We blinked and he was gone – but in the ridiculously short time Paulo Futre was with us he left an impression that, for some, is as lasting as the personalised stones outside the new stadium in Champions Place.
It is now 20 years since he strutted his truncated stuff in claret and blue. Futre turned out just nine times for the club – and four of those games were away. Five of his appearances were as a sub. In the four matches he started, he was given the hook twice. And he failed to score a single goal for the club. Why then, you may well ask, is he so fondly remembered by those of us who were lucky enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of the gifted Portuguese winger?
In 1996, overseas players were nowhere near as common in the English leagues as they are nowadays, and there were precious few in London E13. So when Harry Redknapp started to sign the sort of names we’d only seen on television – often in the big international tournaments – there was a genuine sense of excitement around Upton Park.
The feeling of anticipation was never higher than when we signed Futre, who earlier in his career was often likened to none other than Diego Maradona Sure, we all knew some of these guys were past their best – they wouldn’t have been coming to us from the likes of AC Milan otherwise – but, hey, form may be temporary yet class is permanent.
Permanent-ish, as it turned out in too many cases. However, while the likes of Marco Boogers, Ilie Dumitresco and Florin “two-bob” Raducioiu were out-andout flops, when Futre was good he was very good indeed. Notoriously, he did not get off to the best of starts. Futre wanted the No 10 shirt, worn by John Moncur, and he was not all happy when he was allocated No 16 for his first game at Arsenal
Redknapp recounts the story in his autobiography, Always Managing: ‘Futre 10, not 16,’ he said. ‘Eusebio 10, Maradona 10, Pele 10; Futre 10, not effing 16.’ By this point, there were 45 minutes to kick-off. ‘It’s changed now, Paulo,’ I explained, as gently as I could. ‘We’ve got squad numbers and your number is 16. We didn’t choose that number. When you came all the numbers were gone, so the kit man gave you No 16.’
Number 10,’ he insisted. ‘Futre 10. Number 10. Milan, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Benfica, Sporting — Futre 10.’ Now it was getting desperate. I tried to be firm. ‘Paulo, put your shirt on, get changed, please, we have a big game. If you don’t want to wear it, Paulo, off you go,’ I said. And he did … The following Monday, Paulo came back in with his team of lawyers to negotiate for the No 10 shirt. At first we tried to tell him that we had sold so many replicas with ‘Futre 16’ on the back that it would be impossible to change, but he called our bluf
‘How many?’ he asked. ‘I will pay £100,000.’ And that was when I knew this was an argument we could not win. Futre was willing to spend £100,000 just to be No 10. In the end, he got it a lot cheaper. John Moncur, the No 10, agreed to swap, and Paulo let him have two weeks in his villa in the Algarve, which is about the best one there, on the cliffs overlooking the best golf course.’ And, as we all know, if that’s the way Harry tells it, it must be true.
Having missed the Arsenal game, Futre had to wait a week until he made his full debut – against Southampton at Upton Park. He had come on as a second-half sub four days earlier against Coventry in a midweek fixture without pulling up any trees. But against the Saints we really saw what he was capable of. His first touch nearly brought the house down. He then spent the next 20 minutes tearing the opposition to shreds.
Matt Le Tissier, recently picked for England, was supposed to be the star of the show, but Futre had other ideas. Playing wide on the left, he gave the Southampton defence a torrid time – by the end Francis Benali was so frustrated he up-ended our new No 10 on the halfway line and got himself sent off. Despite Futre’s brilliance, Southampton were ahead at the interval. But in the second half he reproduced his remarkable left-footed trickery, first creating a chance for Stan Lazaridis and then one for himself. In the end it was left to Michael Hughes and Julian Dicks to secure the win that his performance deserved.
As we walked away from Upton Park, metaphorically rubbing our hands in delight at the prospect of what was yet to come, we had no idea that would be his only 90-minute appearance at the Boleyn Ground. By the time he came on for the last half-hour against Derby in his final game in November, the love affair was over. In December he was gone. In his own mind Futre may have seen himself as the new Pele, but he was never that good – few people are. He did have one thing other than the No 10 shirt in common with the Brazilian maestro though. He, too, has earned a few quid out of advertising virility treatments.
In Pele’s case, of course, it’s Viagra. Futre was contracted to promote a rival product called Libidium Fast with a none too subtle ad campaign based on his keepy-uppy skills. If only, 20 years ago, someone could have developed a little claret and blue pill that would have extended Paulo Futre’s endurance on the football field. Had they done so, we might now be looking back on a brilliant West Ham career rather than being left to wonder what might have been.