West Ham are and have always been an enigma. Capable of blowing away the fiercest of opponents one week while succumbing to rank outsiders the next, the Hammers are a constant source of both frustration and delight in equal measures for supporters.
Thus it ever was, or so it seems. In the 1970s, West Ham managed to win the FA Cup in 1975, reach the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final a year later while finishing two places outside the relegation spots, and get relegated two years later.
In the 1980s, as a Second Division club, the side won the FA Cup, reached the League Cup Final, and the ECWC quarter-finals. After promotion back to the top flight was secured in 1981, the Hammers then had seasons when they flirted with the top six, lead the table at various points in several seasons, battled against relegation, fought for the title, and, eventually, got relegated again. All of this was under the stewardship of John Lyall, the long-serving manager who succeeded Ron Greenwood in 1974.
Many consider the 1985-86 vintage to be the best West Ham side ever. This was the side responsible for West Ham’s only serious tilt at the league title in the club’s existence. A tremendous side fired by the goals of Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee, combined with the stainless of Alvin Martin, Ray Stewart and Phil Parkes at the back and the creativity of Alan Devonshire and Mark Ward in midfield fired West Ham to a third-place finish, just four points behind champions Liverpool.
While undoubtedly a great side that was, possibly only denied the title due to a backlog of fixtures and a late-season injury crisis, the 1986 side faces some competition for the title of Greatest Ever West Ham Side from the 1981 vintage.
While this may be considered a strange claim to make given that West ham were still a Second Division team at the time, they were, in fact, one of the strongest teams in the football league in 1980-81.
To backtrack a bit – West Ham had been relegated in 1978 after years of practising and several dry runs, and for a couple of years seemed to be in no particular hurry to regain their top-flight status.
1978-79 had seen a promotion push, of sorts, but despite the signing of goalkeeper Phil Parkes for a then-world record fee for a ‘keeper, the best that could be achieved was a fifth-place finish. The 1979-80 league season was similar in as much as an early-season run of form had the Hammers in and around the promotion places before falling away at the sharp end of the season.
The cups were a different matter that season, however. The quarter-finals of the League Cup were reached before West Ham eventually bowed out to Brain Clough’s Nottingham Forest in a replay. The FA Cup, however, saw glorious success as West Ham battled their way past four First Division teams to take the cup at Wembley thanks to a single goal victory over Arsenal.
Hopes were therefore high that in the league it would be a question of third time lucky as far as promotion was concerned.
In the summer, the only major signing was Paul Goddard who was signed from London neighbours, Queens Park Rangers, for a club-record fee of £800,000.
The season started with a narrow 1-0 defeat at Wembley to Liverpool in the FA Charity Shield and then kicked-off in earnest the following week with a home game against Luton Town. If the Hammers were expecting to sweep all before them, this confidence failed to be reflected in early results because as well as losing to the Hatters, only two points were taken in the two games that immediately followed.
So, with August 1980 at an end, West Ham sat uncomfortably near the bottom with just two points from three games and the omens were not good. That’s when things started to click into place. A run of eleven wins and two draws in 13 games shot West Ham to the top of the table and that was where they were to remain until the end of the season.
They played with the flair with which the club was traditionally associated with, but unlike other West Ham sides of the past, this style was complemented by grit and determination that ensured that the side didn’t start to lose their grip once the pitches started to cut up and get heavier.
With a settled back four of Frank Lampard, Alvin Martin, Billy Bonds and Ray Stewart, West Ham had found a pleasing blend of experience and youth. Behind them, Phil Parkes was more than living up to his high transfer fee asnine clean sheets in these 13 matches were achieved.
A slight stumble then occurred with only 8 points being accrued from the next eight matches (two points for a win then) but following a 3-0 reverse at Loftus Road on 30th December, West Ham were to remain unbeaten in the league the remainder of the season with fourteen wins, four draws, and a further ten clean sheets.
The Hammers’ industry in the centre of the park was orchestrated and controlled by the hard-working Geoff Pike, Pat Holland and Jimmy Neighbour doing the leg-work for the more refined and skilled Alan Devonshire and Trevor Brooking. Paul Allen, the star of West Ham’s 1980 FA Cup win, was unfortunately injured for most of the season and made only three league appearances.
Upfront, Goddard formed an effective partnership with David Cross and between them, they plundered 39 league goals.
Continuity was the key with Parkes and Pike being ever-presents in the side and Stewart, Martin, Bonds and Cross only missing one game each, Devonshire missed three, Goddard five and Brooking six.
West Ham eventually finished a massive thirteen points ahead of runners-up, Notts County, attaining sixty-six points.
In the cups West Ham had mixed fortune, ending their defence of the FA Cup at the first hurdle following defeat to Wrexham after a second replay. However, the Hammers were to enjoy another run to Wembley courtesy of the League Cup.
After early round victories over Burnley, Charlton and Barnsley, a quarter-final match-up saw them pitted against Tottenham Hotspur at Upton Park. A single-goal was sufficient to see the home side through to a two-legged semi-final against Coventry.
The first leg was played at Highfield Road and West Ham raced into a two-goal lead before half-time. With one foot seemingly already in the final, the Hammers eased off and City came back into the match. With almost the last kick of the game, West Ham conceded the winner to the hosts and so the second-leg was set up for a titanic battle.
After 90 minutes of the return at Upton Park, West Ham led by a solitary goal and so the tie headed into extra-time (no away goals rule, presumably). In the extra period, Jimmy Neighbour popped up to score the decider and bring West Ham back to Wembley for their third visit in a little over ten months.
Liverpool were the opponents awaiting West Ham and such was the season that the East London team were enjoying that for once the Anfield men were far from outstanding favourites going into a cup final. So it proved to be, with West Ham matching Liverpool every step of the way.
With time running out and the two sides seeming to have cancelled each other out, Liverpool scored a controversial goal that appeared to have won the cup. West Ham had other ideas, though, and straight from the restart forced first a free-kick on the edge of the area and then a corner. When Alvin Martin’s header from the resulting corner was handled on the line by Terry McDermott. Ray Stewart kept his cool from the spot and took the game to a Villa Park replay.
Unfortunately for West Ham, this proved to be a bridge too far and they were edged out by a 2-1 scoreline and so had to settle for runners-up tankards.
In 1980-81, West Ham entered Europe as FA Cup holders and performed admirably as a Second Division club in reaching the quarter-finals. A 3-1 defeat in Spain at the hands of Real Castilla in the first leg of the first round wasn’t exactly an auspicious start, but the rioting and hooliganism perpetrated by some West Ham fans in Spain were much worse.
UEFA acted and ordered West Ham to play the return leg at Upton Park behind closed doors. When West Ham prevailed 5-1 on the night after extra-time, they were through to a second-round clash with Romanian side, Poli Timișoara. A 4-1 aggregate victory clinched a quarter-final clash with Dinamo Tbilisi from Georgia, conquerors of Liverpool in the previous season’s European Cup.
The Georgian’s proved too strong for the Hammers, defeating them 4-1 in the first-leg at Upton Park in a scintillating display. Although somewhat academic, West Ham did redeem some honour with a 1-0 victory in the second-leg away from home.
Ultimately, the season was a great success and West Ham were back where they wanted to be – the First Division. The new steeliness about the side augered well for the future and West Ham were expected to continue to make progress the following season.
An unbeaten beginning had West Ham sitting top of the table after seven games, and the side was still in and around the top six until after Christmas. Although this good start couldn’t be maintained, West Ham were once more a force to be reckoned with.