As Mark Noble was announced on to the London Stadium pitch last Sunday, one hand holding tight to daughter Honey, the other arm hung around the neck of son Lenny, he found it hard to process what he was experiencing.
Born in Canning Town 35 years ago, one and a half miles down the Barking Road to Upton Park, he was a West Ham fan as a kid. He progressed to the club’s academy as an 11-year-old and, if he features in the final Premier League game of the season at Brighton on Sunday, will have made 550 first-team appearances.
Apart from brief loan spells as a teenager at Hull and Ipswich, he never played for anyone else.
‘Mr West Ham’ was how he was announced by Ben Shepherd before Noble and his kids began the walk through an enormous guard of honour. He was hit by a wall of noise from supporters who had remained in their places, long after the 2-2 draw with Manchester City had come to an end.
“I couldn’t believe it was me,” he said, in an interview with BBC Sport.
“I couldn’t believe there was not a spare seat in the stadium. I was truly honoured. I have been involved in football for a long time. I don’t think I have seen a send-off like that before.”
Noble’s story went further than West Ham.
There was genuine appreciation for someone who made his reserve-team debut at 15 and his senior bow in a League Cup tie with Southend two years later. Partly this is because he is acknowledged within football to be a decent person. But it was also because Noble’s story strikes a rare chord with fans at other clubs. He is the embodiment of what they want to be – the hometown boy captaining their local club on the biggest stage.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola recognised it, which is why, in the immediate aftermath of the City game, he went to Noble and spoke intensely down his ear. After all, he did much the same thing in his own playing career at Barcelona, although he did wind down with a number of short-term contracts elsewhere.
“I won’t share what he said, that is between me and him, but I will never forget it,” said Noble.
“He knows the feelings you get as a home-grown player. It is not just winning and losing. For me the highs were massively high and the lows were incredibly low at times. I had to learn in my later years to be able to cope with that and not take it home with me.
“Years and years ago, there were a lot of local boys playing in their teams. But times move on. Most teams at Premier League level have scouts in every country in the world. Agents know every player with potential.
“I came through as a West Ham fan and lived, not just every West Ham fan, but every fan’s dream. To play for and captain the team you grew up supporting, is why millions of people in this country pay a lot of money to go and watch their teams. They have that affiliation and loyalty.”
Noble was speaking at the opening of the ‘Mark Noble Arena’ at the West Ham academy at Chadwell Heath.
Within earshot were two current West Ham first-team players who have followed Noble’s path from the academy, Ben Johnson and Declan Rice.
“Academies are so important these days,” said Noble. “If we went into the market now to try and buy Declan Rice or a Ben Johnson or even myself at a younger age, you are looking at near on £150m-£200m you would have to lay out.”
Rice, as with home-grown, high-profile players like Harry Kane at Tottenham and James Ward-Prowse at Southampton, gets linked repeatedly with moves away from his parent club.
Given the growing riches on offer and the widening financial gap between the bigger clubs and the rest, it is difficult to imagine 23-year-old Rice remaining a Hammer for a further decade, as Noble chose to do.
“I had it on numerous occasions but always wanted to stay,” he said. “We got relegated at one point and but I thought ‘this club gave me my debut and had belief in me when I was a kid so I am not just going to chuck my towel in now and go elsewhere’.
“I made it a goal to help get the club back to the Premier League.”
Noble’s immediate focus is on the final game of his career at Brighton and getting the win that may yet be enough to secure a return to the Europa League in which West Ham performed so well this season.
He is yet to decide what to do with the rest of his life. Coaching is a possibility but for now he wants to spend some time with his family, in particular supporting his children, knowing Lenny is currently at the West Ham academy.
However it works out, right now, he is content, as outlined in his response to a message he received from a fellow Premier League captain congratulating him on his retirement.
“I would say this to any player, and I told him the same, go out on your own terms when you are ready,” he said. “You retire from the game, don’t let the game retire you.
“That leaves you in peace. That was so important for me.”