With just a handful games left to play at their historic old Boleyn Ground, West Ham United fans gather for a London derby against Crystal Palace. Fine spring sunshine brings the crowds on to the streets early and the pubs and cafes are doing a brisk trade a good couple of hours before kick-off.
I catch the mood as I arrive at Upton Park station. There’s optimism in the air. The Iron, as they style themselves, are on the up, chasing a European place next season and contemplating the much-talked about move to their new stadium at nearby Stratford. Whilst it may be a wrench to leave their present surroundings, the demands on football clubs to become global brands is driving the project and most supporters seem content with the prospect, especially as season ticket prices on offer are low and the present scramble for tickets will be ended by the increased capacity at the new ground.
Sweeping down towards the stadium, past the famous Ken’s Cafe, stuffed with memorabilia and full English breakfasts as well as full English people, I arrive at the Boleyn Ground: its ersatz towers either side of the main entrance lending an air of a kitsch amusement park. The stadium is ringed by burger vans, indeed the quantity of mechanically-recovered meat being greedily consumed really puts the iron in irony: the modern-day football fan is the antithesis of an Olympian athlete, yet West Ham will soon reside in the Olympic Stadium. I surmise the only green shoots I’ll see on Green Street today will be the pitch. I’m not wrong.
Momentum builds inexorably towards kick-off time, with fans jostling around the clogged up narrow streets which act like arteries funnelling fans in the direction of the Bobby Moore stand, the Chicken Run and the less-traditional sounding Betway Stand. I look for sharp-suited East End geezers, skinheads with braces or maybe smartly-attired casuals, but all I encounter are people of all ages, sizes and genders in replica kits, the scourge of modern football. There’s a business-like air with fans going about their fortnightly routine behind smiling, contented faces. They pour out of the Boleyn Tavern, arriving in their seats just in time for the trademark cascade of bubbles and the singing of the accompanying theme tune as the players walk solemnly onto the pitch.
The game is feisty, short of real quality and with the odd surprise. Palace take the lead, the delayed reaction amongst the away fans suggesting this hadn’t been expected of a team yet to register a league win in 2016. Still, the Hammers find their poise and are winning by half-time. I don’t see either goal, preferring to study the stands for signs of life. I find plenty.
Half-time brings a parade of supporters from West Ham United overseas fan clubs, marching to rapturous applause and song. Americans, Israelis, Iraqis all in step together. Remarkable.
The second half is disjointed and increasingly bitter. West Ham are reduced to 10 men and then to hanging on as Palace sniff an unlikely win. They fall just short and it ends 2-2. No-one goes home happy. “It’s just like back to the old days,” complains one fan as he exists the stadium for what could, conceivably, be his last visit as sunshine gives way to a miserable drizzle. After 112 years at the Boleyn Ground, there are plenty of old days to remember. And much to look forward to. But it won’t be the same, even if at present the grass does appear greener on the other side.
To view a fuller selection of images from the day, please visit the WSC Photos website.