It is an imperative that you transform yourself from a consumer of the rich man's bullshit, to a manufacturer of the people's truth. Yeah, sticking it to the man with some more paywall pilfery. The fabric is not mine but the stitching is...
O good old man, how well in thee appears the constant service of the antique world, when service sweat for duty, not for meed! Thou art not for the fashion of these times, when none will sweat but for promotionIt was in a hotel in Docklands where we last met, a few hundred metres from his apartment, ten minutes away from Upton Park. On the eve of the the £100 million play-off final Kevin Nolan talked about Wembley and the bus he had hired to ferry his family and friends down from Liverpool to London that weekend, about honesty and legacy, about winning people over "bit by bit". Yet he had also been elsewhere, living in that untethered state where a season's endeavour is condensed into a single blissful or brutal moment.
Weeks on from the 'richest match in world football' and West Ham United beat Blackpool to return to the Barclays Premier League; had they lost, as their captain put it, "it would've been a fail". It is that simple, that stark. Ninety minutes separated Nolan from proving something, or from knuckling down and starting again. It is a surreal position, yet one he understands, because proving and knuckling down, grafting and starting again, earning and demanding trust, is precisely who Nolan is, as a footballer and as a man. On that Wembley-bound bus that day was Nolan's nan, who had not seen a game since the play-off final of 2001, when Kevin was in the Bolton side that defeated Preston North End. His uncle was there, his cousins, his grandad, who has travelled all around the country to follow his grandson for Bolton, Newcastle and now West Ham. His brother James, friends from school, the works.
His family, as he calls them all – the people who have instilled old-fashioned virtues of trust, loyalty and honesty, a set of beliefs he has put into the dressing rooms at his two former clubs and one that has helped lead his present side back to the rarefied climes of the top flight. "My mam brought me up with good manners, a good surrounding, she has always been there for me, and my dad as well. They wanted me to be grounded. There's not many people in my life I hate. There might be people who stab me in the back along the way or have done something to upset me but I don't really carry grudges. It’s the way I am, with everyone who knows me," he says. "When they’ve got me, when they’ve got my friendship, they’ve got me 110 per cent in whatever I do. I’m never really light-hearted in anything."
If that makes time in Nolan’s presence sound grim, the impression is misleading. The 29-year-old has a lightness about him, a love of company, laughter and chat. He speaks with relish about taking his family to see Ghost and Shrek at the theatre, about introducing Jasmine, his daughter, to Hammerhead, the West Ham mascot, and how she is now demanding an audience with the Queen. "Life away from the football has been decent," he says, despite the fact he has lived, in the main, away from his wife and two young children. He has yearned for the day when they will move permanently to Essex this summer — "my missus is blonde, so that’s a head start," he says — when he will truly feel as if he can "throw myself at it". And this is the point about Nolan; no half-measures with anything.
It is 15 years now since Nolan, then 14, made his first start for the City of Liverpool Boys team. Only Francis Jeffers from that side played in the Premier League, and he has not done so since February 2007. For Nolan, the date is far more recent – Saturday 7 May 2011, when Newcastle beat Birmingham at St James' Park. Just under two years prior to then he famously stood up in the tight confines of the crestfallen away dressing room at Leyton Orient, following a 6-1 defeat in a pre-season friendly for Newcastle, and demanded the truth: who wants out? "Right, this can't go on," he said. "I have never been so embarrassed on a football pitch. You're either in or you're out. We need everyone to pull together to turn this club around and if you don't want to do that, and you want to leave, then put your hand up and we'll help find you somewhere else."
It was an episode of cleansing and re-commitment that formed the bedrock of promotion. A new team forged in the fires of adversity. Four players- including Sébastien Bassong and Habib Beye- raised their arms. As it turned out, five from that room left. Newcastle had found team spirit and incredibly, from that starting point, on the back of a draining relegation campaign, came the Championship title, then came a strong return season in the top flight. Nolan scored 12 goals and talks for a new, extended deal started. It was an era of turmoil on Tyneside, but as a Scouser nurtured by Bolton Wanderers, he was at ease with Newcastle’s industrial identity, the history of longing. He felt at home, until contract negotiations fell apart abruptly in June and Nolan felt he had no alternative but seek acceptance elsewhere, loyalty and trust had diminished.
He did not want to leave to further his career, he was not looking for more money to feather his already luxurious nest and at the time had not contemplated looking for a new challenge at a new club. Nolan knew there would come a day when Newcastle United no longer needed him, but as the club’s captain, felt he had a responsibility to help the team progress until they reached a point where he no longer had to help bind things together. "The most disappointing thing was thinking I was going to be at the club for a long, long time," he says. "Being very much part of Alan Pardew’s plans, signing off to make sure we were ready for next season and a couple of days later, what was on the table is now off the table. My only regret is not being able to see everything through that we started and that's probably what I'm more disappointed about. I went to Newcastle and we got relegated and then you become part of this great story. It was just great to be a big part of that."
Nolan is not the type to stick around where he is no longer wanted. "I’m not going to hang around picking up my money," he says. "If I’m not playing, I’m one of those players who will move on. I have respect for what Mike [Ashley] and Derek [Llambias] are doing up there because that's how they want to do it. If I see either of them, I'd shake their hands and I'm happy Newcastle are doing well. It's a club I have really fond memories of. As I said, I don't hold grudges. I thank them for letting me get away and join another fantastic club."
West Ham and Sam Allardyce called, and Nolan left. "It was just, West Ham? Yeah, get me there, it's another challenge," he adds. "Being able to link up with Sam and having David Gold and Mr Sullivan, the way they were about getting me here and the lengths they went to, I thought I owe them. I owe them 110 per cent from the moment I walk in the door to the moment I leave. That really drives me on because people have put so much faith and trust in me. I want the people who put trust in me to go, 'Yeah, that lad gave us everything.'
At West Ham, he joined up with Sam Allardyce, his former manager at Bolton. For him and the club, it has meant a change of culture. "I walked in the first couple of days and no matter what, I was a Sam Allardyce signing because I had worked with him before and I had nine great years at Bolton. For the first few weeks, it was a case of, 'Do the lads trust me?' They only knew me on the pitch and they probably didn't like me because I'm not a friendly guy on the pitch! I'm a moaner but I think the lads have taken to me. I think they know they can trust me 100 per cent because I am here for them and I'm not Sam's spy. I want them to be the best they can be for West Ham and as the weeks and months have gone by, I think we have got stronger as a group. I just hope to be sharing more great moments with them all."
Meeting again in a hotel foyer in Canary Wharf, Nolan is as always engaging company but now seems understandably more relaxed. Settling in at a new club, rarely an easy experience to begin with, has been eased by scoring 13 goals on the path to promotion. He has also taken, to his own surprise, to the big city. "I've enjoyed being able to go for a walk around and have a cup of tea. It's been really nice. You can sit and watch the hustle and bustle and watch the world go by. It's great. I always thought when I used to come down here that two days would be enough but I've moulded in and became one of those people that goes hustling and bustling past everyone else! My wife likes X Factor and she went with a couple of her friends to watch the results. She hasn't roped me into doing anything like that!"
When he got down in the early months Nolan admits he would go home [to Liverpool], to be with people "who love you and don't see you as Kevin Nolan the West Ham footballer. They see you as their son, their brother, as their cousin, as their best mate, as their husband and as their dad and that sort of helped me and you say to yourself, 'Just do your stuff and bit by bit, you will prove them wrong and make this work.'
Nolan had a fantastic nine years at Bolton and then went to Newcastle. "We got relegated and then you become part of this great story. If I could choose one club in London that would be perfect for me, it would be West Ham. It reminds me so much of Liverpool and Everton, a working man’s club, similar to Newcastle. Some have been here for 25 years. You meet all the people who work behind the scenes; Pete, the kitman, Shirley in the kitchen, who’s been here for 37 or 38 years. To hear her excitement, knowing she was going to Wembley is what it's all about. People like them deserve to be in the Premier League."
They also deserve the right to voice their discontent as they did often and loudly last season; debate over the style of Sam Allardyce’s football causing as much frustration as dropped points. "There are sections of the crowd who complain but it’s why they come to the ground. These fellas get shit off the wife all week and they come to football to let it out. They are full-blooded people who want the best for West Ham. If you think about it, a lot of them have been wounded by things like relegation in the last couple of years. They have gone through a lot. So to have 30,000 at home games is amazing. I’d rather have 30,000 fans moaning at me than no one there at all. It shows the loyalty and love for the club." It is, he says, why everyone tried their best to ensure the fans got back to where they belong.
For the boy from Toxteth, playing in the East End is a home from home just as the booing is water off a duck’s back. "Although I am a Northerner I respect what West Ham is all about and I am learning more as a I go along. I haven’t cracked the accent yet but I know what a ‘sweep’ haircut is. I’ve had pie and mash and it’s quite nice — up there with Scouse. The fans don’t hold back in what they want to tell you and I am from that background myself."
Nolan understands the fans have got expectations of the way football should be played, but is also keen to follow his manager's line. "I remember as a lad all the players Harry Redknapp had here and they underachieved. But with the flowing football they had, it was probably considered enough. We want to get away from that and be the club which gets into Europe, goes on fantastic cup runs, and then wins it. That is my vision of West Ham in the next five to 10 years. We won the battle to get promoted but there is also one to change the culture. Sometimes we have got to be able to win ugly as well as as beautiful."
And winning can be in and of itself beautiful as Shirley, Pete, his nan, the Nolan bus and 38,000 West Ham fans who watched that momentous play-off victory can testify. They witnessed the captain of their side lead the club out at Wembley for the first time since before he was born, back in 1980. It was Nolan’s first visit to there as a player, although he was part of the Bolton side who beat Preston North End 3-0 in the 2001 play-off final at the Millennium Stadium when he was just 18. "I remember being on the pitch and it was starting to sink in that we were going up to the Premier League," he says. "I was only a young pup then. I remember the last two minutes of that game. We were 3-0 up and it was so surreal. You're just waiting for the final whistle so you can go and celebrate. Then I just remember running around like an absolute idiot after it. I had scarves around my head and around my waist. I had everything hanging off me. I still have a lot of the memorabilia. It was such a magic day."
It was, smiles Nolan, even more special this time. "It was amazing to lead the team out in front of 38,000 West Ham fans, having all my family there, but it wouldn't be remembered unless we won. That was the main thing for me. We deserved to go up, but Blackpool weren’t going to give it to us. If any team in that league can have a day of wonders, it’s them. It is a massive game. You have to turn up and you have to produce your best to get to where you want to be."
Something Nolan knows well. Whatever happened, he was always going to streak the turf with his sweat. "I’m not the type of lad where everyone will go ‘look at him, isn’t he elegant?’" he says. "I’m a hard worker, a grafter and it’s from my roots. I’m someone you can lean on, someone who’ll give everything, someone who’ll say it to your face and not behind your back. I feel, wherever I go, I have to put everything into it, because leaving some form of legacy is a drive. Not that the end is in sight, but because every day, when I walk out of the room, I’d like people to say ‘there’s a lovely, grounded lad who works his socks off’. To everyone who ever doubted you, you just do your stuff and, bit by bit, you will prove them wrong. I want people to say he was a very good player in the Premier League, he was a very good player for us, and when people see me they shake my hand and say thanks, you were a proper sportsman for our club."
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