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Fond farewell to a ‘special place’

Glory days: Best takes on Chris Nicholl, the Luton Town centre half, during an FA Cup tie at Upton Park in January 1972

Watching West Ham United play their final match at Upton Park yesterday was an emotional occasion for Clyde Best who enjoyed his best years as a player at the East London club.

Best left West Ham 41 years ago but remains a true “Hammer” and often returns to watch games and catch up with former team-mates.

Saying goodbye to a ground West Ham have called home since 1904 will be bittersweet, as the Olympic Stadium will enable the club to compete with the top clubs in England for players and, ultimately, trophies.

West Ham are reportedly interested in signing Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Liverpool’s Christian Benteke, an indication the club’s ambition will match the size of their new home.

Upton Park held 35,000 but the Olympic Stadium is a 60,000-capacity venue, making it the fourth-largest ground in England.

West Ham have sold all their season tickets for next season, which the club say is in excess of 50,000.

“West Ham are known as a family club, everybody got on from the ladies who washed our clothes to the tea ladies,” said Best yesterday, ahead of his former team’s thrilling 3-2 win against Manchester United, their 2,398th match at Upton Park.

“Everybody was treated the same and that’s something I’ll always remember. The area has changed so much from the days I was there, a lot of people have passed on and won’t see the move.

“If we’re going to compete with the best teams we need a bigger stadium, so going to the Olympic Stadium is a good thing for the club and let’s hope we can move on from here.”

Moving to state-of-the-art stadiums is a sign of the times in English football, with old, small and outdated grounds making way for bigger and better facilities.

Arsenal, Southampton, Stoke City, Manchester City and Leicester City are among the Barclays Premier League clubs to build new stadiums, with Tottenham erecting a 61,000-seater stadium next to White Hart Lane, which they expect to be ready for the 2018-19 season.

Located near Upton Park is the “World Cup Sculpture”, featuring West Ham greats Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore, England’s 1966 World Cup heroes.

Best played with all three, as well as former West Ham stars Harry Redknapp, Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking, a one-club man who, like Moore, had a stand named in his honour.

“We will all get teary-eyed because Upton Park meant so much to so many people,” said Best, who made 187 appearances for West Ham between 1968 and 1976 before leaving for North American Soccer League side Tampa Bay Rowdies.

“We’re moving from a 35,000-seater stadium to a 60,000-seater stadium and to top it off we have sold 52,000 season tickets, which is just amazing.”

The number of season tickets sold by West Ham is the most for any London club and second only to Manchester United.

“Now we’re able to compete with the big clubs and go out and get better players,” Best said.

“Walcott and Benteke are quality players and money will not be an issue.

“There are few clubs in community areas now.

“At one time you could leave your house, walk for five minutes and you’d be at a stadium.

“Those are the memories you will carry with you. It’s sad but change is for the good of the club.

“Upton Park is a special place, something you had to experience. European games were special, when the lights were on and you could see the bubbles blowing. Even now when I hear the song, ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ it sends feelings through me.”

Best plans to visit London in the summer and watch his beloved side play at the Olympic Stadium. “I try to get back once or twice a year and I have to go over for some business, probably in July,” he said.

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