Saturday, 22 December 2007

Soul Of Hammers Family

Inner sanctums reveal soul of Hammers family
By Russell Brand

After the second of West Ham's listless defeats at the hands of the vindictively efficient Everton I snided my way into the directors' lounge, as I was curious to meet the dignitaries within. Since writing this column I've had incredible access to West Ham players and behind-the-scenes personnel and I must say I've found the place to be reassuringly domestic.

The staff have an unaffected familiarity with each other and most of them have been at the club decades; the shop-floor banter between them could be found in any factory or call centre across these islands. I witnessed Lesley and Barbara behind the bar in the player's lounge discussing with eye-rolling boredom the concern of a trainer who informed them that they ought avert their eyes, as Lucas Neill was coming through in just a towel.

Lesley: I said, "I've got two grown up sons - he's got nothing under there that's gonna frighten me."

Barbara: Chance'd be a fine thing.

I heard Ron, whose job I was unable to ascertain, glibly dismissing the heart attack he'd had the previous week while filling a see-through bag with unused chops off the hospitality table.

Lesley: Did the doctor tell you to watch what you eat?

Ron: What'da they know?

For me, exchanges of this nature are as warm and familiar as dozing on my grandad's lap, and far more accessible as he's been dead for 15 years. Just to clarify; I only dozed on his lap as a child, not into my mid-teens, just before his death. A lapful of adolescent drug addict could only exacerbate bowel cancer and anyway I'd long grown out of the habit by then. The white radio-clock he'd received from Fords had long stopped but still it hung on the kitchen wall in Dagenham. A plastic monument to his years of toil, a black-and-white photo of him humbly accepting it was in the adjacent cupboard.

As he lay delirious with death approaching, on the settee, TV on as ever, I watched through tears as he struggled to remember Jimmy Greaves' name.

"Who's that?" he enquired, peering beyond the screen and into the cosy, hazy past.

"That's Greavsie," I said, all sad. Bert was a West Ham fan of course, like my Dad, and would've been thrilled at the new privilege I now enjoy, though probably too embarrassed to actually get off on it the way I do. I'm intrigued by hierarchy and a Premiership football club is a fascinating place to observe social strata. First there are the fans, themselves organised into myriad groups; then, in the ground and behind the scenes, security and hospitality and catering; the now sadly defunct Hammerettes; training staff; directors; and, fanfare please, the players. I was titillated by Tony Montana's ascent through the Cocaine cartels of Florida and South America in the movie Scarface: first he's hanging out with street dealers, then local Mister Big-type characters, before climbing to the top of the power pyramid where corrupt politicians teeter.

My own experiences at Upton Park parallel that exactly; Lesley and Barbara are cut-throat Cuban street dealers, Ron and Danny and Tom from security are local Mister Bigs and at the top of the pyramid are the families of John Lyall and Ron Greenwood. And me, well obviously I'm Tony Montana, strutting around in a white suit with a machine gun and a powdery moustache.

The analogy had broken down long before you were asked to accept me as a cold-hearted, hot-blooded killer; Lesley and Barbara wouldn't last five minutes dealing Charlie on a corner in Miami and the respective Lyall and Greenwood dynasties have more in common with the house of Windsor than that ostentatious tat palace that Tony and his cronies were holed up in. They truly had the demeanour of aristocracy, a cockney monarchy.

Clearly aware of the duty of legacy, they charmingly introduced me to their children; when Murray, John Lyall's son, said, "This is my son Charlie. John's grandson," it was touching. Neill, Ron Greenwood's son, a gentleman like his father, was hospitable and gracious, never betraying for a moment that my nervousness was evident. I met a few members of the current board but wasn't with them long enough to make an assessment of them or their intentions towards the club. But the presence of the club's two most successful and beloved manager's families was heartening.

If the line from this game's inception to present day can be preserved perhaps we can protect its soul through Ron Greenwood and John Lyall, my Grandad Bert, through Neill and Murray right to Charlie. Not his little brother Scott though. He supports Chelsea.

Guardian column

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