Thirty years ago….when we were good

When I get depressed about the latest plans at the club I have supported since I was a child I think back to time gone by.  I was lucky in that I was the youngest in a family of West Ham fans, meaning that I spent a lot of time following the club to strange places with my Dad and brother whilst they were in the old Second Division.  In fact by the time I was 12 I had seen West Ham play in over 50 different grounds – I mean who would do that today (well apart from Lolly who had seen 64 by the time she was 10).

The 1979/80 season for the Hammers was a disappointing campaign in league terms.  Having been relegated to the old Second Division in 1977, just a year after appearing in the European Cup Winners Cup Final the club invested hugely in the squad with the likes of Phil Parkes, the goalkeeper signed from QPR for a then world record £565,000 (worth about £2.1m today), virtually unknown Scottish teenager Ray Stewart for £430,000 and ex-Manchester United legend Stuart Pearson.  Consequently this virtually unheard of level of spending for a second division club made them favourites for promotion.

Of course we all know what happens when expensive squads are thrown together at short notice – they simply do not work.  Form up until Christmas was patchy and if it wasn’t for the FA Cup manager John Lyall may have been under serious pressure.  But the magic of the cup saved him.  A replayed win versus First Division West Brom set up an East End local derby with Leyton Orient which the Hammers narrowly won 3-2 at Brisbane Road in front of 21,500 put them into the last 16 where they beat Swansea City 2-0.

The Quarter Final at home to Aston Villa, who were in the process of building their dynasty that would lead to a European Cup win less than two years later was played in front of an almost full 36,000 Boleyn Ground.  With the game entering injury time a stray Villa arm hit the ball when floated in from a corner, and cool as ice Ray Stewart dispatched the penalty into the net.  Stewart was at the centre of the action in the semi final against Everton when he was sent off for fighting with Brian Kidd at Villa Park in the 1-1 draw.

Four days later at Elland Road in the depths of extra time, “Frank fell over and scored a fantastic winning goal” as the song went when Frank Lampard senior dived full length to put West Ham into the final.

Fickle is not a word that is often associated with West Ham fans but anyone who was locked out of the 37,167 capacity crowd against Birmingham City in mid-April would be hard pressed to know that the simple reason was that vouchers were being given out to apply for the FA Cup final tickets.  However, four days later when Shrewsbury Town were the visitors at Upton Park almost 50% less fans came to the game.

With a cup final ticket in my pocket I walked up Wembley Way with my Dad on that sunny day in May.  Arsenal were the firm favourites, looking to retain the cup they had won when they beat Manchester United a year before.  And what a day it was.  West Ham became the first team since Southampton in 1976 to win the cup as a Second division team when Sir Trevor Brooking stooped to head the ball home.

So wind forward a few months and expectations were again high for the season.  Manager John Lyall made one single signing, bringing in highly rated young striker Paul Goddard for £800,000 from QPR.  Season tickets, limited to just 6,000,  were just £80 for the East and West Stand (equivalent today of £250 for a top priced seat) and a place on the terrace on the North or South Bank was £2 (£6.30 today).  Want to buy an Adidas (unsponsored) home shirt?  Well that will be £25 to you sir.

The season started disastrously for the club – The defeat to all conquering Liverpool in the Charity Shield boded well but an opening day defeat to Luton Town, plus away draws to Bristol City and Preston North End saw the club in 19th place after three games.

Fast forward a month and West Ham fans who were standing outside the Estadio Santiago Bernabau must have been pinching themselves.  The team had gone on a run of five consecutive wins and were now about to start a European adventure in the most famous stadium in the world, albeit against Real Madrid’s “b” team Castilla.  The club put on a number of travel options for fans wanting to travel – £112 for a same day flight trip using British Caledonian (£352 today – makes Thomas Cook’s rip off trips look good value), and an Executive trip with Champagne and a 3 star (3 star!) hotel thrown in was £165 (£520 each!). However, it was a night to forget for West Ham as a group of (obviously rich) fans caused untold damage to Madrid and the clubs reputation whilst the team on the pitch went down 3-1.

UEFA came down hard on the club, putting blame firmly at the door of the club.  They could have thrown West Ham out of the competition, but instead ordered the second leg to be played behind closed doors.  The game today has legendary status.  I have met hundreds of West Ham fans who claim they were there that night as “ball boys” despite the fact that only 262 were actually in the stadium.  Thanks to a hatrick from David Cross West Ham won 5-1 and went through against all the odds.

League form continued to be impressive.  Luton Town continued to be the clubs nemesis as they inflicted a second league defeat on the Hammers in mid November at Kenilworth Road, by which time the team were top of the league and having won 14 out of 16 games since the opening day.  Progress was also being made in all of the cups.  The Romanians from Timosoara had been easily dispatched 4-1 in the European Cup Winners Cup setting up a quarter final with the Russian giants Dynamo Tiblisi and a 1-0 over Tottenham Hotspur had put the club into the semi-finals of the League Cup for the first time in nearly twenty years.  Christmas came and I revealed in the fact I had seen all comers being beaten, including future touchline stars such as Luton Town’s Raddi Antic (most recently manager of Serbia, but the only man to have managed Real Madrid and Barcelona), Barnsley’s Mick McCarthy and Peter Reid then at Bolton Wanderers.

One of the most amazing statistics by New Years Day was that the club had used just 13 players in their 35 games in all competitions, of which they had won 22 and drawn 6.  Three days into the New Year at the club started their defence of the FA Cup at home to Wrexham.  A 1-1 draw followed by a 0-0 replay draw saw the then common occurrence of a second replay, with West Ham losing the toss for home advantage.  A surprise 1-0 defeat in one cup was followed a week later with a 3-2 defeat away to Coventry City in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.  Were the wheels coming off the wagon?  My Dad had allowed me to have an afternoon off school for this game and on the way home he said that West Ham wouldn’t lose again for the rest of the season – very bold, indeed crazy statement.

The team then went on a run of six consecutive wins, including a 2-0 defeat of Coventry City in the cup semi second leg which meant another trip to Wembley – West Ham’s third in less than a year.  And with a trip to Wembley on the horizon, the crowds mysteriously re-appeared for the home games against Chelsea and Cambridge United where vouchers were being handed out.  I needn’t have worried though as during the game versus Cambridge when the crowd topped 36,000 for the first time that season David Cross threw his sweatband into the West Stand as he left the pitch and it fell straight into my hands.  Who needed a ticket when you had Psycho’s sweat band eh!  It was also after this game that the club announced a ban on people bringing milk crates into the ground.  Whilst they were mainly used for the kids to stand on at the front of the West Stand where the steps were below pitch level, a few had been strategically aimed at the Chelsea players.

Liverpool were at their peak, on their way to another European Cup but it was the Russians (well Georgians) in the form of Dynamo Tiblisi who gave West Ham the biggest lesson of the season.  On a cold night in early March the virtual unknowns turned up at Upton Park and bamboozled the Hammers with their 5-4-1 formation with Aleksandr Chivadze majestic as their sweeper, and Ramaz Shengelia in unstoppable for up front as they run in four goals to West Ham’s one (a rare video of the highlights of the game can be found here).

A Wembley date with Liverpool followed a few days later by a trip behind the Iron Curtain to Tiblisi is hardly a week to look forward to but this was a different West Ham side, with a settled team and immense spirit.  Dad was wary of taking me into the standing areas at Wembley so he bought us £9 tickets (£28 today) which at the time were a fortune to watch a match.  One nil down at Wembley to the Liverpool machine in front of 100,000 (and a controversial goal to boot) with injury time in extra time almost up and Terry McDermott could do nothing apart from push Alvin Martin’s goal bound header onto the bar with his hand.  Penalty to West Ham! The fate of the trophy fell at the left foot of youngster Ray Stewart with the last kick of the game and he kept his nerve, sending Ray Clemence the wrong way, and West Ham into a replay.

Three days later in a cold Dinamo Stadium in Tiblisi in the Russian state of Georgia with 80,000 locals staring on, Stuart Pearson scored the only goal that not only inflicted Dinamo’s first home defeat in over a year.  Despite going out 4-2 on aggregate West Ham as a second tier club set a record in terms of their appearance in the quarter final that hasn’t been beaten since.

Back in domestic football promotion was almost secured with eight games to go.  But nerves and a few injuries seemed to be getting the better of the club.  Successive draws against Oldham Athletic and Bolton Wanderers kept the champagne on ice, but after the League Cup final replay defeat to Liverpool at Villa Park, despite taking the lead, it was business as usual when the 2-0 home win over Bristol Rovers secured a return to Division One with six games to go.  A week later and a 5-1 win against Grimsby Town with David Cross scoring four secured the title.

Four wins from the final five games meant that West Ham had won the title by 13 points with 66 points from 42 games, when there was just 2 points for a win which was the equivalent of 94 points today or 103 points in a league of 24 teams.  They were unbeaten in the league from the 26th December and lost to just three teams all season. After their opening day defeat at Upton Park to Luton Town they won 19 out of 20 league matches at home, with only Oldham Athletic taking points off the Hammers.

They used a grand total of 17 players, with the only “foreigner” being Scot Ray Stewart.  Four of these players (Stuart Pearson, Bobby Barnes, Paul Allen and Nicky Morgan) played five or less games.  In our world of football today this is remarkable.  Thirteen players essentially played the whole season of sixty one games.  No complaints about the number of games from players or manager alike.  Added to games in five competitions, Ray Stewart, Alvin Martin, Alan Devonshire and Trevor Brooking were called up for numerous international squads during the season.

Awards followed.  The Second division team of the season featured no less than 8 West Ham players in the 11 man team and of course John Lyall was voted the manager of the season.  The Youth team, featuring such future stars as Paul Allen, Alan Dickens, Bobby Barnes and Ray Houghton beat Spurs 2-1 to win the Youth Cup Final, and the South East Counties team (essentially the under 18’s) side lost in the final of the cup to Aston Villa.  Youth player of the year?  A certain Tony Cottee who scored 22 goals for the youth teams at the ripe old age of 15 years old!

As a 10/11 year old I saw a grand total of 45 of the 61 games played in all competitions.  I went to Wembley twice, as well as the delights of Wrexham, Grimsby Town and Cambridge United (all of whom are now playing in the non leagues).  I missed two home games – the first was the closed door game to Castilla, and the other was the 1-0 win versus Spurs in the League Cup where I had my first ever date (it was the first and last time a woman came in the way of West Ham!).

I still look back in fondness of my Saturday’s spent being “passed down the front” like a forerunner to crowd surfing.  I remember the Monkey Nuts man passing around the ground, the bag of Smiths Crisps Football Crazy’s or Horror bags (long before Walkers they were the crisp makers of champions) I used to eat at half time whilst the ball boys used to put up the half time scores on a complicated letter and numbering board. I remember laughing as fans tried to run onto the pitch from the South Bank to try and steal the ball when an opposition player took a corner, and the excitement of going into the portakabin in the West Stand car park that was the “megastore” to buy all sorts of brilliant West Ham branded gifts (now called tack).  But most of all I remember watching a team who played with passion, with flair, with a never say die attitude where injuries were simply not accepted (with Billy Bonds as captain nobody dared fall over).  I felt at home in the dark smelly West Stand – a million miles away from what is being built up the road at Stratford.  Thanks Dad.

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