Sometimes a game of football is about much more than just a result. This has always been the case with West Ham vs. Millwall fixtures (insert opinion on the, as I see it, hooligan-aggrandising cinematic nonsense ‘Green Street’ here). The League Cup tie between the two sides on the 25th August 2009 though will always remain the most intense, emotional and incredible game I have ever witnessed: not just because of events on the pitch, but for much more important reasons, both for myself, and a member of the West Ham squad.
That season was the only time I had the money whilst living in England to be able to attend every home game at West Ham and I’d been religiously doing so. The cup draw against Millwall was the first in history between us and our bitterest rivals in the competition and I had the computer logged in to buy a ticket at the very minute they went on sale. I was lucky to get one, and damned if anything was going to ruin the experience of this opportunity: fate though, had a nightmarish few events to conspire against me on this one.
My dad had been fighting cancer for a year by the time the game came, and for the last six months, in the knowledge that it was terminal. Anyone who has seen a relative or friend dying of cancer will know just how soul-destroying and horrendous this is and by August dad was on death’s door: the week before the game he had been moved to a local hospice. My mum was there almost all the time, and me and my brother would drive over every night when I finished work. I was reaching out for anything around me that would help and amongst the great support of friends and family (and alcohol), football was a way of letting out the emotions of despair and anger that I found nowhere else.
The weekend before the game against Millwall we had played Spurs at home, losing 2-1 in traditional fashion over the last few seasons. After the game the news filtered around that one of our players, Jack Collison, had played the game not knowing that his dad, whilst on his way to watch his son play, had died in a road accident. In a truly remarkable showing of character Jack insisted on playing the Millwall game only two days later. With my own dad lying in a hospice bed, unable to speak or move, I think it’s fair to say that my sympathy was even more hit by this than most fans.
On the day of the game, with work showing an appalling lack of understanding of my situation and unhappy there, regardless of the situation at home, I handed in my resignation. Coming home, with the match ahead of me, having already made a start to outpouring some negativity to those around me that deserved it, I was buzzing, on an adrenaline high, and still miles away from East London.
The journey to the game was a nightmare, having got to the underground and somewhere around Aldgate, an announcement declared that all tube lines in that direction were suspended because of trouble in the Upton Park area. No surprises at what that trouble was: the Met police had idiotically underprepared for the game and it being an evening kick-off there were armies of drunken fans already starting the ‘festivities’. Me and some other fans legged it up to the road outside Aldgate station and managed to hail a cab, costing a small fortune to get me to the ground about a quarter of an hour after kick-off. Thanks for that TfL.
As I stepped out of the cab, on the oddly deserted streets in the immediate vicinity of The Boleyn Ground, from nowhere I could identify, a few glass bottles rained down and smashed just in front of me. It was going to be special, not necessarily in a good way, but special.
Getting inside I made the stands just as Millwall took the lead. Typically awful defending and the glacial slowness of Kovač gifting the chance for Harris to put the simpletons from the wrong side of the docks ahead. The rest of the half passed with a dire showing from West Ham, looking disjointed and spineless, as we did most of the season, and every bit as though Millwall might do a job on us.
Half-time saw an even crazier than normal rush for the bar and by the time I got to the front, either because they’d run out, or were scared of the fans getting more drunk, the shutters were closed. The usual smoking ban inside was long forgotten and the stewards were already visibly panicked at the escalating tension in the ground. The closing of the bar led to a huge gang of hammers fans battering on the shutters as they came down…and on the walls around…and anything else that wasn’t moving. The chorus of singing was deafening and despite being 1-0 down no-one was going to let something as irrelevant as the scoreline get in the way of drowning out the Millwall fans.
The second half mainly passed in the same way as the first with Millwall content to try and hold on and West Ham looking unlikely to make the needed breakthrough. The crowd though were utterly electric and there wasn’t a person to be seen, in my area of the West Stand Lower, sitting. Everyone was jumping up and down and shouting as the trouble began just in front of us: West Ham and Millwall piling into the police and stewards separating them and both missiles and punches were flying. It was idiotic, and I don’t condone it, I go to football to watch a game, not to have a fight, but being so close, and in my emotional state, I can’t say I was thinking as rationally then as in retrospect. This was never going to be a normal game of football, it was a war, and I suppose something like that was inevitable. The entire West Ham team were wearing black armbands and Collison was rightly getting huge support for his effort in playing so soon after his personal tragedy. Small sections of the away support were not covering themselves in glory by their reactions to this, or with their abuse of Carlton Cole: a degree of which I can categorically say, was racist in nature. Cole was well aware of it and later in the game made a point of exaggerated arcing runs in front of the away support with what looked remarkably like him giving them the ‘wanker’ gesture. I’m sure he just had cramp in his hand or something…but us fans may have misinterpreted it.
With 87 minutes played, and just about deservedly, West Ham finally equalised. Junior Stanislas buried one right in front of the away support and the crowd went mental. I was dragged forward by the guys in front of me as we all grabbed each other and started screaming the most fantastic array of swearing you’ll hear outside an episode of The Thick Of It. Cue pitch invasion number one. Hordes of fans swarmed the pitch and started giving it to the Millwall fans. It was yet more idiocy, and those of us with the wherewithal to stay in the crowd were pretty soon hoping they’d all sharpish get the fuck off the pitch: the possibility of the match being abandoned in all our heads and our chances of winning as extra time was coming looking much the better. Eventually the nonsense settled down a bit, but not before the Millwall fans had torn out a bit of the furniture in their end of the stands.
Extra time saw West Ham finally up the ante and only eight minutes in we won a penalty. Stanislas was an unlikely taker of the spot kick but despatched it, for his second of the night. Cue more insanity in the stands and another pitch invasion. If memory serves this one lingered longer than the first, and we were all getting pissed off at the idea that these ‘fans’ might well get the game voided. Luckily enough that didn’t happen and only two minutes after the restart, with the fight gone from Millwall, Zavon Hines scored a third for West Ham and the game was decidedly over.
There was more nonsense at the final whistle and plenty of abuse was ringing out as we left the ground, taking our time to make sure the away fans heard a bit more on the way. Aside from all this tribal neanderthal behaviour there was the moving sight of Collison, noticeably in tears as he left the pitch. Even in this madness thankfully the fans gave him the respect in song he utterly deserved for playing and putting up with this insanity at this of all times.
I made my way back to my friend’s house in North London in the most confused mood I have ever known after a game: the result and drama was unbelievable and I don’t think I’ll see much to equal it again. Walking back down Green Street past ranks of armed riot police and with the sound of helicopters overhead made the whole thing even more surreal than it already was. To both myself, and if I might be so bold as to speak for him, Collison, this was, despite everything, just a game of football.
My dad died that weekend. It’s the most memorable and terrible week of my life, but one small good thing in amongst it was just a game of football.