I can honestly say this was one of the coolest, most utterly and completely unexpected, totally awesome things I’ve ever experienced! I don’t follow the EPL, I’m not even a soccer fan, and I know of the Green Street Hooligans only as much as Hollywood has told us, so when husband said he wanted to visit the West Ham United ground and shop, I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah, alright… but I want to go to the theatre later!” figuring I’d be pretty bored and would need something else to look forward to. Man, was I wrong..
After a few obligatory photos out the front, we wandered around a little, with husband trying to determine whether or not the ground was open to the public. It was not. Disappointed but not completely deterred, we entered the gift shop. Up to 70% off everything sale. Oh dear.
Fast forward 30 minutes, and husband is still running around like a kid in a candy store, with me trailing behind, the pile of West Ham paraphernalia in my arms multiplying to the point that I could barely see over the top of it. It was like a movie scene… in total reverse!
We finally made our way to the checkout, and the guy laughed at us (understandably so – he’d been watching the whole spectacle unfold). As he was scanning and packing everything into plastic bags, I thought I may as well try my luck – husband would have done it for me! “I don’t suppose there’s any way we might be able to take a super quick peak at the ground is there?? We came all the way from Australia!” Husband’s eyes widened as he looked from me (in shock) to the sales guy (with hope), and almost fell over when he said “Yeah, sure, why not?!”
He unlatched the counter door and let us through, past the cash registers, to a back room that led onto the field. Holy hat, we were making our way onto West Ham’s pitch! We ascended up and surfaced right near the coach’s beautiful, leather, pitch-side seats. He let us walk around and take some photos, which was really cool, and told us a bit more about the club. After 15 minutes, he said he had to get back to work, but would call up the security guard who’d be happy to give us a tour of the locker rooms and what not (husband’s face = !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).
This is when shit actually got really cool. The security guard, an older, but still burly and tough looking gentleman in slacks and a jacket introduced himself and proceeded to show us through the locker rooms, showers, rehab room, coach’s office, the works. All of the clichéd photos were taken, with the security guard’s assistance; husband “yelling” at him in the office, holding the team scarf up in front of the plaque on the wall, a shower scene in the bathroom.. We were feeling pretty privileged at this point!
Then husband asked him if there was still any animosity between football clubs, and if there was still a lot of the hatred that caused the violence and fighting that the movie Green Street Hooligans was based on; was the movie true to the real life events, to his knowledge, or was it typical over-the-top Hollywood exaggeration? He explained a bit about how and why the fighting all started, and then told us about his involvement in it all. He was part of that gang, the InterCity Firm. No, the movie wasn’t exaggerated; if anything, it was considerably toned down from the real thing. And how he was still alive and standing there talking to us is utterly and completely beyond me.
The stories he told us were horrifying, but despite his hesitation, we kept asking him to tell us more; we were totally captivated. He started each story with “Sorry sweetheart, this ain’t real nice!” or “Pardon my foul mouth darlin’!” He regaled us with tales of the fighting in the 1970s that he was involved with. He told us of “the lads” sharpening coins by throwing them in the floor and scuffing them under their shoes against the concrete floors to sharpen them into throwing weapons. They’d fill syringes with dirty, muddy water and stab “them” in passing. He vividly recalled running “head first” into a brawl with nothing to defend himself but his own two fists; he was stabbed in the torso. That wasn’t his first or last stab wound either. His words, “I have absolutely not idea how I’m still alive – I certainly have no right to be!” He said, “we were all idiots, us and them, fighting last generation’s war for no other reason than our fathers hated each other.” They may not have understood why, but it was a matter of family honour. So they fought.
We were both familiar with the story, the movie, the myths, but neither of us thought it could be so real, that there was an actual living, breathing face to it all.
It wasn’t at all what I was expecting from out visit to the ground, a detour meant to appease my husband’s love of any and all sports, and their memorabilia and paraphernalia. Walking out of the grounds, we absolutely couldn’t believe the surreal experience that had just transpired. And it was surreal. It also taught me two important things:
1. Without understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, and respect for each other, violence on large and small scales will continue, and each generation will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the generations before.
2. You’ll never know if you don’t ask. The worst than can happen is “no.” The best? An opportunity of a lifetime : )