Bobby Gould: Playing under Ron and John was my footballing education

The ex-striker talks about his time at Upton Park and why he still loves the club

As the man most famous for sending his Wimbledon side off to the pub the night before the 1988 FA Cup final where they produced arguably the tournament’s biggest ever upset, beating the all-conquering Liverpool, Bobby Gould is known for being willing to take a roundabout route to success. 

The same could be said for the story of how he joined West Ham in 1973, with the help of Norwich and the Spurs club secretary.  Striker Gould spent two years at Upton Park in the mid 70s, making 62 appearances and scoring 19 goals, all of which are chronicled in detail in the famed scrapbooks he kept of every game of his professional career for Coventry, Arsenal, Wolves, West Brom, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Norwegian side Aalesunds and Hereford United. 

But as he told Blowing Bubbles, he only joined West Ham almost as an afterthought anyway.  ‘In 1973 Bristol City were in the old Division Two, and I’d had a big fall out with manager Alan Dicks and told them I wanted to leave,’ he said. ‘Norwich, who were in Division One at the time, came in for me and their manager Ron Saunders made a good offer and asked me to go up there for talks.

‘I got to the station at 1am, he picked me up and took me to the hotel where we discussed terms, everything looked good but then he said: “Wait 24 hours, because I’ve not been sacked yet, but…”. ‘The next day I went back to Bristol, and when I put on Match of the Day in the evening, the top story was that Norwich had sacked their manager after losing 3-1 at home to Everton!

‘The following day he rang me to explain, then five minutes later rang back to say that he’d just spoken to Ron Greenwood and West Ham were now interested in me.  ‘Norwich had been trying to take a player on loan from West Ham, so they knew what one another were up to, and that’s how they found out about me. That was it, I knew where I was going!’

Gould’s £80,000 move to West Ham may have come about in an almost accidental fashion, but he is the first to admit he was not necessarily an obvious choice for a Ron Greenwood side. ‘Me going to a club like West Ham was sacrilege, frankly – I was a big, robust centre forward who grew playing against the likes of Tommy Smith at Liverpool, and Norman Hunter at Leeds, so you had to learn to stand up to players like that and look after yourself. 

‘I wasn’t the West Ham way at all, but a few days later I went along to White Hart Lane, where Ron was watching a reserve match, and had a long chat with him and he made it clear he wanted me to sign for them, so I agreed. ‘There were no agents in those days, so the person to ring was my wife. I asked the Spurs club secretary if I could use his office to give her a call. 

‘She asked me what wages we’d agreed, and I said we hadn’t, I’d just agreed to sign because I would get to play, and money never mattered to me, that was what counted. She said to sort it out as soon as possible, so the next day I went to Upton Park and knocked on his office door to talk money.  ‘He asked what I was on at City, I said around £120 a week, and he said that most people at West Ham were on about £180 so that’s what he would pay me. And that was it – the next day, I made my debut against Arsenal.’

Gould’s time at West Ham was not long, but it was eventful and significant for the club, witnessing as it did the departure of Bobby Moore, the winning of the FA Cup, and the managerial change from Greenwood to John Lyall, a man who was to have a huge impact on the future direction of the entire club.

‘John was an educated man, who’d made his way up through West Ham after his playing career had finished early, so he knew exactly the way to do things and still always had Ron by his side even when he took over,’ said Gould. Considering his own long and successful future managerial career, Gould’s choice of wording to describe this time is significant. 

‘Ron and then John educated us in the way we played,’ he said. ‘A lot of new players came in, some through the ranks, and some from outside, but we came through together, as a unit, and we grew together. ‘I’d never encountered some of the stuff I saw from them, like the one-touch football, which was perfectly summed up by a player like Trevor Brooking, who was my room-mate for two years. This was all new to me.’

And 11 years before the boys of 86 became what remains West Ham’s highest-ever achieving team in the league, Lyall’s class of 75 reached the FA Cup final. Which Gould watched from the bench. ‘In January 1975 I broke my leg at Southampton, when Peter Osgood went over the top of me. I was out for over a month and when I finally got back into the first team, on my first game back I scored at Wolves,’ he said, as the scrapbooks came in handy again. 

‘After that it was nip and tuck who was going to be in the team for the final, but John gave Pat Holland the nod ahead of me. 

‘In those days, there was only the one substitute, so when we went 2-0 up, I faked the biggest coughing fit possible on the bench, in the hope of being given just a couple of minutes on the pitch, because at that age, you realise chances like this aren’t likely to come your way again in a hurry. It didn’t work.

‘I’m not bitter about it though, we won the Cup and it was great to be a part of it. The funny thing was after the game, Billy Bonds came up to me in the dressing room and told me stop hogging the trophy, because I didn’t want to let go of it. Anyone who wanted it or wanted a picture with it had to come to me!’

Surprisingly, for his two years at the club, Gould commuted from Bristol every day, and ultimately, this was to contribute to his departure – but only after a memorable incident at Brooking’s house. 

‘The housing market had collapsed so we couldn’t find anyone to buy our house,’ he explained. ‘Trevor took pity on me making that journey back and forth all the time, so said I should stay with them for a bit. ‘After training, we went back to the Brooking house where his wife made us a lovely meal, and I then went up to the spare room, where the curtain pole promptly fell out of the wall and landed on me, curtains and all. 

‘I tried to fix it but couldn’t, so eventually I came downstairs to say what had happened. Trevor said not to worry, poured us a couple of drinks – and then handed his wife the tools to go and fix it!’

With first team opportunities at West Ham thin on the ground, Gould, who always said he was an unlikely fit in claret and blue, knew his days were numbered, and when former side Wolves came knocking, he was happy to return to the west Midlands. ‘I wasn’t playing as many games as I wanted to, so when I heard Wolves were struggling and were interested in me, I thought I’d do my best to help them stay up and left, because I knew I’d get games,’ he said. 

‘When I did go back there, I didn’t score as many as in my first spell, but I contributed so much more – my time at West Ham with John and Ron had taught me so much, my awareness and knowledge of the game was so much better, technically I was a far better player than the one I had been when I joined.’

After Wolves, Gould had stints with Bristol Rovers, in Norway and finally at Hereford, before taking his first tentative coaching steps at Chelsea – but with as much claret as blue. ‘I didn’t overlap with Geoff Hurst when I was at West Ham but in the early days of my coaching career, I was invited on a training course at Bisham Abbey and he was there too, and we got on really well,’ Gould explained.

‘Geoff said if ever he got a job I’d be his number two, and in 1981 that materialised at Chelsea. It was a real education working with him, you could see very clearly that he had the coaching methods of Lyall and Greenwood.  ‘We weren’t too successful, though, and one day he told me there was a board meeting, and he said he was going to say back us or sack us  – and they sacked us! Geoff never came back to management after that, but it gave me a foot in the door.’

But Gould could have had a foot in the door even earlier than that, and a familiar door too. ‘In September 1978, John Lyall invited me to join the coaching staff at West Ham, which showed what an effect West Ham had had on me, and the respect John had for me in terms of how I’d developed from what I was when I turned up at the club,’ he said. ‘That invitation meant so much to me, but I was a player and assistant manager at Hereford then, and I felt I still had about a year in me as a player before I could really be a coach, and the housing market worked against me as we couldn’t afford to move, so unfortunately it never materialised. Just to be asked was a real honour, though.’

Gould went on to enjoy a long coaching career, with his times in charge of Wimbledon and the Welsh national team being its most notable highlights, and more recently has worked extensively as a broadcaster and one of the game’s great raconteurs. But his time at West Ham clearly left a lasting impression, both personally and professionally.

‘Considering a player like me really shouldn’t have been there in the first place, West Ham remains in my heart,’ he said. ‘I have a great relationship with the club, I’m still good mates with the players from my time there, and when we meet up we have a great time. 

‘My time at West Ham taught me so much about how players develop, and how to produce them. And I have great friends from that time too.’

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