World Book Day: Notorious football fan 'Mr West Ham' sets record straight

Bill Gardner in the seventies.

Bill Gardner, now 67, in the seventies. - Credit: Bill Gardner

"Mr West Ham", one of the UK's most notorious football fans of the seventies and eighties, sets the record straight in a new autobiography.

"If I was as bad a hooligan as they make out I’m one of two things: either I’m smarter than every police force in this country or I’m the luckiest person on the planet. And I’m certainly not lucky."

At a game in Tiblisi in 1981.

At a game in Tiblisi in 1981. - Credit: Bill Gardner

Bill Gardner, from Hornchurch, says football saved him from a life of abuse and crime and gave him a family he never had.

He was branded a "hooligan" for many years as his involvement in fights at games got him the wrong kind of attention in the public eye and mentioned nationally in "about 30 different publications". And he has been trying to put the record straight for many years.

At a game in Moscow, 1981.

At a game in Moscow, 1981. - Credit: Bill Gardner

In Bill Gardner: The Man, The Myth, The Legend, written with Abe Atchia, he reveals all about men's mental health, sticking up for your friends and the West Ham football family.

BIll's mother hailed from Bethnal Green and his father from Mile End. They moved to Hornchurch when Bill was born.

The family suffered the terrible loss of his older sister to leukaemia, aged four, the impact of which shaped his family life and upbringing.

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"In today’s climate they would have taken me away and put me in care. I used to take beatings with a broom handle, a lump of rubber and I was abused," he said.

"At the end of the day, your life is forged by the hand you’re given and by any stretch of the imagination I was given a rough hand.

Bill now, 67, with the new book cover.

Bill now, 67, with the new book cover. - Credit: Bill Gardner

"I could never replace my sister who died, who I never knew. I was born four years to the day that she died, so my mum and dad thought maybe when they had me they were getting back the little girl that they’d lost.

"Instead of that they got big, ugly me and they weren’t happy with it and they let me know."

Due to the abuse that he suffered, he left home at 14 to live in a graveyard in Aldgate East, working with travellers where he could and fighting for money in the pit.

Football for Bill was a way of escaping the grim reality and finding friends he came to consider family.

"A lot of people think the streets of London are paved with gold, but they’re not they’re paved with cold and some pretty horrible people."

"I always loved football, always played it and used to go. When I was homeless, it’s a pretty lonely existence so for six days of the week I survived, lived the one day when I went to the football with my mates."

Bill and other fans en route to an away game.

Bill and other fans en route to an away game. - Credit: Bill Gardner

For Bill, fighting people off was just a way of protecting his friends and has never landed him with a criminal record.

"When you went to these football grounds, the other fans would attack you so you had to fight back. You either had to fight back or get on the train and go home. Well, I never got on the train home.

"I kept on fighting back because it was now what I was used to. Although the mass media would look at it as 'hooliganism' or whatever you want to call it, it certainly wasn’t that, it was more a case of you went with your friends, you looked after your friends and you made sure you all came home together.

Bill Gardner in the old West Ham ground.

Bill Gardner got into football hooliganism aged 12, but said that he saw himself as a survivor. - Credit: Bill Gardner

"That was what it was like. If it’s a wrong thing in the world to look after your friends and stick up for yourself then I’m guilty as hell, but if it's for being loyal then I'm not."

"It’s like that, West Ham fans and my friends at that time were the family I never had.

"Obviously now I’ve got a family of my own who I love dearly, but at that time I didn’t have them. Everyone needs someone. Everyone needs somebody to put their arm round your shoulder now and again, but when I was a kid I never got that."

Bill Gardner: The Man, The Myth, The Legend is available on Amazon now.

Bill Gardner: The Man, The Myth, The Legend out now.

Bill Gardner: The Man, The Myth, The Legend out now. - Credit: Bill Gardner