Not wanting to get stuck in the M6 traffic, I travelled down from Manchester, leaving at 6am. Having found a suitable parking spot close to the ground outside one of the many nondescript Victorian terrace houses, I decided to take in the early morning atmosphere that I hear you can expericence in East London, listening to the irreverent chat and betting on how many "Mash and eel" establishments I could spot (and avoid!). Okay, I'll be honest, the pub wasn't open and I had a couple of hours to kill.
I found myself in "Ken's", a local cafe serving a good honest English breakfast, where the large, cuddly, East London host could be heard saying, "You want bubble wiv that luv?" Having polished off the breakfast with a large mug of coffee, I made my way to the local market and mixed with the "salt of the earth" - "alf a pand of cox's" could be heard from the fruit and veg stall, I half expected to see the whole cast of Eastenders plying their trade!
At 11:00am the main event commenced - writing this in retrospect I can say this, because with all honesty, it wasn't the match that started later that afternoon. Into the lions' den, more commonly known as "The Boleyn Tavern". It clearly states on the smoke-tinted widows "NO Away Supporters". With no obvious declarations of my affinity to Watford evident, I strolled in and threw in a few "stone the crows" just to try and feel at home. After getting served with a couple of pints served in plastic glasses (it became evident as to why a little later), I sat down to take in the delights of Helen Chamberlain on the big screen, while chatting about the expectations for the day with the locals. I found the people who frequented this pub to be intelligent, informed and realistic while at the same time being evidently and overtly passionate about their club.
The Boleyn slowly filled up and as it did so, the atmosphere began to gather. A big pub, it was full by around 12:30 with queues six deep at the bar. Then the singing began.... Oh my God, did it begin, and then it continued and continued and...you get the idea.
A musical lesson ensued and the people of Ham vented their feelings about their rivals. Chelsea and Spurs getting equal treatment, but by far the most fiercely felt rivalry was directed at Millwall. Songs questioning the legitimacy of the Millwall family unit, which was sung to the tune of the "Adams Family" and began "Your sister is your mother, your brother is your father, you all f*** one another..."
But the most memorable moment was with a tune familiar to all football fans. When they started singing "Let's go f***ing mental", the internal showering began. Empty cans and half full plastic cups began to be lobbed from one end of the pub to another, everyone under the flight path of these missiles getting a free soaking. But there was no malice, there was no trouble, these people were just having fun, and from chats I had with some, this happens at every home game! Now I couldn't imagine that happening in the Red Lion!
That wasn't the end of proceedings, I had yet to experience an East End fashion show, and not to disappoint, three burly West Ham supporters showed their undoubted allegiance by climbing onto one of the covered pool tables to orchestrate the masses around them. Then the shirts came off, tattoos symbolising their passion were everywhere, the familiar Hammers emblem had been lovingly etched on the back of each parading individual, and I mean across the whole of their back.
What was also apparent in this hotbed of football passion were the many youngsters and families also taking in the atmosphere, young Hammers being groomed for future years, already willing to demonstrate that they will carry the club's reputation forward. This club's league position will never affect this support base, the passion displayed guarantees that, but I hope that these fans are rewarded with a Premiership run. We will have to wait a little while for our own return.