David Cross: ‘I didn’t think we could win until 15 minutes to go, then I panicked’

West Ham legend David Cross on his life at the club and the Cup win over Arsenal

Midway through the 1977-78 relegation season probably wasn’t the best of times to join West Ham United football club. We were going through a difficult period and struggling to find form and results – but fortunately, it didn’t deter 27-year-old striker David Cross from leaving West Brom for a fee of £180,000 in December 1977 to try to make a name for himself in east London. He made his debut in claret and blue a week later, and in an odd turn of fate, his first match for the Hammers was against former club West Brom.

It wasn’t the easiest switch to make for Cross. ‘Leaving West Brom on the Wednesday and playing against them on the Saturday was very difficult, as I had played with that set of lads for so long,’ says Cross, ‘So it was very difficult to go there on my debut and play, but once you’ve got that out of the way, you know I settled in very well at West Ham.’

He certainly got off to a strong start for the Hammers and scored his first goal, against Leicester City, a few weeks later on December 31. After that, there was no stopping the goalscorer as he went on to score nine goals in 20 games – but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Cross and West Ham in his first season and, despite his best efforts, the Hammers were relegated in 1978.

‘The season was difficult, we hadn’t won a game until mid-December, then we had a decent little run and it looked as though we might stay up and just at the last minute we couldn’t do it. We lost the last game of the season and went down.’

Relegation is a difficult situation for a football club, but Cross remained an optimist about the situation the club found themselves in – and was sure the future remained bright for the Hammers, even though it took three years to get back to top-flight football. ‘This sounds a bit harsh, but going down meant John could get rid of the players he wanted to get rid of. He was able to buy who he wanted to buy to fit those positions. We thought we’d go up straight away. We were really disappointed as a group that we didn’t go up – it took us three years to go up.’

Even though promotion took a few years, there was plenty to keep David Cross busy in the meantime. Naturally, the FA Cup win of 1980 is a treasured memory of his – even if the cup run didn’t quite go as planned. ‘I remember the cup run as when we were coming back on the coach, listening to the cup draw. We got West Brom away and we all thought “crikey that’s a hard game” as West Brom were a good side, and you want to get a home draw.’

But Cross wasn’t going to be able to feature in that match – and in fact, he wouldn’t get involved in the FA Cup until April that year. ‘It didn’t start great for me as I had injured my knee before Christmas and I didn’t play again until March. I was listening to the games in a cafe. My first game back was the quarter final of the FA Cup.’

Fortunately, missing the build-up didn’t dampen Cross’s enthusiasm for the experience. ‘The big thing about the FA Cup run for anyone, and any professional will tell you, is that after the semi-final, whatever else happens, you’ve played at Wembley in the Cup Final. If you ask any young player what their ambition would be, I think most would say that to play in the FA Cup final would be the height of their ambition.

‘If you listen carefully to that, they don’t say to win the FA Cup, it’s to say you played in the FA Cup final. So to play in the cup final, to walk out there at Wembley was a marvelous experience – to win it, was almost an icing on the cake and a bonus for me.’

West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final on May 10, 1980. This was the last time a lower division side would beat a higher division side until 37 years later – making it a colossal achievement for the Hammers. ‘We probably never truly thought we’d beat Arsenal. We were a second division side; they were doing really well in the top division. I think we had a slight advantage because of the nature of their semi-final, because I think they played about four times against Liverpool, didn’t they? That would take the edge off a little bit – those games must have drained them.

‘I never really felt that we would win it, until about fifteen minutes from time. That’s when I started panicking, that’s when it becomes difficult because that’s when you realise you’ve got something to lose because we were 1-0 up.’

It was also an unfamiliar formation to be playing in – something which didn’t help Cross’s nerves. The day started with a last minute change to tactics – and the tried and tested 4-4-2 formula was scrapped in favour of Cross playing on his own up front. The change was so last minute, Cross had just a few minutes to prepare for it. ‘I didn’t know we were going to do that until 15 minutes before kick-off!’ says Cross. ‘We were a 4-4-2 team and we worked on the 4-4-2 all that week. At 15 minutes before the game, John took me aside and said “you’re going to play upfront on your own, we think that’ll bamboozle Arsenal for a little while” and sure enough, it worked – we scored after 13 minutes.’

He continues: ‘The Arsenal centre-back didn’t know what day it was, who was marking who; so John’s tactic that day was spot on. I realised I wasn’t going to get many chances to score, and that I was just going to do the donkey work up front – but I was playing in the Cup final and I wasn’t going to argue with that. To win the FA Cup and to have an FA Cup winners medal means everything.’

The following year, the Hammers had a chance to play in Europe – and push for promotion back to the first division. Cross had a fantastic year; he scored goals for fun that year and won the golden boot. It was a huge result for the striker.

‘It was a big thing for me as I relied on goals. I lived and died on goals and I was always prepared to say that. I wanted people to judge me on the goals I scored. I regarded myself as a number 9, and a number 9’s job from when I was a little boy, had always been to be the goalscorer. ‘I think throughout my career I was always the leading goalscorer in every club I played in and that was something I wanted to be.’

It wasn’t enough to be a part of the winning side for Cross, his goalscoring obsession was paramount when he stepped onto the pitch – and he had to see his name on the scoresheet. ‘If anyone said to me, the team’s doing well, you’re not scoring, but you’re making it for other people, that was no good to me – I didn’t want to hear that. I had to score goals, I wanted to score goals to justify myself as a player. Stuart – we’re great pals, Stuart and I, we still are – would often say “I don’t care who’s scoring the goals as long as the team wins.” Well I wanted the team to win but I wanted to score the goals as well.’

‘We got a lot of goals, and so we should have done. We were playing in the second tier of English football. We should have been better than that – we should have gone up a couple seasons earlier than we did. But it was the catalyst of winning the cup to get us to go up. If we didn’t go up after winning the cup, it was going to look pretty shabby.

There were still highs and lows to negotiate, and another key match in Cross’s West Ham history was the League Cup Final against Liverpool in 1981 – this one with a hotly contested and controversial goal from Liverpool to open the scoring in extra time.

Liverpool defender Alan Kennedy scored in the 118th minute – but as the ball sailed towards the goal, his teammate Sammy Lee was in an offside position, obstructing the view of the West Ham goalkeeper, Phil Parkes. Incredibly, referee Clive Thomas ruled that Lee was not interfering with play – and allowed the goal to stand. So, was the goal offside?

‘Definitely offside!’ says Cross, incredulous to this day. ‘I mean, we couldn’t believe the goal was allowed to stand. When Alan Kennedy took the shot, Sammy had to duck his head down so the ball could go over him, so to say he wasn’t interfering with play was ridiculous.’

It was a moment that also ended up with manager John Lyall in hot water for his alleged comments to the referee. ‘Clive was such a stubborn man, and once he’d given the goal nothing was going to change. I know John got in a bit of trouble – he was called up in front of the FA for the words he said to him. Because they’d got a photograph of me right next to John and Clive – I was listening to it – they asked me what John had said. ‘

John Lyall was accused of saying that “Thomas had cheated”, but he maintained he said that he felt cheated. So what, according to Cross, was the truth? ‘He said “I feel cheated”. He did say that.’ He pauses. ‘But I also said that’s all he said.’

Although the Hammers pulled a goal back a few minutes later, it wasn’t to be a happy ending for them at the replay. Instead, it was a crucial lesson for Cross. ‘The replay was probably the worst game I played. I hadn’t been well that day; I’d had a really bad ear infection. ‘I probably shouldn’t have played; but because it was the replay of the cup final I was too selfish and I didn’t mention to anyone how ill I felt. I didn’t carry my weight. I apologised to the lads after the game.

‘It was a big disappointment to me and I felt fairly responsible for the fact that we lost. I just didn’t pull my weight at all. That was a big mistake. It’s a big blot on my career that we lost that one.’

He’s still apologetic about his performance to this day – but it wasn’t just his performance on the pitch he was sorry for. He also felt terrible for his actions after the game. He got an earful from Lyle for heading straight down the tunnel while his teammates acknowledged and applauded the fans at the final whistle, saying he “couldn’t face the fans after the way I played”. It was a lesson learned for Cross.

‘That was one thing I learned, if I wasn’t fit and wasn’t able to play, then I would be honour bound to say something – and I never ever played again if there was something seriously wrong with me.’

Of course it was a different scenario for a player to take time off for being injured in Cross’s day. ‘If you got a bit of a niggle – you played! Otherwise the money wasn’t as good. If I played and we won I could double my money that week – that was a big difference in what my pay packet could be – so we wanted to play.

It was only after [West Ham] that I got injuries. Then I had an injury playing for Bolton that ended my career, I fractured my skull. That actually knocked the stuffing out of me.’

All in all, it was an incredible career for David Cross. In his time at West Ham, he scored an outstanding 99 goals in over 200 games over four and a half seasons – although he remains disappointed to this day that he didn’t hit 100 goals for the Hammers. But even more incredibly, one of West Ham’s best strikers almost didn’t play up front at all! ‘Until I became a professional football. I had never played up front. I had never been a striker. I was always a right winger.’

‘Wherever the ball is on the pitch, whoever’s got the ball, make sure they can hit you with it. ‘Make sure they can get it to you. When the ball gets to you. Hold the ball up, give it to one of us, and then get in the box to get on the end of it.’ It was good advice – and he certainly put them away as a result. Not content with hattricks, he once scored four against Tottenham and four against Grimsby in a 5-1 win for the Hammers – but the match balls aren’t sitting on his shelf.

He regularly gets asked if he still has the match ball from the Tottenham game, and he laughs as he explains why he didn’t keep a hold of that piece of memorabilia. ‘I actually gave it to Phil [Parkes] because after the Grimsby game when I got four and walked away with the ball, he said “I’ll never get one of those. However well I play, save as many shots as I possibly can, I’ll never get a match ball. It’s you goalscorers who get the hattricks”. So I said “the next time I get a hattrick Phil, I’ll give you the ball”.’

It was an illustrious time for West Ham and Cross, but like all good things, it eventually came to an end. Cross married a woman up North, and became tempted to move – but it was his fear of letting down the West Ham fans that led him to decide to move to Manchester City in 1982. ‘Towards the end of that season, I felt I might have peaked and gone over the top and back down the other side as far as the West Ham fans might have thought.

‘I didn’t want to have a disappointing season where I wasn’t the player the fans thought I had been for the previous five. I just thought maybe it was the time to go. ‘If I go on my own terms, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever done that. I’ll leave the club when I’ve done what I’ve done. In retrospect, maybe I should have had another season.’

Fortunately for Cross, West Ham remain grateful for the seasons he gave us. The passion, goals and hard work he gave to West Ham live on the memories of the fans – and he will always be appreciated and valued for his time scoring goal after goal for the east London faithful.

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