West Ham Till I Die
Book Review

John Lyall: A Life in Football

Guest Post by Dr Phil Stevens

John Lyall was one of the most successful managers in English football in the 1970s and ’80s. The former West Ham full-back, forced out of the game by a horrific knee injury at the age of 23, showed immense courage and determination to transform himself into a top coach. Lyall led West Ham United to their highest-ever top-flight league position, won the FA Cup twice, once against the mighty Arsenal and took the club to the final of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. He was revered by the Upton Park faithful who loved him, not just for his success, but for encouraging his teams to play football the Hammers way.

A football manager’s life has its ups and downs and Lyall was no different in this respect – twice his Hammers’ team was relegated. In many respects he was the last of the ‘old school’ managers who controlled every aspect of the club before players’ agents, directors of football and finance people swept all that away. It could be argued that managers like Lyall failed to move with the times and accept that their role was changing. After years of success, in 1989 he was cruelly sacked by West Ham, a club he had served for 35 years. But our hero was highly respected throughout football and was soon snapped up Ipswich Town, then languishing in the lower half of the old 2nd Division. Lyall achieved a minor miracle with the Tractor Boys winning promotion to the Premier League in only his second season at Portman Road. Lyall kept Ipswich in the Premier League for three seasons. One of the highlight his time at Portman Road was a famous draw at Old Trafford against a Manchester United team which included famous names like George Best and Denis Law. These were great days for the Suffolk club. Lyall continued to show he was ahead of his time in bringing foreign players to Ipswich Town to great effect.

The book provides a fascinating insight into the English game at a time when football hooliganism was at its height and incidents of ugly violence grabbed the headlines. Negative, long ball tactics were a feature of the period. But true lovers of the game retained the faith. I reveal how England managers, Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables regularly turned to the former West Ham coach for advice. The story of how these three top football brains worked together will make interesting reading for all football lovers. Venables turned to his friend when he needed a 1st team coach after Lyall was dismissed at Upton Park and they spent a rewarding 18 months working together at White Hart Lane in the early 90s with the likes of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne.

In researching for the book I was privileged to have access to the Lyall family. The pride they have in John’s career is recalled here through a wealth of anecdotes and stories. The family’s involvement in the book provides a unique insight into the life of one of the most loved and respected figures in professional football in the past 40 years. I was also privileged to meet many of Lyall’s former players and colleagues, all of whom, without exception, spoke of their old boss in reverential terms. We see this in Sir Trevor Brooking’s Foreword. Among the players and football people I talked were Terry Venables, Pat Holland, Phil Parkes, John Wark, David Cross, Ray Stewart, Mick McGiven and many others. An indication of the respect Lyall had in the game was when Sir Alex Ferguson flew down to Suffolk to give the eulogy at his old friend’s funeral in 2006. As a mark of respect to their former manager the main gates to Upton Park were renamed ‘the John Lyall’ gates.

I hope you can find the time to read this book about the life of John Lyall, wonderful football man of the 1970s and ‘80s. It is a book for all lovers of our often beautiful game and includes some wonderful pictures from a tense and difficult period in English football when one man stood out by sticking to his strong belief in attacking football. John Lyall’s place in English football history is assured. He was up there among the minds of football in the company of his friends and contemporaries, Bob Paisley, Bobby Robson, Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables and, of course, his old mentor, Ron Greenwood.

I hope you enjoy the book.

You can buy John Lyall: A Life in Football by Phil Stevens HERE

UPDATE from Phil: ‘Error in John Lyall book article – Of, course Law and Best had retired by the time this match was played – apologies and well-spotted’.

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