Sunday, 14 January 2007

Pretty Bubbles

Pretty Bubbles by Sebastian Faulks

I didn’t see West Ham in the flesh until 1967 when I went with a schoolfriend who was a Chelsea supporter. I stood next to a man with a cap who kept shouting ‘Come on, you Irons.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, and it has always struck me as odd that an East End team should have a nickname which in cockney rhyming slang (iron hoof/poof) should lay them open to mockery, especially with such a shaky defence. There were plenty of exciting players on display that day. Hurst, Sissons and Peters for West Ham; Charlie Cooke, Tambling and Osgood for Chelsea. Yet it was to none of these that the eye was drawn, but to a defender: Bobby Moore. Much has been written about his style, but it was truly extraordinary. His anticipation was such that he seemed to be in a position to intercept a pass before the player on the other side had even decided to unload. He always gathered the ball moving forwards, so that at least three opposing players were wrong-footed and immediately had to go into reverse. Sometimes Moore would then step over the ball and turn the first challenger before releasing a 30-yard pass into the path of the winger; sometimes he would hit the ball flat and hard up to Ron Boyce (‘Ticker’ to the faithful) who would busy around the centre circle with it for a while before moving it on to Hurst or Peters.

Waves of applause rolled down towards Moore from the loving West Ham fans; every move he made was stamped with authority, every gesture made you certain he was the world’s master of defence. Sometimes he could be almost too domineering; midfield players would lay the ball back to him when they might have taken it on. When he made the fatal mistake against Poland in the qualifying match for the 1974 World Cup, it was unbearable. The casual way he dragged the ball back inside to turn the tackler was a copy of the movement he had been successfully completing every Saturday for fifteen years. It was as if Denis Compton had been out at a crucial moment in a Test match to the sweep he had himself perfected. In my view that one error did nothing to tarnish Moore’s career. On the contrary, by showing that he was human, like any other player, it made the riveting and masterful performances of his pomp seem all the more remarkable.

Even the Arsenal crowd was charmed. My first trip to Highbury came the following year. The ground made Upton Park look a bit down market, to be honest. Arsenal had this greenhouse affair tunnel, the stadium was huge and, to a bright-eyed schoolboy, the red of their new shirts was dazzling. The Hammers looked all right, though. They played the better football, but their forwards kept getting chopped down by Simpson and Storey in the Arsenal defence. Even my Arsenal friend grimaced in embarrassment when Simpson was cautioned for another knee-high swing at West Ham’s number 9.

This was a slow, gangling centre forward of about nineteen who had been brought in to replace Johnny Byrne. His name was Trevor Brooking and he had been in and out of the team for a couple of seasons. My reaction was ‘Forget it.’ Byrne was a real old centre forward with greased-back hair; he didn’t play with a fag in the corner of his mouth, but it seemed implied. This youth Brooking was one-paced, kept falling over and didn’t use his height in the air. ‘Lovely build, that Brooking,’ said the man next to me. ‘That’s about all,’ I piped back bravely.

Time, Ron Greenwood and a hidden talent proved me wrong. Brooking became, with Keegan and Shilton, the light of his generation. He was the most beguiling and most skilful player West Ham have produced in my time. His famous dummy, his ability to lose a man by shrugging his shoulders and shifting his weight, were made remarkable by the fact that- lovely build apart- there was something essentially quite ungainly about him. But what made his game so ravishing to watch was his ability to make other players look ordinary, or even stupid. This he did with his passing. It might be with one of his characteristic near-post balls, when the big guns were gathered at the other side, but most exquisitely it was with the pass placed casually into no-man’s-land. Crowd and defenders would look on for a moment in disbelief. The suddenly it would dawn. The ball was not rolling into no-man’s-land at all, but on to the one diagonal that would take the accelerating striker clean through the previously unbreachable defence.

The West Ham crowd was spoiled by this kind of thing for years. They loved him for it and they applauded every time, but they took it as their due. Such talents, however, as the present West Ham team sadly demonstrates, come only once in a lifetime. I went to Upton Park for Trevor Brooking’s final game. It was against Everton whose newish goalkeeper, Neville Southall, allowed them an improbable 1-0 victory. It didn’t spoil the occasion, however. Brooking was called back for a lap of honour after the game, and the crowd gave him as fine a tribute as any man could ask for. In that ten or fifteen minutes of cheering and applause I think they registered their gratitude for the joy he’d brought them over so many winter Saturdays. I have not had the heart to go back to Upton Park since.

from Harry Lansdown and Alex Spillius (eds.), Saturday's Boys, 1990

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