By Rick Kane
My first day in the UK, ever! We are off to see the Hammers go up against Chelsea this afternoon. But first we’re hitting London.
The first postcard view I get is, well, of course, it’s the Tube. Richard, the friend who I am staying with, and I catch the Tube from Epping to Mile End. Then we cut across to Westminster. So, the second postcard view I get, as I walk directly out of the Underground is Big Ben, then the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Thames. Wow! By the time we are back on the Underground heading to Upton Park I have walked through Whitehall, Trafalgar Square (Nelson’s Column), Leicester Square, the West End, The Strand, Covent Garden (not a blade of grass of a hint of a flower to be seen anywhere), Fleet Street and St Paul’s Cathedral. Not bad for a two-hour stroll.
Now we are on our way to the football, the Premier League. This competition doesn’t have any capping on buying and selling players. Chelsea can afford world-class players like Essien (as a sub), Obi, Cole, Ballack, Terry, and West Ham’s own Frank Lampard.
On the field it shows. Their pace and ball skills are superb, a delight. But I’m not going to mention that while at the game.
See, here’s the thing. Soccer, or more correctly, football is still very tribal in the UK. Upton Park holds 35,000. Graciously, the Hammers have allowed Chelsea about 500 tickets. We’ve bought our tickets through West Ham and I’ve been warned not to show any connection to Chelsea whatsoever. I laughed at the time, but not now. Now I’m Hammers through and through.
To get to Upton Park we’re squashed like sardines on a train carrying only Hammers supporters. We shuffle, slowly, through the station gates and down the main street in rows of ten or more.
The road is awash with claret and blue, the Hammers’ colours. It is a festival, albeit underpinned with a visceral tension. The pubs are overflowing and there is chanting in the air. Walking into the ground I get a feeling that I haven’t experienced for a long, long time. The feeling is one that anyone who’s watched Aussie football at their team’s suburban home ground, from Lathlain Park, home of the Demons in the WAFL, through to Windy Hill.
This feeling stays with me the whole game and I have no direct connection to either side. But I love how the supporters love their club. They are rude and cruel and self-indulgent and passionate. They chant and sing throughout the game. Songs that feature the lines, “Stick the blue flag up your arse” and “Fat Frank is fat, fat bastard” (I believe they still secretly admire Lampard, who’s the best player on the field), and the Hammers’ theme, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. No AFL club has a theme song so catchy or sentimental.
These people are wedded to their team through history, the local area and blood. The game is played in the heart of the home team’s community and that keeps the love alive.
By the by, Chelsea win 1-0. (There is no replay of the goal on the big screen – I mean, very tribal). They could have won by a few more. They moved the ball quicker, more creatively and with more polish than the Hammers. West Ham’s defence, including Lucas Neil, Matthew Upson and the goalie, Robert Green were mainly responsible for keeping the goal count down. Other than that, West Ham was out of their league. Frank Lampard shone.
The game stops the main street. Police have to control the mayhem. They herd the Chelsea fans through the Hammers crowd, back to the station, to catch a separate train. I see it. I can’t believe it. For all the concern about safety, it means something deeper. Cars and double-decker buses stay sat in the main street while Hammers fans flow around them. You can’t get to a bar, the queue to catch the train is a mile long, and the buzz is electrifying.
So, we do another very English thing: we go to Tesco, buy a four-pack of Old Speckled Hen Ale (room temperature) and stand near a pub to have a drink. As we are doing so, an aging skinhead passes. His head is shaved. Tattoos are scrawled across the back of his neck. Oh, how very British.