The phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’ is commonly interpreted as being a curse, meaning ‘may your life be full of turmoil’.
And there are few West Ham players who have seen quite as many interesting times at the club in recent years as Don Hutchison. Twice.
The 46-year-old former Scottish international had two stints at Upton Park, firstly as part of Harry Redknapp’s first ever squad, and latterly as part of the 2002-03 team who somehow managed to defy physics by being relegated, despite having the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Paolo Di Canio in their ranks.
In an exclusive interview with Blowing Bubbles, Hutchison, who also played for Hartlepool, Liverpool. Sheffield United, Sunderland, Everton, Millwall, Coventry and Luton, opened up about all aspects of his life at West Ham – the highs and lows, his favourite playing partner, falling out with Redknapp, the agony of injury, and what he’d change if he had his time again.
‘The one regret I have is not putting Paolo in his place,’ he said. ‘He was such a huge character, you never knew which Paolo would turn up.
‘When he was on it and in a good mood, he was brilliant, but when he got the hump he was an absolute nightmare.
‘I really wish I had stood up to him properly and told him not to behave like that, but the thing was I had only just returned to the club so I didn’t feel I had enough of a voice in the dressing room.
‘Then, the next day he’d turn up and be the absolute best he could possibly be, and I just thought “I can’t get a handle on this guy, I need to take a step back – this is the manager’s job, not mine”. Paolo is Paolo. We got on really well, but he could drive you mad as well.’
The issue of how do you solve a problem like Di Canio was a long way off when Hutchison first arrived at the club, however, in August 1994 as one of new manager Redknapp’s first signings.
Hutchison, then aged 23, joined from Liverpool for a then club record fee of £1.5m. Despite a couple of extremely high-profile off the field faux pas, on the pitch Hutchison looked to have a promising future at Anfield – and then Harry started to call him.
‘[Manager] Roy Evans told me to knuckle down and be patient and my time would come, which was nice, but I was living with Jamie Redknapp at the time and when his dad called him up, he’d have a word with me too, and it wasn’t long before every day he was telling me about his plans and how I fitted into them.
‘When you come back from training every day to hear that, your mind starts to wander, and after a while you have to make a decision – either tell him to stop or go to him.
‘I loved the club and I loved the city, and I was in no hurry to leave, but I wanted to play, and basically Harry wore me down.
‘With every move I’ve ever made, my decision has always been about the manager and playing – it drives me nuts when I hear people say they want to sign for a club in a particular part of the country for other reasons – so that’s why I moved to West Ham and I have to say it was great, because Harry gave me the most freedom I’ve ever had. ‘
Redknapp’s first four signings were at best a mixed bunch – Joey Beauchamp, who left almost instantly in a deal that brought Adrian Whitbread to the club, Hutchison, and John Moncur.
A dressing room that already contained characters like Martin Allen, Ian Bishop and Julian Dicks was just about to get even more lively – and despite a flirtation with relegation in that first season under Redknapp, the team was about to get better too.
‘Moncs is still a great friend, and he never changes – he’s an absolute lunatic, probably the funniest person I’ve ever met, ‘ said Hutchison.
‘As a manager you need people like that in the dressing room, to keep spirits up when things aren’t so good – and we youngsters certainly gave as good as we got when it came to the banter.
‘But he was a great player though. Playing with him and Bishop, two guys who can actually use the ball properly, in midfield – it doesn’t get better than that.
‘The one we all looked up to, though, was Alvin Martin. He was such a model pro, he looked like such an old man but that’s because he kept playing for so long because of how he lived his life.
‘He did everything the right way, there were so many times when he’d take me off for a walk and we’d have a good talk about things. With young players,
screaming and shouting in the dressing room is just white noise, it doesn’t do anything, but that approach really helps.’
Although Hutchison was given free rein by Redknapp, the man who had so badgered him into joining the club, it was not long before the cracks in their relationship began to show.
‘The first season went all right – I scored a few goals, I don’t think we were ever in serious danger of going down, and in fact I relished the battle at the bottom and got huge satisfaction out of turning things around,’ he explained.
‘Harry and I got on really well as people but we had very different philosophies about the game, and after a while we began to argue like cat and dog.
‘I’ve never been that fussed about scoring goals – Tony Cottee was the perfect partner for me, because he absolutely loved that, and I’d take great satisfaction from setting them up. It was the same with Kevin Campbell when I was at Everton.
‘Harry told me I needed to score more, and when I said I wasn’t that fussed, he couldn’t believe it.
‘He loved his stats, and wanted me to be one of those players who keeps possession 95% of the time, whereas I said I’d happily lose the ball 25 times in a game if I managed to set up two chances and we scored from them both. He couldn’t get his head around that.
‘In my second season, we were clashing on the training ground far too often. It came down to a battle of who was right, the manager or the player, and during a game if I’d lost possession I’d look over at the touchline and see him throwing bottles down, then he’d have a go at me at half time. I had my views, he had his – and a player can’t tell the manager what to do.
‘I could see the end coming; it was just a case of two fiery characters who couldn’t be in the same place, and that’s a shame because as people we got on well, we just argued too much about how to play.’
Inevitably, it was soon time for Hutchison to move on from Upton Park, to Sheffield United in March 1998, but not before he had been given a glimpse of what he would miss out by leaving the Irons.
‘I never got to play with him but everyone at the club knew even then that Rio was the real deal,’ he said.
‘He was a bit lanky at the time, but he had so much going for him, you could tell from his frame and the way he handled himself that he’d go all the way to the top.
‘It wasn’t so immediately obvious with Frank Lampard, though – I remember Harry coming into the treatment room once and saying to Moncs and I “get your money on him playing for England” and when we said “who?” and he replied “Frank”, we thought that was an incredibly big call to make on such a young player.
‘We knew he had talent but we didn’t think he’d go that far. But once you saw his work ethic, and how much he stayed doing extra running and extra work after everyone else was done, you saw something extra.
‘He’s all about hard work, then Chelsea took him to the next level, and finally we realised what Harry had meant.’
Hutchison’s manager at the Blades, Howard Kendall, then took him to his next club, Everton, where he was rewarded with the captaincy and earned a Scotland
call-up. It was also at Everton that a moment came which completely changed how Hutchison played football.
‘When I was at Liverpool as a youngster, Graeme Souness told me I shouldn’t run around so much, and let the game come to me.
‘I had no idea what he meant, but there was one game at Everton where I spent most of the time standing still – I only ran about half as far as I usually did in a game – and just like that, everything made so much more sense, and I had one of my best games ever.
‘It was a real lightbulb moment, I realised you really don’t need to be on the move all the time, let it come to you and you can do so much more with it. That’s when I started to play some of the best football of my life.’
Ironically for someone who grew up watching Newcastle on the Gallowgate End at St James’s Park – and who scored the opening goal of both his West Ham stints against the Magpies – next up for Hutchison was a spell at Sunderland, where his star continued to rise.
Then in August 2001, Glenn Roeder became the second West Ham manager to break the club transfer record for Hutchison, signing him in a £5m deal.
‘Second time around, I was 30, and a very different person to the one who joined in 1994. When you’re young you think you know everything, but going back, I went with a lot more experience and knowledge,’ he explained. And West Ham were not the only club who were keen to cash in on those qualities.
‘Rangers were interested in me and it was an extremely tough decision to make. Playing for them in the Champions League was a huge draw, but I looked at the squad Glenn had, with the likes of Paolo, David James, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole in it – and thought this was a team that could crack the top six.
‘Also, I knew that as a record signing, I was likely to be playing a lot, alongside Moncs and Carrick, which was a really exciting prospect, so the pull of the Premier League kept me in England.’
But as all West Ham fans know, fate had other much less happy plans in store for Hutchison and his West Ham colleagues.
In February 2002 he sustained an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury which led to him being out of the side for a more than a year.
‘It was against Middlesbrough – Franck Queudrue was their left back, I tried to block his path, lifted my leg up, it hyperextended and my ACL snapped. I knew straight away that it was a bad one – you could hear it and the cartilage crunch.
‘When that happens to you in your 30s, you know it’s not a case of a long time out but coming back fitter and stronger, like when you’re a youngster, you realise just how much time you’ve got left and how much of it you’re going to miss.
‘Having one year away from the pitch really wasn’t good for me because it’s a brutal injury and rehab to go through.
‘John Green, the physio, was phenomenal in terms of understanding me and managing the injury and the recovery. When someone’s out for a year, you can’t beast them every day – you have to give them some time out to deal with it.’
But if Hutchison thought the 2001-2002 season was painful, it was as nothing compared to 2002-03, as the hugely talented team who had finished seventh in the Premier League the previous season endured a season-long nightmare.
This was the first campaign where the transfer window was enforced, and when Di Canio and Freddie Kanoute both picked up injuries at the same time, all expectation fell on youngster Jermain Defoe.
Bottom at Christmas, despite a brave late rally under caretaker manager Trevor Brooking who stepped in when Roeder suffered a brain tumour towards the end of the season, the Irons went down.
‘After going through so much to get back to fitness, that season was horrible,’ said Hutchison. ‘Once I was fit I was desperate to play, I was literally knocking on the door begging for a chance but all I got was cameo roles, which was hugely frustrating.’
The following season was barely any better, and at the end of the 2004-05 season, with Alan Pardew having restored the club to top flight status via the play-offs at the second time of asking, Hutchison’s West Ham career was at an end.
A short stint at Millwall followed, then Coventry, Luton, and finally, in 2008, retirement – but not before refusing to take his wages for the last two months of his contract, asking that the money but put towards funding Luton’s youth team players instead.
‘When my time was up at West Ham, there was never any talk of me joining the coaching staff, which I would have thought would be an option, and having trained for so long to get back to fitness, my attitude was I’ll go wherever I can actually play,’ added Hutchison.
‘I didn’t care where it is, as long as I got the opportunity to enjoy that 90 minute experience as many times as I can. This is something else that comes with age – you can’t understand that when you’re younger.’
To live through interesting times, and to emerge from them enlightened – that sounds more like a blessing than a curse.