The S J Chandos Column
One afternoon in June 1989 - The sacking of John Lyall
It was very interesting to read Lou Macari’s recent comments, on ‘Moore than a Podcast,.’ concerning his brief but eventful time in the club’s managerial hot seat. I well remember the sense of absolute shock that June afternoon in 1989 when it was reported on London regional news that the club had dispensed with John Lyall’s services. It was an major change of course for the club and took most of us by surprise. Yes, the prior season had seen a pretty abject relegation, but Lyall had seen it all before in 1978 and had led the club (via the 1980 FA Cup win) back to the top tier in 1981 with great style. Most fans just assumed that he would still be in charge of the 1989-90 campaign to lead us back to the First Division. So, it took a lot to reconcile with the board’s decision.
In trying to come to terms with the sacking, most comforted themselves with the thought that another ‘West Ham man’ would be appointed as Lyall’s replacement, perhaps partnering a ‘older head’ with a younger coach like Billy Bonds. But no, that comforting thought was later shattered by news of the surprise appointment of ex-Man Utd and Celtic player, and ex- Swindon Town manager, Lou Macari. We can only speculate on the board’s rationale for making these decisions, but at the time it was suggested in the press that the board wanted to establish a tougher managerial regime at Upton Park and take advantage of Macari’s experience of managing in the 2nd tier.
However, for me and many other Hammers supporters, this appointment was never the correct one for the club. It was obvious that West Ham was still John Lyall’s club, in terms of the back room staff, the players and the fans. Macari obviously sought to be a new broom and brought a completely different managerial style to the job. A style and approach that was resented by, what we might call, the ‘Lyall infrastructure’ still left in place. Macari later admitted that he made a mistake in retaining Lyall’s back room staff. And that is probably true from his perspective. He did make some decent signings in the likes of Bishop, Morley and Martin Allen, new acquisitions that went on to serve the club long after he departed. However, on the pitch, the quality of football was poor and results patchy. The side under Macari definitely had more steel, as perfectly illustrated by the way that they physically matched Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy gang’ in that bruising League Cup 1-0 victory. However, the entertainment level often left a lot to be desired.
Indeed, this was a period in which attending matches become more of a chore than a pleasure. Most fans rightly condemn much of the football served up by Sam Allardyce, but for me the fayre under Macari was worse. And as I have stated, results were not good. At the time of Maccari’s exit we were way off the pace of the promotion race and in danger of slipping in to the bottom half of the table. The first indication that we fans had that another change was afoot was in February 1990 when Macari was reported absent from a league fixture at Swindon Town and Billy Bonds took charge of the team in a 2-2 draw. By the end of that match, rumours were circulating that Macari had resigned and so it proved to be the case. Obviously the board were ‘once bitten, twice shy’ of making another external appointment and they responded by appointing Billy Bonds to the post on a permanent basis.
Thus, it seemed that order had been restored and the Hammers holy grail was back in the hands of not only a ‘West Ham man,’ but a club legend. Yet, we must ask whether the board ultimately did Bonds a disservice by sacking Lyall. As events turned out Bonds was given the sole burden of club management much quicker than need have been the case. If they had repeated the process followed in 1974, that saw Lyall take over team affairs and Greenwood become General Manager, Bonds could have been afforded an apprenticeship under Lyall’s general guidance. My view was, and remains, that a Lyall-Bonds management team would not only have been more effective in the short-term, but would have immeasurably assisted Billy Bonds’ managerial/coaching development. And this Hammers titan on-the-field of play might have gone on to become a legendary manager as well, who knows?
We will never know if John Lyall would have accepted such an arrangement? But I have a feeling that he would have done. After all he later accepted a similar arrangement at Ipswich Town, working with Mick McGivens and Paul Goddard. You cannot change history, but I am not alone in feeling that the Lyall sacking was a dishonourable act, which contrived to undermine the club’s then all-important, and largely unique, sense of continuity and tradition. Moreover, it was a shabby way to treat a fine servant to the club, who just two or three years previously the board had denied a lucrative move to manage QPR.
As it was, on exit, Lyall was awarded an ex-gratia payment (shades of Syd King there!) of £100,000 and, after 34 years service, merited only a terse 73 word statement in the club programme acknowledging his achievements (shades of Bobby Moore when he was still with us!). What a way to treat one of the two greatest managers in the club’s history!