Whether or not you’re a fan of Brexit, Donald Trump, or the move to the Olympic Park, it feels like 2016 has been a year of disagreement and discontent. For West Ham fans trying, like our team, to find our bearings in the new ground, it has been doubly difficult. Some us find ourselves sitting among strangers who don’t watch football in the way we’re used to doing. And the players are struggling to recreate the sparkling form they showed last season at the Boleyn. We seem to be grinding out results against teams we should be beating easily, and losing to teams who we’ve beaten in recent years. All that, and the BBC lost GBBO, England the series in India, and most of us have a family member who supports a different team. We could be forgiven for feeling pretty sorry for ourselves.
Or could we? Our team is playing in the richest league in the world in a ground that seats twice as many as we were getting at Upton Park until a few years ago. We’ve got some world-class players, and we support a great club with a proud place in the world of football. And most of us are not being bombed out of our homes, or having to flee in terror from insurgents, or wondering where the next meal is coming from. The old adage to ‘count your blessings’ is a good one. For many who don’t have the advantages that we enjoy, the world is a pretty dark place at the moment.
As someone who has lived in east London for quite a lot of my life, I’m proud of it. It has always been a melting-pot where different communities have been welcomed and allowed to work alongside each other happily for the most part, from the Huguenots, Irish and Jews of earlier times to those who have come more recently from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. At West Ham, players from overseas, like Clyde Best, Slaven Bilic and Diafra Sakho have contributed much to that tradition, just as have home-grown players like Ronnie Boyce, Joe Cole and Mark Noble. And, through the power of the internet, that old-style East-End West Ham family has become more of a world-wide tribe than ever before. That, at a time when some are determined to set one community against another, is an important strength.
As Prince Charles said recently, “Normally, at Christmas, we think of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I wonder, though, if this year we might remember how the story of the Nativity unfolds – with the fleeing of the Holy Family to escape violent persecution.”
I meet plenty of people who have come to east London to get away from wars, persecution or hardship. We have a tradition of welcoming and assimilating refugees that goes back at least 250 years. The story of Joseph and Mary fleeing with their new baby to safety in another country is one that has special resonances for them.
If Christmas is a time for families, let the West Ham family be one where we remember those who are not as well-off as we are, or who are different to us. Let’s have a heart for the homeless, the displaced, and those who are far from their loved-ones. And let’s remember to cherish those who are close to us, both young and old, even if they support the wrong team. Happy Christmas, everybody!