WITH all the talk of royal division this week, you may have missed the announcement confirming the King of East London will abdicate his throne at the end of next season.
Mark Noble is West Ham royalty – and loyalty like his will rarely been seen again in football and almost certainly not at a club like the Hammers.
Lifelong West Ham fan Mark Noble made his Hammers debut in 2004
And he will leave the club next summer – 18 years after his first appearance
Born in Canning Town just a mile away from Upton Park, the lifelong West Ham fan will leave the East Londoners next summer having played five hundred and something games in claret and blue and captained the team with distinction for seven years.
He is one of the last of his kind. A footballing white rhino if you will.
Ahead of today’s visit to Manchester United, academy product Noble has played 520 times for West Ham since his 2004 debut against Southend. That puts him seventh in the club’s all-time appearance list.
And of the six players above him, first placed Billy Bonds played most recently. And that was in 1988. Proof – though it’s not needed – that such one club loyalty has been dying out for decades.
After 17 years in East London, Noble is the Premier League’s longest serving player. Everton’s Seamus Coleman (12) is next with Burnley’s Kevin Long (11) in third but they are five and six years behind the Hammers skipper.
Nor are they ‘homegrown’ local lads or boyhood fans with whom supporters ALWAYS have that extra connection.
In recent years, the only comparable ‘lifelong love stories’ to Noble’s are Steven Gerrard’s at Liverpool and Ryan Giggs’ at United.
You could throw Jamie Carragher, John Terry and Paul Scholes into the mix too but none of them supported the clubs they had distinguished careers for until they played for them.
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Noble has enjoyed two play-off final victories with West Ham
There have been some highs during his 17-year spell
And there have been plenty of lows for the club both on and off the pitch
And even so, it’s far easier to be loyal if you support and have come through the ranks at one of England’s biggest and best clubs.
Because once you’re playing for the team you’ve always loved, earning the highest wages, winning elite trophies and enjoying that special bond with the fans, why would you leave?
The same could be said of modern day fan favourites Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford. But that has not been the case for Noble which is why his dedication and loyalty should be applauded even more.
Many fans snigger at Hammers who are saddened by his impeding departure. Indeed, in response to a melancholy tweet of mine last week one friend texted me and said: “Why are you talking about Noble like he’s Lionel Messi?”
Granted his best playing days are behind him. And there are those who argue the 33-year-old has never been anything more than average (Noble, not Messi). And fair enough.
But he means far more to West Ham fans than what he does or does not bring on the pitch.
He is Mr West Ham. An all too rare link between the corporate behemoth football club he captains and the fans who made it such.
One of few remaining modicums of relatability in the otherwise soulless plain dominated by money and greed that is Premier League football.
Figures like Noble are a dying breed as the gulf between supporters and the boards, managers and players who supposedly represent them grows ever wider in an industry where – for most – pound notes talk far louder than any sense of loyalty or connection to fans.
But not for Noble.
Tottenham were interested soon after he burst onto the scene and several other Prem clubs came sniffing the last time West Ham dropped out the top flight in 2010-11.
But he stuck around and in 2018 when asked if he’d ever been tempted by the promise of more money or even half a chance at glory, Noble remained resolute.
Noble is adored by the Hammers fans and the love is reciprocated
The East Londoner has captained his boyhood club for the past six years
He said: “I’ve created a bit of history at West Ham and I think I’ll be remembered a lot more for staying here rather than moving to 10 different clubs.”
And right he was.
At a club like West Ham who have won nothing of note since the 1980 FA Cup – no, the Intertoto Cup doesn’t count – the fans have never been in it for the glory.
Instead they travel and they pay in their tens of thousands for the history, the atmosphere, the heroes that have gone before, the sense of community and belonging and the hope that, if nothing else and regardless of ability, the players in claret and blue work hard and seem to care about the team almost as much as they do.
However, until this season where fortune finally seems to have stopped hiding, with little of any of that left on show it was hard to say what West Ham fans were in it for anymore.
Having been ripped away from their spiritual home at Upton Park to a stadium many don’t like, the team a shambles and tensions between supporters and the board at an all time high, the London Stadium was hardly a cauldron of positivity.
And even before the move, with the exception of the 15-16 Dimitri Payet inspired flash in the pan, there was just a lot more mediocrity – albeit in a stadium more of the fansbase preferred.
But amid the calm and the storms, their captain remained. Professional, caring, passionate and empathetic throughout. Even when he was throwing disgruntled fans off the pitch himself.
In his open letter to supporters announcing his departure this week, Noble wrote: “As you know, I am simply one of you, a fan who grew up just around the corner from the Boleyn and used to stand on the forecourt asking for players’ shirts.
“I never imagined I would go on to play for this amazing club so many times and have the honour of wearing the captain’s armband for so long.
“But every single minute of it has been made special by the fact I am representing you.
“My connection and love for West Ham United will be forever.”
Noble is not the most naturally gifted player but at times he has brought far more to West Ham on the pitch than he gets credit for. His 27 penalties scored from 31 taken puts him at fourth in the all-time Premier League list.
The 33-year-old has scored 60 goals for West Ham
Noble has played 18 times this season and next will be his last
He certainly deserved an England cap in an era that saw Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Jack Rodwell, Leon Osman, Jonjo Shelvey, Jack Cork, Ryan Mason and Lewis Cook picked for the Three Lions.
The Euro 2016 snub would have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow having played the best football of his career during the preceeding season – the last ever at Upton Park.
But rarely do fans of other clubs envy Hammers fans as they burst with pride and singe the praises of ‘one of their own’.
In fact, fortunately – for the sake of the romantic storyline – Noble has always been about as good as West Ham and vice versa.
In the cut-throat, money driven world of football, the notion that he would have stayed or that the club would not have sold him if the 2011-12 season in the Championship stretched to two or three is questionable.
As is the suggestion Noble’s career-long marriage to his boyhood club would have lasted the distance if he’d shown Declan Rice or Frank Lampard levels of talent at any stage.
But none of those situations came to pass and Noble has been able to live out his dream and a fanbase – often with very little to celebrate – has had something and someone to be proud of.
Earlier this week Noble said: “If I was a just a West Ham fan and not a player and we had a West Ham fan and a local lad as our captain, I think I’d be proud of that.”
And proud they are in East London.
In the 17 years Noble has been in the first team, there has been little else to brag about barring an FA Cup final draw with Liverpool and two Championship play-off wins.
And before this season, if you’d asked most Hammers to pick three things they liked about their club since the move from Upton Park, many would have been hard pushed.
But through everything, Noble has stayed true to himself and his own values which have often reflected those of the fans.
David Moyes holds the club captain in the highest esteem
It cannot have been easy and he must have felt isolated and under intense pressure at times when surely it would have been easier to walk away
In a 2018 interview with the Times, he said: “Do I love football? I love going into training with the lads. I love that feeling of being fit and healthy. I love being out there on a Saturday but I don’t love the pressure of it, no.”
But he stayed and ploughed on for the team and the supporters he loves.
Noble has never been afraid to speak his mind whether that meant upsetting the club or the fans.
Most recently he hit out at David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady for selling academy prospect Grady Diangana to West Brom for £18million – a moan which looks somewhat silly now.
But he has also stood up for the owners when necessary too, praising them after the last game at Upton Park for – when compared to the previous regime – ‘not running the club like a circus anymore’.
And it is such honesty Hammers fans have grown to respect.
As for the future, who knows.
Noble is settled in sub-urban Essex with his childhood sweatheart wife Carly and two kids Honey and Lenny
David Moyes holds him in the highest regard and he will undoubtedly be involved with West Ham in some capacity in the future. Frankly it will be a crime if he isn’t because few care about the club more.
But before all that, a proper East London send off from 60,000 raucous Hammers and perhaps a little more respect on his name is in order. A few European nights in the campaign that brings the curtain down would not go amiss either.
It’s easy to get sucked into the drama and soap opera of football sometimes, be it owners, wages, transfers, memes or social media hype.
But ultimately the game is about heroes playing in front of people who love them. And in few places can that be seen as vividly as with Mark Noble in front of his West Ham fans.
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In a 2018 Times interview Mark Noble explained the importance of people at clubs like West Ham and expressed concern about how the vast riches in the Premier League is threatening that.
He said: “There are people at the club who’ve been here 40, 50 year. Pete, the kit-man, Jimmy Frith [training ground assistant], they’re part of the club.
“Once you lose them you lose a massive part. If West Ham wants to keep its values, it has to keep people like that.
“It’s easy for new managers to come in [look at some staff] and go, ‘Who is that guy? We don’t really need them.’
“Someone needs to let people know that is what West Ham is about, not just money and the Premier League.
“Of course, Premier League status is the most important but West Ham is also about people like Shirley [Austin] who does the dishes, Jill [Moore] at the stadium, Pete, the kit-man, Jimmy Frith. They were here before I was born. It’s a family. It’s so important.”
Asked if he feared for football and if it is still a working class game, Noble said: “It isn’t. There’s so much money involved. That’s why the staff members are so important. Once you lose that human touch, what is it? Just a business.”