Regular readers of Blowing Bubbles will know that when Brian Williams penned his monthly email to Big Sam he did so with his tongue firmly in his cheek. In his book, Nearly Reach The Sky – A Farewell to Upton Park, he writes a rather more serious letter to Billy Bonds that reveals what it takes to be a true West Ham hero. Here is an extract…
Dear Mr Bonds,
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you like this. You don’t know me – we’ve never met. I’ve wanted to drop you a line for a long time now, but I’ve always been worried you’ll think I’m a bit daft for saying this. You see, you’re my hero. Is it all right if I call you Billy, rather than Mr Bonds? I know it’s a bit informal, but you don’t strike me as the sort of bloke who insists on standing on ceremony. To be honest, I’ve always thought of you as Bonzo, but I’m worried that would sound overly familiar in a letter from a complete stranger
‘Legend’ has to be the most overused and undervalued accolade of our age. Give your mate a lift to work when his car won’t start and all of a sudden you’re a legend. But there was a time when to be a legend meant a whole lot more, and it is in that knightsof-the-round-table spirit I would use the word to describe you. Please don’t think I’m trying to embarrass you – that’s the last thing I’d want. It’s just that for me – and countless others – you embody everything the club should stand for. We’d like you to know how we feel.
You hardly need me to tell you your first year in claret and blue was 1967. Astonishingly, it would be more than 20 years before you finally hung up your boots. Incidentally, do retired players really hang up their boots? I’m guessing they’re not the sort of things you’d want dangling on a hook in the shed for years on end – they’d go mouldy. And you couldn’t leave them in the house for any length of time; not if you’re married.
You were three months short of your 42nd birthday when you played your final game at Southampton in April 1988. The previous season, when you had clocked up the Big Four-O, you were actually named Hammer of the Year!
Remember Billy Jennings? He was the fella we signed from Watford in 1974 who scored 30-odd goals for us in something approaching 100 appearances. While you were still flogging yourself up and down the Boleyn Ground at an age when other men are considering taking up bowls, he had packed up the game and was running a really nice little bar opposite the newspaper which was paying my wages at the time. Billy wasn’t the least bit surprised that you had been able to carry on playing for as long as you did. According to him, you were the most dedicated individual he ever saw on a training ground in his entire career. Five-a-sides? You’d play like it was the Cup final. Timekeeping? You’d be the first to arrive and the last to leave. A cross-country run? There was only ever going to be one winner. Mind you, when it came to running, he reckoned you left the others standing because you had an unfair advantage. Apparently, you have a remarkable metabolism. The way Billy told it, your heart beats once every six hours and you barely need oxygen at all.
You probably won’t remember this, but the year Billy Jennings came to Upton Park, a Japanese soldier called Hiroo Onoda emerged from the jungle in the Philippines after he was finally persuaded to lay down his arms and stop fighting the Second World War, which he believed was still going on. At the time, it was thought he was the last of his kind. Then, as you were approaching retirement, the story went round that Onoda was not alone – and another Japanese soldier who didn’t know that hostilities had ended had been found in a different part of the forest.
Reluctantly he agreed to come out under a flag of truce – but refused to surrender until he was certain that the Land of the Rising Sun really had run up the white flag. His would-be rescuers tried to convince him that the world had moved on since he had volunteered for active service.
He listened suspiciously as he was told that since Japan had laid down its arms humankind had been to the moon and flown an aeroplane faster than the speed of sound – and, not only was Winston Churchill dead and buried, Britain had elected its first woman Prime Minister. On hearing all this he shook his head in disbelief, picked up his rusty rifle and headed back to the jungle, pausing briefly to turn and ask: ‘What sort of idiot do you take me for? Next, you’ll try telling me Billy Bonds is still playing for West Ham.
Sorry, Billy. You must have heard that joke a million times. But, you have to admit, the statistics are pretty remarkable. In all, you were at West Ham for 27 years – 21 of those as a player – and you made an incredible 799 appearances for the Hammers. You were captain for 10 years. You are the only West Ham skipper to lift the FA Cup twice. You were Hammer of the Year four times, and runner-up on three other occasions. You were honoured by being made a Member of the British Empire for services to football (although if it had been me giving out the gongs it would have been a knighthood plus the Victoria Cross and the George Medal). It was an amazing career.
Those FA Cup wins were something special, weren’t they? The ’75 final against Fulham was dismissed as boring by much of the media, but it looked exciting enough from where I was sitting (near the halfway line, opposite the Royal Box). I can only guess what it must have been like for you to receive the Cup. I once got a runners’ up medal in a five-a-side tournament, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it? I can tell you what it was like watching you do it, though.
At the final triumphant whistle all British reservation goes out the window for once – you raise your arms to the heavens; you dance on the spot; you can even go completely wild and embrace a stranger because, for a few glorious moments, there are no strangers. If they’re cheering, they’re family
It all calms down slightly when your captain begins the long climb up the most famous 39 steps in football to collect the trophy, followed by his team. Our team. Ecstasy gives way to pride. It’s permissible to applaud, but I kept silent as you scaled that staircase. I was saving myself for the special moment that I knew would come soon. You received the trophy and looked at it briefly. I remained silent. You kissed the Cup and teased us with it before glancing at your teammates as if to confirm you did this together. Still nothing from me. Then you raised the holy grail to the sky – sharing it with us like a priest shares the blood of Christ at Holy Communion. That’s when I finally roared my heartfelt thanks for this wonderful gift you had given us.
The descent was far more informal, of course, as parts of the trophy were passed from hand to hand and the scarves were draped around your neck. A small point, I know, but I remember you made no attempt to shake them off as you came down the steps as I suspect the immaculate Bobby Moore would have down. These were the scarves we wore. This was our uniform. I had always believed you were one of us, Billy. Now I knew. I guess when I saw you carry out the same ritual five years later I was starting to become a little blasé. I never thought Wembley would become a second home exactly, but I felt that with a team as good as ours we would appear in a showcase final every few years. Got that one wrong, didn’t I?
By rights, Arsenal only had to turn up that day in 1980 to collect the Cup. But it didn’t quite work out like that, did it? Trevor Brooking got all the headlines, naturally. He scored the winning goal. The only goal. That’s how headlines work. But you were fantastic at the heart of our defence, Billy
What made it all so special was the fact we were such massive underdogs – we were in the second division for God’s sake! The fact that we were able to do that is a huge testament to the loyalty of men such as yourself and Sir Trev. We had been in the second division for two years by the time we got to Wembley, and were facing yet another season out of the top flight. It’s inconceivable that players of your stature would stay with a lower-league club for that length of time nowadays, but you did. That will never be forgotten by us, the people who can’t walk away.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I reckon I speak for everyone with claret and blue in their heart when I tell you that your place in West Ham’s history is assured. It wasn’t just your ability, it was all the qualities that went with it; loyalty, honesty, leadership, dignity, courage, humility – you are everything we all strive to be.
Moore, Hurst, Peters, Brooking, Greenwood, Lyall, Bonds; your place alongside the West Ham greats is guaranteed. You, modestly, would probably disagree. But you’d be wrong. In fact, Billy, in the eyes of so many of us, you are actually the greatest of the greats. And we thank you for it. Yours respectfully, Brian Williams .