May 2nd 1964 – The date of my first game, only I wasn’t supposed to be going. The old man had come home from work that week with tickets for himself and my older brother, at that time football to me was a kick about in the back garden – a mess around activity between us all with lots of fun and laughter. A couple of days before the match my brother was feeling unwell and much to his disappointment it was decided he would be better off staying at home – so out rolled the substitute, yours truly.
There was a bit of discussion about whether I should go as well, after all I was still 2 months short of my 4th birthday, but the old man convinced my mum that it would be ok, after all I was big for my age and could easily pass for a 5 or 6 yr old. My recollections of what happened that day are a bit hazy, most of what I write will be from conversations that took place some years later.
I’ll start off by saying my old man is a Gooner, always was, always will be. So as far as I knew we were going to watch a football match between a team from London and a team from ‘up north’ (where ever that was), who were playing for some sort of prize. Now the London team had in a previous match, vanquished a much vaunted team also from ‘up north’ called United. But the London team was also called United – which to my mind caused much confusion, how did we know which United had won I asked. My dad explained that the united part was a bit like a surname, lots of clubs had it but had a different first name and the one from Up North that lost was called Manchester. This, of course, made eminent sense to me – we were supporting London United!
We arrived at Wembley where my dad met up with some friends from work and started to make our way to the stadium – I had never seen so many people all in one place. On the way in a chap wearing a dark red and light blue scarf asked who we were supporting (as we had no scarf’s ourselves).
“London United.” I said in my loudest most grown up voice.
He laughed and said “Nah mate! They’re call West ‘am United – The ‘Ammers, this scarf is there colours – Claret ‘n’ Blue, a’ mate.” And off he ran into the crowd still laughing and shaking his head.
We got into the stadium and found places near the front, close enough for me to get a good view and far enough back that we were not right at the front. Most of the match passed me by in a frenzy of noise and colour, we didn’t start off too well and they scored after about 10 minutes, then we got one back almost straight away (much to the relief of those around me). The game started to get quite exciting and I started to join in the shouted support for West Ham. Then we started to play not so good again and they scored, a short time later the whistle blew – “Did we lose?” I asked my dad disappointedly, “Not yet son, its half time – there’s still another 45 minutes left.”
The second half started and we were looking good, but the game kept too-ing and fro-ing.
Then from a corner we scored again and it was 2 all. The game could have gone either way, both teams having scoring chances – it was starting to look like it would be a draw at full time, but suddenly, in the dying minutes we scored again. The Whistle blew for the final time and West Ham United had won the FA Cup.
We stayed long enough to see the cup lifted then made our way home. For weeks afterwards my brother kept telling me how lucky I was to have been at the match. Of course at the time I did not know what he was on about – it was only a football match after all.
I had flirtations with other clubs for a few years after that (as most kids at my primary school did depending on their favourite player at the time), as I said before I was big for my age (I was about 4-5” taller than most of my peers and was of a ‘stocky’ build) so I always got picked to be in goal or as a Centre Back – because of that I (as any school kid would) styled myself on my favourite player at that time, Gordon Banks. But in the end I always came back to West Ham United.
As you can imagine it was a raucous in my household at that time, the old man being a Gooner, me a Hammer, my older sister was into Chelsea (I think that was more due to the two Peters – Osgood and Bonetti – rather than the football) and my younger brother was into Leeds United (he liked Peter Lorimer - he of the hard shot).
As for my older brother, a few months after the match we moved house and he had a little accident. Nothing serious, but he had a few problems getting over it. After some investigations at the hospital it was found that he had Leukaemia. Back in those days Radiotherapy was in its infancy, Chemotherapy was not even being tested and Bone Marrow transplants were not even thought of. He died not long after at the age of six. I now appreciate how lucky I was to go to that game, the one he should have gone to, I am sure if we had know how ill he really was then he would have gone and he would have been a Hammer as well
Groundhopping is the practice of visiting as many football grounds as possible. This, however is an oversimplified explanation. The majority of people who do this activity are known as groundhoppers and have either already been to the majority of decent grounds or have some perverse dislike of good quality football and stadiums. A consequence of this is that groundhoppers are more often than not found at non-league football grounds - the more obscure and difficult to get to the better.
The Ability to Boast
Groundhoppers are very fond of enquiring about the activities of fellow hoppers - commonly trying to out-do each other with tales of where they've been. 'Have you been to Bloxwich Rangers yet?' 'I've done all that league now including Dudley Amateurs' new ground'. Most hoppers actually compete with their fellow travellers and take pleasure only in having visited more grounds or more obscure grounds than each other. They sometimes travel in packs - sharing a car - but this is frowned upon by 'real' hoppers who only ever use public transport.
Groundhoppers are easily identified by the equipment that they carry...
The Carrier Bag
Perhaps the most essential piece of equipment the groundhopper possesses is the carrier bag. This is usually a high grade bag with some 'posing' value such as a cross-channel ferry company or a bus company's name on it. The carrier bag is taken everywhere and the same one is used until it literally falls apart. It is an ideal receptacle for carrying other essential items...
Seldom is a groundhopper spotted without a myriad of public transport timetables, most of which are completely useless in the area which he finds himself. Even stranger than this is the chronic inability of most of them to actually read a timetable which results in them grouping together en route in an attempt to arrive in the correct place on time. Similarly, they all carry an A to Z atlas and none of them can read those either. Many a local person has been confronted by a dishevelled figure with a carrier bag on a Saturday afternoon asking how they can get to the football ground on the other side of town in two minutes flat.
An essential item is the notebook. These appear in a variety of styles and sizes depending on the individual 'hopper's' needs. Some only need to jot down where they've been, while others note the player's names, others write match reports and some have been known to draw scale diagrams of the ground they are visiting. The notebook results in a number of traditions the most significant being the need to enquire of other hoppers 'got the teams yet' and the subsequent comparison of notes and any other important information that can be passed on (1).
One other piece of information required to grasp a basic understanding of groundhopping is the essential attire. Let us start with the feet which are always covered with a pair of old nylon socks and white trainers (2). Trousers are seldom jeans and often what can only be referred to as 'slacks', although this is a vague description because these articles have never been seen on sale anywhere. A football shirt is also required and must be one from the hopper's local non-league team or an obscure foreign team that nobody has ever heard of. An anorak is then worn - in all weather and finally one mustn't forget the personal radio (3) with which the hopper listens to the football results on Radio 5 which he claims not to care about.
(1) For example, 'I saw him play in an Isthmian Reserve league match last year for Crawley Dogwalkers FC but he went off after two minutes with a toe strain'.
(2) Supermarket brand, never a sportswear brand.
(3) Never a personal stereo.
(2) Supermarket brand, never a sportswear brand.
(3) Never a personal stereo.