I read an article recently that was written by a West Ham fan who likened following the team to a rollercoaster ride. I could see where he was coming from with the ups and downs from season to season, and even from game to game. I suppose a lot of football supporters feel this way about their team, but at West Ham I’m sure we experience it more than most.
As a fan I came in when we were fairly high on the ride. The first season I remember (as a five- year-old) was 1958-59. We had been promoted the previous year from Division Two into the top flight (Division One in those days) and in our first season finished in sixth position, and were holding third place before losing our final game. The following season we began a slow descent. A magnificent run through September to November where we won 11 out of 13 games in all competitions (losing just one) meant that we topped the league on 21 November. The following Saturday (I remember it so well because I was in hospital) we travelled to Hillsborough and were soundly beaten 7-0 by Sheffield Wednesday. We began to go down at that point, were bundled out of the FA Cup in the third round 1-5 at home by second division Huddersfield, and finished the season in 14th.
The 1960s were good in that we remained in the top division throughout, hovering between lower top half and bottom half, with the highs of the FA Cup trophy in 1964, followed by the European Cup Winners Cup a year later. The rest of the sixties and early seventies saw more of the same with another peak in the middle of the latter decade with our second FA Cup followed by an excellent run to another European final, playing some great football on the way through the competition.
Following that we began to hover just above the relegation places and eventually went down in 1978. A win in the final game at home to Liverpool would have kept us up but the Merseysiders cruised to a 2-0 win and our 20 year stay in the top flight was over. But all our best players remained and we began to go upwards again. It took us three years to get promoted, but we had a wonderful run in that time, winning the FA Cup for the third time in 1980, and then breaking all records the following season winning promotion as champions with a record points haul, and reaching the League Cup final where we unluckily lost to Liverpool after a replay.
Top half finishes throughout most of the early 1980s culminated in our best league season ever (1985-86), finishing third after being in contention to be champions for most of the season, despite a poor start where we only won one of our first seven matches. Liverpool finished top that year and we were pipped for the runners-up spot after losing at Everton on the final day.
A sharper decline followed that great year however, and three seasons later we were once again relegated. We came back at the second attempt, only to be relegated the following season and then promoted once again in the next campaign. This was a real yo-yo period but we stayed in Division One throughout the nineties and managed a fifth place finish in 1999. We partied with Prince after the final game of the season (a 4-0 win over Middlesbrough) as we qualified for the Inter Toto cup which meant a July start to the following campaign. Success in that early season tournament gave us entry into the UEFA Cup where we were eliminated in the second round, but still finished in the top half in the last year of the twentieth century.
The roller coaster was back in the early noughties with a lower half followed by a seventh place followed by relegation under Glenn Roeder. But we were back in the Premier League once again a couple of years later and reached the FA Cup Final in our first season. The final against Liverpool at the Millenium Stadium was one of the great finals, but Gerrard’s 30 yard shot in injury time denied us victory, and of course we lost the penalty shoot-out.
Top half finishes throughout most of the rest of the decade came to an end with a 17th place finish under Zola in 2010 followed by another relegation a season later under Avram Grant. This time we bounced back at the first attempt under Big Sam and have remained there since, with an excellent final season at the Boleyn in 2015-16, followed by a leaner period since.
So we have come full circle with the high of six wins in a row to begin 2021 followed by a reality check from Liverpool on Sunday. Looking back it is interesting how often Liverpool have featured in this brief summary of more than 60 years of following the ups and downs of West Ham.
Has it been a rollercoaster ride? In one respect the analogy is a false one because the greatest thrill that you get when riding the rollercoaster is not when you are ascending, but more in the rapid plunge to the low point after reaching the top. As a football fan, the best times are the ride to reach the peak, not the fall that has inevitably followed. Nevertheless it has been a great ride that, despite some of the many frustrations in being a West Ham fan, I wouldn’t have swapped for growing up following any other team.