West Ham United’s final game at Upton Park should have been remembered for the 3-2 win over Manchester United but ugly scenes outside the stadium before kick-off really marred the situation.
When Man United’s bus arrived on Green Street it was met by a shower of beer bottles and cans thrown by West Ham fans which caused windows on the bus to be smashed and for kick-off to be delayed by 45 minutes until 8.30pm. The scenes were unsavoury and uncalled for.
Among all the photos which came out there was one in particular which stood out of two men escorting a mother and child through the crowds to safety.
We were able to speak with one of the men, Paul Sanderson, (pictured on the right with a hat) who gave The Peoples Person his account of the events and how it all unfolded.
Speaking to The Peoples Person, Paul said: “We arrived early for a change, it being the last game at Upton Park, with my son Zack, 20, alongside thousands of other Irons ready for a party. We are/were season ticket holders in the Trevor Brooking Upper. We parked up at about 4pm, had a story filled 30 minute walk to the ground where we did our traditional curry near Upton Park tube and then brought our copy of Over Land and Sea and got it signed by the boss Gary. I thanked him for all the work he put into the mag and handed over my £5 for the last ever edition.
“There was a sad buzz in the air. The queue at the Pie and Mash was long but people waited patently and chatted about memories from the Boleyn days gone by. I took my son to his first game aged four and my dad took me when I was 12. This was part of my family history coming to an end. After food we aimed for the Boleyn pub for our last beer. On arrival the sound of singing from the 66 statue had drawn a crowd that was spilling into the streets. Footballs flew threw the air with the odd lettuce following suit as the traffic started to back up with cars trying to get through. Where were the police? Where was the crowd control? This game has been in the planning for at least four weeks but a few bobbies smiled and kept an eye out as the crowds grew and grew and then beer cans followed the lettuce.”
While the scenes were understandably excitable at the beginning of the evening and easily contained, they quickly turned ugly when United’s coach arrived on Green Street. Being part of the growing crowds, Paul admits he started to feel unsafe as bottles started to fly through the air.
He continued: “It was clear the teams had not arrived and so for some, as it turns out, a bus would make a target for what was in their hands to aim for. When the first bus arrived some stuff was thrown until sounds went up saying ‘it’s West Ham!’, then the beer bottles in the air were replaced by songs. We surrounded the bus and sang the Bubbles as it slowly moved on.
“Police were arriving on mass with horses in the mix. Stupid abuse was being hurled and things were thrown so the horses were very twitchy with one rider doing an amazing job to calm his one down and stop it running wild. You could see the police were getting ready for worse to come.
“Caps were replaced by helmets, on went the gloves and out came the riot shields but when the first blue van in front of the bus lowered its protective mesh it seemed to trigger a target to aim for. It was then I started to feel unsafe and a bit trapped on the road side against the fence with my son the other side. Horses jumped near, bottles crashed and cans thumped. You could feel it was changing.
“So called fans started throwing bottles at Manchester United’s bus but all around us were other West Ham fans and members of the public trying to go about their lives. When you throw something who is it going to hit? Your mate on the other side? A family going home after a shop? A cyclist carrying her bike so as not to puncture her tires on the glass? The West Ham fans didn’t seem to care.”
With it all kicking off inside a large crowd which was only getting more intense, Paul tended to a woman and her child and helped them to safety.
He added: “As the Man United bus approached, the mood turned ugly. I saw I next to a mother carrying her young son who had his head buried into his mum shaking with fear. She was scared, I could see it in her eyes, but she was trying to be brave for her loved one.
“I chatted with the kid about school and hobbies which worked as the distraction helped cheer him up but only until another horse got too near and another bottle smashed at our feet. I asked some other fans to use their arms to make a protective roof over her head. One overly drunk fan started to sing Bubbles over them and I doubt that helped.
“Then a smoke canister went off and the boy started coughing like many of us did. I asked her where she wanted to get to and she pointed across the no mans land that had been created by the Police to a road lined with short but very green trees.
“I asked West Ham fans around me to help walk her across and one joined me (I would love to say hello again and thanks). We stepped out into the smoke and glass and cans into this big space that had been made as the police moved people back. It’s corny I know but time stood still as we walked in a straight line using the tree as our target. Holding her tight, we covered her head from any missile that might land on us.
“We got her out of the situation and I made sure she was OK, she said thank you several times with words and with her eyes were full of safety and gratitude. I shook hands with the West Ham fan who joined me and then I tried to get back to my son. The police would not let me through. I pointed to my head and said I am the hammer in the hat that just brought the lady through with her kid and I want to get back to my own son please.
With so much anticipation around the final game at Upton Park, there were some who questioned the police presence and whether they did enough to contain the situation. Speaking on that particular point, Paul made it clear he felt they could have done more.
He said: “Big questions need to be asked of West Ham United, the Police and Newham Council. We all knew that May 10 was going to be a party before and after, win or lose, but they seemed underprepared. The 1966 memorial is a mecca for West Ham; we take our children there, we take our friends, we take our pictures there. All should have known this would be the gathering point.
“A busy junction with buses and shops and cars and cycles and non-football people going about their life. Why were the roads not shut? Why was there not more police at the start? Why were both buses so late getting to the ground and not accompanied by police with a clear drive all the way through?
“We watch it on a cup final day, the helicopter following the bus from the hotel to the ground with the Police in front and behind. This was our cup final in so many ways. On this day of all days more security was needed. Many fans with out tickets came to say goodbye. Why was the ground not open two to three hours earlier? So many questions. Will we get the answers?”
The FA confirmed they are investigating the attacks outside Upton Park and are working with both Man United and West Ham to find out what happened. West Ham have also released a statement condemning the actions of some fans who will be given a life ban if they are found.
At this stage there have been no arrests but as the story continues to unfold and we read accounts like Paul’s which describe how unsafe the situation was, especially for the general public, something has to be done to make sure scenes like this are cut out of English football.
Thank you to Paul for answering questions for us.