On Tuesday 10 May the last game to be played at the Boleyn Ground in East London, home of Premiership football team West Ham United, kicked off. The ground, also known as Upton Park, opened in 1904 when 10,000 spectators watched the home side defeat Millwall 3-0. 112 years later, the home team ran out victors in a thrilling match against Manchester United – a fitting farewell to a stadium that has seen action in nearly all of the domestic leagues and survived a v2 bomb strike during WW2.
Throughout the build-up to the match photographer Elliot Wilcox captured the rising anticipation of the game, the rituals and moods of the fans arriving down Green Street and the celebratory mood of the day. “As soon as I got off the tube at Upton Park (after a half an hour wait to get the 50m out of the station due to crowds) what sticks out in my mind the most was an extremely excitable man saying to his son “Look at this! It’s never like this, it’s buzzing!”” says Elliot. “It was a generational occasion for a lot of people who were bringing their young families to experience what they had for the last time. Traffic was being stopped in the streets and there were queues outside of every pub.”
He was also present when the home fans attacked the bus carrying the Manchester United Squad as they arrived for the game, an incident that delayed kick off by 45 minutes and has seen the fans involved banned from the club for life. “The bus incident seemed a little misplaced for the occasion but then you mix ten thousand-odd amped-up West Ham fans with the away team’s bus arriving late to spoil the occasion then I think you are asking for trouble. There was a lot of piss taking at first but emotions were running high when the bus had to reverse into fans that were trying to get into the ground – fans were stuck with nowhere to go and this caused a lot of trouble,” says Elliot. “The excitement turned to worrying which turned into anger for a few but partly because there were a lot of children stuck in this bottle neck which was causing concern. With that number of fans the police couldn’t do anything and obviously had no control – I was in the middle of the blockage and you could do was ride the wave of the crowd.
“It was a piece of history in terms of football and the East End of London and I wanted to capture this. It’s part of the changing times in football where top flight clubs are moving from their historic and traditional grounds into multi-purpose stadiums,” says Elliot. “I am particularly interested in what surrounds these old grounds in terms of the traders, houses, pubs and people. This is what will be missed the most by me as West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.”
Elliot’s images capture the historic occasion that West Ham fans young and old came together to say farewell to the third oldest stadium in the league and the beautiful and ugly side of football tribalism was so vividly on display.