By Daniel Margrain
In light of Iain Dale’s recent posting of BT Sports brilliant ‘Farewell to Upton Park’ video piece on West Ham United Football Club, the forthcoming move to the Olympic Stadium and the thought of Leicester City riding high in the Premier League in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of the “Boys of ’86”.
The sustained top four challenge of the Foxes this season can certainly, in my view, be compared to West Ham’s challenge for the title in 1986 which was all the more surprising given the fact that the team had an abysmal pre-season that led up to it.
Having been outplayed by Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road (merely Orient as they were know then) where we lost 3-1, the expectation among both the press and many West Ham fans in the build up to the 1986 season was that we would struggle with a likely relegation battle on the cards.
The backdrop to the 1986 season was one in which the Heysel Stadium that preceded it played a significant part. But what the fans and critics alike didn’t take account of was the return to the team from injury of the magnificent Alan Devonshire (in my view only second to Sir Trevor in the Hammers all time list of greats), the signing of Mark Ward, and arguably most important of all, the arrival at the club of the former cab driver, and boy about town, the mercurial, Frank McAvennie. These three players represented the new creative spine of the team.
It’s perhaps ironical then, that the one player who probably above any other was responsible for the record highest level finish in the clubs history was, at the time, virtually unknown among domestic football fans for a significant part of the season. This was because English football at the time suffered a widespread media black out as a consequence of the hooliganism of others.
This meant that the ‘playboy’ Frank was able to maintain his legendary hedonistic status unhindered by the media spotlight. But it also meant that a large chunk of the goals scored by the second most prolific scorer in the league at that time was not televised in England during the first handful of games of the 1986 season. As incredible as it seems today, I remember getting second hand reports about Frank’s prowess in front of goal from people in Denmark and Sweden. For many football fans in Britain, it was a case of Frank who?
It’s almost forgotten now that the former St Mirren ace was inches away from putting pen to paper with Luton Town. Apparently somebody reminded him of the world cup winning legacy that will forever will be associated with the club from east London.
Despite having been turned away by bouncers on the door of Stringfellows which as legend has it, was the main reason why he decided to head south in the first place, Frank finally saw sense having had a last minute change of mind. The rest, as they say, is history. Frank went on to net 26 league goals that season which was only bettered by Gary Lineker at Everton who went on to score 30.
It’s perhaps interesting to note that the starting eleven for West Ham at the time was not particularly a distinguished one containing few internationally renowned players of note. Yes, we had our record signing colossus Phil ‘Cossack’ Parkes in goal and the ever dependable hot shot penalty king in Ray ‘Tonka’ Stewart at the right side of the defence. And yes, we had the ever dependable Alvin Martin on the left and maestro and play-maker Devonshire in midfield, but the rest of the team was largely a hitherto untried experiment.
The 1986 season might have ended differently had manager John Lyall played Frank in his accustomed midfield role (his position at St Mirren) which was the reason why he was brought to Upton Park in the first place. But Frank wanted to score goals as much as he craved the adoration that comes with it, and a midfield position wasn’t going to cut the mustard for him.
So having asked management if he could play up front instead, John Bond obliged. The intention was to play him deep in the hole behind the underrated Paul Godard. Frank has since joked that playing in the hole was something he had done all his adult life. But as it turned out, injury to Godard, meant that it wasn’t to be.
Having lost two of our three opening games, the omens weren’t looking good. By mid-September we had only reached the dizzying heights of 17th while Manchester United had won their opening ten games on the bounce. Thereafter, the fortunes of West Ham United began to change after the club went on what can only be described as an incredible run of form.
Tony Gale has since described the team that was to be part of this magnificent run as being better than the championship winning team he subsequently went on to play for, Blackburn Rovers. The 84 point total the team acquired at the end of the 1986 season was a tally that would have won the league the previous season.
What also must be kept in mind is that the team lost ten games that season which shows just how many games they won, as opposed to drawing. By the years end, just four points separated West Ham from the league leaders. It was only Liverpool’s amazing run of ten victories in their last eleven games that prevented the Hammers from claiming the title.
Everton – arguably West Ham’s historical bogey team who were also on an amazing run – beat us in our penultimate game which finally sealed our fate and we went on to finish third behind Liverpool and Everton. I know that the table rarely lies, but that particular season it did. Many neutrals old enough to remember have said to me that the West Ham team of ’86 were the best team never to have not won the league in any given year.
To add salt to the wound, West Ham were denied UEFA cup action the following season due to the ban on English clubs in European competitions, which had started a year earlier due to the Heysel tragedy.
The following season, having finished 15th and with Frank scoring just seven league goals from 36 games and eleven from 47 games in all competitions, the inextricable slide of the club began. But that’s another story for another day.