Not many football fans are lucky enough to grow up to play for the club they love. Even fewer to manage that club. But to do both? Well that takes something and someone special – someone like Alan Curbishley.
Despite having clinched both these dream jobs, however, the 58-year-old told Blowing Bubbles that both his stints at Upton Park were tinged with regret. Th ey were both too short. ‘West Ham’s always been a huge part of my life,’ said Curbishley, who has just written a book ‘Game Changers’ with journalist Kevin Brennan, about how football has changed over the course of the last four decades,
‘I joined as a kid in the early 70s and in those days, before academies, every team had a core of home-grown players. ‘As a youngster, I was playing in the South East Counties League against the likes of David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton at Arsenal, John Wark, George Burley and Alan Brazil at Ipswich, Ray Wilkins and Tommy Langley at Chelsea – all of whom were given a chance in the fi rst team and went on to become club stalwarts.
‘At West Ham, my contemporaries were Paul Brush, Alvin Martin and Geoff Pike. We all came up together and made it to the top. ‘Maybe in those days, managers felt they had more of a duty to the club to give youngsters a chance, which is something you don’t see so much these days. But I think my problem was that I got into the fi rst team too early.
When John Lyall handed Curbishley his debut in March 1975, aged just 17, standing in for captain Billy Bonds, he was, at the time, the club’s youngest ever player. But despite such a promising start, things did not work out as well as hoped. ‘I wasn’t sure John had that much faith in me as a player, though, and eventually it got to the stage where if he’d said two and two made four, I’d say it made fi ve – we just didn’t get on.
Once freedom of contract came along, that was it – at the age of 21, I was off to Birmingham, where I then proceeded to play the best football of my career, but I really regret leaving. ‘If I hadn’t done, and I’d produced that form for West Ham instead of Birmingham, I don’t think I’d ever have left .
‘It’s a lesson I’ve always remembered, and whenever I’ve had any young players who have felt unhappy about the fact I’ve not picked them, it’s a story I’ve told them. I know how it feels, I’ve been there – and I made the wrong decision.’
Having been given his debut shortly before the 1975 FA Cup final, Curbishley left the Boleyn in April 1979, a year before West Ham reached the Cup final again – a game where his former youth team colleagues Brush, Martin and Pike all picked up winners’ medals. And the FA Cup cropped up again when he returned to his spiritual home in December 2006 as manager, inheriting the squad predecessor Alan Pardew had taken so close to winning the trophy just seven months earlier, in an epic final against Liverpool.
To many neutrals, Curbishley will always be synonymous with Charlton, the club he managed for 15 years. But with mentions of West Ham on its first and last pages, and including as it does interviews with Mark Noble, David Sullivan, Rio Ferdinand, Ray Winstone, Harry Redknapp and Bobby Barnes, Game Changers proves he has always been an Iron at heart, so maybe a return to his old stomping ground was destined to happen.
‘When Harry [Redknapp] left West Ham, that was an opportunity to go there but I never saw that coming and I’d just signed a long-term contract with Charlton a week before – it never materialised and Glenn Roeder got the job instead,’ he explained.
‘But when I left Charlton [in 2006] and had six months off, I was in a position that if anything happened I’d be available. ‘West Ham got rid of Pardew [ironically his last game was a loss to Bolton, managed by future Irons boss Sam Allardyce] and when they approached me, I thought this was perfect. I wasn’t coming back as a revered old player, I was coming back as a proven quantity as a manager. I was ready and experienced enough – this was the job for me.’
Alas, once again, fate had a hand in bringing a premature end to Curbishley’s time at West Ham as he walked into one of the most turbulent periods in the club’s history. ‘The team had had a great season the year before, so I couldn’t really work out what the problem was and why they were playing so badly,’ he said.
‘I spoke to the people running the club [new Icelandic owners Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Eggert Magnusson] and they were very gung-ho and enthusiastic, and my first game was a 1-0 win over Manchester United, followed by a draw at Fulham. I wondered what all the fuss was about – but then we went eight games without a win again!’
One of the main issues Curbishley had to deal with when he took over at West Ham was what to do with two players whose stay at the club was less than a season, but whose names have gone done in club folklore; Argentine loan duo Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. ‘As they were only loan signings, my initial thought was that if they were going to go into the side, then two players from the team who had done so well the previous season would have to be shunted to the bench, and that would mean moving on two players from there who would be pushed even further out, so my priority was to speak to them and find out how they felt about things,’ he explained.
‘Mascherano spoke a little bit of English, and although he’d been playing more than Tevez, he’d picked up an injury and also suffered food poisoning, so it was clear straight away that he wanted to leave. ‘Tevez, on the other hand, didn’t speak any English and hadn’t been playing, but seemed happy to stay and give it a go. That helped clear things up a bit; I’d walked into a relegation battle, and as manager, I wanted to focus on players who actually wanted to play.’
For all the high hopes that accompanied Tevez in his time at the club, however, the supposedly inspirational playmaker had only had a limited impact as the team slid deeper and deeper into trouble until he finally found the net in a 4-3 home loss to Tottenham. And despite the result, that was when, finally, things began to click. ‘I was never put under any pressure by anyone to pick Tevez, but until that game, he hadn’t scored for 20 games – how is that possible for a player like him?
‘Beforehand, we had a talk – he was a great hard-working player, who would run all over the place and even put in tackles in defence, but he wasn’t getting in the box enough to do what we really wanted him to do, so I told him to ease up on the other stuff and frankly be a bit more selfish. I knew the 11 I wanted to play, and even though we lost that game against Spurs, finally seeing him do what we’d signed him to do clarified things in my mind. He’d found a situation he was happy with, and everyone else around him responded.
Although it is the Argentine’s name which will forever be associated with the Great Escape, as his scoring and assisting run fired up the team, Curbishley is keen to point out the contribution of others – ‘we had a lot of clean sheets in that run-in, so Robert Green had a lot to do with it too’ – and says consistent team selection was vital in keeping survival hopes alive heading into the last game. Manchester United. Away.
‘We’d caused United a few headaches over the years, so I knew their fans really wanted to put one over on us. One of my strongest memories is of coming out for the second half and hearing the Stretford End singing “Send them down”,’ he explained. ‘Tevez scored the goal that kept us up, and my overriding memory of the day is getting on the coach afterwards and thinking “I can’t go through that again – and as long as I’m at this club, I don’t expect the team will have to, either.” We’d had some remarkable results in that run-in to get out of trouble, and I was just relieved that I could now start to think about other things.’
What happened that day should have been the start of great things for Curbishley at Upton Park, but once again, before he would have chosen, a little over a season later, he was on his way out of West Ham.
‘Having stayed up, we then finished tenth next season – my recruitment brief for the summer after that was to bring in players, ideally around 25, with Champions League experience who would attract other players to the club, so that’s what I did bringing in the likes of Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker and Julien Faubert, people who I hoped would be around for a while and help build something,’ he said.
‘At the start of that following season, though, we had lots of injuries, and there were things going on to do with transfers [George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand were both sold against Curbishley’s wishes], so I realised I had to either make a stand or hand over my power as manager,’ he said.
‘I was so disappointed – I’d waited so long to get a club like West Ham and everything that goes with it, but for that to happen, I couldn’t see a way out of it. I pleaded with the club’s owners not to do it but when it happened, I didn’t have any option but to leave. ‘When I meet West Ham fans, they thank me about staying up but I don’t think they realise that when I left, I was on the verge of building a big side, with players like Bellamy, Parker, Dean Ashton and Matthew Upson. We all thought we had a chance of attacking the top six. It should never have ended that way, it was so avoidable.’
Exit stage left once again. But there was one shining positive that emerged from Curbishley’s time as manager who plays a key role in Game Changers and at the club to this day: Mark Noble. ‘During the great escape, I put him in the team for the game against Spurs, where we lost 4-3 to a last-gasp goal, and it was only when I saw the highlights after the game that I noticed he was down on his haunches, almost in tears – that’s how much it meant to him,’ said Curbishley. ‘When we won at Old Trafford on the last day to stay up, he was the first one sprinting across the pitch to jump on the coaching staff. There aren’t many players left these days like that, so that’s why, when I wanted to get the players’ view for the book, I spoke to him.
‘Mark’s the ideal person to talk to. He’s come up through a big club, been sent out on loan, thought his chance had gone, then really grabbed it when it’s finally come along. Fans love players like that, and talking to him, his gratitude to be a footballer comes through.’ Curbishley also admits to there being a bit of similarity between the pair of them. ‘At one time the site for the new stadium was possibly going to be near West Ham station, so I drove down there with my assistant Glynn Snodin, and on the way I pointed out my old house, and Mark’s, and my school, and they were all so close – it’s a local thing.
The local factor in terms of West Ham is clearly something that means a lot to Curbishley, born as he was just down the road from Upton Park in Canning Town, and also explains why, for Game Changers’ section about club owners, he spoke to current club co-owner David Sullivan.
‘The idea behind Game Changers is to look at all the different roles of people in the game – from young apprentice players up to club owners, via psychologists, agents and pundits – so they can explain to fans what part they play and give an insight into what they do and how they operate,’ Curbishley explained. ‘Club ownership is something that has changed massively in my time in the game, and David Sullivan is one of a dying breed.
‘It’s so rare to find a chairman these days who’s a fan who’s done good and come back to buy the club he loves – so many owners now just look upon a club as part of a franchise; in many cases, they don’t even bother going to games, let alone that you would have any chance to talk to them. ‘When I was interviewing David for the book last summer, he was telling me how he had a big deal in the offing and was really excited, but he couldn’t tell me who it was. It turned out to be Dimitri Payet.
‘You don’t see that kind of genuine enthusiasm from many owners these days. ‘West Ham fans are so lucky in that in Sullivan and David Gold, they’ve got two people who really have the club close to their heart. ‘I think I could have worked with them – maybe if they’d been in charge when I was at the club, I would never have left.’
Sadly, however, Curbishley did leave West Ham, and he admits the unhappy circumstances of his departure have taken their toll. Despite being one of the first names linked with pretty much every managerial vacancy that has come up since, citing some of the reasons and developments that Game Changers addresses, Curbishley hints that a return to the hot seat looks increasingly unlikely
‘I think I’ve been out a bit long now. The whole West Ham business was something that should never have happened, and it took me a year to sort out,’ he said. ‘I was always warned not to be out of the game for too long as your record is forgotten. Since then the opportunities that came along haven’t been right. I’ve been offered Championship stuff but I’ve done that – I wanted Premier League jobs.
‘There was one job where I spoke to a chairman three times and I thought I had it but someone else got it, so I lost my enthusiasm a bit after that. If anything Premier League came along, I’d go for it but with new owners in charge maybe I’m forgotten. My record’s not too bad, not many can match me in terms of the number of matches managed. Few managers would be given the chance to accumulate those numbers these days.