One of the darkest moments for our club came back in 1971. Ron Greenwood was at the helm and he was fierce in his views that West Ham were a club of pure principals; on and off the pitch. His captain was the “Golden Boy” of football and captain of England, Bobby Moore. West Ham’s style on the pitch was revered and Ron was adamant that there would be no stain left on the club during his tenure.
It was the 2nd January 1971 and West Ham had been drawn away to Blackpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Despite being only two places below West Ham in the League, Blackpool were considered very much the underdogs and it would have caused a shock if they could tumble the Hammers. However, the mist was hovering over an icy pitch and most Northerners considered the Hammers a soft touch in these types of conditions. Blackpool would be up for it on a freezing cold day and they had a new boss, Bob Stokoe, to impress. Stokoe had joined Blackpool just five days earlier.
To add to the Hammers woes, Geoff Hurst was out and his replacement Clyde Best was looking distinctly ill at ease on the playing surface. Blackpool’s midfield general Tony Green however, was taking control in midfield and after several mazy runs by the player he opened Blackpool’s account and followed up with a second before half time. West Ham’s Peter Eustace and Bobby Howe just could not contain the lively Green who laid on the third goal for Craven and before the end Henry Mowbray had thundered a fourth to make the rout complete. The 4-0 demolition however had gone to Blackpool’s assistant manager Jimmy Meadows head, who in an interview after the game referred to Bobby Moore as the “worst defender in the World.” The club and Stokoe were quick to offer an apology and Meadows lost his job for his comments.
But that was not where the story ended. It came to light that the night before the game, Bobby Moore, Brian Dear, Jimmy Greaves, Clyde Best and club physio Rob Jenkins had stayed out drinking in a Blackpool nightclub until the early hours. A disgruntled West Ham fan had witnessed what had happened and went to Greenwood’s Upton Park office to lodge a complaint on the Monday morning after the game. Shortly afterwards the Fleet Street papers had the story plastered all over the back pages. Ron Greenwood was furious and he wanted to sack all five of them but the Board of Directors persuaded him that fines and suspensions would be sufficient. It was clear that Ron Greenwood was not happy though. Brian Dear left the club within weeks of the incident and Jimmy Greaves retired a few months later. Clyde Best who was only 19 and rumoured to be only drinking soft drinks on the night, was the only player to play on relatively unscathed from the event. However, this was the start of what was to become very difficult times for the Greenwood/Moore relationship. By all accounts the wounds never fully healed. Greenwood had taken great pride and satisfaction from Moore’s development at West Ham but after the Blackpool incident their relationship was never the same again. Bobby Moore maintained that the whole night was just a social drink and nothing more. “I had met Brian London on several occasions and thought it good idea to look him up at his Blackpool nightclub – London’s 007 Club. We thought very little of it and we were in bed by 1.30am and got up at 10am. That’s a good nights sleep by anyone’s standards.”
The frosty relationship between Greenwood and Moore was to come to an end when Bobby was sold to Fulham in 1974. It is possible that none of the four players involved ever truly recovered from the episode. Indeed, Ron was to later famously say “he could talk about Bobby Moore the player for hours, but ask me about the man and I will dry up in a minute.” From Bobby’s perspective he had said “although Ron respected me, he didn’t like me.” Blackpool went on to finish last in the 1st division that season whilst the Hammers avoided relegation in 3rd last position.
One of the most stereotypically male traits, alongside leaving the toilet seat up and the inclination towards ‘banter’ as a means of demonstrating affection, is the desire to list things. This may explain the conspicuous lack of female train-spotters. While life is essentially many different shades of grey, rankings are often used by people attempting to order the subjective and have formed the basis of countless pub conversations. Scores of Top 10 lists, under the guise of provoking debate, proliferate the internet in a manner that screams content filler.
Many football outlets have resorted to this ubiquitous technique in order to compensate for the absence of any live action to discuss. For example, the BBC recently asked voters to select the most miraculous escape from relegation in the Premier League era. Options ranged from Portsmouth’s survival in 2006 under Harry Redknapp to Sunderland’s late surge in 2014 inspired by Connor Wickham’s heartbreakingly brief transformation into the Mackem Aguero.
There was one glaring omission. In March 2007, West Ham United were rooted to the bottom of the league and ten points from safety with nine games remaining. Just over two months later, the team had won seven matches and completed a miraculous escape by winning at newly-crowned champions Manchester United. Most incredibly of all, they achieved the impossible and made millions of neutrals sympathise with Dave Whelan and Neil Warnock.
For this was perhaps the maddest season in the history of the club, with twists and turns that would have been rejected as too outlandish by Hollywood scriptwriters. It involved the most left-field double transfer in recent history, an Icelandic takeover, unprecedented legal challenges, turmoil within the changing room and staggering incompetence on the pitch before the unexpectedly dramatic season finale. At times, it seemed the whole country wished to see them relegated. Their eventual survival proved incredibly controversial.
As ever pride came before the fall. Led by Alan Pardew, the club had managed an eye-catching return to top-flight football finishing ninth in the league and playing some attractive football. Alongside this, West Ham were minutes away from winning the FA Cup and were incredibly unlucky to lose the final to Liverpool. With a young squad packed full of exciting players such as Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Dean Ashton, optimism was high that the team could push on the following season.
However, cracks were beginning to appear beneath the surface. In retrospect, the heartbreaking nature of the Cup Final defeat took an emotional toll on the group. The club signed numerous players in the summer of 2006 but only goalkeeper Robert Green seemed ready-made for the first-team.
Most galling of all was losing Ashton, a revelation since his January move from Norwich. Days before his England debut, a heavy tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips in training injured the striker’s ankle and he would subsequently miss the entire season. Despite the club possessing numerous strikers, his absence would be keenly felt.
These developments were soon overshadowed by a remarkable double transfer, setting the tone for a chaotic season. When asked about the prospect of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano joining West Ham, Pardew replied ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s never going to happen’.
So he might. The idea of two of South America’s hottest talents, who had starred for Argentina in that year’s World Cup, plying their trade in East London seemed remote. By the end of August, Pardew was stood introducing the two players with the same disbelieving air of a Tudor king discovering the internet.
The deal was shrouded in mystery. It eventually turned out that the rights to Tevez and Mascherano were owned by four companies representing Kia Joorabchian. Premier League rules prohibited third-party ownership and a sense that the deal was more than a little shady began to permeate discussions surrounding the Argentine pair. The old adage that something too good to be true probably is rang true.
Results capitulated. The Hammers failed to score a goal in seven successive games and slid towards the bottom of the league. The club’s first European campaign in seven years ended in the First Round and they were ignominiously dumped out of the League Cup by Chesterfield. The feeling grew that a culture of complacency pervaded throughout the club.
Rumours circulated that the arrival of Tevez and Mascherano had put noses out of joint. The dependable Hayden Mullins was replaced in the team by Mascherano, while Bobby Zamora made way for Tevez despite starting the season in hot form. Both Argentinians struggled with the pace of English football. After his substitution during a home win over Sheffield United, Tevez stormed out of Upton Park and Pardew decided to leave his punishment up to the rest of the squad. They made him train wearing a Brazil shirt.
Alongside the on-field slump, the club had a change of ownership in November. Surprisingly, the new owner was not the expected Joorabchian but Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who installed Eggert Magnusson as chairman.
Possessing the world’s shiniest head, Magnusson immediately gave his support to Pardew. However, a miserable run of defeats that culminated in a televised surrender to Bolton Wanderers in December was the final straw. Pardew was sacked.
There is an argument that Pardew was hard done by. He had built the squad that had rescued the club from Championship purgatory and had done an impressive job the season before. On the other hand, there were claims that the manager was too soft on his players and discipline had suffered accordingly. His sacking was probably justified.
He was replaced by ex-Charlton manager Alan Curbishley who was also a former West Ham player. The change had an immediate effect – the team managed an improbable home win over Manchester United but this proved a mirage. The club would not win another league game until mid-March.
The period would be marked by a succession of embarrassing defeats. West Ham managed to lose twice at home to bottom club Watford – once in the league and once in the FA Cup. New Year’s Day saw a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Reading. There was also a 4-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic, now managed by Pardew. Chants of ‘You’re Not Fit to Wear The Shirt’ reverberated amongst the support.
By now, the toxicity of the dressing room was becoming apparent. After the humbling at Reading, Curbishley tore into his players and denounced the player’s penchant for fast cars and flashy lifestyles. They were instantly dubbed the ‘Baby Bentley brigade’ by a gleeful media enjoying rubber-necking at the enfolding car-crash.
No player epitomised this more than captain Nigel Reo-Coker. His impressive debut season in the Premier League led to his inclusion on the standby list for England’s World Cup squad. There were subsequent rumours of interest from Manchester United and Arsenal. Many sources within the club claimed that the midfielder’s head was turned and doubts began to surface about his attitude. He was central to a dressing room clique that also included Anton Ferdinand, Mullins, Zamora and Marlon Harewood. Curbishley was aghast.
There were also concerns about the gambling culture within the squad. Two members of the team, Etherington and Roy Carroll, undertook counselling and treatment for addiction problems and players were haemorrhaging vast amounts of money to each other during card games. According to The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson, figures were as high as £50,000 during one sitting. Attempts at eradicating these card schools were repeatedly unsuccessful. It was perhaps no wonder that the atmosphere in the dressing room was appalling.
Magnusson attempted to remedy the problem by embarking on a January spending spree that was unprecedented in West Ham’s history. The signings of Luis Boa Morte, Calum Davenport, Lucas Neill, Nigel Quashie, Kepa Blanco and Matthew Upson were aimed at creating a more professional culture within the club. Disheartened at the prospect of challenging Quashie for a midfield spot, Mascherano escaped to Liverpool. He had lost in every appearance he made for the club.
Despite this, the situation seemed hopeless. Resentment grew amongst senior players at the wages being paid to Upson and Neill. Neill had reportedly rejected a move to Anfield due to the more lucrative salary offered by West Ham and Upson only made two injury-curtailed appearances before the end of the season. Players, staff and directors were privately resigned to relegation.
These feelings intensified after an extraordinary match against Tottenham in early March. The team’s performance was notably more committed and Tevez scored his first goal for the club with a delicious free-kick. Leading 2-0 at half-time and 3-2 in the final minute, West Ham conspired to lose the game 4-3. Words cannot do justice to gut-wrenching nature of the defeat and a young Mark Noble wondered round the pitch in tears at the match’s conclusion. Relegation seemed certain.
Yet something had clicked. In their very next game, West Ham came from behind to win at Blackburn Rovers with a goal from Zamora that failed to cross the line. The revitalised team carried this piece of good fortune with them and wins followed over Middlesbrough and Arsenal, the latter a heist founded upon an outstanding performance by Green.
Tevez had finally come to life and his performances galvanized the team. However, this narrative overlooks the vital contribution of other players. Ferdinand formed a sturdy partnership with James Collins in defence. Noble belied his tender years with mature performances in midfield. Zamora contributed vital goals. Above all, the leadership of Neill proved invaluable.
In the background, the prospect of a points deduction loomed. However, despite an independent Premier League commission charged West Ham with breaking third-party ownership rules, the club instead received a record £5.5m fine. Even though, in the manner of The Producers, the defendants had been found ‘incredibly guilty’ there was still all to play for on the field. Fellow bottom-dwellers, particularly Wigan and Sheffield United, sharpened their knives.
The day after the commission’s announcement, West Ham won 3-0 away at Whelan’s Wigan. Following a Tevez-inspired win over Bolton, the club were out of the relegation zone for the first time in months. Going into the final game of the season, the Hammers only had to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to survive relegation. In another plot twist, Sheffield United hosted Wigan with the away team needing a win to stand any chance of survival.
West Ham were battered by Manchester United with the home crowd chanting ‘send them down’. Shots were cleared off the line and the defending became increasingly desperate. Nevertheless, United failed to score and on the stroke of half-time Tevez slotted home the decisive goal of the game. At Bramall Lane, David Unsworth’s penalty saved Wigan and relegated Sheffield United.
The Blades were apoplectic. Sir Alex Ferguson had rested Manchester United players with the following week’s FA Cup final in mind and manager Neil Warnock accused him of compromising the integrity of the competition. This declaration ignored the presence of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes on the pitch at the end of the game. It also conveniently overlooks how Sheffield United thrashed West Ham 3-0 in mid-April, Tevez included.
Eventually, Sheffield United had their day in court. In 2009, they agreed a settlement of £18.1m with West Ham paid in instalments that ended in 2013. In spite of this windfall, the Yorkshire club would spend another decade outside the top flight. By 2015, FIFA had globally outlawed third-party ownership.
Meanwhile, West Ham’s Icelandic owners saw their wealth wiped out by the global recession and sold up in 2010. West Ham were relegated a year later. It can also be argued the club’s reputation never fully recovered from the Tevez saga.
Tevez himself departed for Manchester United in 2007 having written himself into West Ham folklore with his performances. Having pulled off the Great Escape, Irons fans everywhere breathed a huge sigh of relief having somehow managed to survive.
It truly was the maddest and most surreal season in the history of the club.
One of the finest matches ever played at Upton Park was the 2nd leg of the European Cup Winners Cup semi final in 1976. The opposition was Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt and the Hammers trailed 2-1 from the first leg. The score line had set it up for one of those fabulous, noisy and stirring European nights at Upton Park that sadly we have all seen too little of in recent history. Our FA Cup final win against Fulham the season before had entitled us to be England’s representative for the 1975/6 tournament, which then was only second to the European Cup as the continents biggest club football prize. In the first leg on German soil, Graham Paddon had scored early on to give us great hope of following in the footsteps of our 1965 team that had won the trophy at Wembley. However, two German goals to Neuberger and Kraus had given Frankfurt the advantage heading back to Upton Park.
And so it was set up. Nearly 40,000 West Ham fans crammed into the Boleyn as torrential rain poured down on a miserable East End evening. This was a night that West Ham would have an unimaginable advantage. One that took the Germans by surprise and frightened the hell out of them. The minute they came out of the tunnel for the start of the match they were met with a deafening barrage of sound as the Upton Park faithful lifted the roof. Billy Bonds was waiting in that tunnel and looked over at the captain of the German team and commented later; “he took one look at how close the fans were to the players, heard the roar of the crowd and I saw him go white. I knew then we were going to win.”
However, the Hammers we all know and love never do anything the easy way. A disallowed Keith Robson goal and a couple of close efforts were all there was to show as the teams went off at half time. The first half had been played at a fantastic pace but it was now down to 45 minutes of football to see who would reach the final. Now Trevor Brooking only scores in special matches with his head and he duly obliged just four minutes after the restart. With the match tied at 2-2, the Germans knew that Paddons away goal would put the Hammers through unless things changed. They threw everything bar the kitchen sink at goalkeeper Mervyn Day and when they did beat him the upright and a Robson goal line clearance were keeping them at bay.
Then midway through the second half Brooking split the Frankfurt defence to put Robson through on goal. Robbo looked to lose his chance down to a poor first touch but the groans of the crowd turned to hysteria when he corrected himself to curl a superb shot into the net. It was Brookings turn again with ten minutes left as he put West Ham 3-0 in front for a 4-2 aggregate lead. The crowd were pumping now but as previously stated – we never do things the easy way. A late Beverungen goal for the Germans gave them hope with just minutes to go. Another goal for them would now put the away goal advantage in their favour. But it was not to be – the Hammers held out and were in the final after one of the greatest Upton Park games in memory.
I’m caught between a rock and a hard place … do I renew my season ticket for something for which I’m growing more and more disillusioned or do I stop my time and financial commitment to my football team, a team that I have supported since, well since forever?
Look, I love my football – perhaps I mean my West Ham football as I don’t sit and watch any football that’s on, I watch primarily West Ham … okay, except when we lose – I care too much. When I started going my friend and I were in the queue at 11.15 in the morning so we could get our spot on the wall – we were always second and never ever got in front of the other group (damn them). I’ve been in every section of Upton Park from where I’ve seen some memorable games although thinking about it, most of them weren’t but it didn’t dampen my ardour or the need to go for my Saturday afternoon fix. I just had to be there.
I rarely miss a game and if I do, it’s not because we’re playing badly and I can’t face it but because I’m on holiday, ill or at some friend’s party which has been inconveniently arranged on a home match day. When Sky took over the TV rights and the games started shifting, I still turned up. I confess I did on occasion leave 5 mins before the end … look, I was time poor and leaving just that little bit earlier meant I could save at least 1 hour on my journey (sometimes 1.5 hours).
In our last foray into the Championship, please forgive me but I actually didn’t mind it once the season started. I never wanted us to be relegated and wasn’t too happy playing a contingent of sides of whom I knew nothing. However, I actually enjoyed going to the games as for once, unlike when playing in the Premier League, not only were we the front runners and the team to beat but the crowds at Upton Park were good and full of ‘proper’ supporters, you know, those that wanted to see West Ham and not the opposition (like quite a few do now). We then had the Olympic Stadium kerfuffle – I appreciate a lot think it’s great but to me, it’s not what I was sold – I’m too far from the pitch and feel detached from the game. A few seasons ago a few of us WHTIDers started going to away games and the singing/standing brought home just how much the supporters had lost in the modern game and how away games are so much like it used to be. I understand why all-seater stadiums were introduced, but we’ve moved on from that, haven’t we?
I’ve put all of the above purely because I wanted to place where I am as a supporter, how much West Ham means to mean me and that I’m well and truly stuck. The disparity between football and its fans has been growing, all the more so in the past few years with the latest £squillion poured into the clubs. Also, it’s the power imbalance between a club and its players, money-grabbing agents (and clubs engagement with the system), clubs interaction with (or should I say disregard of) their supporters, an ineffectual antiquated FA, domineering PL, TV companies’ control and, lastly but no means least, football’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not just talking about wage cuts or furlough but it’s all about the game’s money money money plus the Government’s need to get the game up and running again as they want the distraction to keep supporters ‘happy’ as soooo many of us it seems aren’t able cope with the lack of football. Well as far as I’m concerned, tough – we’re talking about people’s lives here. (Hmmm, I would say it’d put an already creaking NHS under even more pressure but they’ve all got private health care havent they?) Where did that moral compass go?
I was already wondering whether to renew my season ticket which really really wasn’t helped when I read an email the club has sent me last week saying that they anticipate the season will recommence without fans in attendance, so I can either have a refund for the five home games or a pro rata credit towards my 2020-21 Season Ticket which "will be an easy and convenient way for you to guarantee your seat for next season and in doing so also lock in a price freeze for your 2020-21 Season Ticket [depending on which league we’re in], as well as, of course, helping to support your Club through these testing times”. My reaction to that was ‘FFS, me support you? Really? What, support you financially? Morally? Do you know what’s going on in the world? AND it looks like you’re going to put up my season ticket!!! WTF&!/!’.
Football has sold its soul for money – do I want to continue to be a part of it … I still don’t know, should I stay or should I go?
This is an article I wrote for Attitude Magazine a few years ago. Given the storyline about a gay footballer in Coronation Street I thought it was worth another outing. See what I did there?!
He hadn’t told anyone. Not even his agent. It was going to be done on his own terms. Adam Ranger hadn’t told his mother what he was about to do, and he especially hadn’t told his gossipy sister. They would all find out like the rest of the country. Had he told any one of them, he knew they would come out with all sorts of reasons why he shouldn’t go ahead with what he knew would affect him for the rest of his life. You see, Adam Ranger, star England central defender, was about to announce to the world he was gay.
He knew the risks. He was prepared for the media storm that would no doubt engulf him. People who do something ‘first’ always become renowned. Adam was prepared for that – what he didn’t want to become was ‘notorious. He calculated that if he did it, others would follow suit. And follow suit quickly. He knew that in every dressing room up and down the land there were men like him. Indeed, he knew of one Premier League team where four of the starting eleven were gay. It wasn’t as if anyone was particularly secret any longer. Looks were exchanged. People just knew, but rarely said anything.
Adam had thought long and hard about how to do it. Press conference? No. Too uncontrollable. Newspaper exclusive. No. The other newspapers which hadn’t had the story would be angry and seek to trash him. TV or radio? Maybe, but would he get the time to say what he wanted to say? Would he be able to control the editing? Probably not. No, Adam decided to do a Tom Daley and record his own Youtube video.
After training one day, he went down to PC World and bought a video camera and tripod. “Alright, Adam?” said the sales assistant. “Got the girls coming round, have we? He joshed, with a deliberate wink. “Yeah, something like that,” smiled Adam. “If only you knew, mate,” he thought to himself.
He went home, set up the camera, sat down and looked straight into the lens. “I’m Adam Ranger. I play for England. And I’ve got something I want to tell you…”
Four weeks later…
It had been a momentous month. The praise, the almost entirely positive reaction from his own teammates who had lined up after training and done a collective moonie while pissing themselves laughing. The phone calls from players from other clubs, his England teammates had been a mixture of hilarious, emotional and highly charged. Tears were shed.
Three other international players followed Adam’s lead in the week after he came out to the world. A dozen lower league players did too. And all to an ever increasing shrug of the shoulders.
In his first game after the video release on Youtube Adam ran out at Upton Park, a difficult place for an opposition player at the best of times, to a standing ovation from most of the crowd. He hadn’t bargained for that and for a moment lost his composure. As the applause died down a chant started from the Bobby Moore Stand of “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” Adam laughed, grabbed the hand of one of his teammates and bowed. The applause restarted.
Yes, there were problems. He knew there would be. His agent was furious with him. “You’ve jeopardised all your commercial contracts by doing this,” he fumed. Adam suspected the very opposite would be true. And he was right. The offers flooded in. “We want you to be the face of our company,” said the chief exec of a major clothing brand. And there was more. Lots more.
Back in the room…
And that’s how I’d like to think things would be if a professional footballer took that great leap. OK, I might be writing with rose tinted spectacles, but I genuinely think it would be a lot more like this scenario than it was for Justin Fashanu all those years ago. I have no idea how many professional footballers read this site, let alone any who are gay. But if there’s only one, think about the trail you would blaze. Think about what kind of example you would set, not just to your fellow footballers but everyone else. Be proud of who and what you are. And tell the world.