‘Once I knew Billy Bonds wanted me I didn’t have to think about it’

Clive Allen tells Blowing Bubbles about his varied career and how his two years at Upton Park made him feel like he will be part of the West Ham family forever

One of the world’s most famously difficult exams is ‘The Knowledge’, the test would-be London black taxi drivers must take, checking their ability to find their way through the urban maze to earn their precious licence.

In recent times, two ex-West Ham players – Steve Potts and Alan Dickens – have joined the ranks of the capital’s cabbies, but if any player could claim to already have the knowledge without taking the test, then surely it would be former Irons striker Clive Allen. In the course of a remarkably eventful career, the man whose goal against Cambridge in 1992 secured West Ham’s place in the newly-formed Premier League played for seven different London clubs, one of them, QPR, twice, as well as Manchester City, Bordeaux and Carlisle.

Along the way he won England caps and broke goalscoring and transfer records, and became arguably the most successful member of the famous east London Allen football dynasty. The full extent of that family argument, and its emotional cost, is one of the key elements to his newly published autobiography, Up Front

But the story also traces his football journey from Stepney to Brazil and beyond before finally, having worked his way through most other London clubs, he ended up at Upton Park, playing alongside his cousin Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen.

‘I think it was inevitable I’d pass through West Ham at some point, so to have that opportunity and to help put the club back in the top flight, I always look on it as a positive time,’ Allen told Blowing Bubbles. ‘It was great in the latter stages of my career to help the club re-establish itself.’ And what a career it was – but one which seems to have been dogged by an unfortunate habit of encountering off-the-field politics or managerial changes, which may have contributed to his habit of changing clubs so frequently, which has detracted from a remarkable goalscoring record.

After interest from many teams – although not the Irons – club number one for the youngster was QPR, where his 32 goals in 49 games caught the eye of Arsenal, who in summer 1980 consoled themselves at having lost the FA Cup final to West Ham by more than doubling their record transfer fee to make the teenager just the fifth £1m player in English football – only to sell him to Crystal Palace one month later, before he had made a competitive appearance.

‘I learnt a lot in a short space of time, I went from a boy to a man in that year,’ said Allen – although the transfer merry-go-round did bring him the bonus of two signing-on fees in one summer, allowing him to buy his first house. ‘To go through all that at such a young age was an unbelievable experience. I was front page news, I remember the headlines saying “the game’s gone crazy” talking about the price tag on a teenager.’

Fortunately, father Les – often his harshest critic, as the book reveals – helped the young Clive through the experience with simple but effective advice. Having been a manager himself Dad always told me if you have a good record, regardless of how you may be playing at that particular time, there will always be people who will take a chance on you, so after having established myself at QPR there were always people who would think I could do a job and take a chance on me.’

Take a chance they did, and Allen repaid their faith. After one season at Palace, he headed back to Loftus Road, where QPR won promotion and reached their first FA Cup final, then to Spurs, where in 1986-87 he enjoyed his most successful year, as they reached the FA Cup final and he scored a club record 49 goals in 54 games, a haul which remains unmatched in the English top flight, as well as being named Football Writers’ and Players’ Player of the Year. After Bordeaux and Manchester City, his London homing instinct brought Allen back to the capital with Chelsea, and then in March 1992, finally, West Ham. Or to be more correct, relegation-bound West Ham. Not that this bothered him one bit.

‘I always signed for every club wanting to stay, and to honour the contract,’ he said. ‘If I did move, it was usually a case of the club selling me, rather than me wanting to go, and it was only towards the end of my career that I ever wanted to leave anywhere, so when I had a bit of a falling out at Chelsea, West Ham was the natural fit for me.’

Having been front page news since he was a teenager, the move to West Ham was the first of Allen’s thirties – and one of his most straightforward and happy. ‘It felt like coming full circle at that stage in my career, back to my roots, and once I knew Billy Bonds was interested in me, I didn’t need to think about it. He didn’t have to do a sales pitch. I knew several players there, including Martin, and I knew the club, so as soon as Bill asked me, I was there.’

Allen knew where he was walking into, and what he was walking into – a battle to avoid relegation that, long in advance, looked destined to fail. The last season of the old Division One before the establishment of the new Premier League was one to forget for West Ham fans, with an ignominious FA Cup campaign stumbling past lower league teams, the off-the-field distraction of the disastrous Bond Scheme alienating fans, and wretched league form. Welcome home, Clive. But at least some familiar faces  made settling in a bit easier.

‘I was living to the west of London when I was at Chelsea so when I joined West Ham, I used to travel across town to training with Kevin Keen and my cousin Martin. ‘He’s four years younger than me but we’d played together briefly at QPR, so it was great to team up again. We do have some family traits, but in other ways we’re totally different characters. 

‘I remember at the end of our first training session Harry Redknapp said to me “you can’t possibly be related to someone like him, surely”, but I said yes, we really do have the same blood! ‘Martin was a fierce competitor and a much better player than he’s given credit for, because he was so fiery. He was an Allen, so he had all the family traits and knew he had to live up to the name as well, but he also had a level of ability you need to be a professional.’

The competitive nature of both cousins was put to the test as the team slid towards relegation, but that bottoming out turned out to be the start of much happier times, immediately. ‘Straight away, the whole atmosphere changed,’ he said. ‘From the inevitability of the drop, suddenly everyone was really positive and the whole club came alive, because even though we were going down a division, we knew we were going to be competitive. It made it a great environment, everyone was really welcoming and it was a positive place to be.’

Six goals in the first eight games of the next season showed that Allen was as dependable as ever, before a four-month lay-off with a calf injury steered his season off-course. Fortunately, he returned to fitness at just the right time, and in the final game, Allen and on-loan strike partner David Speedie – a man who only made a brief contribution to West Ham history, but a valuable one – scored the goals that sent the Irons back into the big time.

‘David was a very different character to me but by that stage I’d had loads of strike partners, so that wasn’t a problem, I was used to change,’ Allen explained. ‘He was fiery, physical and robust, which wasn’t my strength, but sometimes you need that contrast.  We were at similar stages in our careers and worked well together. 

‘My son played golf in a fourball with David a few weeks ago. Beforehand I’d tried to explain what sort of character he was, and after watching him for 18 holes, my son said “he must have been a bit lively on the pitch” – you’ve got it, I told him!’ The final game of the season was a nail-biter against relegation-threatened Cambridge, with West Ham needing to outscore Portsmouth, who were looking to pip them for promotion.

Early in the second half, Speedie ratcheted up the tension when he volleyed West Ham into the lead from close range, and in the dying minutes of the game, Allen, on as substitute, was left unmarked in the centre of the box in front of the old South Bank to sidefoot a Julian Dicks cross into an empty net.  Probably one of the simplest goals of his career, but for his team, one of the most important, and for fans, one of the most iconic, as Allen stood like a statue in celebration, and was picked up and carried by a tide of fans in a joyous pitch invasion. Mission accomplished.

‘I was getting on at this stage, but I don’t think ageing changed me – I always wanted to win and be competitive, which is precisely what going to West Ham gave me, so it was a great move for me,’ he explained. Having helped West Ham to a seat at the top table, Allen was looking forward to dining there, but fate had other plans, as a knee injury, sustained in a challenge on Manchester United’s former West Ham midfielder Paul Ince, caused another lay off, and when he finally returned, the writing was on the wall. 

In March 1994, Allen left Upton Park, with Millwall boss Mick McCarthy thinking he could help his young Lions with the final stage of their promotion push to join West Ham in the top flight. He could not, failing to score there or in a brief stint at Carlisle. And then it was over. West Ham, Allen’s local side, squeezed the final goals out of his career. ‘I was disappointed to leave but in my heart of hearts I knew I was coming to the end. Billy was totally honest, as always, and told me I wouldn’t be playing regularly. 

‘It was such a shame to leave a club who’d just got into the Premier League but it was the right move. I wanted to play every game but I knew it wouldn’t happen, and I couldn’t produce what I wanted for West Ham.’

But there was so nearly an encore. ‘After I left Millwall, I was a free agent and I’d kept in touch with a lot of people at the club, so Harry let me train with the boys and I was still clinging on to the possibility that I could play a bit longer, I wasn’t going to give up unless I had to,’ he revealed. ‘I had a good pre-season and I was fit and even scoring goals but realistically, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.’

Since then, Allen has done media work and rejoined the coaching staff at Tottenham, the club where he had his longest uninterrupted stint and whose season goalscoring record he still holds. The bad luck of peaking in the days when English clubs were banned from playing in Europe, and having the misfortune to be restricted to just five England caps because of the Gary Lineker/Peter Beardsley partnership, mean that history has been somewhat harsh on a player whose remarkably consistent goalscoring gets overshadowed by his frequent transfers.

But in the eyes of West Ham fans, Allen made a vital contribution, and even if it took him most of his career to find his way there, when the time came, he did his local club proud. ‘There was a respect from the people there and it was my local team so it was great to play there – I’ve always kept a good relationship with West Ham,’ he said

‘With media work, I still go to games and there are so many of the same faces there, die-hard people who have worked there their whole lives. It’s a traditional family club. If you work for West Ham or you’re a supporter, you’re West Ham – and that’s it.’

Clive Allen: Up Front, by Clive Allen and James Olley, is out now, published by De Coubertin Books.

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