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!

Martin Peters and immortality

WE expect our heroes to go on forever. Football fans are always drawn to the past, to the players that light-up our childhood and teenage years – individuals who were, when all was said and done, just a decade or so older than a 12 year-old fan. As time passes, the gap between the fan and his idols narrows, we eventually become part of the same bracket and with that, comes a reminder that we are all very much mortal.

Martin Peters West Ham United.

The passing of Martin Peters is another blow to the belief that we go on for eternity. He was, according to Sir Alf Ramsey, “10 years ahead of his time”. Well, time caught up with Peters, as it does with all of us, but what memories the former England international left behind.

Peters was one of the first “modern” players, capable of playing in a host of positions, steady, clever but rarely flashy. No small measure of skill, he had the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. But Peters could have been elevated even higher if Wolfgang Weber had not scored a very late equaliser in normal time at Wembley in July 1966. That goal sent the World Cup final into extra time and robbed Peters of the enormous honour of scoring the winning goal in England’s finest hour. The plaudits went to his West Ham team-mate, Geoff Hurst, but there was no doubt that Peters was one of England’s heroes in 1966.

When he left West Ham in 1970, Peters became a £ 200,000 player. In the transaction that took Jimmy Greaves to Upton Park, Spurs undoubtedly got the better deal, Peters was 26, Greaves was past his best, as his short stint at West Ham proved. He became one of the most durable players among the boys of ‘66, playing 724 games in total and eventually retiring in 1981.

As sad as it is to say farewell to an England legend, Martin Peters’ death underlines that our heroes are gradually fading away. Each year, the pool of 1960s and 1970s icons becomes smaller and smaller. The obituary section of the Rothman’s book (ok, now it’s the Sun book) gets bigger and bigger and the print smaller. We start to see players being recognised with similar birthdates to our own and we recognise more and more names from our Soccer Stars in Action albums. To quote David Bowie from his classic album, Aladdin Sane, time’s “script is you and me, boys”.

Some teams from the past have become decimated by old father time. Celtic’s Lisbon Lions side of 1967 seems to have been particularly cruelly treated recently. Six of their 11 heroes from that memorable day have passed away, including Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers in 2019. The England 1966 final team has now lost five and 10 in the 22-man squad. Interestingly, the West German team beaten at Wembley has lost just two, Helmut Haller and Lothar Emmerich. The successors to England’s crown in 1970, the mighty Brazilians, have nine of their World Cup winning XI intact, with only Carlos Alberto and Felix saying farewell.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Martin Peters (l) heads the opening goal on his debut for the club, watched by Coventry City’s Willie Carr (r)

Some classic teams are disappearing fast, though. The Spurs double winners of 1961 and Ipswich Town’s surprise champions of 1962 have both lost seven of their regular 11. The Everton team of 1970 has seen six of its number pass away: Gordon West, Keith Newton, Sandy Brown, Howard Kendall, Brian Labone and Alan Ball, the youngest member of the 1966 England team. Five of this group were under the age of 70, demonstrating that a lot of footballers, their bodies battered and broken and scarred from years of pain-killing injections, do not live to a ripe old age.

The oldest fully intact Football League title winning team is possibly Derby County’s 1974-75 side, managed by the late Dave Mackay. With the exception of Roger Davies (69) and Steve Powell (64), this squad is in its 70s and includes David Nish, Colin Todd, Bruce Rioch, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector and Francis Lee. Nottingham Forest’s 1977-78 championship team is also still going strong. Conversely, the Wolves team of 1953-54 has completely succumbed to the march of time.

Increasingly, we hear news about former players who are suffering from dementia or similar conditions. We are living longer in the 21st century, but that means we become more vulnerable to the afflictions of ageing. Sadly, Martin Peters had suffered from this cruel disease and hence, he had become largely invisible over the past few years. We all know the Jeff Astle story, an outstanding player and decent man who was taken very young at the age of 59. The debate about the effect of heading the ball on the brain is ongoing and could change the face of football.

In 1966, Peters helped create English football history. Ramsey’s team was never given the credit it deserved until much later, but with each passing decade, the scale of achievement becomes even more remarkable. The England team was of its time, but Martin Peters, to reiterate Ramsey’s famous comment, was well into the next decade. Thankfully, the Peters legacy will live on and his place in football’s pantheon is assured.

While we remember the considerable achievements of an excellent player, let’s also remind ourselves that our heroes do not go on forever, so let’s enjoy them and respect their role in making football the most popular sport in the world. They might be placed on a pedestal by thousands of fans, but essentially, they are flesh and blood and just human beings. But winning the World Cup does make some of them rather special….




Photos: PA