The love that bites deep

On a personal level, I have realised that I am in a relationship with West Ham United.

Even though I have never been to the ground the new version of the club occupies; even though, for the first time since 1979, I have not seen a single game from the stands in the first half of the season and even though I have stopped posting on the club's finest football forum - out of the sheer sense that trading depressing views just got me into a rut - I am still in a relationship with the club.

I still read the back of every passing paper, for even a snippet of (probably false) information. I still daydream about who we might get in the Cup, or who might score our next goal. But most of all, I still cling to those brilliant memories, because they represent something that come from the past and deep down I know cannot be replicated.

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They are memories of friends' and family faces that I will never see again. They are of the dimensions of that cattle shed the South Bank and the noise under that roof when we scored a goal, or started another smart-arse chant (we patented the manager name/team colours chant at West Ham and we created the concept of the Barmy Army long before those other mugs, in football and leather 'n' willow cottoned on).

But they are memories of other things too. Every single Christmas since, I have found myself remembering the laugh I caused strangers to have on the South Bank when we played Swansea City in the mid '80s. I tell myself it was Boxing Day, but the precise date escapes me.

We went two down. I said to my mates - one of the faces I mention above - 'we're going to win this game'. We were 13 or so. We were three or four lads together, but free from parents up on the train from Hutton. Older locals, who had shown us no quarter in the packed stand, turned and laughed; we were being fairly beaten after all. But the team turned it round and we won 3-2. "Told you", I ventured, as we left to a just about friendly cuff round the ear. I left the ground ten feet tall.

In the years around those times, we followed wherever we could. It was so much easier then. We were at the 'famous' match at Highbury, with the flares, watching open-mouthed at what happened on the North Bank and on the pitch. Nobody cared about who owned the club, or what any individual player earned. Players might have cheated, but none of them did what now happens in every single match, these days, simultaneously falling in one direction, but always looking for an official's agreement, in the other.

(Another winter memory, forgive me: Carrow Road in the cold and wet and a 15-minute "Johnny Lyall's claret and blue army" that had the crunchers just standing and staring as one of the teams scored and we barely missed a beat of it.)

Yes, the relationship. The love that bites deep got into me - and very many fellow fans I know - at an early age. One where I was a lot more innocent; naive, if you will. I absorbed the massive increase in cost of just being able to get inside a ground and watch a match, because I could do so at the time; as it got more expensive, I became a man, a wage-earner, who could plan or even save so that I could still go. The ground changed. We could no longer stand. We still went. We travelled in numbers.

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But the changes started coming thicker and faster. Clubs started to get taken over by properly wealthy people or groups. Others struggled to keep up. The razzle and the dazzle of televised matches became almost wall to wall. For a long time, West Ham United still seemed insulated against it. You didn't see so easily what was happening at other clubs, such as 'Boro, or even Leeds, where the support needed herding into the parts of the grounds that were captured by the cameras.

Look, indeed, at the modern age. Train your eye on Man City's main (home stand). Have you ever seen it - despite their stellar cast of players - so full that you can't see a single empty seat? And look at the club on which ours is now modelled? Arsenal FC, the first team in London to sell its soul in such a comprehensive fashion that its stadium is actually named in a foreign language and its owners were a strange mixture of what? Septic (exactly!) and Azerbaijan?

But back to us. Back to that kind of naive sense of love that, come on, we all cling to. To those days where everything could narrow to that point of excitement where you became three inches taller, on your tiptoes, to see (for me) Cottee or Frank in a little give and go, motoring towards the opposition goal. When you felt a chant move across a stand to where you were, to that moment in the 'Boro semi when 'our' chant punctuated that baleful silence for the bloke we all still miss so much.

For whatever reason, the true backbone of our club that used to be happy simply to be part of our national sport, those who travel home and away as much as they, their money and their families can withstand are going to make their own decisions about how they assess their relationships with it. We know them through their KUMB Forum usernames and avatars or, on occasion, as I do, we have the honour of knowing them 'face to face' as it were. It's them, not Mark Noble, who represent the club. Them, not the ex-resident of 442 Green Street and his grotty magazine empire. Them, and not the millionaire who scores our next goal.

For them and them only, I hope - against all hope and sensible expectation - that we go on the most miraculous run and win the FA Cup this season. Because it is only once they have that one final moment of undiluted ecstasy of actually being there at our national stadium when the referee blows the final whistle that they will have tears streaming down their faces...

...and then, maybe even they - the chronic love hearts they really are - can perhaps say goodbye to all their own wonderful memories.

Happy New Year to you all; just once may you live your dreams. Those days are however long gone... forever.

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