Photographer Freddie Bonfanti documents the bittersweet moments during the final year of West Ham United Football Club’s E13 home. For over a century, The Boleyn Ground was the heart and soul behind the club’s colossal spirit, crammed with dynamic memories of victories, defeats and all the magic in between. The book, entitled “Long Live The Boleyn”, absolutely captures the melancholia-tinged energy of the fans and the players during their final goodbye to our beloved Boleyn Ground.
How did you come to support West Ham?
I made the conscious decision that West Ham would be my ‘English Team’ in the late ‘90s, as Paolo DiCanio terrorised a bunch of opposing defenders in that epic claret and blue Dr Martens top; I really don’t remember what game it was, but I was hooked. The pitch was covered in mud and you could see the home fans almost spilling onto it. I knew West Ham were a tough little team from the East End of London, I felt a strange connection, it all looked extremely familiar to my own background. When I moved to Bethnal Green 10 years after that, in 2008, my landlord had a season ticket and took me to a game – that’s when I realised I made the right choice. I couldn’t afford a season ticket back then, I just used to go whenever i could. I’ve been a season ticket holder for 3 years now. Home and away.
What is your favourite memory of the Boleyn?
Walking up the stairs in the South Bank (Bobby Moore Lower) with a bit of a buzz on just as ‘bubbles’ started playing before the last match last season. What a day. Mental.
For someone who hasn’t been to the Boleyn before, describe what made it so magical …
The Boleyn was the antithesis of modern football. Raw, electric and brutally honest. It really was the last strong hold of the old East End and the symbol of a community. Everyone in the stands had an opinion and there were some unbelievable characters, the chat was always hysterical. Walking down Green Street on a Saturday afternoon was a breath of fresh air, it was like going back in time. Don’t get me wrong, it was a shitty old stadium, we all know that, but the fans really made it a fortress.
How did you get such intimate behind the scenes access to the players?
I took a picture of the ground from my seat after one of the night games earlier last season, and it became very popular on the West Ham twitter. Eventually, it caught the attention of one of the chairmen’s sons. He asked me if I could send them a copy, and it went from there. I explained I was already working on a self funded project and that I wanted to donate some of the proceeds to the Bobby Moore Fund. I showed them some of the footage I had, they liked it and gave me an all areas pass for some of the games, which was truly invaluable. I was able to shoot from different positions and add a lot of depth to the book.
You captured the intensity of supporting a working class football club so beautifully. What, for you, was so compelling about this subject?
I knew the Boleyn was going to be no more, I felt an uncontrollable urge to document and archive as much as I could before it was gone. I knew there were a lot of people doing the same thing, but I was determined to do it from a supporter’s point of view. I wanted this to be a photo book from a fan, for the fans.
Is there a photo in the book that has a particularly special meaning to you?
The one with the father and the son at the bottom of the Champion’s statue. I think it perfectly sums up West Ham; highs and lows.
Did you develop any special bonds with the fans you photographed?
Not really, I go to each game with the same bunch of people and we tend to stick together. One of them features in the book, sitting down outside the Black Lion in Plaistow, reading the Evening Standard ‘Boleyn Ground Special’.
Will you continue documenting football fans?
Even though football culture will always fascinate me, it will be hard to work on another football project not related to West Ham. I believe you’ve got to be there with the fans, be part of it, to get the best pictures. You’ve got to believe in it.
You can buy Freddie’s book here