By Daniel Margrain
Leicester City’s monumental achievement at being crowned Premier League champions at the end of the 2015-16 season at odds of 5,000-1, is a feat that is unlikely to be repeated by a similarly moderate sized club for many decades to come. The football club’s slide the following year to 12th position one place below my team West Ham United, and their current position of 17th after seven games of the current season, is more historically typical of a club of their stature.
In light of BT Sports excellent Farewell to Upton Park video piece on West Ham United that preceded the clubs move from their spiritual home to the Olympic Stadium, the thought of Leicester City’s triumphant 2015-16 season reminded me of the “Boys of ’86” – the West Ham team that came within a whisker of matching Leicester’s incredible success story.
West Ham’s challenge for the league title in 1986 was surprising given 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 known then) where the Hammers lost 3-1, the consensus among both the press and West Ham fans in the build up to the 1985-86 season was that the team would struggle to avoid relegation.
The backdrop to the 1985-86 was one in which the Heysel stadium tragedy that preceded it played a significant part. But what the fans and critics alike didn’t take into account was the return to the team from injury of the magnificent Alan Devonshire (in my view only second to Sir Trevor Brooking in the Hammers all time list of greats), the signing of the underrated 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.
Who is Frank McAvennie?
It’s perhaps ironical, that as a result of a media black-out of English football, the ‘playboy’ Frank was able to maintain his legendary hedonistic status unhindered by the media spotlight mainly because his prolific goal-scoring record was barely televised in England during the first handful of games of the 1985-86 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, when Frank McAvennie’s name was mentioned, the response was invariably, “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 be associated with the club from east London. Legend has it he turned Luton down in favour of West Ham on that basis.
Despite having been refused entry to the infamous West End nightclub, Stringfellows (which it was said was the main reason Frank decided to head south in the first place), the Glaswegian finally saw sense having had a last minute change of mind. The rest, as they say, is history.
Frank has admitted to partying heavily on a regular basis up until, and including, the Wednesday’s prior to Saturday match days which he contends had no adverse impact on his fitness levels. Given that Frank went on to net 26 league goals in the 1985-86 season which was only bettered by Everton’s Gary Lineker who went on to score 30, his claim appears to be well-founded.
There’s an alcohol-related story that involves Frank and team manager, John Lyall that goes something like this:
An important meeting had been arranged with management in which the whole team were expected to attend. It was a morning meeting and Frank had been clubbing the previous night.
Suffering from a heavy hangover, Frank phoned John and asked if it would be alright if he would be able to give it a miss.
John, in no uncertain terms, emphasized to Frank the importance of the meeting. John suggested that he (Frank) should try his best to make it, especially as the media pack were expected to turn up and it wouldn’t look good for the club if he wasn’t there.
Frank proceeded to plead with his boss that he really wasn’t well enough to attend.
While sympathetic to Frank’s plight, John nevertheless insisted that he attend because he felt unable to satisfactorily explain away his absence to the media pack.
In response, Frank exclaimed:
“Boss, surely you can come up with something, You have before now. I’m really not up to it. I’m suffering so badly I can barely walk to my bathroom, let alone step over all the bodies that are lying about everywhere”,
John replied: “Yes, I understand your situation and you know me Frank, ordinarily I would be able to come up with a suitable excuse to bail you out. But here’s the thing, Frank, we’ve arranged for the meeting to be held at your place and there’s a whole load of us freezing our nuts off outside your gaff waiting to get in.”
In addition to the drinking culture of the period, it’s perhaps interesting to note that all of the starting eleven that played for West Ham during the 1985-86 season were British-born players. On paper the team was not particularly distinguished, containing few internationally renowned players of note.
Although the team comprised the clubs record signing, colossus Phil ‘Cossack’ Parkes in goal, the hot shot penalty king in Ray ‘Tonka’ Stewart on the right side of defence, the dependable Alvin Martin on the left and maestro and play-maker Devonshire in midfield, the rest of the team were largely an untried experiment.
The 1985-86 season might have ended differently had 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}.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 most of his adult life.
But Frank wanted to score goals. He craved the adoration that came with it. However, playing in the hole wasn’t going to cut the mustard for him. So having asked management if he could play up front instead, coach John Bond obliged.
Fortunes always hiding
Having lost two of their three opening games of the season, the omens for the Hammers weren’t looking good. By mid-September the team 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. Beginning with a convincing 3-0 victory against Leicester City on September 14, the team drew 2-2 against Manchester City the following week. The Hammers then won eleven of their next twelve league matches.
Defender Tony Gale has described the team that went on this magnificent run as being better than the league champions he subsequently went on to play for, Blackburn Rovers. The 84 point total the West Ham team acquired at the end of the 1985-86 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 illustrates how many games they won, as opposed to drawing. By the years end, just four points separated West Ham from the league leaders, Liverpool. It was only the Reds amazing run of ten victories in their last eleven games that prevented the Hammers from claiming the title.
Arguably, West Ham’s historical bogey team, Everton, who were also on an amazing run, defeated West Ham 3-1 at Goodison Park in the teams penultimate game which finally sealed the Hammers fate. West Ham went on to finish third behind Liverpool and Everton. Very rarely does the league table lie, but that particular season it did.
Many neutrals old enough to remember, have claimed that the West Ham team of ’86 were the most talented set of players never to have 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 Heysel.
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. For his one remarkable season alone, Frank McAvennie can justifiably claim the mantle of the likes of Hammers legends Brooking, Devonshire, Dicks, Moore, Peters, Hurst, Di Canio and Bonds.
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