By Daniel Margrain
My first distinct memory of being a West Ham United fan was in 1971. More specifically, it was the brief appearances for the Hammers of the young Nigerian cult figure, Ade Coker, that first excited me the most as a nine year. That said, it was his occasional striking partner, Clyde Best, who is the player I most fondly remember from this period. I was rather proud of my club for having been one of the first in the top tier of the professional English game to have brought through the ranks both African and a wind rush generation of players from the Caribbean.
This was a period in time when white TV entertainers ‘blacked up’ as part of their role as performing minstrels on what passed for peak time Saturday night light family entertainment on the BBC. It’s also a time when people laughed at unfunny comedies of the ilk of ‘Mind Your Language’ and ‘On The Buses’ – the former having played on the crudest forms of racial stereotyping imaginable for its ‘laughs’.
As a skinny nine year old boy I remember seeing much older and bigger gangs of “suede headed” Doc Martin booted bovver boys on TV and remember seeing them on the streets of Barking and Upminster during times when we used to visit our relatives. I sometimes used to have nightmares that these older lads were Chelsea fans and would find out I was a West Ham fan and West Ham had black players playing for them who they hated.
This hatred of the ‘other’ was an integral feature of everyday life, not only in Basildon, my hometown, but throughout other working class communities up and down the country. It was normal for my parents’ generation at that time to openly address ‘concerns’ they had of ‘coloured’ people moving into their streets on mass for fear of the ‘locals’ being ‘taken over’ and thereby potentially reducing the value of their homes.
This was of course nonsense, but hopefully it does give the reader a sense of what growing up was like for many in the early 1970s. The truth is, in all my formative years living in this post-war version of somebody else’s notion of egalitarian Utopianism, I rarely, if ever, crossed paths with a black person.
To this day, I’ve not experienced a time when the gap between perception and reality has been wider. Ignorance and irrational fear is the food racism feeds on and it was difficult to envisage any group of people that were more ignorant and irrationally fearful than post-war white working class communities fed on an almost daily diet of ‘rivers of blood’ that helped sustain the National Front’s appetite for violence.
These were, then, strange and confusing, but also extremely happy times for an impressionable young boy trying to make his mark within an Essex new town in which celebrities as diverse as Bob Marley, David Bowie and Dick Emery played a strangely equal, but significant, part.
As black people began to increasingly make inroads in public life, professional football became the most visible and positive representation of this change for my class and generation. As hard as it is to imagine nowadays, black players in England, right up to the era of John Barnes and Viv Anderson, were still targeted by hooligans on the basis of the colour of their skin.
As a 10 year old, I remember being called a ‘traitor’ for supporting a club that had black players playing for it – the same club that six years previously had essentially won England the world cup. It was generally the case that West Ham United fans at that time used to get a lot of stick from the fans of other London clubs for no other reason than we had black players playing for us. I loved the fact that the club were different in that regard.
My memories of the young Nigerian striker, Adi Coker, have been largely clouded by the passing of time, but Clyde who played for us longer, and was a more regular feature in the teams line-up, I remember well. For some reason I used to refer to him as Clive Best (probably because I confused him with one of the other black players, Clive Charles) for quite a time. It was only when I read the team line-ups on the back of the match day programmes, that I realized his name was in fact ‘Clyde’.
Of course, there was another Best earning his living for some other team in some other strange and mysterious city in another part of the country somewhere up north where the people spoke funny, and which at that time seemed like the equivalent in distance to what London is to Berlin now. Sadly, Clyde was overshadowed by George which peeved me off, but then again the same applied to every other football fan in the country, whose players were overshadowed by the Belfast genius. I took a great deal of consolation from that.
I recently saw a George Best documentary on TV where they showed the famous clip where the ball wizard turned West Ham defender John McDowell inside out. That’s one of my first memories of a football match and I can say that I saw one of the greatest players of all time at the peak of his powers.
Anyway, I digress. Best (that’s Clyde not George), was born in Somerset, Bermuda, in 1951 having played 218 games and netting 58 goals for West Ham over seven seasons between August 1969 and January 1976. Long before John Barnes was pelted with bananas by knuckle-dragging morons, Best was the brunt of racist chanting from the terraces, not just by opposing fans but I remember him being abused regularly by a sizeable minority of West Ham fans too. They weren’t abusing him because of any perceived lack of footballing ability.
This happened regularly but it gradually subsided when the racists began to cotton on that he actually played better when they stopped abusing him. For one thing, Clyde put in 100 per cent on the pitch during almost every game. One of the reasons why Best still resonates with me all these years later is that then, as now, I have a tendency to empathize with the trials and tribulations of the underdog fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds.
I think Clyde fell into that category, although one against one, he was big enough, I’m sure, to have handled himself quite adequately off the pitch. On the pitch he was no slouch either. What he lacked in pace and a certain degree of technical ability, he gained in physical strength, power and on the field presence. This was a guy who wasn’t afraid to get stuck in and work hard.
In that sense, he was similar to Andy Carroll, that is to say, he possessed the kind of skills of the traditional English centre forward. He held the ball up well and was tough to dispossess when he had it at his feet. Like Carroll, he was particularly good in the air.
I often thought that he was underrated by critics at the time who by and large, in my view, tended to overlook the finer points in his game like deftness of touch and finesse which, for a big man, I thought he combined very well with his power.
Older readers who are familiar with Best and saw him play, will probably think I’m over-egging the point when I say that he reminds me to a large extent of the currently on-loan Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony (which is in anybody’s book is high praise indeed).
In general, it is arguably an exercise in futility to try to compare the quality of teams or players from different eras other than perhaps to focus on certain characteristics and styles of playing that made them similar. Physically Bony appears to have a similar build to Best at his peak and, I would argue, plays a similar type of game.
Although Bony’s current record of 43 goals in 77 premier league appearances thus far, is double that of Best’s career at West Ham, it’s the former attributes that remind me of Clyde. Overall, though, I think that Bony is a much more technically gifted player than Best was. Like Clyde, Bony is not a regular on his managers team sheet. After going seven games without a goal for his on-loan team, Stoke, he scored twice in a 3–1 victory over his former club Swansea City on 31 October 2016. After turning down a transfer to a Chinese club, the Stoke manager, Mark Hughes, left Bony out of his squad.
Personally, I would love to see West Ham put in a bid for Bony at some point before the transfer window closes. Seeing him play upfront at the Olympic Stadium with a creative midfield play-maker providing him with the ammunition would, in my view, suit the team down to the ground, particularly as the tactical trend seems to be reverting back to good old 4-4-2.
During an era when black players were virtually unknown at the top tier of the game, a great deal of credit has to be given to Ron Greenwood who brought Clive Charles, Ade Coker and Clyde Best to the fore by playing them alongside legends like Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. Greenwood was among the first managers to realize that football was becoming a form of entertainment as opposed to merely a sport.
Of course, it was the late, great, Jimmy Hill who was one of the central pioneering figures that combined many other factors together to provide the conditions for the current premier league football to thrive. With the third week of the season beginning today (August 26) and with the Hammers currently bottom of the league, the killer instinct of an unsettled Bony will be the perfect addition to the West Ham squad, who would likely be far more clinical in front of goal than Clyde was.
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