot, we left the restaurant to have a browse of the shops – admittedly never my favourite leisure activity – but could barely walk around the concourses for the sheer volume of shoppers.
Only they weren’t shoppers, they were spectators – if we wanted to avoid the crowds it was easy – just walk into a shop, they were invariably close to empty as nobody had any spending cash. So there it is, the Olympics, an event the people closest to it cannot partake in, live in or shop in despite all the lofty claims of “legacy”. All we can do is watch from afar via our TV screens as the tournament plays out to a grateful world.
Actually, I don’t think I’ll bother…