I n an era when English football is now so inescapable worldwide, fans barely bat an eyelid at players from even the most far-flung and unlikely parts of the globe appearing in the Premier and Football Leagues. In the 60s and 70s, however, things were very different and few players stood out from the crowd quite as much as West Ham’s Bermudan striker Clyde Best.
History has been somewhat harsh on the player who scored 58 goals in 221 appearances for the Irons. His seven seasons at the club began in 1968, just aft er one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, and ended in 1976, aft er he missed out on a place in the FA Cup final team the previous year. But his contribution, both on and off the pitch, was immense.
But 65-year-old Best, whose career overlapped the Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds eras, holds no grudges and only has happy memories of his time in claret and blue. Those years are the basis of his new autobiography ‘Th e Acid Test’, and on his recent return to east London, he spoke exclusively to Blowing Bubbles about his unlikely journey from the pink sands of Bermuda to the Green Street of E13.
‘People might be surprised, but the standard of football we played in Bermuda when I was growing up was very high – a lot of English teams would come to visit and struggle to get results,’ he said. ‘I was lucky and got an early start to playing real competitive football – even when I was 11 or 12, I was playing against grown men in visiting Royal Navy teams so I learnt a lot at that early age. ‘Th ere were a lot of people playing in Bermuda who could have been professional but had families or too many commitments which held them back. I didn’t have that, and I was lucky enough to play for a coach who knew Ron Greenwood, so he set me up with a trial at West Ham.’
Already well versed in the English game through coverage on the BBC World Service and cinema newsreels, even before he left home aged 17 to seek his fortune across the other side of the world, Best had a decent idea what to expect. ‘Th e first team I saw was Spurs and I took a liking to them but once I saw West Ham in the 1964 Cup final, that was it – they were my team and I dropped Tottenham!’, he laughed.
‘Going to England wasn’t actually that big a deal. My dad was a prison officer who had travelled and sometimes had to transport people there, and my brother had come over to study. ‘It wasn’t completely unknown territory, and from a footballing point of view, obviously I wasn’t going to go to somewhere like Italy or Spain. England was the only place someone from my background would think to go to be a professional, so it was an obvious choice.
Nowadays, clubs have employees whose job is specifically to help overseas signings settle and become acclimatised as quickly as possible. Once again, Best’s story shows how very different things used to be. ‘I arrived at Heathrow Airport – and after waiting a while, I began to realise that no-one was coming to meet me!’, he said. ‘It didn’t make much sense to stand around crying and feeling sorry for myself, so I asked people for directions, and got on the tube to head off to find my new club. When I saw the District Line sign saying West Ham, I thought “here we are” and got off – to find it was the wrong station!’
Fortunately, when it came to Best’s trial at Chadwell Heath, the youngster showed a much better sense of direction – and it was not long before all who watched him began to realise that they had a special talent on their hands. ‘I’d played for the Bermuda national team when I was 15, and I was already a grown adult by then, so things didn’t phase me, and once people saw how hard I could hit a ball, that’s all that mattered as far as they were concerned,’ he said.
‘Harry Redknapp was there and he said he’d never seen someone hit the target as many times as I did in training.’ Even the prospect of playing alongside West Ham’s trio of World Cup winners did little to ruffle Best’s cool – ‘Bobby, Geoff and Martin were all there, but you take in your stride meeting the greats; after you’ve done that for the first time, you’re playing for places so you get down to being a pro’ – and it was not long before the ambitious young Bermudian got his chance, as aged 18, he was picked to play in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal. Overawed? Don’t you believe it.
‘I wasn’t intimidated by anyone or anything, because I knew that when I was in the mood, even the toughest players couldn’t handle me,’ he explained. ‘People ask who my toughest opponent was, but honestly I didn’t have one. I never worried about tough guys. Liverpool’s Ian Callaghan said I was the first player he’d seen come to Anfield and not be frightened by the place.’ When asked to draw comparisons between his own style and players of more recent times, Best’s answer gives a clue as to why he may not have been lacking in confidence. As photos from the time prove, even at a young age, he was a huge physical presence on the pitch.
‘I was a bit like Didier Drogba – I thought he was a great player – or going back a few years before that, Emile Heskey when he was at Liverpool, or Cyrille Regis at West Brom,’ he said. ‘There’s a theme there – all these players were big and strong, and so was I; when I look at the players today, they all seem tiny compared to how I was at my peak!’
Of course it was not just his physical prowess that made Best stand out on the pitch. In an era when overseas players of any kind were rarities, a footballer from the Caribbean competing at the highest level of English football was an even less common sight – and very different attitudes to race ensured Best was a player who faced challenges few of his white teammates could even begin to comprehend.
The most shocking of these gives Best’s book ‘The Acid Test’ its title, as before a game in the 1970-71 season, he received an anonymous note warning him that if he took to the pitch at Upton Park the following day, the letter writer would throw acid into his face. But characteristically, Best did not let on to anyone but a select few what was going on – and he played. ‘I couldn’t just give up because someone out there wanted to throw acid at me – what message would that send to all those black players who were to come after me? You’ve got to control these things,’ he explained.
‘Of course I was worried – I’ve never run on and off the pitch so quickly – but sometimes you just have to fight for what is right. ‘Before I left home, the last thing my father said to me was to think about those who would follow in my footsteps, and even in the darkest times, that’s always how I looked at things.
‘Hardly anyone at the club knew – Ron Greenwood, John Lyall and Bobby Moore all took it to their graves. I didn’t bother telling anyone else in the team; it was my problem, I was the one who would have to deal with it, so why make it their problem?’. That same season, Best was part of the notorious Blackpool drinks night out which saw Brian Dear leave the club, heralded Jimmy Greaves’s retirement and caused an even greater straining of relations between captain Moore and manager Greenwood – but the then 19-year-old Best escaped punishment as he was not drinking alcohol.
He went on to become a first-team regular over the subsequent seasons, but when the Irons played in their biggest match in a decade – the 1975 FA Cup final, against Bobby Moore’s Fulham – Best was conspicuous by his absence from the squad. ‘In those days, it was just the one substitute, and the choice was between me and Bobby Gould, and I was the one who was left out,’ he explained.
‘We’d just missed out on playing in the League Cup final a couple of years earlier, and you’re a fool if you say you don’t want to play in a Cup final. ‘I’m sure I touched the trophy afterwards, but on the day I was so angry that I didn’t really want to be part of anything. I got over it pretty quickly – there’s no point carping and moaning – but on that day, I really didn’t feel good.
Aged 24 and having been denied the chance to play in the biggest game of his career, ever the pragmatist, Best began to wonder if his future lay away from West Ham – but such was his love for the club, he could not face playing against them. So a new start would have to mean a new country – America. ‘I wasn’t prepared to just sit around and wait, so once I realised I wasn’t being picked so often, I made my mind up – it was time to go elsewhere. West Ham would always be my club, but when your time is up, you have to learn to live with and move on.’
Elsewhere turned out to be North America’s NASL, the star-studded football as entertainment league that briefly hit the heights and attracted the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio and Bobby Moore in the 1970s, before dwindling into insignificance. There, Best played for Tampa Bay, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto and Los Angeles – with a brief but not hugely successful return to Europe with Feyenoord tucked in – before becoming a US college coach and also Bermuda national team manager.
He now lives in retirement on the island he left nearly 50 years ago to become one of English football’s greatest pioneers, but despite the distance, remains as in love with West Ham as the day he first arrived at the wrong tube station. ‘West Ham will always be my club, and I think the new ground is a great thing,’ he said, having seen the London Stadium in person for the first time. ‘We have to start winning trophies, and you can only put yourself in a position to do that by generating more money.
‘I know a lot of people are sad to have moved from Upton Park, but from a business point of view, obviously it’s a good thing. That’s how life is – things don’t just stay the same, you have to move on, like I did as a player when I knew my time was up.’ And in a similar way to how, all those years ago, someone in Bermuda with a West Ham connection set his career in motion, Best keeps his eye on the local talent with the Irons in mind.
‘It’s great to see there are already two youngsters from Bermuda, Djair Parfitt Williams and Nathan Trott, who are at the club and doing very well, so they just have to be patient, bide their time and take their chance when it comes,’ he said. ‘As for any more – well we have a lot of players here in Bermuda with a lot of talent, so don’t worry, if I spot someone, I’ll be sure to let West Ham know about them first!’.
The Acid Test by Clyde Best is published by de Coubertin books