2am kick-offs, t-shirts and shorts, and Frank McAvennie – the story of the Sydney Hammers
“15 years ago, I moved to Australia,” Rob Byrne begins.
“I’m originally from Ireland, so when I moved to Sydney, I thought my days of supporting West Ham were over! The kick-off times can be around 2am, so it’s absolutely horrific to watch a game over here.
“I got onto Facebook and met a guy online who said there were a few of them going to watch a game and asked whether I’d be interested. There were probably five of us there that day.
“Shoot forwards a few years, and there’s 1,000 people in a pub watching the 2012 Play-Off Final! Now, we travel to New Zealand together in groups, we travel all around Australia every year, we’ve got national meet-ups and over a thousand members on our Facebook page.”
Wherever you go in the world, you’ll find Claret and Blue coursing amidst the wider West Ham United family – as Byrne, now chairman of the Sydney Hammers, discovered upon his emigration.
Hailing from Dublin, Byrne, who has supported the Hammers for over 40 years, was born into a family of Irons fans, particularly his uncle and cousins.
It was them who convinced the young Byrne to persist with West Ham as a youngster in an era of domestic domination by the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United.
“I think I might have been eight years old and I wore my first West Ham jersey into school one day,” Byrne recalled. “Everyone else was wearing Manchester United or Liverpool shirts, but myself and another chap in the class – a Nottingham Forest fan – just got abused!
“The next day I came into school and a few of the boys came up to me and said: ‘My Dad said West Ham are a really good footballing team, so they’re okay.' I was just beside myself. Something clicked for me then that being a West Ham fan is pretty special.”
Crossing the Irish Sea with his father to attend his first-ever game at Boleyn Ground a couple of years later remains a cherished moment within Byrne’s heart.
“My Dad flew over with me – we’d saved up for ages,” he smiled. "It was a bit of a blur – I think I was nine or ten years old – but I watched us beat Luton 3-1. Then, of course, Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee became my absolute heroes.
“Later on, I returned and had my 21st at Boleyn Ground; we went to the game and got beaten by Spurs, so it ruined my birthday - but that was okay, I loved the experience!”
As is so often the case, however, a new opportunity came calling in Byrne’s life, and onwards to the Southern Hemisphere he moved.
Finding his feet in his new home of Sydney, however, did not cut Byrne off from his burgeoning love of West Ham United – instead, it only bolstered it.
“I think it was in 2007 or 2008 that Sydney Hammers had our very first meeting,” he explained. “There were only about seven or eight of us. Two chaps called Simon and Jason were the two boys who set it up originally. We set up a little committee and decided to put together some official meets. We found a regular location in Sydney here as well.
"The group then grew really organically; we got our social media accounts and our website, and suddenly everyone just came out of the woodwork!
“West Ham have always had a huge representation in Australia, there was just nothing there to bring everyone together. All it took was a Facebook page and a few boys who wanted to have a beer and watch the game, and within weeks we had hundreds, which is huge when you consider they’re all people with families and lives!
“Every match, we’d go out at maybe nine or ten ‘o clock in the evening and try and stay awake until 2am, watch the game and either celebrate or have a few beers! It’s very different to a mid-day or 3pm kick-off in England – especially because the weather’s so nice, we’re always in t-shirts and shorts!
“I’ve actually become more of a West Ham fan now in Australia than I ever was back home really, which has tested my wife’s patience!”
Yet, without necessarily possessing local ties, how did that vast support in international waters grow within the continent?
“There’s amazing support in Australia,” Byrne confirmed. “There’s also a huge group in Jakarta, and they’re crazy for West Ham in New Zealand – when the Club came to New Zealand in 2014 and we could interact with the players, it was one of the best days of our lives.
“A lot of the Australian guys love the fact that we have a great history. They’re looking for something that appeals to them as a family, and West Ham definitely gives them that.
“It’s a unique Club with a unique family feel to it. A chap called me up the other day and, due to COVID-19, his son’s West Ham merchandise, which was for his 16th birthday the following day, was stuck in the post.
"I put something on Facebook and within two hours we had three shirts, we had scarves and jackets for him, and he was just blown away.
'He was West Ham – it’s what we do.”
As for his favourite memory with the Sydney Hammers, one instantly springs to Byrne’s mind – and he recalls it with a beaming grin.
“During the 2012 Play-Off Final, we had 1000 people in one pub and 500 across the road in another!” he smiled.
“I’ve never felt happiness like that day, surrounded by all the boys. We started at ten ‘o clock in the morning. We felt like we were really part of the day, even though we were 15,000km away. It was just pandemonium when Ricardo Vaz Te scored – I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week.”
As was the case with Byrne, while his wider family has always been adorned in Claret and Blue, his closest relatives are now growing up steeped in it, too.
“My son is named after Frank McAvennie!” he laughed. “My wife will argue that he’s named after her cousin, which is kind of true also… but my second son’s name is Bobby – you can guess who he’s named after!”
In typically welcoming fashion, Byrne invites every football fan – Hammer or otherwise – to touch base when they next find themselves Down Under.
“We’ve got lots of other groups in Australia too – Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, the Northern Territory – so it doesn’t matter what part of Australia or even New Zealand you’re coming to, the boys would love to have you.”