Saturday, January 1, 2011

Keeping It in the Family

Bobby Moore Statue, Boleyn Ground, Upton Park

photo by gavindjharpervia PhotoRee

farlieonfootie is very pleased to introduce its newest columnist, Ian, a long-suffering fan of West Ham United based in Houston, Texas.  I know, I know -- it didn't make sense to me, either, but I have a better appreciation for Ian's plight (and some sympathy for his situation) after reading his knowledgeable and passionate piece.  The whole thing's almost enough to turn me into a West Ham fan -- but let's not get carried away.  Without further ado, here's Ian:

As this is my first column/blog, I had better introduce myself – I am an Essex boy living in Texas and I am an avid West Ham fan. By way of that introduction/confession, I almost feel like I’m attending an alcoholics anonymous meeting but … I am not ashamed at being a West Ham fan or an Essex boy. OK, maybe I’m a little bit ashamed of the Essex part but I am proud to hold my head high as a West Ham fan. I was born into a West Ham family – I really had no choice in my team but I’m glad that I ended up following the boys in claret and blue. I warn you now that I tend to go on a bit when I start writing so be prepared for a lengthy piece of script.
I started off at 5 years old watching the reserves in action. I think my dad felt that if the professionals had to work their way through the reserves before getting to the first team, then it was only right that his son do the same. Either that or he was giving some thought to the fact that it was the early 1980s and hooliganism was still rampant and not a great thing for a 5 year old boy to be around. Soon enough though, I was promoted to the first team and never looked back from there. I was gripped. I knew so many (irrelevant) statistics about the players at that age that my brother and older cousins used to joke with me and asked if I knew the players’ shoe sizes. Wow – how I wished that I did! My parents recently gave me some of my school work that they had kept from when I was a young ‘un. Almost every “news” story that I wrote was about West Ham. I lived for the weekends when I would get another chance to hero worship Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking, Alvin Martin, Alan Devonshire, Ray Stewart, Phil Parkes, Frank Lampard (the original and best one, not the younger, fatter, bigger-headed one), et al.
Now I find myself with a difficult task. I am a father now too -my boy just turned six months old and I feel that I will fail as a West Ham fan if he does not grow up to be a West Ham fan too.  My brother (who lives in Florida) has a son too (a 12 year old) and he is a West Ham fan … kind of. He has the shirt and if you were to ask him who he supports, he’d tell you that he’s a Hammers fan but I see him as a pseudo West Ham fan. Living in Texas I don’t get to see him often but I’m pretty sure that he does not get up every Saturday morning with his heart pounding and race towards the TV to watch the game. If we lose, does he get upset and slump into a bad mood for the rest of the day? I doubt it. What I’m suggesting is that he doesn’t live and breathe West Ham. I want my son to feel the same way about the Irons as I do. I want him to be passionate about many things in life but especially passionate about the Hammers. I don’t want him to be upset about a West Ham defeat or happy about a win purely because I am – I want him to have his own strong emotions about the outcome of the game. I want him to be as angry as I am when someone tells me “cheer up – it’s only a game”. It’s more than a game to me – it sets my mood for the week until the next game. For anyone reading this in the UK, you don’t understand how difficult it will be for me to bring my son up with the same obsession for West Ham. Here are the challenges that I face:
·         I live in Texas – it’s not like I can take him to the games every other week. He won’t get to experience the passion of the crowd and the very thrill of being at the game. It will be hard enough to instill a passion for football, let alone West Ham. Yes, there is an MLS team where I live but it’s not the same – as much as I love the sport, I can’t bring myself to watch the MLS substandard version of the game. I tried a couple of times but felt nothing for it. I just didn’t have the same emotions, the same interest. I get back to London about once each year – my boy will go to a West Ham game at some point but even though I’ve been back once a year, I still haven’t managed to get to a game for several seasons now. My recent trips have either coincided with international breaks, away games or the close season. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to go with any more frequency in the future – how can a West Ham fan really feel the “proper” emotions if he only gets to attend two or three games every five years. Yes, we can watch just about every West Ham game on TV but it’s not the same as going. If you are reading this, you probably already know that.

·         I live in Texas – very few people care about the game here. When I grew up, I spent most of my free time playing football, watching football or talking about football. Yes, my son will be able to play and watch but will he be able to talk about it with anyone other than me and my family? Not so much. While the sport is growing here, the kids here don’t really care about the game the way that they do in the UK. He won’t be able to go to school and strike up a conversation about the weekend’s games.  He won’t be able to build up rivalries with friends that follow other teams. Even if he is fanatical about the Irons, he won’t really have friends that will care about it. I had the benefit of growing up with many cousins who went with me to the Boleyn Ground every home game (and as we got older, some away games too). My son will be among friends that want to talk about gridiron, baseball and basketball – not football.

·         I live in Texas – West Ham’s brand is not exactly strong here. My wife brought my son along to the park to watch me play football on a Sunday a couple of months back. I had proudly dressed him up for the occasion in his West Ham “onesie” (which he threw up on, incidentally – the little scallywag!) One of my team mates saw him and asked me “is that your son in the Aston Villa colours?” I replied “No. It’s my son in the West Ham colours,” but all I got back was a blank look. When West Ham played against the MLS all-stars for the MLS’ main exhibition game a couple of seasons back, the US press was complaining that it wasn’t very good opposition for the all-stars. Never mind that we had finished in the top half of the league the previous season and were the first UK team to score against the all-stars (after Chelsea, Celtic, Fulham and others had failed before us). We were just mid-table West Ham. We weren’t one of the big four. I do my best to raise the image (I wear my home or away shirt to my team’s training and I’m always talking them up) but I am just one man out of a population of other people that either don’t care about football or only want to talk about the big four, which brings me on to my next challenge….

·         I live in Texas – American audiences only like teams that win things. When I talk about football to American fans that I am meeting for the first time, they always ask me “who do you follow? Manchester United? Chelsea? Liverpool? Arsenal?” When I tell them that I support West Ham, they look at me almost in disbelief as if to ask “why would you support any team other than those that I mentioned?”  Over here, there are too many bandwagon fans. Don’t get me wrong, there are some who follow their sports teams as fanatically as the English (win, lose or draw – strike that, there are no draws here – win or lose) but for most, they just stop caring about the team until they are decent again. I don’t want my son to follow a team just because it is successful. While it might depress me for a week when West Ham lose (or a summer if we get relegated), there are lessons in life that I have learned from being a Hammers fan that I would not have learned if I were a fan of another team. I love Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch” but it doesn’t really feel genuine to me – he is an Arsenal fan! He has always followed a team that has been successful – maybe not always in terms of silverware but when were Arsenal last in a relegation battle? When were they last thrilled to be in a semi-final? When were they excited to have finished 6th? Arsenal fans (and fans of the other big four teams) have a sense of entitlement. They believe that they should be successful every year. West Ham fans have a better sense of reality - that sometimes, sh!t happens. I want my son to have that awareness. I want him to stick by something even if it is not always successful. I want him to have a sense of loyalty to something that isn’t what you wish it to be. I want him to feel the disappointment of defeat – it makes the sensation of victory or success that much better. How many fans of the big four have had to hold back the tears simply because their team was leading in a cup final? Those rare moments of relative success are all the sweeter when you have to taste the bitterness of defeat on a more regular basis. I dread the possibility that my son will tell me one day “Dad, I don’t want to support West Ham anymore; I want to support Chelsea/Arsenal/ Manchester United/Liverpool/Tottenham.” Not just because I hate those teams (except for the Scousers) but because I want him to gain other lessons in life by supporting West Ham. Still, at least there’s not much chance of him supporting Millwall.
So those are my challenges. Wish me luck. Come on you Irons!!!
This is farlieonfootie for January 2.


  1. Terrific article! Almost makes me want to become a Hammers fan. Almost, but not quite.

    I think you may be overstating (to the extent you stated it at all) the Spurs success. Their history shows them to be more of the red-headed stepchild of the big four than a powerhouse. But compared to the Hammers, I suppose you have a point.

  2. I can sympathise so much with this. I'm a 31 year old Australian who has never lived in the UK but was also born into a West Ham family. I follow them like my father (from Dagenham) and his father before him (who was proud to tell us that he was one of the true Cockney Lads). I unfortunately have never been to a game and am resigned to the fact that I must continually get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to see every game.... Sleep deprivation is a small price to pay.
    Success is not measured by what you achieve but by what you have overcome to get there.
    I am one of 5 brothers. The youngest follows Arsenal, the next Chelsea, the next Man U, the younger generation just dont get it I guess?
    Anyway loved the article. Come On You Irons!