BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
There’s two schools of thought on a man like Frank McAvennie. If you’re one of those who buys into the surface noise of the sporting rebel then you probably study him as a life fully realised. The goals, the glamour models, the headlines burning like Roman candles across the night. Better to burn out than fade away you might think. At least with that you get to have a beautiful corpse.
There’s a lesser view, however. The idea of an idiot savant being, well, just an idiot. Talent being eroded in front of a watching gallery, that given the chance would give their right arm for such opportunities. For a working class man that’s the biggest crime of all. Not everyone is granted the wish to drink from the chalice of sporting opportunity, and if you are, the least you can do is not urinate it out all over your patent leather shoes.
For a small town boy from Milton wasn’t it always going to be the latter way? Maybe if McAvennie had joined the British Army like he had set out to do as a young boy things might have been different. The trouble was destiny always had a wicked sense of humour and irony for Frankie boy. His path certainly wasn’t in serving for Queen and country that’s for sure. The fact that he couldn’t hit a cows arse with a banjo on the firing range ultimately did for him. An army rifle was the only thing he wouldn’t score with in the foreseeable future.
With a football though he would be different gravy. From a young, age entering into the professional ranks was made for him. Young Scottish footballer of the year with St. Mirren by the time he was 22, he had a confident, natural flair that was always going to attract the big boys from south of the border. Soon, West Ham United came calling. After commanding a respectable £350,000 transfer fee it wasn’t long before McAvennie was forging a lethal partnership with the talented Tony Cottee at Upton Park. In his first season alone he would bag 26 league goals and lead West Ham to a dizzy top flight finish of 3rd. It would lead to a celebratory atmosphere in east London that the star centre forward was more than willing to participate in. Whether in the box or the bar at this time, Frank always managed to the beat the offside trap and come up smelling of roses.
These were the days before the seismic shift of the Premier League, when footballers still commanded big wages but nowhere near the incredible amounts of today’s superstars. They still had the same problem though. Boredom; especially for those like McAvennie – young, successful and inquisitive enough not to settle into suburbia. There were temptations aplenty in the capital. Champagne and hedonism and breasts like hanging gardens on every corner. This was Thatcher’s London. Vainglorious and spiritually redundant. Where success was measured in zeros and affluence. Everything else seemed horribly expendable.
It wouldn’t only be the nouveau riche and the hangers on that would try and ride the wave of McAvennie’s sudden success in England. In many ways his future downfall wouldn’t come from 2am shifts spent deep in nightclub booths. It would come courtesy of television producers and a programme looking to book the colourful for its roster – The Wogan Show in fact, that vanguard of light entertainment bullshit but crucially watched by ten million viewers. McAvennie would appear on the show in his second year at West Ham and be charm personified. It seemed to accelerate his activities off the field and his profile massively too. It also glossed over what had been a pretty disastrous second season season at West Ham for the the centre forward. The London club went into free fall after their top three finish. Without being able to play in Europe after a ban on English clubs after the Heysel disaster, they even managed to finish in the bottom half of the table for their troubles.
If this was the cue for McAvennie to roll his sleeves up for the cause, the Upton Park faithful were in for a shock. Frank simply wasn’t that player. When the going got tough he struggled to reproduce his best form and just seven games into the 87-88 season he was transferred to his boyhood idols, Celtic, for a fee of 750,000. It seemed a perfect fit. The Parkhead faithful liked their back combed swashbucklers, men like McAvennie and Charlie Nicholas who didn’t wilt under the spotlight of fifty thousand Glaswegian souls clawing at the muse of tribalism. Frankie boy had that glint and steel in his eyes. In his first Old Firm derby he even managed to cause a near riot in an altercation with Rangers’ Chris Woods and Terry Butcher that would eventually see all three hauled before Scottish magistrates and reprimanded about their future behaviour.
Over two seasons McAvennie would bag a goal every two games for Celtic and be a huge hit but strangely for a hometown boy, the cold exoticness of England’s capital still fascinated him. By 1989 he was even back there, in a suprising £1.2million move back to West Ham few saw coming. This, however, was a different Upton Park and a different top flight. Gone was the exciting free flowing football of 85-86 and in its place a less cavalier philosophy that neither the players nor the supporters warmed to. Despite McAvennie’s and the team’s best efforts they were simply rolled over by a league that had no time for their east end romance. By the end of the season they were even relegated to the second tier, a sad demise for a club who just three years previously had been challenging for the First Division championship.
It wouldn’t take long for McAvennie to get a rude awakening in the second tier either. On the opening day of the season he would have his leg shattered by a challenge from Chris Kamara that would be debated by both players for years after. McAvennie threatened to sue, claiming it had been done deliberately, whilst Kamara claimed it was little more than a physical coming together. Whatever the truth and now with his career in stasis, McAvennie fully transformed into the ‘Frankie Boy’ character that would be caricatured in TV sketch shows and column inches from then on in. He threw himself headlong into a world of cocaine and bad chat up lines, his blonde locks flowing endlessly through the dry ice of nightclub dance floors like a coiffured jellyfish looking for his target.
As entertaining as McAvennie’s reputation would be from this point, he was never the same player upon his return. His comeback for West Ham would prove an inevitable anti-climax. There were flashes of the old Frank, sure, but he was living on past glories. Although he still willed his legs and his football brain to click into gear on the pitch, they carried him into the opponents box rather than drove him. He was carried in a strange way by those on the terraces too. Even at his worst they could never bring themselves to howl their criticism at their failing centre forward. This, after all, was a man who had turned down champions Arsenal to join them in his second spell. He was one of their own. Frankie. Reckless and daft as a brush off the pitch but with a heart as big as East Ham station. They had an affinity, a bond with him.
It was reciprocated too. People close to Frank McAvennie would say he stopped being a professional player once he left the club in 1992, that his heart was no longer in it. There would be other clubs, of course, but the inevitable trips down motorways and stays in lonely hotel rooms were like a slow erosion to a player like him. He was a spotlight guy, and once that faded where else was he to go? Certainly not to the hangers on who dropped him like a stone once his reputation faded and certainly not into any regular employment – other than football he was hardly going to get a job as a bin man, was he?
His retirement in 1994 might even have been the cue for something worse, to drop into obscurity or be sucked into a whirlpool of self destruction and pity; but not quite, that was never really his style. Although he would live a relatively normal life in a Gateshead council house, his head would still be full of silly sod dreams. There would be treasure hunts and Scarface deals, documentaries and a long trail of female stilettos clip-clopping away from his front door like angry Spanish castanets.
And now by 2018 a resurrection. In a world full of false personalities and dull raconteurs, who better than Frank McAvennie to show them exactly how it’s done. He cuts a decent living these days on the after dinner speaking circuit and you can bet your weeks wages when he begins a story over the conversations and clink of ice cubes spinning in people’s glasses, the whole room stops and listens. He’s even had time to dip his toes back into football too. As an agent for young Scottish footballers he guides the best the country has to offer in plying their trade in leagues like the Scottish and English Premier Leagues. He is, after all, a man who has pretty much done everything and still battled back from the trenches to tell the tale.
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