Belgian Irons relishing West Ham United's Genk UEFA Europa League double-header
West Ham United’s UEFA Europa League Group H double-header with KRC Genk has created huge excitement among one of the Club’s largest and most passionate supporters’ clubs – the Belgian Irons.
For many years, Belgian Irons members have held dozens of Season Tickets, first at the Boleyn Ground and latterly at London Stadium, making day trips across the English Channel to cheer their heroes on in person.
While the COVID pandemic and Brexit have made it more difficult for them to get across to east London, many will put on their replica shirts and board a ferry or train to watch Thursday’s exciting meeting with the Belgian Cup winners at London Stadium.
A fortnight later, the Hammers will make the return journey to north eastern Belgium, where hundreds of locally-based West Ham supporters are expected to be in the crowd at the Cegeka Arena.
Ahead of the Club’s first competitive fixtures with Belgian opposition since losing 4-2 to Anderlecht in Brussels in the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, we caught up with Belgian Irons media manager and long-time West Ham fan Kenneth Vereycken…
Kenneth, let’s start with a bit about yourself. Why are you a West Ham supporter?
“I’m almost 40 and I’ve been a West Ham fan since I saw the Paolo Di Canio goal against Wimbledon [in March 2000], which I have a picture of on my wall at my house! Later on, I got acquainted with the Belgian Irons and I attended my first home game against Stoke [in March 2011] and we won 3-0.
“The atmosphere was really great at Upton Park and that was how it started. Before last season, I had been in east London between five and 15 times each year. The last season at the Boleyn, I visited 22 games, so that was insane!”
And you’re a member of one of the biggest and most passionate supporters’ clubs we have, the Belgian Irons?
“We have a loyal fanbase in Belgium and Netherlands and prior to the pandemic we had two coaches taking between 80-100 people to every home game, but it has become more difficult.
“For several years, we had more than 30 and some years up to 50 Season Tickets, but these past few years it has been more difficult to attend home games, due to COVID and Brexit restrictions, and now we only have around ten Season Tickets left as visiting the UK is not as easy as it was before.
“In the future, I and many other Belgian fans are thinking of travelling to London by car and car pooling, as it’s not that far and the time of travel is almost the same as if you are living in somewhere like Bournemouth!
“We can go to the game and go home again the same day, leaving early in the morning and getting back late at night.”
How has it been following West Ham from afar during the pandemic?
“We have a few WhatsApp groups for people linked to the Belgian Irons and the Dutch Hammers, who are linked to us and we often attend the games together.
“We also contact each other by email and our president Guy Buelens sends a newsletter once a month about how we’re doing.
“The time we see each, aside from home or away games, is when there are youth tournaments in Belgium. I think we’re quite famous with the young Hammers who play at the Brussels Cup. The Under-6s, Under-7s and Under-8s know us well because every time they are there, we sing to them. I know the coaches, staff and family members who are with them really like it!”
Are you able to get together to watch games on TV now?
“Yes, we have a Clubhouse here in Mechelen, where we also hold our annual meeting, that we use to see the games.
“Luckily, a lot of the Premier League games are broadcast here in Belgium by Play Sports, so a lot of our derby games and matches against teams like Liverpool or Manchester City are shown live.”
The last couple of years have been tough for everyone, so how much of a boost was it for Belgian Irons members to see their team playing so well?
“Everyone loves how the team is performing. I think David Moyes has done a really great job. The Board made a bold and good decision to bring him back, because we can really see the real West Ham that he likes to play.
“We can see the transfer policy has been really great with the Czech connection performing really well.
“We are loving Michail Antonio, who is now our all-time Premier League goalscorer and, in my mind, already a Hammers legend. He has scored so many important goals, so it’s nice to see him perform well.
“With Declan Rice, he’s the example of the Club with how he’s performing with West Ham and England, so we’ve got a team who are playing well and playing attractive football, so I think it’s the best time to be a West Ham fan!”
Mark Noble is finishing his West Ham playing career this season, so what is the Belgian Irons’ message to him?
“Most of us attended the Testimonial at Upton Park [in 2016] and I think that’s one of the best memories we have of Nobes.
“He is a really great servant for the Club and a great captain and that’s the impression of most of the Belgian Irons. We hope he will stay with the Club in another role to make sure the identity and the Club’s DNA will be there.
“He breathes West Ham and the West Ham Way and he’s one of a kind in modern football, staying with one club for his whole career, so he’s a true ambassador on and off the pitch and a real legend.
“We wish him all the best.”
We are doing well in the UEFA Europa League and we face Belgian side KRC Genk in our next two Group H fixtures, first at London Stadium on Thursday and then at the Cegeka Arena on 4 November!
“It’s great news. Most of the Belgian Irons are attending the Genk match in Belgium, so I think there will be around 200 of us there, and around 20 are also going to Vienna in November.
“Every channel we can take to see the team play live, we will take, and for us it will maybe be a once in a lifetime chance to see West Ham play in Belgium. We hope not, and that we will be in European competition regularly in future seasons.”
What can you tell us about KRC Genk?
“It’s is going to be a big game and I think you can compare Genk a little bit to West Ham.
“Both teams have very good academies and they play attractive football and have really loyal fans, so I expect the atmosphere will be great.
“This is also great to market West Ham in Belgium because while people know the Club, I think people don’t realise how big our fanbase is here. I think, of all the Premier League clubs, behind the Flemish Reds [Manchester United supporters’ club] we are the second-biggest fanbase in Belgium!
“We are looking forward so much to coming back to the stadium to support West Ham!”