There were times in the 1970s when, as Ipswich Town’s most fervent South African supporter, I was forced to become a craven pragmatist and support West Ham United. Such times didn’t happen often, admittedly, but, now and then, I’d need to swap the blue of Portman Road for the claret and sky-blue of Upton Park.

Ipswich might be knocked out of a competition, say, or West Ham might find themselves swinging through Europe like singles on a Contiki bus. My good friend, Mick Ellingham, was a West Ham fan and I wanted us to remain on good terms, so – once in a while – I reluctantly became an honorary Hammer.

West Ham bewitched Mick. His father returned to Johannesburg with West Ham scarves and programmes after business trips to England. We briefly admired the programme’s cover, skipped the chairman’s message and paged to something we could sink our teeth into. There was always a breezy interview, with not-to-be-missed facts about the featured player’s favourite TV shows and holiday destinations. John McDowell’s song of the moment, we learned, was Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, a song that we’d heard on the radio and contained thrillingly dubious lines that are scarcely believable today.

We knew very little about him but John was suddenly our man. He had the funk. When no one was looking we did what thousands of nine year olds the world over did: we closed the bedroom door, looked in the mirror and pulled a few of Carl’s funky kung fu moves ourselves. When we couldn’t contain our hysterics any longer, we fell onto the bed laughing.

Although we lived in South Africa, thousands of kilometres away, Mick regarded Upton Park as a second home. West Ham pendants with crossed maroon hammers and white tassels hung above his bed. When he talked about the Hammers his voice claimed a vigour I didn’t recognise. You’d have thought that Pat Holland was a next-door neighbour. Instinctively I understood that Bobby Moore, with his untroubled elegance and blond curls, was not someone you said a bad word about around the Ellingham dinner table.

Club rivalries and martial arts aside, the truth was that Mick and I were besotted with all things English. Every week we read about Terry Conroy and Colin Bell in the pages of Shoot magazine. We considered how it was that some English footballers (Conroy, maybe?) were able to grow their sideburns horizontally away from their jawlines. 

We loved Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe’s red trousers when he ran onto the Wembley turf (“The most surprising result Wembley has ever seen”) after Sunderland’s FA Cup final victory against Leeds United in 1973. We practised being Ian Porterfield until this struck us as being too provincial and graduated to impersonating the bristling Billy Bremner instead.

When we weren’t mimicking Billy’s broad Scots accent, we also wondered what “scampi” was, a question that caused much consternation if you were nine years old and lived in Johannesburg’s north-eastern suburbs. Close readers of Shoot’s pages that we were, we also puzzled over why “bad drivers” were something English footballers got so het-up about in the question-and-answer sessions regularly featured in the magazine. Surely there were bigger matters to consider? Like how Alan Ball would cope with the effortlessly cheeky Günter Netzer in the upcoming European Championship qualifiers. Or how Chris Balderstone (a footballer for Carlisle and cricketer for Leicestershire) was coping with the strain of being professional in two sports.

As besotted as Mick and I were about all things English, when it came to matters of identity we were also terribly confused. Take my 10th birthday party. It was a Saturday afternoon in June 1974 and Mick and I were in the back garden with some classmates. He had brought along his rugby ball and, between wolfing down mini sausage rolls and shovelling handfuls of crisps down our throats, we listened to the radio. The British Lions were in town. That afternoon they were playing against Transvaal at Ellis Park. Football was put on hold.

We knew that the Lions tour was at a crucial juncture. At Newlands in the mud they had matched the Springboks’ thuggery to come away with a 12-3 victory in the first Test, and the second Test – at Loftus Versfeld, up the road from where we lived – was only a week off. Could Transvaal soften the tourists up before the natural order was restored?

The Lions, with their strange cocktail of barbarity and galling nonchalance, would be no match for either the Boks or the partisan crowd. Loftus fans were legendary. They swore at you – called vloeking in Afrikaans – and pelted you with empty beer cans and tangerines. All those Fancy Dan Lions, like Phil Bennett and JPR Williams, the man with the headband, would receive their comeuppance from a loose forward in a green jersey. It was just a matter of time.

As we listened to the match, we formed teams and started a Transvaal versus the British Lions match in miniature. Mick and I were Lions. Our dads had been born in England (Mick’s dad once played cricket for Kent Seconds) so we naturally chose to be Willie John McBride’s men. But we were hopelessly outnumbered. There were six or seven Transvaalers ranged against us. They looked immense. Suddenly it didn’t seem such a good idea to be wearing red.

Did anyone want to even out the numbers and join our team? It was my birthday party, after all. To a man, the Transvaalers looked away.

As the Lions romped to a 23-15 victory at faraway Ellis Park, Transvaal wreaked their revenge at 55 Lyndhurst Road. We fought bravely but, finally, we were pummelled into defeat. We were jumped on and kicked; double tackled and mauled; Transvaal always had an overlap, sometimes two.

There wasn’t even an adult to appeal to. They were all inside, drinking beer and listening to the rugby. After a thoroughly wretched afternoon, Mick lost his rugby ball in the tall grass behind the outhouse. He started to cry and asked to be taken home. He would wrap himself in his Hammers scarf to soothe his scalded pride; his mum would make him tea.          

When the Lions finally left South African shores, having ruffled the establishment’s feathers like no rugby side had ever done before, we were relieved. We could now apply the “two-club” principle once again, and go back to being uncomplicated suburban boys. 

We could go up the road to Balfour Park on Friday nights and watch Highlands Park play against the local Portuguese side, Lusitano, say, but we could also lend faraway support to West Ham United. And Ipswich Town.

The Lions seemed to have brought our latent identity issues to the surface, so, yes, it was best they returned home with their stuffed Springbok head. With our English-born fathers, were we really as South African as we claimed? Perhaps by being “Lions” at my 10th birthday party, we were being truer versions of our young selves? Look at our surnames – Alfred, Ellingham – and our history. We were never going to be South Africans in a million years.

At the beginning of the following year we both went into Standard Four at HA Jack Primary in Highlands North. We were growing up and getting stronger. It was the summer of 1975, so we put on our takkies and wiped the Gray-Nicolls bats we received for Christmas with linseed oil. In England, where footballers’ legs were always white as willow, the FA Cup was gathering steam.

In early January, in the third round, both West Ham and Ipswich won away ties by a goal against Southampton and Wolves, respectively. Three weeks later, the Hammers prevailed in a replay at Swindon, while Ipswich beat their visitors Liverpool through Mick Mills’s late goal.

After home wins in the next round, against QPR (for West Ham) and Aston Villa (for Ipswich), we joked that our teams would meet in the final.

In the quarter-finals, two goals by West Ham’s Alan Taylor at Highbury saw off Arsenal’s threat, but Ipswich got locked together with Leeds United as if stuck with Airfix glue. The teams went to a first replay and when that was inconclusive, a second. In the third, Ipswich won 3-2 at Filbert Street to secure their semi-final place – a tie against West Ham.  

After a 0-0 draw at Villa Park, the two sides met in a replay at Stamford Bridge in early April. Ipswich went ahead early, thanks to a Billy Jennings own goal, but Taylor and his magic feet were at it again. He scored two, West Ham were in the final and in the days that followed I retreated, playing long afternoons of Test match cricket with a tennis ball and home-made bat against the garage wall.

Not only did I play in the match but, in a funk of disappointment, I commentated about it and scored it too. I made friends with craggy Bev Congdon and said the name Raphick Jumadeen many times over. Never in my wildest dreams had I considered that the second Test between New Zealand and the West Indies at the Basin Reserve could so all-consuming.

Despite sulking, I was still Mick’s mate, and mateship demanded a show of fake loyalty, so off we trooped the following weekend to the Mini Cine in Hillbrow, a tiny, tucked-away cinema in a racy bohemian quarter, to watch the final a week late.

West Ham were playing Fulham, who found themselves in a High Court kerfuffle over a boot-branding issue on the morning of the final. Despite Fulham having Alan Mullery and Bobby Moore in their side, they lost 2-0. Pushing 35, it wasn’t the Barking boy’s finest hour. What would the Ellinghams say around their dinner table now? 

Whether he knew the score in advance or not, gentle Mick was elated by the time we left the cinema. I tried not to be embarrassed by him wearing his West Ham scarf when we walked the length of Hillbrow’s main drag to reach the bus stop. I nodded like a sick Suffolk horse when he referred to “Trevor” and “Billy” on the trip back home, recalling both of Taylor’s second-half goals in eye-popping detail. I just nodded as I looked at the tops of the trees gliding past. 

We saw out the year, as I tried to put the memory of the Hammers’ FA Cup final behind me. At the beginning of the next one – 1976 – we found ourselves in our last year of primary school. I became a prefect and received my colours for cricket, scant consolation for the defeat at Stamford Bridge in ’75.

As we grew up, our parents were making plans. The following year Mick was off to a posh Anglican school up on the ridge, while I was off to the boys-only government school next to the main road. Now that we were the oldest students in the school, our days were long: lessons and extra lessons, eisteddfods, prefect duties, sport and what-not. Last period on a Monday and the class all trooped off to Stella Briscoe’s Swimming School (HA Jack didn’t have a pool) for compulsory lessons.

The water was an astonishing blue-white, the crisp Highveld sunshine drilling into every nook and cranny. Putting your feet into your shoes and socks afterwards, they felt somehow grimy. You headed home with a chlorine residue coating your hands. I can still feel that chlorine now; I can smell the creosote-daubed poles the change-rooms were made of and the partial warmth of our towels left in a band of sunlight.

Meanwhile, West Ham started their European Cup Winners’ Cup run in fine style. First a 5-2 aggregate win over Lahden Reipas of Finland, followed by another away draw and comfortable home win against Ararat Yerevan of the USSR.  

In the quarter-finals they wobbled, only sneaking through on the away-goals rule after a 5-5 aggregate score against Den Haag. Suddenly they were only two ties away from the final, although Eintracht Frankfurt stood in their way.

West Ham lost 2-1 in Germany, burgling the away goal, but it was now touch and go. They hadn’t lost at home so far in the competition, beating Den Haag 3-1 after losing by two goals away, so it was reasonable to hope they might do it again against the Germans.

Or was it? I don’t remember. All I can recall is that Upton Park remained a fortress and the Hammers came through; Anderlecht skipped past Sachsenring Zwickau by five goals in their two-legged semi-final, so it was West Ham versus Anderlecht, London versus Brussels, in the final at the Heysel Stadium at the beginning of May. 

This required another pilgrimage into racy bohemia and the Mini Cine, another trip on the bus, another eternity trying to pretend I wasn’t with the proud fellow in the too-long West Ham scarf. But this time it was different. It being a European competition somehow made it more palatable. Ipswich had never featured and there were wider issues at play.

I knew of the agile Rob Rensenbrink from the 1974 World Cup and Total Football days for the Netherlands. He was quick and crafty; he had the funk. He would turn the West Ham defenders until they got the bends. Doughty though they were, I couldn’t see the Hammers winning, even with Trevor Brooking in their ranks. No way.

But there was also something else in the air. Above all the things we loved about English football, the players, the colour of the footballs (and Stokoe’s trousers), the post-1966 pomp, the banners, the pageantry and the commentators’ use of language, we loved the noise. Most of the English football we consumed was by listening to the radio on Saturday afternoons, with trips to the Mini Cine being an added bonus. There was invariably a delay in the feed, so the commentators’ voices came to us through surge after surge of crackling sound.

It’s difficult to describe, but it was a kind of rousing, wave-like whoosh, almost galactic. “And it’s Hughes, out to Phil Neal – whoosh – Neal down the line to Steve Heighway, coming infield – whoosh; Heighway turns his marker – whoosh – you sense he’s looking for Keegan – infinitely distended, long whoosh – will the sprightly Kev spring the offside trap?”

The whoosh was so important that once we got to high school you’d find boys walking down corridors between classes randomly commentating. They’d always employ the whoosh as a form of punctuation. You came to understand that the whoosh was everything, absolutely everything. It signalled yearning, distance, hopeless romance.

It also signalled something more – something metaphysical. English football, with the commentators’ voices bouncing off the atmosphere in a second or two of delay, gestured to other worlds, other galaxies. It literally came from the outer edges of our universe and, although we didn’t think of it in such terms then, it was mind-expanding. And terrifyingly exciting.

The whoosh wasn’t much in evidence in Hillbrow’s Mini Cine, but we noticed that there was a slight blurring and crackling around the edges of the commentators’ words, and that was good enough for us. We settled in and watched West Ham take an early lead before Frank Lampard’s unconvincing back pass led to Rensenbrink’s first goal for the Belgians.

A goal each for Franky Van der Elst and Keith Robson early in the second half meant it was 2-2 until the last quarter but then Rensenbrink grabbed his second (this time from the spot) and Van der Elst took the match beyond West Ham’s grasp with a fourth. It finished 4-2 to Anderlecht.

Both of us deflated (but one of us not surprised) we caught the bus home.

Less than six weeks later, the township of Soweto erupted in riots of brick-throwing anger, the protesters often only slightly older than we were. At 11 years old, I had never been to Soweto, and would only visit for the first time many years later, but, as I grew older, the riots came to represent something more than themselves – the end of my childhood.

Other things did too. In six months’ time Mick and I would leave for different schools. Our time supporting different clubs together was coming to an end. With the “Oh, shit” speed of an own goal, we had suddenly lost our innocence. Neither of us would be quite the same again.

The riots that started on 16 June 1976, over the authorities’ decision to make Afrikaans the medium of instruction for black students, continued sporadically for more than 10 years. They were added to by strikes and consumer boycotts, as peaceful protesters were gunned down and tear-gassed and caned. Activists’ died in detention and an unofficial campaign of horror began to be waged by rogue policemen on anti-apartheid leaders and cells.

Equity, the British actors’ union, forbade their programmes from being shown in South Africa. Our television fare became American – Longstreet, Dallas, Rich Man, Poor Man – and dubbed German and Dutch. We couldn’t see Monty Python or Coronation Street. And we certainly didn’t get to see any English football.

The Equity boycott was part of a raft of measures through the 1980s that included sporting, trade and diplomatic boycotts, as the minority white regime was strangled. Comfortable in suburbia, the violence never reached me, but South Africa began to be shunned by the world and a shadow fell.

The shadow helped forge my identity. Every Wednesday in high school we marched as cadets, unloaded rifles to our shoulder, the crease in our brown uniforms straight as Charlie George’s hair. On Republic Day we stood to attention in the winter sunshine and waited for sundry worthies to finish their interminable speeches. We felt drops of sweat run down our torsos. Our rifles became heavier and, one by one, we fell like skittles. This, we were being told, is what the army is like. Soon you will be conscripted and sent to the border to fight Communism and defend our way of life.

Through my teens, as I grappled with the idea that we white South Africans were despised by the world, I became what I am. Ipswich Town, West Ham United and the whoosh of words coming through space as if by miracle were slowly stilled to silence. Down through the years, they receded in importance, until they no longer seemed important at all.