If you are a West Ham fan, the last few years have not been the greatest. Fortune really has always been hiding, and hiding very well. Avram Grant. Sam Allardyce. Farewell Boleyn. Last season’s test of nerves.
All these have been enough to make anyone wonder why fans put themselves through it year after year. But just sometimes, things do go right, and the team has a season to remember – and 20 years ago, in 1998-99, that was most definitely the case.
Harry Redknapp guided the team to what remains its highest ever Premier League finish, fifth, and the second highest league placing in the club’s history in one of the most eventful seasons in West Ham history. Two decades later, Redknapp told Blowing Bubbles the story behind the season – and the players who made it happen.
‘I could see that the future was in good hands,’ he said. ‘You always look to do better than you have done before [in 1996-97 West Ham had finished 14th in the Premier League, and in 1997-98 eighth, their highest top-flight finish since coming third in the old Division One in 1985-86], and we had some good youngsters coming through.
‘I could see that maybe it wouldn’t be that year, but with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick all coming through, in the next few years the team would really be in a position to push on.’
Whilst these youngsters were all highly rated ones to watch, Redknapp balanced up their potential with more proven old pros in the form of summer signings such as Ian Wright and Neil Ruddock. Add these into the mix with the previous season’s top scorer John Hartson, and the creative inspiration of Eyal Berkovic, and surely it would be just a matter of time until the Hammers were making the headlines.
‘I thought we had a really good mix of talent, and it was an exciting team to watch,’ said Redknapp. ‘We had skillful players, people who could really do something, and that was always important to me.’
Alas, however, when it came to making headlines, it was with the players expected, but not for the reasons the boss would have hoped.
Hartson, who had scored 24 goals and been the Premier League’s second top scorer in the previous campaign, struggled for form at the start of the new campaign, and following an embarrassing League Cup loss to Northampton, he snapped in the worst possible way, kicking Berkovic in the head as he was kneeling on the ground in training, and the incident was caught on camera. Unsurprisingly, the media had a field day.
‘Of all the people I’ve met in football, John’s one of the most special, I’ve always loved him, but at that point he was having a bad time,’ Redknapp said. ‘Things were getting on top of him and suddenly he lost his head. He’s not a bully – he’s someone who would pick on someone his own size – but for some reason he took a swing at Eyal.
‘When John first arrived at the club from Arsenal, he was amazing, absolutely unplayable – opponents were scared of him – but when he came back that season, he seemed to have a problem and I thought he’d let himself go a bit. As hard as we tried to get him fit, he wasn’t looking after himself and his form dipped as he wasn’t able to play to the best of his ability. I got a French fitness coach from Arsenal who took him to France to do four or five sessions a day to get him fit, but it just didn’t seem to work.’
When Redknapp had signed the then 21-year-old Hartson from Arsenal in February 1997 for a club record fee of £3.2m, plenty of pundits poured scorn on the move, but his goals helped keep West Ham in the top flight that season. The following campaign he was in full flight, catching the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson who seriously considered adding him to the squad that was going to go on and win the treble in 1998-99.
But the manager who had taken a gamble on him and seen it pay off now had a problem on his hands. ‘The whole incident was a big test for me as a manager because it happened in public, in front of the cameras,’ he explained. ‘John was very upset with what he did, but Eyal accepted his apology, and we moved on. Other than his two weeks wages’ fine being donated to a leukemia charity, nothing positive came out of it but as far as I was concerned, that certainly didn’t mean his days at the club were numbered.’
After the incident, however, Hartson was not the same player in West Ham colours. He did score again, but following another embarrassing Cup defeat – this time in the FA Cup third round, against of all teams his hometown club, Swansea – time was up for Hartson, and aged just 23 and nowhere near his peak, he was on his way out of West Ham to Wimbledon.
‘Joe Kinnear and Vinny Jones were pally with him, so when Wimbledon offered about double what we paid for him and he was still not getting fit, it was good business,’ said Redknapp.
And for all his frustration at losing such a good young talent so early, the manager has no regrets, and said West Ham definitely came out of the deal as winners. ‘I know he went on to do really well in Scotland with Celtic, but the standard of the league there isn’t the same as in England – I really do believe West Ham got the best out of him.’
The first home game after Hartson’s exit, West Ham were given the run around by Sheffield Wednesday at Upton Park, feeling his absence all too obviously as they lost 4-0. So what now – or rather, who? If only people knew what – or rather, who – lay ahead. Appropriately enough for a 20-year retrospective, the story of the season is also the story of two number 10s. Hartson, who had just vacated the shirt, and the player who was just about to inherit it.
Just days after Hartson’s career-changing clash with Berkovic, another player had a career-changing moment of madness – which turned out to be a huge stroke of luck for West Ham. That player was Sheffield Wednesday’s Paolo di Canio, who pushed over referee Paul Alcock in a game against Arsenal, and as a result was banned for 11 games, meaning he was back in business in January, just as Hartson was on his way out of Upton Park. Redknapp was already a huge fan.
‘I just thought Paolo was a genius, a total one off who I’d always thought I would love to have in my team,’ said Redknapp. ‘Whenever I played against him, he was always so good, I thought “this is my type of player, the sort who can win a game single handed”.’
Whilst Hartson’s actions may not have burnt his bridges as far as his manager was concerned, it was obvious that di Canio had no future at Hillsborough, and with £7.5m from the sale of Hartson in his pocket, Redknapp could not resist a punt. ‘The chairman wasn’t best pleased when said I wanted him – he realised we needed someone, but I don’t think Paolo would have been top of his list,’ he said. ‘But I saw him as such a special talent, and he became an all-time great, so it was worth it.’
It did not take long for the volatile but brilliant Italian striker to make a difference at the club, setting an example – this time, for the right reasons – to the squad’s younger members. ‘Straight away I could tell the move had worked,’ said Redknapp. ‘Paolo was an incredibly dedicated professional – he trained really hard, like a lunatic, his physical conditioning was second to none as you’d expect from a top-class Italian, and he had a great mentality. Of course there were some days when you had to handle him with kid gloves, but we got on fantastically and still do, I absolutely loved him – he was an amazing guy and absolutely terrific to watch play.’
Di Canio’s contribution to West Ham history turned out to be so important that it is easily forgotten that he was not the only new arrival in January. Defender Scott Minto joined from Benfica, and around the same time as Di Canio arrived, Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foe signed from Lens for a club record fee of £4.2m.
‘That was an odd one, because just before the 1998 World Cup, Manchester United were desperate to sign him, and on the day he was allowed to leave the Cameroon camp to talk to them, he broke his leg, so the move never happened,’ Redknapp explained. ‘Fergie was still keen on him and calling him all the time, but when he was fit again I tried my luck and I managed to get him.’
The irony of losing such an important British player and replacing him with two foreigners is clear, because having had his fingers burnt by unsuccessful overseas signings in previous seasons, the core of Redknapp’s 1998-99 squad was, quite deliberately, British. The fact that a substantial part of it turned out to be homegrown was just a bonus.
‘After what had happened previously with some of our foreign signings, it was definitely a decision to go with more of a British core to the team,’ Redknapp explained. ‘When you’re West Ham and operating with that budget, you’re not in a position to go and buy guaranteed top-end ready-made foreign talent like the richer clubs, you have to gamble a bit.
‘Even with the likes of Florin Raducioiu – he was a European Cup winner with Milan, who’d played for Romania at the World Cup and Euros, but it still didn’t work out for us. And then you get players like Marco Boogers and see what happened with him! So having a British core was definitely important to me.’
Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, who had already made the breakthrough in the previous campaign, were amongst the first names on the team sheet that season, and one of the hottest prospects in English football Joe Cole was given his debut by Redknapp.
As an academy product himself, this was something that meant a lot to the manager. ‘Blooding the youngsters mattered a lot to me,’ he said. ‘After the likes of Steve Potts and Paul Ince in the mid-80s, the club had gone about 10 years without any homegrown talent coming through and really establishing themselves, and holding down a regular place in the team.
‘So to have about half a dozen who all came along around the same time – many of whom went on to win the biggest trophies and become England regulars – that was a really big deal. With all that those people went on to achieve in their careers, to have them come out of one club in just a few years was an amazing feat.’
Two decades on, West Ham’s fifth place finish that season remains their highest in the Premier League era. It earned them a place in the much-derided Intertoto Cup for the following season, which in turn secured a rare foray into European competition in the UEFA Cup, as part of a 1999-2000 campaign that saw Paolo di Canio score one of the greatest goals Upton Park ever saw, against Wimbledon, and the madness of the 5-4 comeback win over Bradford, to name just a couple of highlights.
Sadly, however, the good times were not to last. Before the end of 2000, Rio Ferdinand was sold to Leeds, Redknapp himself was out of a job in spring 2001 and shortly afterwards, Frank Lampard was on his way to Chelsea. And once the stitches started to come apart, the squad began a slow but unstoppable unravelling process, and fans remember all too well what was to follow in subsequent campaigns.
But two decades on from that wildly unpredictable and thrilling 1998-99 season, Redknapp remains proud of what the team achieved, and the benchmark they set – and says that this term, maybe it might finally be time for another team to come close to matching it. ‘That season, we just got it right – we bought good players from outside, brought through some of our own, had an attacking team and played a system that worked and was great one to watch,’ he said. ‘It was a big step forward for the club and a very satisfying season. Still in the 20 years since then, no West Ham team has beaten that year’s finish, but this season I think they really have made some great signings.
‘I’m not sure that anyone will break into the Premier League’s top six this season, but if anyone can, providing everyone stays fit I think it could be West Ham that do it.’