West Ham United’s best XIs… or are they?

WEST HAM UNITED have a well-earned reputation for producing great players, but rarely have they conjured up an outstanding team. Only occasionally has it all come together to produce a side capable of challenging for honours. Consistency, as well as limited resources, has always been an issue for West Ham, hence they have never challenged for the league title, with the exception of the 1985-86 season. Largely, though, the Hammers’ greatest successes have been in cup competitions, although it is now more than 40 years since they won the FA Cup in 1980.

Nevertheless, West Ham are one of English football’s great community clubs, representative of the east end of London just as much as Pearly Kings and Queens, pie and mash and Jellied Eels and well-worn songs like “Knees up Mother Brown”. The Boleyn Ground was one of the most atmospheric stadiums in Britain and the Hammers’ fans were among the most partisan in the country. They might not have had a lot to cheer about in terms of trophies won, but West Ham have had a catalogue of outstanding footballers to entertain them, including the World Cup triumvirate of Moore, Hurst and Peters, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Billy Bonds, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard (senior and junior) and Joe Cole.

Here’s three of West Ham’s most notable teams:

1922-23 FA Cup finalists at the inaugural Wembley final

The Hammers were a second division club when they reached the 1923 final to meet Bolton Wanderers from the top flight. West Ham won promotion in 1922-23 and they were fortunate to reach Wembley without coming up against a first division outfit. The story of the White Horse Final and crowds spilling onto the pitch are well documented, but it is arguable that the attendance was so huge because a London team was in the final, although West Ham’s average gates at the time were barely 20,000. In the FA Cup, the Hammers beat Hull City, Brighton, Plymouth Argyle, Southampton and in the semi-final, Derby County. West Ham were a fast-moving and enterprising team who were committed to attacking play. Their manager, Syd King, was something of a character with his close-cropped hair and flamboyant moustache. King had played for Thames Ironworks, New Brompton and Northfleet before arriving at West Ham. He managed West Ham from 1902 to 1932, an astonishing 30-year period that ended with the sack.

West Ham 1923: Ted Hufton, Billy Henderson, Jack Young, Sid Bishop, George Kay, Jack Tresadern, Dick Richards, Billy Brown, Vic Watson, Billy Moore, Jimmy Ruffell.

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Key men

Vic Watson: Born in Cambridgeshire 1897. Long-serving centre forward who played almost 500 league games for West Ham, scoring 298 goals. Prolific in front of goal, he won five caps for England, scoring four times. Once scored six goals in a game in 1929.

George Kay: Captain and defensive hub of the team, he was 31 when the Hammers reached Wembley in 1923. Played for the club from 1919 to 1926, making over 250 appearances. He had spells with Distillery and Bolton Wanderers before joining West Ham. But for bouts of ill-health, Kay could have won an England cap.

Jimmy Ruffell: Left winger who joined West Ham from the Ilford Electricity Board and eventually made around 550 appearances for the club, scoring 166 goals. A difficult player to play against, Ruffell was capped six times by England.

West Ham United 1964-65 First Team with the F.A. Cup and the F.A. Charity Shield

1963 – 1965 FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup winners

Ron Greenwood was appointed manager of West Ham in 1961 and brought a very distinct philosophy to the club. He was heavily influenced by the Hungarians that thrashed England in 1953 and 1954 and a big student of the European game. By the mid-1960s, West Ham had a squad that included some richly talented young players and they were forging a reputation for delightful, purist football that entertained the crowds. Although this wasn’t always successful, they were always capable of raising their game for big clashes, such as in 1964 when they beat FA Cup holders Manchester United 3-1 in the FA Cup semi-final. In the final, they trailed 1-0 and 2-1 to second division Preston North End, but ran out 3-2 winners, thanks to a goal from Ronnie Boyce. Into Europe the following season, the Hammers slalomed their way past Gent (Belgium), Spartak Praha Sokolovo, Lausanne Sport and Real Zaragoza. Their opponents in the final were TSV Munich 1860 and the venue was Wembley stadium. Alan Sealey proved to be the hero of the hour and scored two goals in a three-minute spell in the second half to win the game 2-0. A year later, West Ham skipper Bobby Moore was back at Wembley as England captain, winning the World Cup, completing a unique treble.

West Ham 1963 – 1965: Jim Standen, Joe Kirkup, Jack Burkett, Martin Peters, Ken Brown, Bobby Moore, Alan Sealey, Ron Boyce, Geoff Hurst, Brian Dear, John Sissons, John Bond, Eddie Bovington, Peter Brabrook.

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Key men

Bobby Moore: Born 1941, Barking. An England legend who led his country to World Cup success in 1966. Won 108 caps for England and was Sir Alf Ramsey’s “right hand man” during the World Cup campaign.  A cool, calm defender whose leadership skills and immaculate timing made him one of the all-time greats. Died tragically young at 51 and was sadly underused when his playing days ended at Fulham.

Geoff Hurst: Born 1941, Ashton-under-Lyne. Scored a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final and played over 500 games for the Hammers between 1958 and 1972 and was capped 49 times by England. Converted from wing half to inside forward, Hurst was good in the air and explosive in front of goal. Left the club to join Stoke City in 1972.

Martin Peters: Born 1943, Plaistow. A player who Sir Alf Ramsey considered to be “ten years ahead of his time”. An elegant performer, capable of playing in midfield or as a forward, he won 67 caps for England, winning a World Cup medal in 1966 and scored in the final. Left West Ham in 1970 in a cash plus swap  deal, joining Tottenham for £ 200,000. One of the last “boys of ‘66” to retire.

1985-86 – So near yet so far

The 1980s were dominated by Liverpool and for a few years, Everton also emerged as title contenders. In 1985-86, West Ham came from nowhere to challenge at the top of the table, thanks to a team that was schooled in the fine arts that were so typical of the club’s ethos. It helped that they had two strikers who were “on fire” for a season or so, Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie. West Ham’s squad, managed by John Lyall, was relatively small compared to their title rivals, but their two forwards scored over 50 goals between them. With a bigger squad, West Ham might have beat off the Merseyside duo, but it wasn’t to be. West Ham won eight of their last 10 games, including an 8-1 trouncing of Newcastle, but they had to settle for third place, finishing only four points off top spot. They have never been as close to becoming champions.

West Ham 1985-86: Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Steve Walford, Tony Gale, Alvin Martin, George Parris, Alan Devonshire, Mark Ward, Alan Dickens, Neil Orr, Tony Cottee, Frank McAvennie.

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Key men

Tony Cottee:  Young striker who was born in Forest Gate. Had two spells with West Ham and won seven England caps. A diminutive figure, he was nevertheless a prolific goalscorer and had plenty of pace. He was named young player of the year in 1985-86 after scoring 26 goals. Left the club in 1988 to join Everton for a fee of £ 2.2 million.

Frank McAvennie: A mercurial player who had an outstanding campaign in 1985-86, scoring 28 goals. Signed from St. Mirren in 1985 and despite his initial success at West Ham, he returned to Scotland to join Celtic. Returned to West Ham in 1989, but he was never as effective. A very talented player whose lifestyle arguably prevented him from achieving greater things.

Alvin Martin: Liverpool-born centre half who became part of West Ham folklore. A commanding player who captained the team in 1985-86. He played for the Hammers between 1978 and 1996, making almost 600 appearances for the club. Netted a hat-trick against Newcastle in 1986, scoring past three goalkeepers.

West Ham’s current squad ranks among their best in recent times, but they are competing in a very tough environment. They may play in front of over 50,000 for the first time in their history, but they are part of a small group of clubs that are battling to gain a place in the top four or five in the Premier League. They are back in Europe, which is a sign of their progress in recent years, but the next step may be the hardest. Whatever happens, one thing is certain, they’ll be forever blowing bubbles at the London Stadium!

Messigate: Even heroes move on – and it’s often with a bad taste

LIONEL Messi’s press conference portrayed a man struggling to keep his emotions in check, an inevitable consequence of the debacle around his contract and eventual departure from Barcelona. It looked very staged, almost false, and in truth, the Barca faithful deserved a better way to say farewell to their talismanic hero. Overall, it was a shabby end to a glorious saga.

But how often does this happen? In Messi’s case, it is an almost unprecedented situation, but over the years, the unsatisfactory end to a career is something we’ve seen on many occasions.

In the days before players announced the end of their international careers and sent love letters to fans via social media as they galloped off for a better deal, players would disappear from their clubs, noted by a small article announcing they had signed for a lesser club. Today, the departure of a player is an event, just as transfer deadline days are now a week-long tale of reporters standing outside training grounds for the slightest glimpse of action.

The idea that Messi is bigger than his employer is not an outrageous suggestion, but in the past, the club was certainly bigger than the player and if it ever got tested, the club would win. Players that felt they were so much part of the furniture they deserved certain privileges, invariably left with no small degree of bitterness. The word “servant” has been an inappropriate description of a long-serving player, but using that term today is frankly quite obscene, just as the concept of a testimonial for a multi-millionaire player is somewhat insulting, even if they signal all the virtues by using their benefit game as a way to attach themselves to a charity through ticket sales to fans. 

Great players eventually pass into history as nobody can cheat Father Time for ever, not even Messi. Nobody wants to see a good clubman outstay his welcome and start to chip away at their well-earned reputation. Every club has such a player, even your local non-league outfit. The fact is, once the player has become less effective, the club will soon find a way to remove them from the front line, perhaps giving them a coaching role until the contract runs off.

There are some players that are so indelibly linked to a club that nobody can imagine that club without them. Messi is certainly one of those players, but it is surprising how quickly you become history. 

When Bobby Moore left West Ham in 1974, it felt like the club had lost its right arm. Moore was in decline, but he was, after all, the captain of England’s World Cup team. He had been an international right up until 1973 but he wanted to leave West Ham. At 32, he was still highly-rated, but the Hammers would not let him leave on a free transfer and asked for a fee. Moore was unhappy about the club trying to make a bit of cash out of a player who was an icon and a man of his time. 

Around the same time, Chelsea’s hero, Peter Osgood, was sold to Southampton. Osgood was – and remains to this day  – a Chelsea hero and his departure was catastrophic for the club. Osgood and Alan Hudson effectively fell-out with manager Dave Sexton, and the club backed their coach rather than the players. There is a school of thought that Chelsea were willing to sell them because of the growing financial crisis at the club. How different from today – in such a situation, the manager would almost certainly be sacrificed. Both players did return in some shape or form, but the magic was gone and it is fair to say it took a decade for Chelsea to recover from that disastrous period.

George Best and Manchester United was another story that ended badly. Best, whose lifestyle was sub-optimal for a professional sportsman, walked out on the club in the 1972-73 season after two years of wayward behaviour. He quit the game, explaining to a group of journalists on a Spanish terrace that he had fallen out of love with football and later revealed he was drinking too much. Tommy Docherty persuaded him to come back, and depending whose story you believe, the reunion was doomed. Despite the way Best conducted himself between 1970 and 1972, he still felt as though he was badly treated at the end of his career. 

As Messi joins Paris Saint-Germain, for arguably the most lucrative swansong in football history, it is clear the diminutive Argentinian is not bigger than Barcelona. Both parties wanted to continue their relationship, but Barca, in the end, had to show him the door, however much they might love Rosario’s favourite son.

And that’s how it should be, clubs are the employers, players the employees. Over the past couple of decades, player power and demands have really run football, with intermediaries adding to the cost. The more advisors, agents, fixers and hangers-on there are, the more cost ineffective it all becomes – everyone takes their cut. Barca’s financial mess will take time to solve, but they could no longer move heaven and earth to accommodate their prized asset. It must have been a hard decision to make, but they did the right thing.