Boleyn Ground: Farewell to English football's most intimidating away destination


Those who enjoyed the film ‘Green Street’ will associate West Ham fans with terrifying young hoodlums starting fights with any rival supporters who dare to give it the big 'un on their manor.

But as any proper football fan who visited the actual Green Street as an away supporter will tell you, the real-life Hammers mob was a lot scarier than that.

A collection of hobbits and cringeworthy cockney accents rendered the 2005 hooligan flick a laughable attempt to conjure the hostile atmosphere around the Boleyn Ground. But at least the title was evocative - the road leading to West Ham’s stadium has long been a place to fear for outsiders.

While West Ham’s match against Manchester United on Tuesday brings down the curtain on a stadium famous for its bubbles, free-flowing football and academy heroes, it will also consign to history one of English football’s most intimidating away days.

Upton Park has been synonymous with aggro since gangs of skinheads patrolled the terraced roads and council estates around the Boleyn in the 1960s.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, it was the scene of all-out street warfare, with bricks and bottles commonly raining down upon visitors running the gauntlet of the 10-minute walk from Upton Park tube station to the away supporters’ section. West Ham’s Inter-City Firm, England’s most feared hooligan collective, added to the aura of menace.

For fans of the Hammers’ most disliked rivals - particularly Millwall, Tottenham and Chelsea - the fear of being identified makes things particularly dicey.

Blues fan Kevin Molloy recalled, “Once we were on a tube which had stopped at Mile End station on the way to Upton Park, the doors were open and we could hear chants of 'ICF’ 'ICF’ resounding down the foot tunnels towards the platform.

“Louder and louder the chants got, and what sounded like hundreds of boots echoing towards us. God it was scary, but weirdly exciting. Still the doors remained open. I remember thinking: 'What is driver waiting for? Is he a West Ham fan?’ Suddenly the doors closed and the train moved off just as a huge mob of West Ham fans poured onto the platform. Cue scores of jubilant, but slight relieved two-fingered salutes through the tube windows.”

Nowadays, violence is more of a threat than a promise, but it doesn’t make the journey down Green Street any more pleasant.

“Upton Park is a truly horrible ground to visit as a Tottenham fan,” said Spurs season ticket holder George Birch. “You can feel the tension when you get to Liverpool Street and despite there being about 10 different ways of getting there each one is laced with danger.

"Fortunately you can spot West Ham fans a mile off (spivvy) so the tube is normally all right to sit tight and avoid them, but one of the worst things about the ground is when you get off the tube you are plunged straight on to Green Street. Queen’s Market is surrounded by moody looking Hammers trying to spot anyone who looks remotely Spurs and if they do, they won’t be shy in giving it the "Yid” chants or posturing for a row.

“Take a left down one of the side streets and things calm down a bit, but there is always the fear of an ambush.”

It’s not just visiting fans who can get ruffled by a trip to E13; opposition players have been affected too.

Before the redevelopment of the stadium in the early 1990s, the home supporters were crammed so tightly to the pitch on all four sides of the ground that they were close enough to touch, let alone hear. Three sides were terraced - the North Bank, South Bank and the famous Chicken Run - and a hostile reception was guaranteed for visitors.

Former players who had departed east London under a cloud, such as Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe, received vitriol for the remainder of their careers. West Ham fans’ ultimate 'Judas’, Paul Ince, was considered so endangered on his first return to the ground that he barely strayed from the centre-circle.

Ince’s Manchester United team-mate Ryan Giggs wrote in his autobiography that he could have made a fortune by collecting all the coins that were lobbed his way during a 1-0 loss at Upton Park in 1992 - a defeat that cost the Red Devils the title.

The Boleyn’s atmosphere, while a far cry from the vociferous levels of yesteryear, has remained one of the Premier League’s fiercest. The passionate refrain of 'I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ that reverberates around all four corners of the stadium at the start of each game is as spine-tingling as any in English football. This Tuesday, it will be louder than ever.

But it’s outside the ground where things feel most volatile.

“After the game is arguably worse than before as once the police guide you past the bus depot and through the alley in which I always thought I’d one day get stabbed in, it’s a free for all,” said Tottenham fan Birch.

“We’ve long given up queuing to get back on at Upton Park station as it’s too easy to get exposed as Spurs, so instead face the perils of a walk to East Ham.

"To be fair it’s so heavily policed these days it would take something special for fighting to break out by the ground, but the menace is always there.”

Something special did happen in August 2009, when West Ham drew Millwall in the second round of the Carling Cup. A fixture that for years had been played exclusively at midday on a Sunday amid water-tight security was suddenly scheduled as a midweek evening kick-off. The Met were ill-prepared and many of the old 'faces’ took advantage.

One Millwall fan was stabbed amid street battles before the game, some of which continued inside the ground as Hammers fans invaded in the pitch. The scenes were condemned as an ugly throwback the bad old days.

It’s unlikely their ilk will be seen again in English football, certainly not at a West Ham match. But as the Swansea fans who were left beaten and bloodied on their walk from the Boleyn to Plaistow tube station this Saturday will testify - some nearby Hammers having taken umbrage at the Welshmen loudly hailing their 4-1 win while strolling through away territory - visiting Upton Park never completely lost its edge.

Next season, rather than passing Queen’s market and Ken’s Cafe on their walk to West Ham’s ground, visiting fans at the Olympic Stadium will instead be able to pick up some cushion covers in John Lewis on their way through the Westfield shopping centre.

It will certainly feel safer, but maybe not quite as invigorating.