At 5 p.m. on Wednesday May 11, Nicholas and I made our way to Green Street in East London where West Ham was playing their last game at the Boleyn Ground. The team had resided in the old, decrepit stadium for 112 years and now was moving to the state-of-the-art Olympic Stadium where London hosted the 2012 Olympics.
I had been warned that the atmosphere would be a sight to see, people would be dancing and singing in the street and the area would be packed with fans. We had planned to enjoy the environment until the game started and then walk to the Boleyn pub. We planned to watch the football game against Manchester United, have a pint of lager and then head home on the Tube.
The reality was vastly different that I could have imagined, I was not prepared for what I would see.
The Tube was packed with West Ham fans, all dressed in claret and blue, there was hardly any room to move and when the train pulled up to the station there was a rush for the escalators. Out on the street, cars were slowly making their way up and down Green Street and the sidewalks were filled with vendors and fans drinking beer. As we got closer to the stadium we looked up to see David Gold and David Sullivan, the West Ham co-owners, on a balcony overlooking the chaos that was ensuing below.
Making our way closer to the square, the noise got louder until finally we saw the group known as the Inter City Firm (ICF). The group is a well-known gang among the football community and is glamorized in the film Green Street Hooligans and is explained as the Green Street Elite.
English football had a problem with hooligan supporters in the 1970’s and this group rose to prominence as the most violent and aggressive of the 92 football clubs in England. The group is known to drink aggressively before games and then seek violence. Although the occurrence of stabbings and rival gang fighting has mostly died out, the gang known as the ICF is still a primary sight at each match outside the stadium and is passed down from generation to generation.
A man stood on the railing in the center of the square leading a group of approximately 50 people chanting and leading the rest of the crowd in a chant mocking their fellow London rivals Tottenham Hotspurs. Tottenham had recently been close to winning the English Premier League and had lost the previous weekend eliminating their chance of winning the league. The ICF was shouting their support at the recent loss by chanting “When Tottenham eff it up we’ll have a party!”
The atmosphere at first was incredible, men climbed to the top of light posts with a can of beer in hand and members of the ICF scaled the statues of several famous players to hang a West Ham flag on the outstretched arm of Bobby Moore.
The West Ham bus finally turned onto Green Street and was greeted by cheering support from fans who wanted to get close enough to touch the vehicle. Police on horses surrounded the team’s bus and were taking the environment very seriously. Not only were the officers in full riot gear, but the horses were as well. From the shin up the horses had shin pads and helmets fitted to the horses head and shielding their eyes from any scattered debris.
The crowds became boisterous as the Manchester United bus finally turned the corner. The team was an hour late to the game even though they initially were only 200 yards behind the West Ham bus. The home team supporters had spread from the sidewalks into the streets causing the visiting team to be unable to form a path to the stadium.
We stood on the corner next to the square as the Manchester United bus passed by us. Men stood on the top of buses and began yelling “Come on you Irons!” Before we could move cans of beer were flying across the square. Soon glass beer bottles, food and glass vodka bottles were sailing through the air toward the bus. It was pandemonium as people who were in the wrong place, at the wrong time ran through the crowd screaming “We aren’t fans! We aren’t fans!” and everyone surrounding us covered their heads in terror.
I felt myself pulled back toward the wall of a building behind me as my boyfriend grabbed me and covered my head as a glass bottle shattered against the wall next to us. An elderly man a few feet in front of us fell to his knees as a bottle hit him in the head and windows on the Manchester United bus was shattered.
Smoke filled the square when police let off flares and then took off in the opposite direction, realizing, I assume, they were doing more harm than good.
We retreated up the street to view the chaos from a distance. A bus stood at a standstill at the intersection while people riding pulled out their cameras to film the ICF dancing and kicking beach balls through the crowds.
People leaned out of their apartment windows to see the event unfold and a man dressed only in pajama pants climbed out of his window onto the roof to film the excitement.
Originally we planned on waiting until the crowds died down and went to watch the game, but after 30 minutes we noticed that many of the individuals causing the commotion didn’t have tickets. The group was not going anywhere as the party continued and members of the ICF danced in the streets.
Eventually we realized there was no chance of us getting back to the Tube the way we had come and quickly left the square and the drunkards to find a back alley toward safety.
Once on the Tube we were able to breathe again knowing the chaos was behind us.
From the comfort of our humble studio flat we turned on the news to see that the game had been delayed an hour due to the bedlam occurring in the square. West Ham went on to win the game 3-2 against Manchester United and it became public knowledge that those involved in wrecking havoc on the Manchester United bus would be banned from all future games.
Needless to say I was not disappointed by my first trip to a football game; even if I never stepped foot in the stadium.