April 29, 1978, the last Saturday of the season and it’s a drizzly day in East London. West Ham are at home to European Cup finalists and dethroned league champions, Liverpool, facing almost certain relegation unless they upset the form book and secure an unlikely two points.
At the ripe old age of nine, I couldn’t have chosen a more important occasion for my first Liverpool game and had I been more socially aware at that age I would no doubt have noticed the slight whiff of menace in the air as we reached the ground more than three hours before kick-off. Liverpool fans were out in relatively good numbers but were being ‘ádvised’ against joining the queue for the remaining seat tickets due to go on sale at noon.
As a surprise family treat sprung on myself and my West Ham supporting eight-year-old brother, mixed in with the excitement was the dread of the severe consequences mickey-taking-wise for the loser. Should Liverpool lose, I would never hear the end of it, and, of course, vice-versa. Nevertheless, as we stood on the old Green Street concourse mid-morning on that long-ago spring morning, the sense of anticipation was rising as it became clear that I was finally going to get to see MY team in action.
I had been to a few minor matches previously but this occasion was something entirely different and the stakes couldn’t have been higher, for West Ham at least. After years of seemingly practising for it, the Hammers were now on the brink of the dreaded drop three years after winning the FA Cup and just two since reaching the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup at Heysel, where they were beaten 4-2 by Anderlecht.
As we lined up in an ultimately forlorn attempt to secure seats in the main stand, already the noise was building as those advertising wares such as programmes, memorabilia and refreshments competed for audibility with the die-hards keen to give their ‘Songs of Praise’ an early airing on the stadium’s concourse.
The various aromas emanating from several sources around us were also beginning to assail our nostrils. There was the pungent stench of the police horses, of course, alongside the misleadingly inviting wafts drifting from the hamburger stalls. I say misleading because as anyone foolish enough to have ever sampled a stadium hamburger or hot dog in the 1970s knows only too well, the book was nothing like the cover!
Finally giving up on the idea of attempting to purchase seats, the family decided to aim for the terraces instead and finally gaining access to the ground at around 1 pm, the four of us – mum, dad, sibling and I – took our places on the terrace at the lower enclosure of the main stand.
Being small, our parents sat Junior and me on the crush barriers and held us tightly from behind. It was here we got our first glimpse of the pitch. Lush and green at the end of a long, hard season, it most certainly was not, and yet it was still magical.
At this stage, there was still around two hours before kick-off and yet I was captivated. To the left of where we stood was the North Bank, West Ham’s answer to the famous Kop of that day’s opponents. The opposite end was segregated into two with the right-hand corner allocated for Liverpool’s travelling support.
It was not anticipated that Liverpool’s fans would travel in particularly large numbers as nothing was riding on the game for the Reds, with the title long gone and a significantly more important London date to be kept in 11 days’ time in the shape of a European Cup Final at Wembley against FC Bruges. Despite this, however, a large contingent of Scouse support did indeed make a showing, and policing these significant numbers was to prove a handful for the seemingly taken unaware constabulary
The whole ground filled up over the next hour and a half and the singing and swaying began. As kick-off approached, the levels of adrenaline pumping through the veins increased and all around us the mood was slowly transforming into one of both determination and, considering what was at stake for the home side, a deep desire.
The teams came out to warm up and there they were. The players I had only seen on television or in the pages of the Shoot magazine I religiously read each week. I knew them all of course; Kenny Dalglish, Terry McDermott, Ray Clemence, captain Emlyn Hughes, and even relatively new signing, Graeme Souness, but here they were in front of me for the first time.
Lining up for the home side were such luminaries and legends as Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard, alongside youngsters just making their breakthroughs such as Alan Devonshire and Alvin Martin.
Kick-off and the noise was reaching a crescendo. Strains of “Bubbles” the West Ham fans’ theme song reverberated around the ground as West Ham kicked off playing towards the South Bank. More than 37,000 inside Upton Park roared their approval as the early skirmishes were played out. Liverpool’s Jimmy Case, playing in the centre of midfield, was an early casualty of the pace of the game and went down injured in the West Ham area and play was held up for a good three or four minutes as he received treatment on the pitch, thus producing a prolonged slow handclap from the West Haim faithful who were eager to get on with things.
The break in play allowed me to study the Liverpool substitute at close quarters as he warmed up in front of where we were. After more than 800 games, Ian Callaghan was making one of his last appearances in a Liverpool shirt and although he wouldn’t make it onto the field at Upton Park that day, he did manage to bow out with a second successive European Cup medal the following week.
Having shaken himself down from whatever was ailing him, Case managed to continue and on 38 minutes he combined with fellow midfielder Terry McDermott to put Liverpool in front. It was a scrappy goal from Liverpool’s point of view and a potentially fatal one from West Ham’s but after a few seconds of silence, there was actually a smattering of applause from the home crowd around us. Showing an admirable level of sportsmanship in the face of their most desperate hour, some Hammers fans did themselves and their club proud.
Having been warned in advance by my parents of the possible consequences of celebrating any Liverpool goals, I mutely ‘çelebrated’ by aiming a gleeful grin in the general direction of my younger brother who had the grace to look suitably crestfallen.
If the setback was serious it was not yet conclusive and the West Ham crowd redoubled their efforts to inspire their team as the break approached. A particular favourite as I recall was the old, “We all agree….” song, which was brought to a conclusion with the words, “….Trevor Brooking is magic”.
Half time was reached with no further addition to the scoreline and so things were looking bleak for the Hammers. With relegation rivals, Wolves, also in action that day all ears were turned to transistor radios. The news that Manchester United held a single goal advantage over the Molyneux club was met with a suitably appreciative roar, but there was still the dampening knowledge that West Ham really needed to take both points or almost certainly face the worst-case scenario.
The vast majority of the standing section of the capacity crowd stayed in place during the interval and resisted the temptation to head to one of the few refreshment kiosks within the bowels of the stadium. Decent vantage points were all too hard to come by and once secured, they were not to be relinquished easily.
The teams emerged for the second half and the intensity and decibel levels of the partisan faithful rose once again. It was make or break time and as it turned out, there was more breaking than making to be had as far as West Ham were concerned.
A period of sustained pressure at the start of the second half aside, West Ham did not have much to offer and the visitors held them off with relative ease. The atmosphere was slowly changing in certain parts of the ground and the two sets of supporters standing in close proximity on the South Bank started to eye each other warily.
When a searching ball from Souness sent the flame-haired David Fairclough through on goal with 66 minutes gone, home hearts were once again in mouths. Fairclough finished with aplomb and despite there still being a quarter of the game to go the consensus was the game was up.
West Ham fans, in the main, stayed solid in their support but now the air of menace that had been brewing for some time threatened to spill over as scuffles started to break out behind Bobby Ferguson’s goal.
West Ham kept huffing and puffing but it was Liverpool that came closest to adding to the scoreline when Kenny Dalglish hit the bar and by now the game was well and truly up. The final whistle blew and with the news that Wolves had knocked in two second-half goals to defeat Manchester United, West Ham knew that barring a miracle they would be kicking off the 1978-79 season in the Second Division.
Defiant to the end, Billy Bonds led his vanquished side into the centre circle to wave a sad farewell to the home crowd. Tears were not far away for Bonds, a real West Ham stalwart, and he was far from being the only one. As fans started to stream out of the ground, grown men were seen trying to console each other, while I, bedecked in red and white as I was, tried to not look too pleased with myself and literally and figuratively kept my head down.
While there were ‘scenes’ outside the ground between certain sectors of the home and away support, the majority of supporters made their way slowly down Green Street, our family included. After what seemed like an age we made it back to our and began the drive home. As we meandered through the Essex countryside, the noise of the home crowd was literally still ringing through my ears.
“We all agree…..”
Well, I wasn’t sure if Trevor was magic, but the match-going experience certainly was.
I was hooked.