West Ham United have always done things their own way through thick and thin, so it was fitting when Frank Sinatra’s timeless classic kickstarted a post-match party that brought the curtain down on 112 years at the Boleyn Ground on Tuesday.
True to their traditions, West Ham kept a 34,000 crowd on tenterhooks as they flirted with defeat in their 2,398th and final game at a ground which survived World War II bombs and has undergone many facelifts but still retains a unique atmosphere.
Two late goals by Michail Antonio and Winston Reid, however, secured a thrilling 3-2 win over Manchester United that almost took the roof off the soon-to-be-demolished old place and sparked a classic Cockney knees up.
However, some West Ham supporters seemed bent on reviving another of the club’s less acceptable traits — bringing violence and a snarling edge to what should have been a night celebrating their team’s history.
Manchester United’s team bus was attacked by a bottle-throwing mob before the game, forcing baton-wielding police to intervene and causing a 45-minute delay to kickoff.
When the game finally got underway, the teams produced a rip-roaring contest befitting the last night under the Boleyn Stadium lights.
The fans produced a crackling atmosphere, belting out renditions of the club anthem “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” before, during and after the game, while the appearance of a brass band delivered a glorious reminder of the days before mind-boggling television deals and millionaire players.
When the final whistle shrilled, fans resisted the urge to run on the pitch and grab their own sod souvenir. Instead they can buy fixtures and fitting in a club auction.
Then the floodlights dimmed and fireworks burst into the night sky. Searchlights crisscrossed the pitch.
Fans were reluctant to leave the ground despite the heavy rain and lateness of the hour caused by the pre-match violence.
They were rewarded with a trip down memory lane as a parade of former greats including Paolo di Canio, Martin Peters and Trevor Brooking arrived on the pitch in black London taxis.
“This was the perfect script,” said Brooking, who scored the winning goal in West Ham’s FA Cup final win over Arsenal in 1980, the last time they lifted a major trophy.
The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for images of West Ham’s favourite son, the late Bobby Moore, who captained England to the 1966 World Cup — a team that also contained former Hammers greats Peters and Geoff Hurst.
Current captain Mark Noble addressed the crowd before they drifted out for the last time, perhaps wondering whether the 60,000-seater Olympic Stadium the club will begin renting next season will ever be able to replicate the great Boleyn nights.
“That was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in in my life,” an emotional Noble, a one-club man born a stone’s throw from the ground, said.
“This is not just a football club, it’s a family.”
END OF AN ERA
Thousands of fans without tickets had descended on the scruffy surrounds before kick-off, anxious to soak up the atmosphere in the local pubs and cafes.
Long lines formed to buy match-day programmes that will become cherished heirlooms.
The smell of horse manure and fried onions wafted along Green Street, as a tide of claret and blue clad fans made their final pilgrimage to the stadium that has witnessed many a shattered dream since the club moved in 1904.
Many made for the iconic bronze statue of Moore being hoisted aloft with the Jules Rimet trophy in hand in 1966 — a landmark that will soon be installed at the Olympic Stadium.
While the actions of a small minority left a stain on the evening, many more fans marked their final pilgrimage to West Ham’s ancestral home with poignant gestures.
A few paused to remember lost loved ones at the memorial garden where the ashes of West Ham fans are scattered.
Others escaped the maelstrom of noise in Our Lady of Compassion Church adjacent to the Boleyn Ground — named after the former wife of Henry VIII who, according to the history books, once graced the area.
“It’s very sad they are leaving our parish,” priest Neil Brett said as police sirens wailed outside his red brick church that flanks the West Stand.
“The sisters were singing ‘Forever Blowing Bubbles’ yesterday. People have been coming in all day. I just wish we had candles in claret and blue because we would have done a roaring trade.”
The Boleyn will now join the likes of Sunderland’s Roker Park, Arsenal’s Highbury, Leicester’s Filbert Street and Manchester City’s Maine Road, to name but a few, on the ever-expanding list of former football stadiums.
The memories will live on though, especially for those who witnessed the end of an era on Tuesday.