David Cross: ‘Going down was the catalyst we really needed’

Former Hammer David Cross on why relegation turned out to be a blessing

When fans embark on the never-ending quest to try and define what exactly the elusive West Ham way is, it usually tends to be something along the lines of silky skills and accuracy, rather than blood and thunder physicality.

But just like every good cop needs their bad cop, every Trevor Brooking needs a player like David ‘Psycho’ Cross.

The rampaging centre forward was a key player for West Ham in the transition period between the end of the 1970s team and John Lyall’s greatest ever Irons side of the mid 80s, and in an exclusive interview with Blowing Bubbles, Cross said he was happy to be the grit in the oyster.

‘It was great to play for West Ham in those days, with the likes of Trevor and Alan Devonshire,” he said. ‘I was a finisher, that was my job, and I used to tell people don’t try and pick me out, if I know the ball is going to be in the right place, I’ll be there. Put it in the box, I’ll smash people out of the way if I have to. That’s my job, and that’s what I did.’

This up and at ‘em approach was what earned Cross his nickname, and also what inspired John Lyall to break the club’s transfer record to sign him from West Brom for £180,000, on his 27th birthday, a move which turned out to be one of the key moments in Lyall’s time at the helm.

‘It was an easy move to make,” he said. ‘I got injured at the start of the season at West Brom, and then Cyrille Regis took my place alongside Laurie Cunningham up front and played amazingly, so it was obvious that was going to be the strike force and the fans would go mad if I got back into the side.

‘I’d turned down West Ham before, when I left Coventry to join West Brom, so I knew they were probably still keen on me, and I asked the manger if he’d be interested in letting me go there. Next day he told me he’d spoken to John and he wanted me, and it happened from there.

‘The reason I signed was because I took to John so quickly. He believed in me. He said “you might not think you’re a typical West Ham player but you’re what we need. I might improve you but don’t change the way you play, I’m signing you for what you are”. He really was someone who built confidence in players.’

Cross’s goals were not quite enough to keep West Ham up that season, and in 1978 after 20 years in the top flight, the Irons were relegated. Although people may not have realised it at the time, the future started there.

‘Relegation was good in some ways because it allowed John to offload players he didn’t see being part of the future, and bring in those he did, like Phil Parkes and Ray Stewart,’ said Cross. ‘Going down turned out to be the catalyst for coming back up a much better side. It just took a bit longer than we hoped.’

Cross had various striking partners over the next couple of seasons, but ironically it was one of his quietest games that turned out to be his most important.

‘The first time I played alone up front was in the 1980 FA Cup final against Arsenal, and I didn’t know that until about 15 minutes before kick-off,’ he said.

‘I’d played for Norwich in the 1973 League Cup final but I’d been so nervous that I played badly and hadn’t enjoyed it, so I always said if ever I got back to Wembley, I’d soak up every moment of the day and enjoy it — so it was a bit of a shock and a spoiler when I was told I was playing up front on my own, and straight away I realised my dream of scoring in the FA Cup final was over! 

‘It was a baking hot day and my job was do as much damage to their defence as I could, and that’s how it worked out. We scored early on and clung on, we weren’t the best side but our back four were fantastic.

‘There was no pressure on us. Arsenal were the Cup holders, in the final for a third year in a row, and had Frank Stapleton and Alan Sunderland up front, who were a lethal pair, but Billy Bonds and Alvin Martin absolutely shackled them that day, and didn’t give them a sniff — and even if they had done, in goal we had Phil Parkes.

‘My role up front was important, but it was at the back that we really won it. I didn’t feel any pressure until right at the end, when I realised we were 10 minutes away from winning — the realisation that you could lose it at that stage was the worst part!’

As all football fans know, West Ham did hold on, and captain Bonds and manager Lyall celebrated their second FA Cup win together — and the following season, at the third time of asking, finally West Ham were back in the big time, promoted as the 1980-81 champions of the old Division Two.

Cross ended up the division’s top scorer with 22 goals, and scoring what remains West Ham’s only European hat-trick, against Spanish side Castilla — Real Madrid’s reserves team — in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. There was also another trip to Wembley, in the League Cup final, where West Ham were controversially held to a draw before losing the replay against Liverpool.

‘When we were down, we still thought of ourselves as being a Division One side but we weren’t good enough to go up,’ he said. ‘The difference in the promotion season was that we started to win the games we should do — previously we’d slipped up against some of the so-called smaller teams when we should have beaten them, but this time we were ruthless.

‘Paul Goddard and I were doing great up front, and if you score of course you’ll do well, but for me the key player was Phil Parkes.

‘He was such a good keeper and gave everyone such confidence. He looked huge, like nothing would get past him, and also he was so good technically. Everything finally fell into place, it felt like we were on a roll and we weren’t going to let it go.’

Having joined the Irons just too late to prevent them falling out of the top flight, Cross stayed just long enough to get them back into it, and play for one season, before returning to his native north west to join Manchester City.

‘At the end of that first season back in Division One, my contract was up,’ he explained. ‘I was offered a new one but I was 31 and I’d spent most of my career away from Lancashire and I’d always wanted to go back to the north.

‘I’d had a couple of great seasons, we were back up and for the first time in my career I had the chance to move when the decision was mine – every other move was because someone had wanted to buy me or because a club could afford to let me go.

‘I was desperately disappointed to leave somewhere I’d had such a good time but I thought I’d done as well as I could. If I hung around one more season I got the feeling I might go past my best, and I didn’t want to spoil the feeling the West Ham fans had for me.

‘I wanted to go out on top. Those were the best five seasons of my career, if I’d made it six that would have been great, but I felt it might just be one season too far.’

As things turned out, Cross may have been right. Being such a physical player meant fitness was everything, and he struggled for fitness and form at Maine Road, with City being relegated in memorable fashion by a home loss to Luton, with David Pleat dancing on the pitch in celebration.

But the West Ham era remains the most productive time of Cross’s long career, and of the many clubs he had, it is the one he feels closest to.

‘I loved my time at Norwich and West Brom in particular, but if you ask my kids who I played for, they’ll tell you it was West Ham,’ he said. ‘If someone had told me on my 27th birthday, when I signed, that over the next five years I’d score 99 goals in 228 games, be the top scorer in the division and win the FA Cup, I’d never have believed them.

‘I was a player who always had self-doubts, and always wondered if I was good enough, but those five seasons at West Ham and what we achieved in that time made me realise that yes, actually I was as good as other people had told me. Statistics were always important to me. People might not admire my technique, but look at my facts, you can’t deny what they say. That’s what West Ham did for me, it made me believe in myself a lot more.’

The man they called Psycho pulls no punches about the physical side of his game. ‘I was an aggressive player,’ he said. ‘If I could take their ‘keeper out that was half the job done. If early in the game I had a collision with their ‘keeper, my team would be able to replace me but they wouldn’t be able to replace him.

‘About 12 months ago someone put a goal of mine against West Brom on Twitter. Billy Bonds launched one in from the right and I took out their ‘keeper heading the ball into the net. For me, that was the goal that I’d want to be remembered by.’

Ironically, his career was ended by a not dissimilar incident. ‘When I was at Bolton, someone landed one on me and I fractured my skull, and that was me finished,’ he said. ‘People asked did I know who did it, but I didn’t know and didn’t want to. If you live by the sword you die by it. Proper centre forwards took hits and scored goals.’

And as for the nickname? Cross says it came about as a result of an incident against Cardiff, but the seeds were planted long before that.

‘Off the pitch I’m the quietest guy you could meet, but I become someone different on it,’ he said. ‘When I was a youngster at Rochdale, a new coach said to me that unless I became a nasty piece of work, I’d have no chance. “You’ve got the ability but you’re too nice, if you get to a higher level they’ll eat you up,” he said. So I took that on board and became more aggressive and threatening, and it worked,

‘Years later there was a game at Cardiff when I’d had a dust-up with someone and as I came off the pitch, a West Ham fan looked at me and said “you’re a psycho aren’t you?” And he was right — I wasn’t the most pleasant person to play against. 

‘I quite like the nickname – although it was bit odd when I was out with my girlfriend and a West Ham fan would come up and say “Oi Psycho, can I have an autograph?”. As far as West Ham’s fans were concerned, I was Psycho, so I was happy with that. I’ve been called worse, believe me.’

And it is not just West Ham fans who remember and celebrate the legend of David ‘Psycho’ Cross. ‘A few years ago I was assisting Iain Dowie at Oldham, and he was travelling to cover a match for television and was sitting next to Mark Lawrenson on the plane.

‘When he told Lawro I was his assistant, he said “Oh God, not that so and so…” and then said I was a lovely bloke but an absolute nightmare to play against, he hated me on the pitch. ‘For me to think that on a Monday morning, people in that amazing Liverpool team of the 1980s would look at who they had to play against that weekend and think “oh no, not him,”  – that was one of the best things I ever heard.’

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