Boleyn People

Former Boleyn Ground groundsman Steve Cooper shares his unique memories of West Ham United's historic home
The phrase “Once a Hammer, always a Hammer” is a well-known one around these parts and it certainly applies to former groundsman Steve Cooper.

A Dagenham native, Steve Cooper emigrated to New Zealand in 1972 before returning to work at his beloved West Ham in the 1990s.

Describing how he came to work for the club he supports, he explained: “I'd been playing football in Queensland before leaving to go to the UK.  I used to get a lot of stick being a West Ham supporter, particularly from all those so-called Manchester United supporters who'd never been to Manchester!

“Much was made of the fact that my wife Lynn and I were going to UK without jobs and nowhere to live. But thankfully within a day of us arriving there was an advert in the Dagenham Post for a job at the club, including accommodation and a vehicle. I laughed because it was too perfect and thought it had to be a joke done by my mates in back in Oz!”

While it was certainly a risk to upsticks halfway across the world, the advert was not a joke. After hesitating briefly, his initial application was accepted. Soon after Steve had an interview with club secretary Tom Finn and stadium manager John Ball.

The rest, as they say, is history. Steve described it simply: “They gave me the job, and John became the best boss I've ever had.”

Starting in February 1991, Cooper chose a good season to join the Irons as they were closing in on promotion back to the First Division. Top goalscorer Trevor Morley’s 17 goals took the Hammers second, just a solitary point behind table toppers Oldham Athletic.

Describing his start to a working life in Claret and Blue, he continued: “I worked at the club for seven years. I was in charge of the everyday running of the stadium, the groundsmen, maintenance guys and cleaners.

“I also had to liaise with contractors throughout the building of the Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking Stands but mainly to make sure the stadium was up to the safety requirements for every game and to oversee the extra match-day safety staff.

“The most enjoyable part of the job was, without doubt, matchdays. They were absolutely frantic but the atmosphere was brilliant. There would be about a dozen of us flat out from early morning until kick off time but then things would invariably still go wrong!

“The guys I worked with were a top bunch and we always coped somehow. Winters were really hard, making sure games didn't get cancelled. One of our ideas was to introduce the huge 'bubble' that was used very effectively before under soil heating was installed.”

Under Cooper’s astute leadership, the famous Bobby Moore Stand, completed in 1993, and the Trevor Brooking Stand, two years later in 1995, were converted to the iconic feats of architecture that stand tall and proud to this day.

“My job at West Ham will always be the best I ever had. I've got so many great memories. One that sticks in my mind though is when I was given the Premier League trophy to look after when we played Blackburn Rovers in the 1994/95 season.

“They stood to win it that day if things went right for them. I took it home but had the idea to whip off the Blue and White ribbons, replace them with Claret and Blue and get the groundstaff to pose for photos with it! Word spread and eventually there weren't many in the club that didn't queue up for a photo!”

It is precisely this combination of humility and sense of humour twinned with hard-work that made Steve such a valuable and respected member of the West Ham Family.

However, the pull of his adopted home came calling.

In any job, seven years is a long time, and as anyone who has worked in a football club can attest, seven years is a very impressive innings in an intense, high-pressure environment. Especially considering the rollercoaster start the club had in the early 1990s; promotion-relegation-promotion before establishing themselves as a decent Premier League outfit by the time Steve left.  

“It was extremely hard to leave the club, but Lynn and I were very homesick for New Zealand. I still follow the Hammers and watch them whenever I can.

“I've coached junior football for over 30 years and the teams have always been called The Hammers. I’d say the majority of the 10 to 13-year-olds end up Hammers’ supporters!”
Speaking to Steve, it is soon clear how passionate he is about everything West Ham, and how many fond memories he has during his time in E13.

“There were so many weird and funny things that happened during my time at the club, too much for one article. I still get a huge buzz whenever I stop to think about them.

“When Bobby Moore died, there were hundreds of flowers and tributes piled all along the forecourt; it was a problem how to remove everything sensitively. We knew that it had to be done low key so it was decided to burn everything and bury the ashes beneath the soon to be finished Bobby Moore Stand.

“I got teams of workers in from 3am and we stockpiled all the thousands of floral wreaths in a car park.

“We loaded a few wheelie bins up but couldn't get them to light. Someone suggested a drop of petrol so we poured it in and lobbed a match or two in but nothing happened. We poured in a bit more petrol, but we hadn't realised that with all the flowers being in cellophane wrapped wreaths the petrol was just running off the plastic and settling in a puddle at the bottom!

“After a while I lit a huge bunch of rags and shoved it right in. We all backed off and for a while it looked like nothing was going to happen again but suddenly it went KA-BOOM!

“The tall circular metal bin acted like a cannon shooting thousands of flowers about 60 feet in the air. Then, in super slow motion all these little burning flowers came drifting back to earth, sort of dancing on the hot air. It looked surreal, and I remember saying ‘So Long Bobby’. We all stood and saluted; I do reckon Bobby would have seen the funny side of it.”

The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Ham United