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On this day four years ago, West Ham said goodbye to the Boleyn Ground. Here’s a piece I wrote ahead of that emotional time…
Yellow Advertiser football correspondent Brian Jeeves was a regular in the Upton Park press box. However, it was never meant to be like this for the Southend United daft son of a Hammers fan.
Barclays Premier League – West Ham United versus Leicester City. Saturday, December 20, 2014 – 1:30pm
I always take my seat this early, I like to sit with a cuppa and watch the ground gradually fill up. I take a slurp of the steaming brew, browse through the match programme and have a nose around. Two elderly chaps have just taken their seats, they are here most weeks, and I’ve no doubt they’ve seen it all. A young lad stands with his dad at the top of the stairs, gazing wide-eyed across the stadium. It’s his first time here, a fledgeling dream has come true. Meanwhile down by the player’s tunnel, a clutch of kids wait patiently for any sign of a player who might be willing to scribble an autograph in their books.
I continue to breathe in the atmosphere and anticipation of the fans as they arrive for the rollercoaster ride ahead. I glance up at the clouds hanging above the Chicken Run and smile to myself. You see, it was never meant to be this way!
I am the son of Anthony Jeeves, a railwayman from nearby Forest Gate. Dad drove the huge steam engines between Southend Victoria and Liverpool Street. He was a huge Hammers fan and quite clearly wanted me to follow suit. Dad and my mother moved to Rochford in 1958, but he still watched the Hammers whenever he could. Following my arrival ten-years later, his grand plan was for son to follow in his footsteps leading all the way to Green Street. But his momentous blunder was taking me to Roots Hall for my football inauguration. He believed he could ‘blood’ me at Southend United, then ease me in at Upton Park along the way.
But much to the old man’s frustration, I’d fallen head-over-heels for my local team. Try as he may, there was no way back, I was a die-hard Shrimper. Of course, in time this led to many ensuing quarrels, usually starting with dad saying “The trouble with Sarfend is…”
And my dedication to Southend made life tough for me at school too. South-east Essex is a West Ham hotbed. Hopelessly outnumbered by Hammers fans, any crumb of success for the Shrimpers was belittled by the claret clan on the King Edmunds playground. I must admit, West Ham United had become a bit of a nemesis!
Amongst dad’s earliest childhood memories were of being lifted over the Upton Park turnstile and a passed above the crowds’ cloth caps and placed behind the North Bank goal. He remembered looking up and seeing a man in a bottle green sweater hanging on the rigging of the goal and smiling back at him. It was Hammers goalkeeper Ernie Gregory, and he instantly became the old man’s first hero. Dad told me how he would go to Gregory’s house with his school friends to ask for autographs. A woman, perhaps his wife or landlady, would come to the door and hand out squares of paper with the treasured squiggle adorned across it.
In 2003, about a month before he passed away, I was out with the old man on Southend seafront when he seethed “I never saw Ernie Gregory, I bet that bloody woman signed those autographs” – I wondered just how long that had been eating away at him and set about getting Ernie’s signature. Sadly, by the time I obtained one, it was too late.
But dad had plenty of other Upton Park recollections, and he wasn’t slow to let me know about them. Great players, he’d seen play for and against the Hammers. Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, George Best and Bert Trautmann to name a few. He’d also tell tales about players with curious actualities. Syd Puddefoot and Jim Standen were particular favourites, and he’d often recite both football and cricketing facts about the pair. Puddefoot had represented Essex, while Standen was a leg-spinner for Worcestershire, taking 313 first-class wickets between 1959 and 1970 at an average of 25.34.
My personal favourite memoirs are of watching the 1980/81 team that lifted the Second Division championship. Dad and I would visit Upton Park when Southend were away or had played on a Friday night. They had some super players. Parkes, Bonds, Brooking and Devonshire. Looking back, it’s criminal to think that they were plying their trade in English football’s second tier.
But soon teenage tantrums had kicked in. By the time Cottee and McAvennie were tearing up the First Division, those jovial childhood disputes between dad and I had become quite bitter, much to do with my misguided adolescence no doubt. These family feuds were not helped by Southend’s fruitless toil in Division Four, ironically under the management of Bobby Moore. I’d actually started to despise West Ham.
In dads later years, footballing days out circled around Southend. He didn’t like wandering too far from home on a match day. Although we’d both mellowed enough to hold a conversation about the Shrimpers and Hammers without cursing at each other.
After dads passing I began to write down his old football tales, just so my own children had something to remember him by. One thing led to another and here I am sixteen years later, a three-times published author and a football correspondent with the Yellow Advertiser newspaper, covering both Southend and West Ham, something I enjoy immensely.
Indeed, despite me and the Hammers not getting off to the best of starts, I must admit I was a nervous wreck the day I covered my first game at Upton Park against Manchester City in the semi-final of the League Cup.
In truth, the game was the deadest of dead-rubbers. West Ham were trailing 6-0 from the first leg and stood even less than no chance of progressing to the final. Nevertheless, this was my first taste of the big-time, and for dad’s sake, I had to get it right. A Hammers supporting mate accompanied me that night for moral support. He was understandably less than enthusiastic about the match and asked me to ‘go easy on us’, as the home side faced the possibility of another tough evening.
City won 3-0 to complete a 9-0 aggregate, but I tried to be as courteous as I possibly could to the Hammers. I submitted my report to the editor, but come Friday afternoon I had a stern phone call from my mate. My editor had headlined the piece ‘Hammers humiliated!’ As you can imagine, with a bit of ‘previous’ where West Ham were concerned, I had a bit of explaining to do.
But back to today, and for the record a goal in each half from Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing is enough to see of the hapless Foxes, sending the Boleyn faithful home full of Christmas cheer.
The game was far from a classic, nevertheless, today is a special day. It is the first anniversary of me becoming an accredited football reporter and eleven years to the day since I last watched a match with the old man.
Southend lost 1-0 to Bristol Rovers that afternoon. Five days later on Christmas Day 2003, his heart gave up and our lives changed forever. It seems somewhat poignant that I spending this anniversary at Upton Park covering his beloved Hammers. I brought him a retro Hammers shirt that Christmas, sadly it never came out of the wrapping paper, until today that is.
The press box quickly empties. I sit here alone, frantically typing up my final word on proceedings. I say alone, but he’s here, I know he is. I can feel his presence everywhere.
And to the present. We continue to embark on the Boleyn Ground’s final journey, a chance for fans, and in this case, a journalist, to be a part of history. Of course just over the horizon, that Swansea City game will be a tearful occasion. I think back to all those arguments we had over the Shrimpers and Hammers, but it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I want that final by-line above all others. It’s not just an opportunity to scribe a piece of unique footballing history, but to be here for the old man sporting that shirt for him of course.
He’s probably looking down on me chuckling now. After all, I’m a regular at the Boleyn Ground now, he got his way in the end. But one thing will never change. How I’d love to watch just one more match with him, whether it be Shrimpers or Hammers.
Goodnight Upton Park and sleep tight Dad x – Thanks for the memories.