Walking for Isla

“Former West Ham boss Harry Redknapp believes fans should never again get the chance to attend a match between the Hammers and Millwall.” 

Evening Standard 27.08.09

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Isla with West Ham captain, Mark Noble

 

Traditionally Millwall and West Ham United fans have cast themselves as opposing forces of nature. Enemies since some obscure dock strike in the late 19th century, these are two clubs that caused ex Hammer player Harry Redknapp to comment after the 2009 League Cup tie violence at Upton Park, that they simply can’t be allowed to play each other any more.

 

So some might have found the recent support of a number of Lions fans for the ‘Isla’s Fight’ online campaign, rather surprising. Although I would argue that only those on the outside of these two fiercely proud clubs would think that. 

 

For those of us on the inside, both sets of fans are in fact remarkably similar. As it was my pleasure to confirm whilst taking part in the ‘Walk For Isla’. An event organised by a group of Hammers fans from the West Ham training ground at Rush Green, to the London Stadium at Stratford.

 

By way of background, little Isla Caton is a very brave three year-old girl, from a staunch West Ham family, who is suffering with a rare form of childhood cancer called ‘Neuroblastoma’. A very similar condition to that which the late Bradley Lowery suffered -and which so caught the national imagination last year.

 

Isla needs to generate some £400,000 to seek treatment in the USA for this rare condition. Only a hundred kids in the UK have been diagnosed with it – and consequently the NHS does not cover the full treatment in this country. A heartbreaking situation for Isla’s family and something which is hard to imagine living with.

 

Now if I am honest, when the Isla cause first came to my attention back in February, Millwall were on a decent run of form. But only a madman would have said that the Sheffield United away fixture on April 14th would be effectively a play-off fixture in its own right. Maybe sometimes you should listen to lunatics as, having committed to take part, I would have felt like a complete heel if I had pulled out and shot up to Sheffield. Yes, I was tempted …

 

But, as I have posted a few times on Twitter since committing to do the walk, it does take a very special young lady to not only put Millwall and West Ham fans on the same side, but also to drag myself and Bill ‘Henshaw’ away from Bramall Lane into wearing claret and blue shirts on a sunny Saturday morning.

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Bill ‘Henshaw’ and yours truly – ‘Millwall for Isla’

 

After a seven mile walk through the East London and Essex heartlands of Goodmayes, Barking and East Ham, the walk brought Bill and myself to the usually hostile (for any right thinking Millwall supporter anyway) ‘Boleyn Tavern’ at the junction with Green Street. Once  a heaving match-day boozer, the sparse lunchtime customers of the Boleyn now sit next to the sad building site that the football ground has become.

 

From the demolished White Horse and the now converted Hammers Pub on East Ham High Street (into a sourdough pizza restaurant of all things), through to the Central Bar on Barking Road, it is very hard not to feel that a community is passing away.

 

Even as a Millwall fan, the sight of the most hostile football stadium that I have ever been in, levelled with a concrete apartment shell already being developed makes a very sad scene.  

 

Sharing a beer inside the spacious Victorian decor of the Boleyn, the chaps with whom it was my pleasure to walk with – including the Hammers boxer Mark Little – each described the thousand and one small ways that the move to the Stratford stadium has eroded their match-day routines. Never to return.

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‘Isla’s Angels’, boxer Mark Little and yours truly outside the Boleyn Tavern

Can a few jars in the Westfield Shopping Centre really compete with the fortnightly meet up in the old school pubs around Upton Park? Can the hipster bars along the canal really take the place of the traditions of a hundred years? Can the very real sense of Hammers identity that oozed from the walls of the Boleyn Tavern be recreated elsewhere? Almost certainly not. 

 

As I say, I am sure some will see these as very strange words written by a Millwall supporter, but the sense of loss to the area can almost be touched. The replacement mix of private and social housing, all built around that ghastly modern ‘placemaking’ concept, is no replacement for one of English football’s great venues. 

 

Are football clubs communities or businesses? Both of course, but the sadness of the West Ham story is a hard one not to acknowledge. Maybe the sales pitch of turning the club into a top table contender will one day come to pass, but until then it remains an empty promise.

 

The final stretch of the ‘Walk for Isla’ route took us along the Greenway path, past the Victorian splendour of the Abbey Mills pumping station, through the 2012 Olympic village to the club shop at the London Stadium itself. Ten miles and a mutual respect for two traditionally working-class sets of fans, both united by a joint cause that goes much beyond football. 

 

Some will see the amount of support lent by Millwall fans, to what is fundamentally a West Ham family cause, as strange. Especially with all the history between the clubs in the past. But as the chaps in the Boleyn Tavern put it to me, “well you know that we’d do exactly the same for one of yours.”

 

And that’s the thing. As mad as it will sound to anyone on the outside of the East London v South East London rivalry, we really do know that West Ham would do the same in reverse. 

 

Respect and rivalry go hand in hand. Equally Harry Redknapp may well have a point if the Lions ever do get into the Premier League, because it won’t be kum-by-yaa songs and happy-clappers when we visit the Hammers at the Olympic stadium. I dare say I won’t even be able to get served in the Boleyn Tavern that day…

 

At the heart of the day though was Isla. The brave young fighter who has united the two sides of the River Thames and whose image dominated our walk.

 

The group of fans that I met at the Rush Green gates were solid, decent and traditional working class followers of their club. People just like us. 

 

And, just like us, they see the bigger picture that in the end, people make communities. Not business, not boardrooms, not money for that matter. Family and community is all we can leave behind.

 

It was my pleasure to ‘Walk for Isla with them all …

 

The fight for Isla continues in May with West Ham fan Pat O’Connor’s walk around the twelve London grounds. It was great to share Pat’s company on the walk and now also to lend my support to his ‘Just Giving’ page:

 https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/pat-o-connor3 a top man, top fans, a top day… and the Lions pulled of a great away point too.

 

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West Ham fan Pat O’Connor and yours truly at the mural marking ex Millwall manager Billy Bonds, adjacent to the Upton Park site.

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