Funny old game, football. You just don’t know what the coming year will be bring. At the start of the 1985/86 season, the so-called beautiful game was at an all-time low in England following two appalling tragedies.
On 11 May, 1985, 56 people were killed and more than 250 injured as fire swept through Valley Parade in Bradford. Then, 18 days later, 39 people died at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which was staging the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus.
The TV cameras were on hand to record the sickening scenes from both disasters. In fact, the BBC was heavily criticised for then showing the Heysel game while other countries opted not to as a mark of respect to the dead.
There was, however, to be no television coverage of the first half of the new domestic season when it got underway in August as the Football League chairmen, ignoring the falling attendances that concerned everyone else, demanded more money from the TV companies to show games that fewer and fewer people could be bothered to watch. They finally had to climb down in December, by which time West Ham had snuck up on the usual suspects and joined the likes of Man Utd and Liverpool in the title race.
November had been a particularly good month. We had won all fi ve games, including a victory over defending champions Everton. Frank McAvennie’s goal in a 1-0 win at Coventry took his tally for the season to 17 – the highest in the entire Football League. December and January brought mixed fortunes, then in February, just before the weather turned nasty and put a temporary halt to proceedings, a 2-1 win over Man Utd at the Boleyn Ground made the more optimistic among the West Ham congregation start to wonder if this really, fi nally, could be our year.
Aft er the snow cleared, we played Man Utd again in early March – this time in the fift h round of the FA Cup. The first game, at Upton Park, was a 1-1 draw then, the following week, we went to Old Trafford and won the replay 2-0. Forget the league title – now we wanted the double.
Th at little dream evaporated three days later when we crashed out of the Cup at Sheffield Wednesday. Hopes of becoming champions seemed to be fading fast too, as we lost at Arsenal and Villa. However, revenge against Wednesday at home, followed by a thumping 4-0 win at Chelsea and a 2-1 victory against Spurs in E13 meant the bandwagon was well and truly rolling once more.
Phil Parkes was brilliant in goal. Ray Stewart, at right back, never put a foot wrong. Alvin Martin and Tony Gale, in the centre of defence, were imperious. The tireless Alan Devonshire and an assured Alan Dickens were running midfield. Mark Ward was causing havoc on the flank. And, up front, McAvennie and Tony Cottee were simply too hot to handle.
But the team was bigger than any one individual. What’s more, this was a group of players that appeared to actually like one another. You got the impression that they were mates off the field as well as comrades-in-arms on it. The spirit of unity was infectious and, increasingly, supporters walked away from Upton Park after yet another victory feeling as if we were part of something special. At the start of April we were fifth. What a month that turned out to be.
It began badly, with defeat at Nottingham Forest. Then came a run of eight games in 22 days that were to prove almost as exhausting for the supporters as they must have been for the players. I was living in west London back then. But if I’d spent any more time in the People’s Republic of Newham they would have made me pay the poll tax there. After the Forest game there were two home wins, against Southampton and Oxford. Next up was Chelsea, and 29,360 of us packed Upton Park – only to watch us lose 2-1.
There has never been much love lost between the supporters of West Ham and Chelsea, and after the game the police had their work cut out keeping the rival thugs from kicking the crap out of one another in Green Street. My god, the atmosphere was ugly. Nights such as that can make you question why you go to football matches.
On the Saturday we won at Watford then, two days later, came a game that will never be forgotten by those of us who were lucky enough to be there. West Ham 8 Newcastle 1: the scoreline says it all. Not only was it a remarkable goal-fest, this game also produced one of the best pub quiz questions of all-time. Q: Who scored a hat-trick against three different goalkeepers? A: Alvin Martin. The comings and goings of the Newcastle keepers that night reads like a plot from Casualty, so I’ll spare you the gory details.
But I will just mention Glenn Roeder who, of course, was to go on to manage West Ham and somehow contrived to get one of the most talented set of players we’ve ever had on the books at the same time relegated.
That night he scored an own goal and, having watched several of his team-mates get the chance to use their hands in the box, he tried it as well and conceded the penalty that Stretch converted to take his improbable place in the record books. To be honest Glenn, you and West Ham were clearly never meant to be an item. Next up were Coventry, then Manchester City. Both were nervy affairs, and both ended with 1-0 victories that really did put us in with a serious chance of winning the League.
Then came Ipswich, our final home game of the season. A capacity crowd in excess of 31,000 was there to see it. As ever that season, my wife and I were seated in the West Stand. At least, we were at the start of the match. By the end of it we were standing on the seats, celebrating a 2-1 victory that put us up into second and left the title within touching distance. In the end, it all turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.
In the penultimate game of the season we did what we had to do at West Brom, but Liverpool beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to squeeze us out of contention for the greatest prize in domestic football. Defeat at Everton in the final game meant we finished third behind the two Merseyside clubs – our highest ever topflight league position. To rub salt into the wound, English clubs had been banned from European competitions because of what had happened at the Heysel, so we didn’t even have the Uefa Cup to look forward to by way of consolation.
What we did have, however, was an indelible set of memories of a breathtaking season which so very nearly saw us win the title. Best of all, as a supporter you felt that every one of the Boys of 86 wanted to do it for you. Thanks lads. Those of us who were fortunate enough to witness it will never forget you. Honestly, we really don’t need the missing TV footage to remind ourselves of just how good you were.
Brian Williams is the author of Nearly Reach The Sky – A Farewell to Upton Park