Most players would sacrifice anything and everything for the opportunity to play professional football, let alone in the top flight in two different countries, let alone to establish themselves as club legends still assured of hero status 30 years aft er their finest hour. But then again, Frank McAvennie always was a bit different.
It is three decades since the Scotland international striker arrived at the Boleyn from St Mirren and formed the legendary goalscoring partnership with Tony Cottee that saw the duo bang in 46 goals – 20 for Cottee, 26 for McAvennie – as the club achieved their highest ever league placing of third in the old First Division. But as he revealed recently, McAvennie’s entire career as a professional footballer happened by chance.
‘I didn’t start playing until I was 19 – I used to go and watch Celtic every week and all the junior leagues played their matches on a Saturday, so I never played,’ he admitted. ‘One week their game was cancelled, so some friends asked me to go and play in their game – there were some scouts there supposedly watching one of the other team’s players, but I got spotted instead!’
Th is was the unconventional start to a career that never saw McAvennie do things by the book – ‘I don’t think I’d have made it via the traditional route, if I’d been an apprentice having to sweep the terraces,’ he admitted – and aft er three years playing for St Mirren, mostly in midfield, it was another happy accident of fate that directed him towards the club where he enjoyed his greatest success and where he remains most adored.
‘I was supposed to be going to Luton, when David Pleat was the manager,’ he said. ‘I’d built my hopes up about going there, but then the chairman walked in and slapped me on the back of the head, saying “Welcome to the club Frank”, and straight away I said to the people I was with “let’s get out of here before I do something I shouldn’t”, I was out the door. I could see Pleat was panicking as Luton had paid for the flight for me to come down, and St Mirren weren’t too pleased that the move was off either, but there was no way I was going to play for someone like that.
Luton’s loss was West Ham’s gain, however, and following an early hours meeting with manager John Lyall at Toddington Service Station, McAvennie was a West Ham player, for a fee of £340,000. ’I didn’t know anything about West Ham’s interest when I went to speak to Luton, but once they came in for me, that was it – it didn’t matter who else came in for me, I was going there,’ he revealed. History was just about to begin.
McAvennie’s wages on joining were £300 a week, and amazingly for one of the best strikers the club has had in living memory, he turned down a goal bonus. ‘I was offered one but I wasn’t interested,’ he revealed. ‘I was more of a team player – I would pass to anyone, as long as we did well, so my thinking was never mind a scoring bonus, negotiate a better contract.’ Having spent three years at St Mirren playing in midfield, McAvennie was earmarked for a role behind West Ham’s front two of Paul Goddard and homegrown hero Cottee. But an injury to Goddard in the opening game of the season changed things, and once again, a twist of fate played a major role in changing the course of McAvennie’s career and life.
‘I don’t know if it would have worked, with me behind them as a front two, I don’t know if they were used to having someone so close behind them. But in my first home game, I was pushed up front to play alongside TC. The guy who was marking him bullied him a bit, so I smashed him into the Chicken Run, and after that, we got on brilliantly.’
Despite always being spoken of in the same breath, as if they are one unit, Cottee and McAvennie were wildly different characters, on and off the pitch, but that contrast may have been the secret of their success. And jealousy was never an issue for the striking duo. ‘It was never a competition between us,’ McAvennie explained. ‘Tony’s more of an out-and-outstriker, I was more of a team player. I knew that if I got through on goal and drew the keeper out, I could pass to him and he’d be in place to score. I also knew that if he got through on goal, he’d shoot! But it really didn’t bother me at all who scored, just as long as we won.’
In October 1987, after two full seasons at West Ham, McAvennie joined his boyhood heroes, Celtic – not that he was actually that keen on the move. ‘I wanted to stay and I told John Lyall that,’ he said. ‘I’d already signed a couple of contracts, so I thought I was due a bit of a signing-on fee, but the club couldn’t offer it, and when they were offered £750,000 for me, John let me go – only because it was my boyhood team, I think. Mind you, Celtic never gave me a signing on fee either!’
McAvennie’s time at Parkhead was successful but controversial, and after a fall-out with manager Billy McNeill over his return from a broken arm, McAvennie was on his way from his first love in the east end of Glasgow, back to his second in the east end of London. ‘I had the chance to go to Arsenal, and I went to speak to George Graham just to find out what they were saying, but they weren’t offering a life-changing amount more money, so I’d already made up my mind I was going back to West Ham,’ he admitted.
‘It would have bothered me if I’d not bothered to go and have a chat, though. I knew Arsenal were good enough to win the league, and I knew West Ham looked like they might go down, but I still came back. To be honest, I think John Lyall signed me as the player to try and get them back up, not to keep them up.’ But for a man whose career has turned on so many twists of fate, this time, luck was not on his side. As predicted, relegation followed and in the first game of the following season, McAvennie suffered a particularly bad broken leg that ruled him out for most of the season.
Although he recovered to play two more seasons for West Ham, the long-term effects of the injury affected him both on and off the pitch, and McAvennie was never the same player. The 1991-92 season was a particularly grim one, with relegation and a 22nd place finish in the final season of the old First Division meaning West Ham missed out on a place in the first outing of the new Premier League, and it also marked the end of McAvennie’s West Ham career – but only after, with relegation already assured, he marked his final appearance by coming on as a substitute and scoring a hat-trick.
Now living back in Scotland, McAvennie is a regular sight at Celtic Park. But despite his long-standing love for the Bhoys, it is clear where his heart lies. ‘I go to Celtic because that’s where I’m based now, but if I was living in London I’d be at West Ham instead,’ says one of the most colourful and flamboyant players ever to wear claret and blue. ‘It’s always the first result I look for, every week.’ It is safe to say that that love affair is a two-way thing. *Frank was speaking to Claret and Hugh for Moore Than Just a Podcast. Listen to more from the team at www. moorethanjustapodcast. co.uk.