A Fond Farewell To Upton Park

By Joe England Last edited 96 months ago
A Fond Farewell To Upton Park

West Ham fanzine editor Joe England ponders the end of an era as the club prepares to leave its home of 112 years, to move to Stratford's Olympic stadium.

The Boleyn ground

We are on the verge of saying our last goodbye to watching West Ham United in E13. The ground commonly known when I was a kid as Upton Park — which is actually the district — has always been The Boleyn Ground since 1904.

The football club was formed in 1895 as Thames Ironworks FC (where the nickname 'Irons' comes from), but became West Ham United in 1900 and previously played its football further west into London, in Canning Town.

We are now moving back westwards, this time to Stratford; a process that has stirred many emotions since our fundamental bid to move to the Olympic Stadium first became news.

But do we really want — in our heart — to move? The answer from almost all those who have been going to the ground from the 90s backwards is: No.

There are so many memories of the place, even though the ground has gone through many changes. The North Bank, until the early 60s, was an open terrace and the West Stand wasn’t extended until the middle of the same decade.

But the biggest change for many was when the wooden stand on the east side, fondly known as The Chicken Run, was demolished in 1968 and the East Stand built.

West Ham forever
Photo by grot spotter from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Built well before my time, this was a truly legendary place and mainly rammed with dockers.

My late uncle Ray Talbot (he wasn’t related, but to the kids down our road he was always Uncle Ray) used to live in East Ham. He was into his boxing and football and he met his wife Pauline in The Boleyn pub in the 50s (her mum ran it back then). He told me of how they’d all have a good drink there and then cram into The Chicken Run on a Saturday afternoon and how it was the only place to be in the ground.

To me, although many still call it The Chicken Run, that part of the ground has always been to me, the East Stand, and now remains the oldest part of The Boleyn Ground; hence why I have so much affection for it — even though it has been dwarfed by the rest of the ground for so long now.

Piss-flooded toilets

The South Bank was demolished in the summer of 1993. Its day had come: as far as I remember, you never wore your best trainers when taking a half time piss in those forever-flooded toilets. It had to make way for the impressive Bobby Moore Stand in February 1994.

I used to stand at both North and South Bank ends, but by the time the Bobby Moore Stand was built I had mostly been a season ticket holder in the East Stand Lower for a few years, and it was still standing room only in the lower tier.

Chicken run view
In this photo from 2012, taken by Hammer Head, you can see the Trevor Brooking stand (far left) and the Bobby Moore stand (right), plus the diminutive East stand, aka The Chicken Run.

I thought the ground looked magnificent from that vantage point. The past and the modern day combined perfectly. To my left, the modern Bobby Moore Stand, to my right the vast and always packed covered terrace of the North Bank, and opposite, even though an all-seater by then, the famous West Stand.

The demolition of the North Bank and more significantly the West Stand, for me, changed everything. I used to sometimes sit up in the West Stand Upper for big games — always as a treat with my brother to sit up there — and at those big games you had the same passion and atmosphere as anywhere on the terraces. But when the West Stand went, the pitch was moved. This left a massive gap between the East Stand and the touchline. You could fit an eight-lane running track in that gap.

An intimidating place

For most of the East Stand's history, and The Chicken Run before then, you were right on top of the players and the linesmen (ask any linesman if he ever relished running the line on the east side of the ground and he’ll tell you we gave them hell if a decision didn’t meet with our approval).

Same for the stick opposing teams got. A very intimidating place if you were not on our side or on our side and clearly not putting in a shift. It was so tight that when a player took a throw-in, he was leaning back into the crowd.

Simon Inglis, a well-respected expert and author on British football grounds, recently wrote an article in the long running football fanzine, When Saturday Comes, about our move to the Olympic Stadium. He titled the article Mind The Gap, and opined that West Ham fans would not enjoy the move, declaring only doom and gloom ahead. But anyone who has watched their football from the East Stand for the past 14 years will tell you: we already know all about the gap.

First memories

My first game at Upton Park was in March 1973. A reserve game that was supposed to be a first team game and my recount of the day in a West Ham fanzine in the late 90s was used in a London to Gatwick Express advert where the theme was: ‘Timing is Everything.’ There were three of us used in the advert: Me, Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking. And I still have the adverts to prove it.

West Ham Reserves lost 0-3, but I just loved sitting in the West Stand Upper and studying the ground; there was nothing on the pitch to hold my attention!

My love affair with Upton Park had begun.

How many games have I seen over there since that reserve game? Too many to remember. I have seen action on and off the pitch and outside the ground, and there have been too many famous days and nights there to start to pick and choose. But the 85/86 season was the best football I have seen West Ham play well consistently over the course of a season.

It has only been closely matched since by the 05/06 side that should have won the FA Cup, and this season’s superb talent of players.

Then exactly 40 years to the day of my first game, I launched a literary fanzine called PUSH that I sold at West Ham v West Brom in March 2013 and it is still going (up to issue 20 as I write).

It soon became the alternative read on the way home after a game to the West Ham cult following who bought and continue to buy copies and two anthologies of PUSH have subsequently been published by the East London Press, in claret and blue covers, naturally. And then in this final season, everyone was saying to me that I had to do a West Ham-only fanzine dedicated to this emotional end to an era in E13.

It is called 5MANAGERS, as to my knowledge, we are the only top flight club in the world to have only had five managers over a period of 87 years — from Syd King in 1902 until the unfortunate sacking of John Lyall in 1989.

I wanted the fanzine to feature players who played under those managers, fans from the terraces talking about that same era as well as opposition viewpoints. Those interviewed and featured have been the likes of Frank Lampard Sr, Mark Ward, Kenny Brown, Johnny Sissons, Frank MacAvennie and current West Ham Under 18s coach, Mark Phillips.

It's also featured Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting and a massive fan of the club, East End born and bred photographer and man of many talents Grant Fleming, and Jeff Turner of the Cockney Rejects whose granddad played under the first of the five managers; Syd King.

In the Opposition Viewpoint section there has been the former Chelsea footballer, Charlie Cooke, John King, author of The Football Factory, and the original bassist of Public Image Limited and — into his third decade as a successful solo musician — Jah Wobble.

In the fanzine, while the good and the bad old days are covered, every feature ends with this; will the move be good for West Ham?

The general consensus has mostly been: it will take the club to the next level.

Mourning pre-match rituals

But for me I think, although the new stadium is impressive, it will take a few years for us all to adjust. We will surrender all our important match day rituals; the pubs and clubs still around the ground (many have already closed), the pie and mash and chip shops. It’ll all be a massive shock to the senses.

Nathan's Pie and Eels
The queues for Nathan's snaked round the corner to Barking Road. Photo byArt DiTommaso via Flickr.

It's a cultural change that will not impact many until well into next season. Missing the buzz around the ground before a game; down Green Street, round Castle Street, Priory Road. And that part of the move is something that I am not looking forward to. It has nothing to do with moving into a state of the art new stadium. It goes beyond a new stadium.

I love my lifetime of pre- and post-match West Ham rituals as much as being in the ground. But this is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the club to evolve. We have always moaned about our lack of ambition, selling our best players, our regular visits to the division below us.

So what is there to worry about?

Someone who knows all about the history and all the previous grounds of Thames Ironworks/West Ham United, is a mate of mine, John MacCrea. He was born and bred a stone’s throw from all the grounds the club played at before the move up the Barking Road in 1904 to The Boleyn Ground. I asked him, is the move a good thing?   

John replied that this is not the first time the club has moved. Thames Ironworks FC played at Hermit Road, Canning Town in 1895 before temporarily moving to Browning Road and then onto the Olympic Stadium of its time, The Memorial Grounds, again in Canning Town; a modern sports and leisure facility for the use of Thames Ironworks employees and their families.

Fair enough, but is this move the right thing to do?

Absolutely! If we qualify for the Champion’s League this season then with the chance to play European Football in a superb stadium will mean we can attract the type of player who would not have given us a second glance not so long ago. Credit to the two Davids [co-owner David Sullivan, and joint chairman David Gold], as they have been true to their word, and also Karren Brady. She negotiated a marvellous deal for the club and deserves immense credit for that.

With the increased revenue from what I am sure will be sell out games for all of our home fixtures, then we will be able to punch above our weight.

I have been to the Olympic Stadium for a sporting event, albeit with a different shaped ball, and I was immediately struck and thinking at the time what a great stadium this is and was already dreaming of the atmosphere when we move in. I can see it being like those semi final second leg midweek games against Eintract Frankfurt in 1976 and Ipswich in 2004; on both occasions the place was rocking and will be all the time when we move in!"

All I can add to that is this: hopefully, John will be proved right.

An artist's impression of how the stadium will look come next season.

No one likes change. Especially me. The Boleyn Ground will be missed. There will be a period of mourning after we have all exited the ground for the last time against Man United on 10 May, and no doubt for many months to follow. But the Olympic Stadium does look stunning and with 60,000 in a sold out new ground each game — especially night games under the lights — the prospect of seeing West Ham United play in a world class stadium is something we must all embrace.

Add to that the magnificent transport hub in and out of Stratford, which has got to be one of the best in Europe; there is the real makings here of a new beginning.

Fortunes have always been hiding, and as West Ham fans, trust me, we seriously have looked everywhere. But maybe fortunes were always there right on our doorstep. Ready and waiting in another east London stadium.

A compliation of the best of 5MANAGERS is being published by East London Press in the summer. Compilations of PUSH have been published by the same publisher (naturally, in claret and blue). You can buy Issue 1 here and Issue 2 here. You can find out more about Joe and PUSH in our article.

Last Updated 30 April 2016