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West Ham and anti-racism – what a difference a decade or two makes!

By Martin Smith | 24 September 2014

West Ham and Liverpool fans united in  support of the Palestinian struggle (pic cap Martin Smith)

West Ham and Liverpool fans united in support of the Palestinian struggle (pic credit Martin Smith)

Liverpool won nothing last season. They finished second best to Everton in the League Championship and that is a situation that won’t be tolerated at Anfield.

In have come England international stars Peter Beardsley and John Barnes, big money captures from Newcastle United and Watford and they have gelled nicely to support John Aldridge. So the Reds have a new look and a different pattern of play this season, for those ‘doubting Thomas’s” they have already sent a chilling message through the First Division with impressive wins at Arsenal (2-1) and Coventry City (4-1).

(West Ham official programme 5 September 1987)

The Liverpool side that walked out at Upton Park that autumn went on to become one of the greatest teams in the history of English football. That season Liverpool would win the League, losing just two games, a club record. The only fly in the ointment was the shock defeat at the hands of Wimbledon in the 1988 FA Cup final.

The powerhouse of that mighty Liverpool team was John Barnes, one of Britain’s greatest football players. That season he was awarded the player of the year award by both the Professional Footballers Association and the Football Writers Association.

But that day at West Ham, many supporters did not treat John Barnes with admiration or even grudging respect. From the first moment he gathered the ball he faced a torrent of racist invective. “You black bastard” rang out across the ground, handfuls of monkey nuts and several bananas were thrown on the pitch. If that wasn’t gut wrenchingly awful enough a handful of British Movement supporters spat arcs of phlegm at John. To those who say this sort of thing could never happen, I say you are wrong and I know – because I was there.

West Ham programme  5th September 1987

West Ham programme 5th September 1987

I have been going to West Ham for 44 years; that was the first and last time I have ever walked out of the ground before the end of a match. It was a sad, pathetic and individualistic protest against the racism I saw.

Fast forward to Saturday 20 September 2014, once again West Ham were playing Liverpool, but the atmosphere was totally different. Outside Upton Park tube station were two banners, the first stated “Hammers Against Apartheid” and the second “The Kop Against Apartheid”.

It was fantastic to see football fans from both clubs giving out leaflets in support of the Palestinian struggle. More impressive was the response of the fans, both sets of supporters eagerly took the leaflets, photos were taken and there was no abuse.

That was a far cry from the early 1980s, I used to see skinheads sell their racist rag Bull Dog both inside and outside the ground. As a young socialist I used to help organise sales of Socialist Worker, they always ended in violent standoffs.

Things got much better in 1984. We held regular collections for the miners and lots of fans gave generously, but there was always a vocal minority that despised what we did.

When the Nazi British National Party won their first ever council seat on the Isle of Dogs in east London in 1993, we decided to launch West Ham United Against the Nazis. It was a great little group – we made our own claret and blue anti-Nazi badges and a banner, which we hung in the ground, and we leafleted a number of home games.

We were warmly received by a lot of fans, but at one leafleting a large group of Nazis gathered near our stall and were threatening to smash it. What occurred next was amazing and something I will never forget. A large group of Inter City Firm (a notorious hooligan crew that followed West Ham) went up to the Nazis and forced them to beat a retreat. ICF Against the Nazis – now that would make a great badge.

West Ham United against the Nazis

West Ham United against the Nazis

Since then, there have been stalls collecting money for a number of strikes including firefighters and ambulance workers.

It certainly isn’t all peace love and harmony. Only last season a small group of bigoted West Ham “supporters” abused Muslims praying in the ground before the start of a match and some West Ham supporters sang anti-Semitic chants at the Tottenham match. Both incidents were strongly condemned by the club and the supporters’ group.

On Saturday there was none of that crap: West Ham fielded six black players, women made up more than 25% of crowd and families over 14%.

I walked down Green Street last Saturday believing that despite all the problems of commercialisation and ticket prices things really have got better.

My day was made that much better when a dear friend of mine gave me a signed copy of Neville Staple’s biography Rude Boy – from borstal to The Specials. It seemed fitting: The Specials were after all one of the cultural symbols of black and white unity back in the day.



9 comments

  1. Muhammed Mustaqim said:

    fantastically well written! Have you got twitter or anything mate? This was outstanding and makes me proud to be a West Ham fan as well…

    Brilliant stuff x

    COYI !!

    Hammers Against Apartheid !!

    Free Palestine <3

    24 September 2014 at 12:57pm
  2. Martin Smith said:

    Thanks for the kind words, really appreciate them. You can follow my musings on this blog site. My twitter is martinuaf.

    24 September 2014 at 1:57pm
  3. neale williams said:

    I remember well the west ham against the nazis stall and helped to gather the signatures on the petitions and sell the badges. The claret and blue west ham against the nazis banner was hung up in barking fire station between games (where I worked) and was sadly lost. But the effect of the campaign lived on as can be seen by the anti racism and anti fascism of most supporters at the ground. I was not at the ICF incident mentioned by Martin, but I was doing the stall before a game with Everton where a group of their supporters threw “you have met everton NF” calling cards at us. Later when we were in the match we were greeted by a huge sea of yellow anti nazi league stickers being worn throughout the crowd by both home and away supporters absolutely vidicating our campaign and the idea that the fascists were and are a tiny minority. With the fascist EDL trying to whip up racism it is necessary again for us to defend our multi cultural game and society from the bigots. Martin’s well written and inspirational article shows how far we’ve come, but is also a guide to how we campaign again now and in the future. COYI

    24 September 2014 at 2:15pm
  4. Rob Lewis said:

    Thank you Martin. I enjoyed your article and appreciate the positivity. I too have lived through the dark days (since 1963 in my case) but I believe that there is less racism than ever now. But we have to be vigilant, as you point out; the anti-semitic stuff, plus the racist element, is only just below the surface. The fact that groups like the BNF (and UKIP) get so much support is a warning to us. That is also why I enjoyed your article.

    29 September 2014 at 12:06pm
  5. martin said:

    Couldn’t agree more – so much done, so much more to do.

    29 September 2014 at 1:59pm
  6. Steve O'Donoghue said:

    Well said Martin, as an anti-racist West Ham fan, one of the things that annoyed me the most about those dark old days, was the complete lack of knowledge of the history of our club. We were the first club to field three black players and also the club that produced the first black player to represent England. Something that is still so little known I wrote this song about it.

    30 September 2014 at 11:24pm
  7. tash said:

    Hi Steve – I’m the Spurs fan here on Dream Deferred, but me and Martin agree on antiracism! Thanks for your comment and video – I never knew that about Jack Leslie.

    30 September 2014 at 11:57pm
  8. Hammer said:

    Hi Martin,

    Great article. Thanks!
    Is there any active anti-racist/anti-fascist supporter group?

    22 February 2015 at 1:33pm
  9. Adrian Walker said:

    A great read. I was wondering if there are any West Ham antifascist groups still about? I only get up to West Ham once or twice a year (south coast based) and attended my last game at the Boleyn ground today. Was thinking if defecting to St Pauli but thought I’d ask first.. thanks in advance.

    26 September 2015 at 9:53pm

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