Chris Stratford, then an Emley resident, recalls the day 20 years ago today when the West Yorkshire village went for a day out in London.
THE game is no more than a footnote in West Ham’s records; the day they struggled to beat a non-league side in the FA Cup. For Emley, it was more than just a new and glorious chapter in the club’s 94-year history. It was the climax to a Cup run that was worthy of a book all on its own.
The players and fans were supposed to head for Upton Park and just enjoy the day. Well, of course, they did that – but they both did so much more.
The team threatened to pull off a victory ranking alongside the Cup’s greatest upsets by matching their Premiership opponents at times for skill and overshadowing them throughout in terms of heart and nerve.
The fans who had gone to sing a 90-minute valediction to the exploits that had earned the UniBond League side progress to the third round for the first time found themselves urging their side in pursuit of a victory that not even alcohol-induced dreams could have included.
Some churls had decried the fact that Emley’s side no longer included village-born players and were scornful that many of its 2,200-strong showing at Upton Park were not inhabitants.
The final whistle sent only a frisson of disappointment through the Emley clan, being replaced instantly by the realisation that sport, gloriously and famously, does not always have to be about winning.Chris Stratford
No matter. The heart of the away crowd was made up of people who, if not village born and bred, were residents and proud of their side’s new-found fame. After travelling 200 miles to reach the gates of West Ham’s ground the last 200 yards through the turnstiles were punctuated every few steps by neighbours recognising one another and swapping tales of journeys through high winds and fierce rain.
A gust swept away the contents of one woman’s purse and fellow supporters, stewards and policemen scattered immediately to pin down notes and tickets and hand them back to their relieved owner. One incredulous steward commented: “I can’t believe you got that all back. If that had happened up the High Street there would have been a riot as people fought to grab the money for themselves.”
Not there. Not that day. Emley supporters were naturally allocated the away end, but the family stand would have been more appropriate. They were undeterred by the occasional concession to the Premiership’s world of fan rivalry and its lurking potential for trouble – flag sticks were reluctantly snapped off by stewards because of their potential “as missiles” and one steward on the concourse ushered a supporter with a pint of beer two feet back as he stepped forward to greet a friend. “I know it’s stupid, but the rule says no ale past that line on the floor,” she smiled.
Many fans wore the special commemorative embroided white shirt, available for £30 adult sizes and £25 in a child’s, bearing the words ‘Emley AFC v West Ham, FA Cup, 3.1.98’. They were jokingly disapproved of by some. “The club will expect us to fork out more money for a fourth round shirt as well.”
This seemed particularly fanciful speculation when, with Emley temporarily reduced to 10 men because of Neil Lacey’s hamstring injury, they fell behind after just four minutes to Frank Lampard’s goal. Just for a moment you could sense that visiting fans and players alike were gripped with the apprehension that humiliation was a possibility. It was no more than a spasm.
It would be impossible to say whether the players recovered their poise first and transmitted it to the fans or vice versa, but after a series of West Ham misses, what was clear was that both were performing with confidence.
Welsh international striker John Hartson, the Premiership’s leading scorer at the time, was the most profligate Hammer and the away fans chorused to him “How wide do you want the goal?” and to the team as a whole “You’re worse than Lincoln City”, Emley’s second-round victims.
Pre-match talk of acceptable margins of defeat was replaced by half-time talk of the possibility of a replay and Paul David’s equaliser produced understandable delirium both sides of the pitch surround.
“You’re not singing any more” was the chant although “You weren’t singing anyway” would have been more appropriate as the impression was that this corner of the East End was the Dead End.
West Ham’s fans sat for the most part in silence only truly finding their voices 10 minutes from time, and then only momentarily, when Hartson pulled them back from the abyss with a header from so close in that even he could not miss.
The final whistle sent only a frisson of disappointment through the Emley clan, being replaced instantly by the realisation that sport, gloriously and famously, does not always have to be about winning.
Emley’s heroes ran first to their fans and then did a lap of honour around the ground as thousands of home supporters displayed the renowned sense of East End hospitality by staying behind to offer a standing ovation.
In the manner of a royal walkabout the white-shirted men and stoic goalkeeper Chris Marples shook hands with men, women and children whose nightmares they would have stalked for eternity but for Hartson’s header.
The ecstatic players’ route finally took them back to their own fans for one last, lingering act of mutual admiration until the players eventually, but undoubtedly reluctantly, retreated to the warmth of the TV spotlights and the fans to that of buses, cars, coaches and trains.
After stopping at Bethnal Green police station to ask for directions to Upton Park after their overnight stay in the capital, the team never lost its way for another moment.
For one glorious day the worlds of West Ham, the club which gave us England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, and Emley, a club which shared its ground with the village cricket pitch, had collided.
There were no casualties from the impact on either side, with West Ham as expected reaching the next round and Emley carrying off glorious memories that, in the past two decades, have lightened up even darker, colder, wetter days .
This was indeed the romance of the Cup, and seldom can its kiss have been more luscious.