This week, we saw pictures taken by Mark Leech, the man named Barclays’ greatest photographer in the history of the Premier League, of West Ham’s dearly departed Boleyn Ground (née Upton Park) and the flats that had been erected where the infamous Chicken Run, an alley between the away end and the East Stand where away fans were herded. It was a sorry sight.
We spoke to Mark by phone, as he listened to The Delfonics in the sunshine, about his favourite memories of Upton P—Sorry, the Boleyn Ground.
“I was at Upton Park earlier this week. I’m not a West Ham fan but I take no pleasure in what’s happened to it. It sounds cliched, but it was a special place. Funnily enough, it was a tweet from Stevie Bacon, the legendary West Ham photographer, [where I saw what happened] and it just looked wrong. If it had looked nice, what they’d done, maybe I’d have left it, but it just looked wrong. I thought, “I have to go and see this for myself.”
I turned up, walking through the back streets towards the Chicken Run, where the away fans had gone and where I’d gone plenty of times as an away Arsenal fan, and there was an bloke with his son, just showing him around. I said to him, “Can you smell burgers?” I swore I could smell hot dogs and burgers. And it turned out we were right near where the old burger van used to be.
The Boleyn Ground earned a lot of respect from me, over the years. It’s somewhere I’ve worked for a long time. My first game down there, I went with my mate and his older brother, just after the World Cup in 1966. It was West Ham v Leicester, and I was only about ten years old. I thought: “Hang on… Moore, Peters, Geoff Hurst against Gordon Banks in goal. I’d better go.” He was a bit of a hippy, this older brother that took us, and I think he’d had a bit of a smoke on the way, because we turned up well late and it was a packed terrace and a bit scary. I was out of my comfort zone and could hardly see by the time we turned up. Of course, he put my mate up on his shoulders so he could see, and I couldn’t see anything besides a little bit of Martin Peters’ back once and a little of Gordon Banks. I was happy about that.
Working there as a photographer, we used to home home, literally, with white line on your shoes when you got home, you were that close to the action. It was obviously a bit of a tense place to go as a visiting fan but, it was great because you were so near to the players. You could hear everything they said on the pitch. I remember going to see West Ham-Arsenal as a fan in 1971. Bob Wilson: “On your toes, lads. On your toes, lads.” Three years later I was working there and it didn’t feel that much different. You were surrounded by the crowd and virtually on the pitch. It wasn’t like Wembley, where you’re miles back, you had the fans breathing down your neck.
Taking photos there, you never thought: “Where am I? What am I doing today?” You knew. You could never switch off for a second. You’d have to get the fans on your side because they’d be looking over your shoulder and giving you lip and that. You were so close to them that, if you were there working and West Ham got a spanking at home, you’d have to look disappointed. They’d be looking at you, they’d be checking you.
One of my weirdest memories at Upton Park was, weirdly, not involving West Ham. It was Charlton-Middlesborough in 1992. Charlton were tenants there for a bit. This agency near me got in touch. I said, “My wife’s pregnant and she’s expecting tomorrow.” The agency told me, “We’ve got this mobile phone”—a proper Del Boy phone—“and she can call you on that.” I thought I’d put it in my camera bag, have it handy in case she needs me, and these Middlesborough fans saw it and were like “Fucking hell, what’s that?” And during the game my phone’s going off, and I turn around and these Boro kids are going through my bag. They did it twice to me that game. That’s how near the fans were to the pitch. You were the only thing between them. You could never drift off.
Sometimes the game you were at, nothing would happen. You’d hear the half-time scores of better games and you were like “What am I doing here, then? What a waste of a Saturday.” And then all of a sudden, you’d hear this choice comment off a West Ham fan and you’d laughing to yourself, and you’d be driving home later and you’d still remember it, laughing. It was a real gallows humour place. Somewhere where jokes would ripple through the crowd. “What’s he say? What’s he said?” And you’d feel that by the pitch. Even in the worst of games, you’d be chuckling and think: “That’ll do me.”
West Ham fans, they’d never be sat there losing to Man United and thinking: “How can this happen?” The fans just wanted teams to play, their team and the opponents. They didn’t want to frustrate teams and nick boring wins. They wanted you to go out there and play. They’d give everyone stick, but they really respected a player. I remember them playing Southampton and Le Tissier. All the fans shouting “You’ve got a fuckin’ big nose, you’ve got a fuckin’ big nose…” and then Le Tiss scored and they all started clapping. Like, “Fair play, you’ve got us there.” I was there when Keegan scored a diving header against them. The West Ham fans loved it. It was just football.
I could go on and on about football changing, things not being what they used to be. But it was a great place to work, to go as a football fan. You were part of the action. Maybe we won’t have that ever again.”
(Photos: Mark Leech / Well Offside)
For more of Mark’s fantastic photos and more recollections about how good football used to be AND how excellent football is right now, you should probably preorder our new magazine. You’ll like it, we reckon.