Selecting the greatest West Ham team of all time is tricky. But picking Worst Ham United is far, far harder. There are just so many more players to choose from. Let’s start with our goalkeeper, and probably the easiest decision of all. I don’t think anyone can put up a serious argument against Allen McKnight being in this team – he truly was in a class of his own.
I know many people say he is a really nice bloke, and picking up the gloves of the mighty Phil Parkes was never going to be easy. But poor old Allen really was the McKnightmare that the headlines labelled him on so many occasions. The 1988/89 season was one to remember – for all the wrong reasons.
We had bought Northern Irishman McKnight from Celtic in the summer and thought the fact that he had been capped by his country meant he had some idea what the art of goalkeeping involved. How wrong we were. It wasn’t his fault entirely we were relegated – there were several other distinctly average players in the side. Yet somehow it’s his ineptitude that remains etched on the memory.
His howlers weren’t confined to first-division football, however. Just mention the League Cup semi-final home leg against Luton to anyone who was there and you will see what I mean. But be warned – it’s never pretty watching a grown man cry.
For my Worst XI I’m going with a flat back four. Well, when I say “flat” I’m probably being over-optimistic. The bunch I’ve picked couldn’t hold a recognisable offside line if you cemented them into the ground. There were any number of players making a strong claim for inclusion: Gary Charles, Ragnvald Soma, Steve Walford, Calum Davenport and John Cushley all made the shortlist.
I was even tempted by Arthur Masuaka, who is showing all the defensive qualities that are required to make long-suffering supporters shake their heads in wonder at just how bad you have to be and still get paid. In the end I opted for Rigobert Song, Paul Hilton, Gary Breen and Mitchell Thomas.
What can I say about Rigobert Song? He fancied himself as a centre-back, but was equally hopeless at right-back, where I’m playing him. It was said he was bought as replacement for Rio Ferdinand, but Song always rejected the comparison – on the basis he was far better than Rio.
His West Ham debut, a League Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday in 2000, was politely described by the BBC as “unhappy”. And things didn’t get any cheerier before we offloaded him the following year.
The other full-back, Mitchell Thomas, also had a pretty high opinion of himself. If he’d been as good as he thought he was, he’d have been a world-beater. Trust me, he wasn’t. To be fair to Paul Hilton, West Ham fans did have an inkling that he could be fallible. Manager John Lyall bought him from Bury after we had put 10 past them in a League Cup tie in 1984.
Gary Breen’s arrival was down to Glenn Roeder, who signed him after the 2002 World Cup. ‘We all dream of a team of Gary Breens,’ we sang cheerfully… until we realised what a team of Gary Breens was really like. He left after a year.
So what about midfield? I’ve gone for Freddie Ljungberg, Nigel Quashie, Ilie Dumitrescu and Peter Eustace. No Franz Carr, Andy Impey, Dudley Tyler or Dale Gordon! I hear you cry. Nor Nigel Rio-Coker? Then there’s Matthew Rush, Luis Boa Morte and Florin “two bob” Raducioiu.
As I say, this isn’t easy, although Joey Beauchamp did make the task a little less tricky by ensuring he never actually turned out for West Ham during his 58 days at the club, thus ruling himself out of contention in this particular exercise.
Dutchman Marco Boogers, on the other hand, did play for us – making four appearances as a substitute, which included a sending off for a chest-high tackle on Gary Neville at Old Trafford. Before the hapless Boogers was finally sent back to the land of his birth permanently, there was an oft-repeated story in the Sun that he had returned to Holland feeling sorry for himself and was holed up in a caravan.
However, it turns out this was not entirely true and, in fact, the reporter had actually been told he’d gone on holiday by car again. An easy mistake to make – if you’re an idiot. That aside, what little anyone saw of him convinced us all he was utterly useless, which is why he made the shortlist for one of the two places up front in my Worst Ham side. But, like Mike Small, John Radford, Jimmy Greaves, Sandy Clark and Lee Chapman, he doesn’t quite get the nod for the first team.
Instead, I’ve gone for David Kelly and Ted MacDougall. Sometimes, as a manager, you just have to trust your gut feeling. Kelly, whose main problem was that he was incapable of remaining upright for more than three minutes at a time, was in the same side as McKnight – which really is a chilling thought. Just how did The Boys of ’86 become the Bozos of ’89?
MacDougall, for his part, made the mistake of being in the same side as Billy Bonds. That’s how he ended up getting thumped in the dressing room at Elland Road. Bonzo, in his autobiography, says that the incident after a 4-1 drubbing in 1973 was nothing more than a heated argument, yet in later years he let it slip that he did actually lamp MacDougall after accusing him of not trying.
The story goes that Ron Greenwood looked the other way and allowed Bonds to get on it with it, which speaks volumes when you consider how much he abhorred violence. He didn’t like his defenders kicking opposition strikers, but he was prepared to turn a blind eye when Bonzo gave his big-money signing from Manchester United a knuckle sandwich. MacDougall was gone a month later.
So, to recap, here is my starting XI from hell: Allen McKnight, Rigobert Song, Paul Hilton, Gary Breen, Mitchell Thomas, Freddie Ljungberg, Nigel Quashie, Ilie Dumitrescu, Peter Eustace, David Kelly, Ted MacDougall.
And I’d give Avram Grant the dubious honour of coaching them. No need to thank me Av – you deserve it mate! As a seasoned supporter yourself, you may well be able to come up with something better than my selection. Or do I mean worse? Either way, narrowing down the donkeys who’ve turned out for West Ham over the years to just 11 is tougher than you think.
If you enjoy Brian Williams’ regular column, look out for his two brilliant books, Nearly Reach The Sky and Home From Home.