The term ‘legend’ gets banded around far too easily these days. Carlos Tevez, who played just 29 games for West Ham, is not a legend. Nor is Dimitri Payet, who won the Hammer of the Year award in his first season but was gone six months later.
Both made a huge impression at the club, and are icons of the modern era, but to be called a bona fide West Ham legend you really have to earn the title. Step forward Alvin Martin. The three-time Hammer of the Year played more than 600 games for the club over two decades. He was part of the FA Cup winning side in 1980 and was an almost ever-present as one of the Boys of ‘86 who so nearly won the league title before finishing third.
‘Stretch’ remains hugely popular with the club’s supporters, and regularly features in all time XIs voted for by fans. Yet it could have been so very different. The Walton native was on Everton’s books as a teenager but his dream ended before it had even begun as the Toffees refused to offer him a full-time apprenticeship after leaving school. The blow would have broken many but, unperturbed, Martin packed up his boots and took the train to seek his fame and fortune in London.
‘I went to have a trial at QPR first,’ recalls the 60-year-old. ‘It was a good club, but they couldn’t make up their mind on me. They wanted me to stay on for another two weeks, but I told them that I was going on holiday when in actual fact I was going to West Ham. Within a week, Ron Greenwood had offered me a full apprenticeship and I had no hesitation in signing. As soon as I walked into West Ham, I knew it was right.’
The Rs loss was very much West Ham’s gain and the young centre-back never looked back, having found himself rubbing shoulders with the club’s superstars from the very first day. ‘There was a friendliness about the club,’ he explained. ‘As soon as I got to Chadwell Heath, I was given some kit and asked if I wanted a bit to eat before we trained. I asked where I should sit, and the guy said over there, I said that was the first team and he said: “yeah, we all muck in together”. You were close to everyone. You could see people like Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking and sit and eat with them.’
The family atmosphere certainly helped a young lad away from home to settle into London life, but while the club made Martin feel at home off the pitch, he was also making great strides on it. He shone under Ronnie Boyce in the youth team before John Lyall polished his game to a point where he was ready to make his debut for the senior team, coming off the bench as a late substitute against Aston Villa.
‘You only had one sub in those days, so somebody must’ve got a knock and John brought me on and said to go up front – he didn’t trust me to go at the back!’ he recalls. ‘That was the first time I had ever played in front of a crowd like that. A big crowd.’
His home debut followed a few weeks later. Again, Lyall turned to him from the bench, but this time he played in his actual position. ‘John again asked me if I wanted to go upfront or at the back and I said I wanted to play in defence,” Martin explained. ‘We were fighting a relegation battle at the time, so it was a big decision for John, but he moved the team around, so I could play at the back and we won.
‘I’d only played reserve games at the Boleyn before that and the stands were empty. It was so different. The ground was packed, and it was very suffocating. You could touch the people in the Chicken Run, it was weird, you could see faces. To be honest, it didn’t bother me, I just clicked into game mode. I didn’t really know what to expect really. Nobody can prepare you for that first five minutes in front of 40,000. You go out there and you find out about yourself.’
West Ham were indeed finding out that the young Scouser had enough bottle to make it, although his character would be tested even more two years later when the Hammers, then a second division side, met the mighty Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup final. ‘I remember getting the coach from the hotel we’d stayed at the night before to Wembley. It was only a 20-minute ride, but it was bumper to bumper and all you could see was a sea of claret and blue. I remember thinking “if I mess up today then I’ll let all these people down” – after that I felt really nervous. Once the game started I was ok and just went into game mode. The weird thing was that I’d been to the FA Cup final as a Liverpool supporter to watch them play Arsenal and, nine years later, I’m actually in the tunnel ready to go out and play the team that beat my team, and we beat them.
‘It was surreal. It was the best West Ham moment of my life. The day after the feeling is fantastic. You’re on a coach and going to the town hall in East Ham and the atmosphere was great. What was great about that was West Ham supporters – the majority were men – brought their wives and their family.’
There were further celebrations the following year as the Irons won the second division at a canter to return to the top table of English football. Martin played a central role as West Ham established themselves in the top flight and, now partnering Tony Gale, he was a major player in the club’s most successful league campaign.
‘The 86 team had good footballers with a bit of naughtiness in it,’ he recalls. ‘People like Mark Ward and Frank McAvennie, who didn’t respect anyone really, brought something different. It sparked other people around them. Alan Dickens was brilliant that year. Tony Cottee probably looked at Frank and thought he needed a bit of his play in his game and McAvennie looked at Tony and wanted to finish as cleanly as he did, so they complimented each other.
‘We started off and gradually there was a spirit building within the side. After a couple of games we had a meeting on our own – we’d sort things out on our own and if someone wasn’t putting in a shift they were told in the right way. There was an honesty and integrity in that group that was very important I think.’
Martin scored 34 times in 601 games for the club, but three of those came one memorable afternoon against Newcastle, as Blowing Bubbles columnist Brian Williams has written many times in this magazine over the years!
‘A reporter at the Recorder told me after the game that I’d scored a goal against three keepers but I didn’t believe him,’ he laughs. ‘I used to be so focused on the game that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what was going on half the time. It was the days where you only had one substitute, so they lost their regular keeper to injury and then changed the replacement as the goals kept going in. I got a close-range volley for the first and a header for the second when we got a penalty.
‘We were 7-1 up so there was no pressure on us whatsoever. Peter Beardsley in goal for them so if you’re ever going to be confident taking a penalty… I had to persuade Ray Stewart to let me take it though.’
A combination of injuries and fixture congestion put pay to West Ham’s title challenge that season but there were still high-hopes going that the club could kick-on and mount another shot in the next campaign. However, it wasn’t to be and the magic that had taken the Hammers to the brink of the summit vanished as quickly and unexpectedly as it had arrived.
‘We didn’t strengthen, and we had injuries the following year,’ Martin muses. ‘Then Tony and Frank were on their way – Tony went to Everton and Frank went to Celtic. We lost the heartbeat of the team. I don’t think Tony Gale and I played 15 games in succession together after 85/86 so the team that had done so well wasn’t the same in terms of personnel.
‘Also, when you do so well there’s more pressure on you the following year. It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. We went into the season saying we did well last year and almost won the title, maybe this could be our year when we should have said this is going to be harder because people have wised up to us now, they know what our strengths are and how we play and know everything about our team.’
West Ham slid back down the table and were relegated at the end of the 1988-89 season, with John Lyall sacked that summer. ‘I personally feel a sense of responsibility because I was in the team that cost him his job,’ admits Martin. ‘That’s the way I felt in myself. I was abroad when the news hit and I phoned him because it just seemed like a poor way for it to end. You won’t hear a player say anything but good things about John Lyall – that’s how good he was. He was fantastic. Even if you weren’t in his team, you respected him.
‘He was a fantastic gentleman and I owe him a lot. I feel sorry that I never got the chance to properly say goodbye. Years later we were at a function – a West Ham function – and we were introduced into the room and we’d all get a round of applause but when John was introduced it reached a new level. John was taken aback by the emotion and love that he was feeling in the room.’
After a disastrous few months under Lou Macari, West Ham turned to Billy Bonds to get them back to the big time – a move that had universal support amongst the club’s players. ‘We were delighted,’ he added. ‘He was the obvious man. He had the respect of everyone. Bill did the job exactly the same way as he played. Dead straight, he was honest with everyone. If he didn’t think you were doing well, he’d tell you. If he thought you were doing well, he’d tell you. You always knew where you stood with him. It didn’t matter who you were playing, he’d set you up to be positive. I think he did a good job considering everything else that was going on – it was a tough job at West Ham.’
Martin continued to play with West Ham until he was 37 years old, spending one final season at Leyton Orient before hanging up his boots for good in 1997. ‘I knew it was coming to an end, there was one moment on the day where I went out onto the pitch and Harry Redknapp made a presentation of some glass and it wasn’t until he handed it to me that it dawned on me that I never was going to be walking onto that pitch again in that capacity. Some people struggle to come to terms with it but my life outside of football was solid.’
Now 60, Martin continues to enjoy a post-playing career in the media. He still gets to see a lot of West Ham and thinks the Irons are making progress under Manuel Pellegrini. He’s most excited about the emergence of Declan Rice, however, and thinks the youngster has what it takes to get to the very top of the game. ‘What hasn’t he got? Experience but he’s got everything else,’ he says. ‘He can play, he can tackle, he will get better. It’s like when Rio Ferdinand broke through, you didn’t have to be Einstein to know he’d get to the very top.’
Whether Rice makes it to the very top remains to be seen, but if he has half the career Martin did he’ll have done very well for himself.
Alvin Martin was talking to The West Ham Way podcast on Phoenix FM