The Four Seasons once sang of a riotous night back in December ‘63. It was undoubtedly a special time for the guy in the song, but more of a painful reminder of West Ham’s heaviest ever defeat.
The 1963/64 season had until that point followed a familiar pattern; one step forward, two steps back but safely ensconced in mid-table obscurity. Thursday 26 December 1963 was like no other Boxing Day. It was the day football officially went bonkers as 66 goals were scored in 10 Division One games. Fulham thrashed Ipswich 10-1, West Brom drew 4-4 with Spurs and Burnley whacked Man United 6-1.
West Ham were hosting league leaders Blackburn Rovers in an early 11am kick-off. There was a feeling the previous year’s big freeze might be repeated, but Christmas 1963 was relatively mild with a light frost. Come Boxing Day heavy rain had ominously fallen in London. Upton Park’s sickly turf had usually been ripped to shreds by December and was fortified by sand.
If it stayed dry the pitch was just about playable; but the slightest hint of moisture would turn Upton Park into a mud bath. By modern standards the game would have been postponed. But the previous winter was a barometer for severe weather conditions and was unlikely to be called off just because it was raining.
For 20,500 fans that made the effort two evenly matched teams promised a lively encounter. West Ham could boast the holy trinity of Moore, Peters and Hurst among their ranks; also free-scoring England centre forward Johnny Byrne and outside right Peter Brabrook who played for England in the 1958 World Cup.
But for one significant omission, it was the same line-up that beat Preston North End in the FA Cup Final the following May. Blackburn Rovers also had their share of internationals. Ronnie Clayton and Bryan Douglas had 71 England caps between them while centre half Mike England was already a Wales international. Rovers also had two strikers in Andy McEvoy and Fred Pickering who were on fire that season.
Rovers took the lead after five minutes as Fred Pickering smashed a 20-yarder past Jim Standen. Hope briefly showed its face when Johnny Byrne equalised five minutes later; but then came a pivotal moment – every game has one, where it could have been very different.
Byrne subsequently hit the bar and Geoff Hurst agonisingly missed the tap in. Alas, Brian Douglas was in a rich vein of form, scoring one and assisting four of Rovers’ eight goals. He engineered a 4-1 lead by half time and there was worse to come after the break. Rovers doubled their lead in the second half as Fred Pickering and Andy McEvoy each completed hat-tricks.
Johnny Byrne scrambled home a consolation on the hour; but 8-2 remains West Ham’s heaviest defeat in a first class game. Curiously, West Ham were due to play Rovers in the return fixture two days later. But how would manager Ron Greenwood pick the players up after such a defeat, and what changes would he make to the team?
The post-match inquest was illuminating as some players turned on Bobby Moore, whom they felt should have taken more responsibility as team captain. It hardly seems credible the captain of West Ham and England could be so muted during the game.
Mooro preferred to lead by example which is fine when everything is going well; but when the team is struggling a captain has to scream and shout, bang a few heads together: not Mooro’s style at all. For all his messianic qualities as a coach, Ron Greenwood was similarly uncommunicative. He had a almost scholarly demeanour and avoided conflict. ‘Reverend Ron’ was unlikely to throw cups against the wall although it was surely warranted.
Greenwood’s 1984 autobiography Yours Sincerely described his thoughts in more detail: ‘I deliberately did not go into the dressing room afterwards. I went upstairs to my office. I wanted to avoid saying anything I might regret, and also to have a few moments thought in peace.’ Knee-jerk reactions aside, changes were necessary if only to prove there would be consequences from such a performance.
Harry Redknapp, then a 16-year-old youth team player could smell blood in his nostrils: ‘After watching the first team, a group of us were hanging outside to see if we would be needed for the return fixture but Ron Greenwood made only one change.’ That one change was Eddie Bovington for Martin Peters at right half. The switch seemed to pay off as West Ham beat Rovers 3-1 in the return, undoubtedly assisted by Bovington’s close marking of Bryan Douglas.
However, it proved to be the death knell for Martin Peters’ season. He was reduced to a squad player making nine more appearances as Bovington kept his place for the FA Cup Final. Greenwood defended his decision with weakest of excuses: ‘Peters was going through a lean patch and a knee injury was also bothering him’.
Until the Rovers game, Peters had been a virtual ever present playing in all but two of 29 league and cup games. The implication was clear; Peters was singled out as the scapegoat for what was fundamentally a team failure. In his 2006 autobiography the ghost of ‘66, Peters rightly paid tribute to Greenwood’s influence on his career.
But his burning resentment at the Rovers episode was stronger than ever: ‘although I’d been troubled by a slight knee injury and hadn’t played well in the first game – no one had – I felt hurt by the decision to make me the scapegoat.’
History is written by the winners and Ron Greenwood was ultimately proved right. In any event he followed the first rule of football management: you never break up a winning team. Similarly, Eddie Bovington’s role should not be diminished as a solid midfielder who deserved his chance in the side.
But to punish Martin Peters and let ten players off the hook broke the second rule of football management: you never blame one player for a team’s defeat.