West Ham prides itself on being a big club and, even though they haven’t won a major trophy since their FA Cup final triumph in 1980, they still regularly fill the Boleyn Ground.
Outsiders may struggle to understand why this is, but here’s my story as a long distance West Ham fan whose round trip to Upton Park is over 200 miles…
So, why West Ham? Well, my Dad was a keen supporter as a boy in the heady days of the late 50’s, when the Hammers finally clawed their way into England’s top division. His family had season tickets in the brand new East Stand. His enthusiasm eventually rubbed off on me and I started to take a real interest in the team when I watched a televised FA Cup tie against Manchester City in 1998. I was hooked.
I didn’t actually attend a game until the last match of the 2001/2 season against Bolton Wanderers and it proved to be a good start, with the Hammers running out 2-1 winners. Though the atmosphere was fantastic and West Ham played well, my seat was at pitch level and only one half of the pitch was visible. Despite this, it was a brilliant first experience of live football for me and had me wanting to go back for more.
I attended a number of games the following campaign, though as a wheelchair user I was still seated at pitch level. Unfortunately the season wasn’t to go well for the team as they were relegated with 42 points, still the highest number in top-flight history. It taught me another important Hammers’ lesson: dealing with adversity!
The change of division didn’t faze me at all as I just loved the atmosphere that the large fan base created and I kept buying tickets on an ad hoc basis. One game saw me seated behind the goal which meant only one half of the pitch was in full view – great when West Ham were attacking that particular end but not for the other 45 minutes!
I even managed to get a ticket for the play-off semi-final first leg against Ipswich Town and although the Hammers went on to reach the final, I was heartbroken not to be lucky enough to be at the Millennium Stadium. Perhaps fate was kind to me as they came out on the wrong end of a 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace.
It could be said that the following season changed my life! I went to watch the team 11 times that season and as the season drew to a close and all seemed lost, they just managed to make the play-offs again. I thought I would be watching the whole play-off run from home again but, thanks to my Dad’s persistence and West Ham’s disabled coordinator, I got tickets for Cardiff at the 11th hour and this time the team did manage to make it all the way with Bobby Zamora scoring the only goal against Preston North End.
To hell with expense, I just had to invest in a season ticket and I soon learned that I wasn’t the only one to travel a long distance, as only three of my fellow disabled supporters lived in the London area. Many of them travel from all parts of the country to attend home games.
For me, making the journey from the South Coast is well worth doing and I never miss a home game if I can help it.
This club can produce scintillating football and have always been capable of mixing it with the best, but fans find that they look forward to the season rather more in hope than expectation of silverware. Although the club has money behind it, it is difficult to compete with the bigger English clubs with Upton Park’s current capacity.
Perhaps the move to the Olympic Stadium can change this? But this club will always be loved by its fans no matter what.