A larger-than-life character who’s better known than his players? Directors who fear to challenge him? An ability to convince the press that he knows exactly what he’s doing when many supporters are starting to have their doubts?
It’s a profile that would fit most of today’s top gaffers. It is also the story of Syd King – West Ham’s first manager, who reigned supreme at the club for 30 years. King had played for Thames Ironworks before the factory side set up by Arnold Hills morphed into West Ham United in 1900.
At a time when team selection was left up to a committee, King continued at full-back for the newly formed professional set-up.
Then, in 1902, having been appointed club secretary the previous year, he was made team manager as well. The position gave him enormous influence, and he was never afraid to bask in the limelight that came with the role.
With his trademark straw boater hat, a well-cut suit and diamond tie-pin, no one was left in any doubt when Mr Ernest Sydney King was in the room. He was the flamboyant face of West Ham, and no social event in the East End was complete without him.
The extravagant lifestyle belied the fact that for the early part of the King era West Ham were in the Southern League – the club weren’t elected to the Football League until 1919. Once there, however, it took the Hammers just four years to climb out of the second division into the top flight: winning promotion and reaching the first FA Cup final to be played at Wembley in the same dramatic season.
West Ham lost the “White Horse Final” to Bolton Wanderers, but that didn’t stop King organising a team tour of east London in a brightly-lit tram illuminated by light bulbs spelling out the club’s name and displaying the crossed hammers.
West Ham remained in the first division of the Football League for nine seasons, mainly thanks to the record-breaking efforts of leading goal scorer Vic Watson.
However, the team regularly found itself in the bottom half of the table and supporters became increasingly disgruntled. Relegation, when it came, was no big surprise. Unlike today, though, it wasn’t the drop that cost King his job.
Amid suggestions of financial irregularities, he turned up drunk at a board meeting and abused the directors, who finally gathered their collective courage and suspended him from all duties.
The decision was ratified at another board meeting at the beginning of 1933 and King’s contract was terminated. It was a devastating blow for the man who had been “Mr West Ham” for three decades.
Barely six weeks after being fired he took his own life, aged just 59. His team wore black armbands for the rest of the season.