Editor’s note: We’re doing something a little different on ThePoeLog and declaring Friday’s “Football Friday.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in London. The first one can be found here and the second one here. You can read more about the chaotic atmosphere around this particular match–West Ham v. Tottenham– here and here and here.
This time we would be really showing our metal as we traveled with the Tottenham away fans to see Tottenham play at East London rivals West Ham United.
We knew we were in for an experience as Tottenham and West Ham are bitter rivals and recent history has seen their rivalry turn into hooliganism. Most recently, during the first game between these two teams during the season, West Hams fans were hit with bottles and bloodied on their visit to Tottenham’s White Hart Lane.
Additionally, West Ham is playing their last season in their current stadium, Upton Park, before moving to a new stadium, which just drove the hometown pride on the part of West Ham fans even higher.
As a result of all this, local leaders had taken precautions to board up player statues for protection from the oncoming visiting fans and police presence was expected to be high.
We left the hotel wearing our recently purchased foot warmers layered between two pairs of socks and our scarves tucked into our coats to hide our Tottenham allegiance for the Tube right to East London.
Tube delays prevented us from arriving in time for a pint at a neutral pub and instead we arrived to a packed station where the platform was covered with fans all trying to get up a single staircase. With game time just around the corner, we patiently tried to work our way through a very dense crowd heading for the Tube station exit. Finally, we emerged up the stairs and exited the station into dimly lit streets, rain spitting down, police on horseback and the incessant barking of police dogs. It was clear that we were in for a different London football experience.
As we moved away from the Tube station and headed for the stadium with other fans, both home and away, the police presence continued as streets were lined with fans and others for the game scheduled to kick off in minutes. Hurrying along, Poe paw in hand, I recalled my earlier glance at Google maps and where the visitors are supposed to enter the stadium and broke left to cut down a street that I believed would take us to the away fans entrance.
As we turned the corner we were greeted by mounted police, and were asked to show our tickets to police. The police confirmed that this was indeed the right entry point for away fans as others (home fans) were turned away.
We continued down the street to another police checkpoint where again our tickets were checked before allowing us to move another few blocks forward. As our tickets were being checked, an away fan approached hollering about someone having been hit up the street and around the corner. As the horse mounted police turned and galloped down the street to investigate, we were ushered through to a pedestrian walkway that led towards the stadium. Two twists and turns later, we emerged in front of a tour bus storage facility at the dead end of a street running alongside the stadium, and to the away fans entrance.
We were within sight of the stadium, and despite another column of police and barking dogs, we entered the stadium just as the last of the bubbles floated across the field and the game kicked off.
For those not aware, West Ham United has an affinity for bubbles and before each game, bubble machines blow bubbles across the pitch and into the stands. I am sure there is a proper historical reason for the bubbles. Probably not intimidation, but who knows.
Inside the stadium we found our seats in the last row of the lower away fans section tucked in the northwest corner of the stadium. Typically, away fans are segregated from home fans to help avoid issues, and one of the best ways to do that is to put them in a corner. Conveniently, this also means some less-than-desirable viewing options for the away fans. So it was on that brisk, March Wednesday evening in the East London, as Poe and I found ourselves surrounded by 1,998 of our hard-core, Tottenham-loving peers.
We cheered, we sang, we complained about referees and we moved to keep warm. We watched those closer to the action hurl insults to West Ham fans seated in the adjacent stand and we loved every minute of it. Well, at least I did. I am pretty sure that if Sheryll were pressed, this would be one of those things she did because she loves me or as pay back because I finally let her have a second cat after her 10 years of trying.
Either way, I think she had some fun along the way, and we did it together. We tackled a Premier League away game sitting in the away section—a true test of bravery and fan loyalty.
In the end, the game was tough and not super memorable. It rained most of the time and after an early West Ham score, it was tough going for Tottenham to try and find a way to get level or win. In the end the game ended 1-0. A valiant effort, but it was not to be our evening.
Game over, we now knew we needed to safely navigate our path back to the Tube station and head for home. As the game ended, we tried to make a break for the exits to beat the rush only to be stopped mid-dash. In fact, it was not just us, but the entire section of Tottenham fans were not going anywhere.
We did not know it at the time, but apparently the plan was for the West Ham fans to be released and disperse into East London before the Tottenham fans would be allowed to depart. So we waited, standing in the stands as the rest of the stadium slowly emptied.
Finally, as lawnmowers started on the pitch and ushers began collecting trash, we were allowed to funnel out of the stadium to a proper British drizzle. Here, in front of the same dead-end tour bus company, we ran into full-on riot police, accompanied by what had to be 15 barking police dogs and mounted units.
Yet again, the Tottenham fans were delayed further. For what, I’m not sure, but here we were in a large mass, pressing to move forward we were stuck, and waiting for something to set us free to find our way to the Tube and a warm train home.
After what seemed like an hour, we were released, only to find that 2,000 fans, mostly men, now had to file through a pedestrian walkway about 10 feet wide. So as the mass of fans pushed, shoved and shuffled, we all slowly worked forward through the same twists and turns we had navigated on our way to the game.
We emerged onto residential streets only to find the police directing the Tottenham fans down a single road, different from the one we had used for our arrival. With more space available, we walked towards the Tube only to be directed back to yet another small, narrow pedestrian walkway where the pushing shoving and jostling again became the standard for moving forward.
Once we made it through the last pedestrian walkway, the street opened up and we approached the main road between the Tube and the stadium. Here the center of the street had been divided by steel control fences, police, police vans, horses and the now all-too-familiar barking of police dogs. Reaching the main street we turned right for the Tube station where the temporary barricades were now holding back straggling West Ham fans to allow the away fans to directly funnel into the station and waiting trains.
Throughout our journey from Upton Park to the Tube station, the crowd, rowdy and defeated, attempted to show team spirit with chants and songs, but the reality was it had been a long evening with a disappointing result. So most of the cheers disintegrated into insults and jeers about West Ham United, their fans, and in particular, the socio-economic background of the local neighborhood we were routed through. Not anyone’s finest moment but a clear sort of indication of how soccer fans and a “pack” mentality can take a relatively calm evening, and escalate it quickly.
We did not witness any real issues, and I am sure the cold evening and delayed exit, dampened the crowds ambitions, but it was clear that this mass of fans could have easily erupted to cause trouble and damage a player statue or two. Where Sheryll and my level of participation in such activities would have rated will have to wait for now.
In the end a quick Tube ride cross town and a stop for a kabob and chips got us back to the hotel to warm up and live to fight another day.
Check back next week to read about our final English Premier soccer match, and by far the biggest game on our agenda–the North London Darby against Arsenal.