He may not be the tallest player ever to wear a claret and blue shirt, but nearly three decades after the pinnacle of his Irons career, legendary striker Tony Cottee still casts a long shadow over all those who have followed him.
His partnership with Frank McAvennie which produced 54 goals in the 1985-86 season is the stuff of club legend – and in the near 30 years since it happened, many are the nights fans have passed reminiscing over the pair’s exploits. Unfortunately for West Ham fans, one reason that Cottee and McAvennie have remained such a popular topic of conversation for so long is the absence of any partnerships since then to even come close to their success– which makes this season’s Enner Valencia/Diafra Sakho double act all the more welcome and enjoyable.
In an exclusive interview with Blowing Bubbles, Cottee said it seemed that their partnership had been stumbled upon more by accident than design – and that had a familiar ring to it. ‘If Andy Carroll had been fit from the start of the season, it would have been him up front and one of them either alongside or just behind him, but he got injured again, needs must, they were put together after a few games – and it’s worked,’ said Cottee.
‘That reminds me of how Frank and I got together. He wasn’t bought in to play alongside me, it was supposed to be me and Paul Goddard up front, but when Sarge got injured, he got moved– and we all know what happened after that.’ Although it was to prove a marriage made in striking heaven, the Cottee/McAvennie partnership took a while to get going – and Cottee says that was entirely down to him.
‘Frank was off to a flier but I was playing poorly, so John Lyall had to take me aside for a chat and sort me out,’ he explained. ‘He left me out of the side, which was exactly what I needed – when I came back I was reinvigorated and I scored in something like seven games in a row. That was when everyone realised just what we could do together. After that, everything in training revolved around creating maximum opportunity for us to score. The result was 54 goals in a season.’
Off the field, the pair could hardly have been more different – whilst Cottee was famous for keeping scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings of his matches, McAvennie was equally renowned for going out with most of the models found nearer the front of the paper.
But this contrast in personalities only made their partnership more effective. ‘You don’t have to be similar characters or socialise, but there’s a definite art to being part of a double act,’ Cottee said. ‘It was something that didn’t come naturally to me – I had to learn it, but fortunately Frank was great at it. I learned so much about that from him, and he always says I was the best finisher he ever played with. That’s how you develop a pairing.
‘I’ve played with some great players at different clubs, but I never had a partnership as natural and as enjoyable as the one I had with Frank. ‘The stats say it all – in two years, we produced over 100 goals between us. Whenever fans meet either of us, the first thing they always want to talk about is the other one – that’s a sign of how well remembered we are, and how much it meant to people. It’s wonderful.’
Last season Carroll’s injury meant West Ham came close to paying the ultimate price for the absence of a plan B, but fortunately wisdom prevailed over the summer, Valencia and Sakho were brought in, and when Carroll was crocked again, they were there for Sam Allardyce to try out – to spectacular effect. Now, the England striker’s return to fitness poses an interesting dilemma – but as Cottee says, it is a nice problem to have.
‘The great thing is – at last West Ham have options,’ he explained. ‘I’m not a fan of change for the sake of it, and I’m sure most fans would say stick to what works, but it’s great that Andy is there as well if needed. There might be some games where it makes more sense to play him up front with one of them, or one alongside him and one behind. But the most important thing is that there’s a plan B, C and D.’ Despite the early success of and public enthusiasm for the new twin strike attack, Cottee says it is way too early to draw any kind of comparisons with the magic conjured up by him and McAvennie.
‘It’s very premature, but I’d love it if in a few months’ time they’re matching the sort of scoring statistics we did and we’re thinking about a third-place finish, because that would mean they were on course to make club history,’ he said. ‘I think Valencia will be the one to score more goals – I think there are more aspects to his game, he’s the one who’s more like how I was.
‘In recent years, it seemed the concept of the forward pairing was dying out, and I wondered if it would ever come back, but it’s great how clubs like Manchester City and United are really championing it – and it’s even better that now West Ham are as well.’