If you have ever been a fan of London’s West Ham United, there are a few key experiences that make you a part of the Hammers. One is putting on the claret and sky blue kit with its distinctive crest—the castle with crossed hammers. Another is spewing less than savory language if the subject of Tottenham, Chelsea, or former players plying their trade elsewhere comes up in conversation. Perhaps most distinctively, if you’re a Hammer, chances are you’ve probably blown bubbles while singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”
These are things that symbolized West Ham not just in your generation, but for your father’s generation (because odds are, he was a Hammer) and his father’s generation.
The colors? Adopted in 1899. The crest? Its design (with alterations) dates back to 1903. “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”? Sung since the 1920s.
And all of these experiences—the colors, the crest, the song, the chatter of fans cheering and crying—were shared in one place, the Boleyn Ground, since 1904.
So when you read that the Boleyn Ground hosted its last West Ham game on May 10, 2016, it’s worth remembering how key this ground was to the identity, and the experience, of being a Hammer, going back literally generations.
The entire game was magic, for hours before it began to hours after it ended. The stands were packed tight with fans who wanted to touch that experience one last time. In fact, the streets were packed with fans who would settle for that experience one last time even if it only meant hearing the Bubbles from the streets of Upton Park.
With all that magic in the air, any player who wore that shirt couldn’t fail to recognize it, feel it, and be powered by it. The magic had to settle somewhere.
Of course, this game wasn’t something as celebratory and inconsequential as a testimonial match. Their opponents were none other than Manchester United, led by the player who had scored more goals at the Boleyn Ground than any other, Wayne Rooney. (Not to belabor the point, but that’s 114 years of strikers trying to score at the Boleyn).
But the magic had to settle somewhere, and after leading 1-0, then trailing 1-2, and then tied at 2, the magic comes together for West Ham’s long-time servant, Winston Reid.
Just as the game approaches the 80th minute, a foul against left-back Aaron Cresswell gives West Ham a free-kick, which is now a feared specialty of their new play-maker, Dimitri Payet. The West Ham players—including the feared finisher of aerial balls, Andy Carroll—crowd into the box, eager to capitalize on a lofted cross. The fans—who have been singing the entire game, winning or losing—have a palpable tension.
Payet pings the ball towards the box and it arcs beautifully into the teeming mass of players, and vice-captain Winston Reid throws his weight around and wriggles free of the defenders to head the ball into the goal.
Reid screams, and shouts, and smiles, and the team pile on top of him. The crowd erupts. “It’s meant to be! It’s surely meant to be!” screams the announcer. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that this is the winning goal, the final goal, the magic last goal.
After the game, there’s a touching tribute ceremony to say goodbye to the Boleyn Ground, but there’s no greater farewell than this on-the-field goal.
Fans of football don’t say goodbye to stadiums often. Liverpool fans have been filing into Anfield since 1884. Everton Fans have filed into Goodison Park since 1892. For United Fans, Old Trafford was the fortress since 1910. It’s no different for the smaller clubs—Burnley’s Turf Moor (1883), Bradford City’s Valley Parade (1886), Watford’s Vicarage Road (1922).
But a new day is dawning, and these farewells are going to happen more and more often.
Arsenal fans had to say goodbye to Highbury (1913), and they were treated to a fitting magical occasion. Like West Ham, it was a back-and-forth, high-energy 4-3 game against Wigan Athletic, sealed by Thierry Henry’s slow, loping penalty to seal the winning hat-trick.
As beloved as Highbury was, in the modern, post-Invincibles era, Highbury was just too small for the big money ambitions of the club and its investors, and in 2007 began the era of the sleek, world-class Emirates stadium.
Manchester City, transformed from top-to-bottom by overseas investment, also left Maine Road to the modern behemoth that is the Etihad Stadium. City fans may not look back on that farewell with the same fondness—Southampton beat them 1-0, reminding us all that these finales are not testimonial or exhibition matches. They’re real games.
The Premier League—and in fact, football around the world—is being buoyed by massive new TV contracts and global merchandising as has never before existed. After all, the image of West Ham fans piled in the streets outside the Boleyn Ground is both a testament to their love for the Boleyn, but also the business demand that drives moving to the Olympic Stadium.
Big clubs like Chelsea and Tottenham are amongst the others lured by demand for more ticket sales to consider larger arenas, but given the Premier League’s fairly successful drive to push money downward to smaller clubs, they will be joined by their smaller cousins in seeking bigger and bigger arenas.
The legendary final home game at the King Power stadium, where the improbable trophy was delivered to the Champions, also saw scenes of hundreds outside the stadium in the streets. If Leicester can repeat some version of their current form—even a top half finish—over the next few seasons, 32,262 seats may not be enough for them. Same for a club like Burnley, if their flirtation with the top flight turns serious.
This weekend saw Liverpool fans in the Main Stand finish their home match by ripping up their seats and taking them home, as the stands will be torn down and expanded this summer. After the final refrains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” were heard, the stadium resounded with the popping and snapping of metal being torn apart in a true act of Kop love.
This movement is happening abroad as well. Like West Ham, Atletico Madrid’s new status as a European contender and major power in La Liga is matched with a move to the Estadio La Peinta. (Of course, the Vincente Calderon is a relative youngling at only 50 years old).
And perhaps most improbably, Barcelona’s home, which is one of the largest and most iconic in the world, has been deemed too small to house this brand. The 99,354 seat Camp Nou (which means “New Camp”) will be replaced by a 105,000 seat stadium. And that stadium’s name, like the Emirates and the Ethihad before it, is pending a sponsorship agreement.
There are many who will mourn the end of these historic venues, many of which date back to the early days of the game. I guarantee that one day, older West Ham fans will tell younger West Ham fans that you’re not a true Hammer if you don’t remember singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in the Boleyn, just as Arsenal fans speak of Highbury, even if Arsene Wenger continues to serve as a bridge to the past.
But equally, these bright new stadiums represent the new growth of these clubs—West Ham’s win at home was not only a farewell to the Boleyn, but it likely sealed a spot in European competition, with young stars that will continue to develop.
After all, just ask Major League Soccer fans. Many of the stadiums that will be departed soon will be fond memories for their fans, but will not be mourned. DC United fans will one day be as excited by opening day in their future home; NYCFC fans will joyfully bid goodbye to their baseball diamond when they get the chance, as a symbol that they’ve moved on to the next phase, the exciting new generation of their team.