Saturday 2 March 2019 will go down as an important day in the history of West Ham United. Anyone who was there to see the East Stand at London Stadium officially renamed after a man who can rightfully be called a club legend will never forget it.
It is quite right that Bobby Moore, World Cup-winning captain, possibly greatest player this country has produced, let alone West Ham, should be honoured first. But I would argue that William Arthur Bonds MBE, should have received similar recognition much sooner. Better late than never, I suppose.
It is often forgotten that Bonds was not a home-grown player, hailing, like myself, from the ‘wrong’ side of the river and signed from Charlton Athletic for £47,000 in 1967. Would those people in the crowd of 29,609 at Upton Park for his debut against Sheffield Wednesday on 19 August 1967 have had any idea that he would play almost 799 times for the club, lift two FA Cups and a second division championship trophy? Or that his final game would be 21 years after his debut, at The Dell in April 1988?
Would they have had an inkling that he would go on to manage the club to two more promotions and steer us safely through our maiden season in the Premier League? Would they have guessed he would be Hammer of the Year four times and runner-up on three more occasions? And that he would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, and a PFA Merit Award and an MBE in 1988?
I didn’t see Bobby Moore play, and my first season as a regular at Upton Park was Trevor Brooking’s last, so of the three players now recognised with honours at the new Stadium, it was Bonds who I saw play the most.
For me, more than Moore, Brooking or Frank Lampard Sr, who also played a whopping 670 times for West Ham, it was Bonds who embodied the spirit of the club, and what it was all about. The famous West Ham Way, if you will. No nonsense, yes. Hard as nails, most certainly. But boy this fella could play football.
Always 100 per cent effort and graft but with a culture and determination that would put to shame any Premier League player you would care to mention. And a gentleman of the highest order too. His career achievements as a player have been well documented so I won’t go over them in detail here, rather I wanted to recount a couple of stories about my somewhat distant relationship with him.
I’ve never met Bonzo. But in my book ‘An Irrational Hatred of Everything’ I recount the story of the day I passed within a few feet of him. I explained how I had seen Bonzo in Bromley a few weeks before and explained to the person I was with that the man over there was one of West Ham’s greatest ever players.
Her reaction was to tell me to go and get a selfie with him. But I knew how private a man Billy is, and didn’t want to disturb him. I regretted it afterwards, because all I had really wanted to do was to go and tell him ‘thank you.’
Thank you for being a club legend. Thank you for all those hours of pleasure watching you from the North Bank in my youth. Thank you for being the manager that brought us into to the Premier League. Thank you for being our record appearance holder. Thank you for lifting the FA Cup twice. No selfie. No autograph, just thank you.
I will also confess that I have been to his house. When he retired as a player in 1988 after 21 years of service I wrote him a letter of thanks. Sorry Billy if you are reading this, but knowing that he lived in Chislehurst I went to the library and scoured the electoral register to find his address so I could hand deliver the letter.
He wasn’t in – but I posted it through the letter box and ran away like an eight-year-old playing knock down ginger. I was 20. He never replied but I reasoned that he would have been inundated with good wishes – and he might also have been a bit scared of encouraging his new stalker.
The circumstances surrounding his departure from the club are different depending on who you talk to.You will get a different version from Mr Redknapp, than you would from Mr Bonds, I am certain of that.
Bonds has retained a dignified silence over the matter for 25 years. Bonds is a man of such integrity that I am sure the absolute truth will go with him. Ahead of the Newcastle game earlier this month, I watched from my seat in the newly-named Billy Bonds Stand as the great man finally allowed emotions to get the better of him.
The outpouring of love and affection that came from the stands will I hope go some way towards mending any rift between him and the club, meaning we may see him a bit more often. Hearing ‘Billy Bonds’ Claret ‘n’ Blue Army’ belted out reminded me of that fateful day in April 1991 when 4-0 down the FA Cup semi-final, our tribute to our beloved manager and team swamped everything else and provided me with one of my most treasured memories of my time as a West Ham fan.
The result of the Newcastle game was secondary. But now with Billy behind me, Bobby to my right and Trevor to my left, the stadium should start to feel a bit more like home. Certainly if the fans show the same levels of commitment going forward as Bonzo did as a player then we should have very little to worry about.