Since launching this site from within the confines of my bedroom back in the summer of 2012, I have had the privileged of being offered some pretty decent perks from a number of different brands.
But the recent one Betway offered me has to be up there with the best.
When I got the initial call, inviting me on a number of events leading up to the official unveiling of our brand new home, I obviously jumped at the chance to be involved. The details were vague; I’ll be going to the home shirt kit launch, our Europa League away leg and the Juventus game. That’s all I knew – sign me up!
What followed was pretty incredible…
The Kit Launch
— WestHamWorld.co.uk (@WestHamWorld) July 16, 2016
Regardless of all the criticism the kit launch received, the event was a success.
From weird freestyle rappers to football freestylers to pretty impressive video compilations, the launch of the 16/17 home shirt was the start of an incredible month.
It began with me, the lads from Read West Ham and Forever West Ham being given early VIP access to the club’s new mega-stadium store where the shot staff were working tirelessly to get the new the shop floor kitted out in the new home top.
The manakins were looking smart, the shirt even smarter, and we were instructed that any photos taken were to be embargoed until the official launch that afternoon.
Then I dropped my phone – the screen smashed, the screen’s ink begins to flow and suddenly I’m no longer in a position to tweet photos of the shirt earlier than I’m allowed to, because I no longer have a phone to do it from.
Marc from Betway kindly lent me his phone for the rest of the afternoon, which I found myself holding so tightly in fear I’d drop his too. Thankfully I didn’t.
The launch was good fun, if not a bit cringe at times, but it proved the club is trying new things as a new era dawns. It’s the first time the club has done something like it so it was always going to have it’s teething problems, and I’m sure any future kit launches will be a huge improvement.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and fell in love with the new shirt as soon as Mark Noble came on to the stage wearing it. It’s a lovely little number.
We end the afternoon with a few beers in The Cow pub in Westfield, where we discuss Sam Allardyce as England manager and West Ham’s chances for the new season.
A good day had by all, but only the start of better experiences to come.
Away days in Slovenia
The Europa League draw is made and we’re treated to a trip to Slovenia, where we’ll face NK Domzale. But that’s not before an early scare.
As you’ll know Domzale had to beat a side from Belarus to advance to the third qualifying round – but because the draw was made just a week before our game, a trip to Belarus would’ve been out of our reach due to a lack of time to get VISA’s sorted.
Thankfully the draw went in our favour and Marc from Betway is on the phone giving me all the details.
Before I know it it’s 7am on Wednesday morning and I’m parking up at a private terminal in Stansted airport, and being introduced to several members of the West Ham media and PR team.
We’re fast tracked through to security and ushered on to a private plane, which is fully equipped with leather recliner seats and a ridiculous amount of leg room. It doesn’t take me long to sit back and enjoy the flight in comfort.
We land in Slovenia two hours later and the weather is scorching.
It’s a short drive from the airport where we check in to our incredible hotel before taking a wander in to Ljubljana, mostly to find an ice-cold beer – that didn’t take long. And it’s cheap – €6 for three local beers!
No sign of any West Ham fans yet, other than this guy blowing bubbles. Is this a sign?
— WestHamWorld.co.uk (@WestHamWorld) July 27, 2016
Later that evening we’re back on the mini-bus and heading to the stadium we’ll be playing in the following day. Then the unexpected happens.
Suddenly I’m pitch-side and being told we’ll be sitting in on Slaven Bilic and Mark Noble’s pre-match press conference before watching the players train.
The two main men have arrived! pic.twitter.com/nm0yjtmyyY
— WestHamWorld.co.uk (@WestHamWorld) July 27, 2016
When it came to watching the players train, it doesn’t take long to hit home how good you have to be to become a professional footballer. The speed at which they train is incredible, and I almost feel ashamed at how unfit I am. I’m only 28 and I can hardly walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath.
Then I cheekily ask whether it’s possible to grab a quick interview with one of the players ahead of the game. It was a long shot, but before I know it I’m standing in front of a towering Ashley Fletcher, who is only too happy to answer a few questions.
He speaks clearly and confidently as I quiz him about his first few weeks as a West Ham player and the club’s chances of beating Domzale the next day…
— James Jones (@jj2388) July 28, 2016
During training there a few things that immediately stand out. Sam Byram is being trained on his left-foot, and he even stays behind for an extra 5/10 minutes so Julian Dicks can give him some one-to-one training on his weaker foot; Domingos Quina looks an incredible talent and certainly one for the future; Gokhan Tore is limping off the pitch (I didn’t see how he got injured) and looks in a bit of pain. Uh oh!
Obviously we’re unable to reveal the news that he may not make the game due to this set back, but it’s worrying to see.
Later that evening we enjoy dinner before hitting some Ljubljana bars. The city itself is beautiful and I’d recommend it to anyone.
— WestHamWorld.co.uk (@WestHamWorld) July 28, 2016
It’s Thursday morning and the day of the game. I spend the morning working (yes, it’s wasn’t all a jolly up) and my mates rib me on WhatsApp over how small I look standing next to Ashley Fletcher, who’s six years my junior.
The afternoon arrives and we go in search of West Ham fans advancing on to Slovenian bars with their flags and beer money. It doesn’t take long to find them, they’re in the first bar we come across. Loud and proud. In full voice.
One lad tells us how one of his mates jumped in to the canal for €100. Fair play to the lad, I suppose.
After several beers we head off to the stadium, where we’re told we can watch the first-half with the away fans and the second in the VIP suite. This is because we have to shoot off straight after the game to get to the airport.
The view from the away fans’ section is decent and it’s good to be back watching the lads. We start singing Bubbles and I get goosebumps. FOOTBALL IS BACK!
Of course, the performance and result isn’t ideal but there’s always the second leg to put it right.
Immediately after the game we’re straight back to the airport and on the plane, where we’re joined by the squad. The flight back to London is surreal. I’m sharing a plane with some of my heroes, minus Dimitri Payet. I’m never going to forget it.
The time taken between getting off the plane and sitting my car is around five minutes – that’s private flights and terminals for you. How the other half live, eh?
I drive home in the early hours of Friday morning trying to comprehend the experience I’ve just had. Probably not once in a lifetime, because this is my job, but certainly one I’ll never forget.
The best stadium in London
The third and final leg of my Betway journey is the Juventus friendly at the London stadium.
I was at our second leg against Domzale at the London Stadium just a few days before, so I knew what to expect from our incredible new home, but I’m still excited to get inside again; this time experiencing the game from the Arnold Hills Lounge, which is dedicated to the club’s original founder and is the inspiration behind the club’s commemorative Thames Ironworks F.C. kit.
The VIP experience is pretty incredible, as we take advantage of a three-course meal, some free beers and then enjoy the sun-soaked London Stadium officially launch the new Bobby Moore and Sir Trevor Brooking stands.
It’s a good game of football and a good performance from the lads. Andy Carroll’s brace is the subject of conversation and convinces us he should be the Man of the Match. Marc from Betway then tells us that it’s our responsibility to pick the official MOTM, and of course we all agree on Carroll.
The crowd cheers when he’s announced as the MOTM over the tannoy, much to my relief. We picked the right guy!
After the game, a few of the lads go pitchside to present Carroll his unique Thames Ironworks/History Prepared trophy, while I go outside and wait for them to come back out.
I reflect on what has been an incredible month being entertained by Betway, from the home shirt kit launch to wining and dining in the Arnold Hills Lounge, a wonderful trip to Slovenia inbetween.
When it comes to official club sponsors, fans don’t recognise the work they do to really engage with the club’s passionate supporters and how they want to speak to them on a closer level.
For me, Betway achieved that and a whole lot more in the build up to the start of this season. I can’t thank them enough for getting me involved this summer – they’ve been incredible.