One of the privileges of being born in the late 1950s was that your formative years, from a footballing perspective, were the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a great time for English football as the nation basked in the glow of World Cup 1966.
As the passage of time moves on, and history plays tricks with the memory, sometimes you have to remind yourself that over the course of your spectating career, you may well have seen some true greats of the game. Of course, when you are young, you take it for granted, but when people refer to players like Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and others from ’66, you realize that you probably saw all of them in their pomp.
In December 1971, West Ham were lining up to play Stoke City in the second leg of the Football League Cup semi-final. The Hammers had won the first meeting at the Victoria Ground 2-1, so they were favourites to reach the final to meet either Chelsea or Tottenham.
The game was the talk of school, largely because there were a number of West Ham fans around and also because of the promise of Wembley, which was then still a prized venue and not the everyday location it has become in football today. A small group of us decided to travel up to the East End to watch the game after school – a grand adventure on the District Line from Upminster to Upton Park.
A cold, December evening, slight mist in the air, undoubtedly frost to come, accompanied the journey. There used to be something special about floodlit games at West Ham and the atmosphere around Upton Park was of great expectations – the Hammers about to clinch a place at Wembley. Obviously everyone with claret and blue in their veins wanted to be there to witness this, for the pushing and shoving was like a huge rugby scrum without the manners. The air was thick with an intoxicating brew of halitosis, alcohol, cigarettes, onions, chewing gum and body-odour (this was, after all, the days before personal hygiene and only ‘pansies’ wore deodorant). Oh the rich aroma of a football crowd!
We wedged ourselves into the ground and found a position behind the goal in West Ham’s infamous North Bank. There was a myriad of Dickensian characters in the crowd, donkey jackets and Dr.Martens being the order of the day. The language was strictly Anglo-Saxon. In the Evening News that night, England skipper Bobby Moore had urged Upton Park to get behind the team, something the West Ham crowd never had much trouble doing, and when he took the field, he gestured to the all sides of the ground to make some noise. I remember someone standing behind me saying that he hoped the “’ammers” would play Chelsea in the final because he wanted to give those “cocky b****** a good hiding on the train up to Wembley”. I shivered, not because of the cold, but because I was also hoping West Ham would reach the final to play Chelsea…because I felt the Blues would easily beat Bobby Moore and co.
“I’m forever blowing bubbles….we’re on our way to Wembley…..Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Moore…..”, the North Bank was in fine voice as the game got underway, the crowd swaying with every move, necks craning to see the ball played down the touchlines, footings lost as the ball rained in on the penalty area. The ground was packed solid, 38,771 people inside, most of whom were trying to will West Ham to Wembley.
In the first half, West Ham created chance-after-chance, but Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Clyde Best were all generous to Stoke. There was a degree of frustration setting in, West Ham couldn’t kill-off Stoke and with 17 minutes remaining, a cross by the pipe-smoking Stoke captain, Peter Dobing was shot low into the net by John Ritchie to give Stoke the lead and level the aggregate: 2-2.
West Ham were gifted the chance to equalize with three minutes to go as Gordon Banks brought down Harry Redknapp. A penalty – with Banks defending the North Bank end. Surely “Geoffrey” would score the goal that would take West Ham to the Empire Stadium? Tension built. Hurst picked up the ball, puffed his cheeks as he was prone to do and smiled at his old England mucker. He shot with force, his customary approach to spot-kicks, but Banks stopped it, pushing the ball into the glow of the floodlights. It was a tremendous stop and killed the atmosphere in the North Bank stone dead. You could hear a Stanley Knife drop.
Given we had to get home, and school the next day, we didn’t really need the inconvenience of extra time, but we got our bonus 30 minutes. No further score, the home players had their heads down, Stoke were looking forward to a replay. The night belonged to Gordon Banks, England’s World Champion goalkeeper. And a few weeks later, the tie was Stoke’s and on March 4, 1972, so too was the Football League Cup. They beat Chelsea 2-1 to claim the only piece of silverware they have ever won. I’ve always blamed Geoff Hurst for that….
** For the record, on the same night, Tottenham won 2-0 in Bucharest against Rapid, “the dirtiest side I’ve seen”, according to Bill Nicholson. And Panathinaikos and Nacional (Uruguay) drew 1-1 in Athens in a typically bad tempered World Cup Championship first leg tie.