Peter Butler: ‘It’s so sad how it turned sour for Billy and Harry’s long friendship’

The former Irons midfielder on his time in London and his new role in Liberia

West Ham fans of a certain age can be forgiven for looking at the continued anger amongst supporters towards the board and think ‘we’ve been here before.’ In 1992, to be precise.

Then, the toxic fall-out of the much-loathed Bond scheme, and a string of poor results saw the club relegated out of the last season of the old Division One, and miss the first season of the new Premier League. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, because players like Peter Butler came to the club.

The no-nonsense Yorkshireman was a key player in the Irons’ midfield as manager Billy Bonds helped pick the club up off the canvas and turn things round, before, after just two seasons, family circumstances meant Butler had to leave Upton Park.

But if his contribution to West Ham is well remembered by those who saw it, it is as nothing to the difference he has gone on to make in a remarkable globe-trotting coaching career, working in situations a lot more challenging than anything he encountered at Upton Park.

‘At that time, West ham were lacking team spirit,’ Butler told Blowing Bubbles. ‘There were too many nice lads who didn’t want to be there. 

‘I’d been at Southend for six or seven seasons, with a lot of east end lads, and we’d done well and I’d had a great time. That wasn’t down to us being the best players, it was down to us having a great spirit – which is exactly what West Ham were lacking at the time.

‘My contract was nearly up, and a few clubs were interested but Billy asked me along to train for a few days to check my fitness, and that’s not the sort of offer you turn down. 

‘After five days, he offered me a three-year contract, because he said the club needed a bit of Yorkshire grit and lower league mentality, and that’s what I had.’

Right from the outset, as the club looked to turn itself round after the misery of the previous season, the signs were good for the new signing, who was a near ever-present in his first season, as they went back up at the first time of asking.

‘My first day at the club was Harry Redknapp’s first day too, and he said that he’d tried to sign me before when he was manager at Bournemouth. 

‘It was great to be given that kind of confidence, and he told me if I got in the team, that shirt would be my own. That’s exactly what you want to hear.

‘There were a lot of good people around the club, but it had lost its way a bit, especially after all that had gone on before, and a lot of fans have told me the season they went down was the season the club could have disappeared. 

‘But we didn’t, we turned things around.  I remember that season we went to West Brom in the FA Cup and won, and afterwards Alvin Martin said “listen to that crowd, this is what it means, we’re on the verge of doing something good here”.’

That something good turned out to be winning promotion back to the top flight, the new Premier League, at the first time of asking, although as was typical of West Ham in that era, it was as runners-up, having been pipped to the then Division One title by Newcastle.

‘You could tell straight away that the Premier League was a different place,’ said Butler, ‘but we finished pretty well and held our own at some tough places. 

‘I remember we went to Anfield, it was Tony Cottee’s first game back after returning from Everton, and just after half time he was sent off. We defended in front of the Kop for the rest of the game with 10 men, and when we came off, we felt like we’d won.  That showed how far we’d come so quickly.’

A strong finish to Redknapp’s first season in full charge saw the newly promoted team finish 14th, and start to lay down the foundations of what would be an exciting era for Irons fans, but sadly fate meant Butler was destined not to be part of it.

‘Early in the next season, my third at the club, my mum was diagnosed with just months to live because of cancer, so I wanted to get a bit more up north to be close to my family,’ he said. ‘A chance to join Notts County came along, and I took it. I’d have loved to stay at West Ham, but family circumstances dictated otherwise, and shortly after that she died, so it changed my outlook on life.

‘Billy and Harry were two very different characters, and it’s sad how things turned sour between them, but I got on great with both of them. Billy was a very special man, though, and when I left the club, I wrote to him to say thank you, and he rang me to say that no-one had ever done that to him before, and he would keep the letter.

‘I’ve never met anyone like Billy Bonds. What he stands for in terms of his morals and values, and how he upholds them, is pretty unique in the modern era. He is someone who really influenced my thinking. Since then I’ve worked in national teams and super leagues in other countries and the West Ham experience put me in good stead.’

After Notts County, Butler had brief stints with Grimsby and West Brom before finally ending up back at his hometown club, Halifax, where he moved into coaching. 

And when his time was up there, he began a journey which has taken him on a remarkable route via Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, more than one stint in Malaysia, Botswana and now his current role – as manager of the national team in the west African country of Liberia. 

The coastal country is in a football-mad region of the continent, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and is currently recovering from years of devastating civil war, so football is a huge release for young people. 

And young Liberians dreaming of the big time have a remarkable example to look up to – the country’s president, former World Player of the Year and Milan, Paris St Germain and Chelsea star, George Weah.

‘I live in a compound owned by him, he’s very courteous and respectful,’ said Butler. ‘He calls me sometimes to talk football and he’s a nice chap. We get on fine and he doesn’t interfere, he’s got more important things to think about than me, with a country to run.

‘The standard of play is very good – we have loads of lads playing in places like Sweden and Norway, and at clubs like Grasshoppers Zurich and Slavia Prague, but this is a country that has lost two decades of development to two brutal civil wars. 

‘Some of these lads have lost family members, so there’s lots of rebuilding to be done and social programmes to be involved in. Sometimes I feel more like an aid worker than a football coach.’

But the ability to make a real difference, on and off the pitch, is something that clearly inspires Butler, as does achieving things on his own terms.

‘After Halifax, I went off to Australia to run an academy, because I wanted to roll my own ball, not live hanging off the coattails of others, and that’s what I’ve done ever since. I pride myself on being my own person, not achieving things because of something someone else has done.’

The same spirit that inspired Bonds to sign him and gee-up a squad who needed some Yorkshire grit has helped him achieve success as a coach.

‘Working in Liberia is challenging, but I’ve always loved a challenge and I’ve never been one to walk away from something, unless there are issues involved,’ he said.

‘I spent three and a half years as national team coach in Botswana and loved it, taking them up to 87th in the Fifa rankings and bringing the average age down from up the 30s to 23, before I was headhunted for this job, when the opportunity came along I thought why not? The only sad thing is that Botswana has been run into the ground since I left.’

In an increasingly industrialised sport, the satisfaction that Butler gets from making a genuine difference to people’s lives is clear to see.

‘Some of these kids have nothing, so anything I can do to help improve the quality of their lives, I will. 

‘Lots of them don’t have boots, so I’m trying to get people to donate old pairs – if anyone has an idea how we can do this, please get in touch, as those things at the back of the cupboard would be priceless to someone out here.’

Butler is not a sentimental character, unduly concerned about his past. ‘There’s a Yorkshire saying, it’s ok to look back, but don’t look back and stare,’ he said. ‘I’m not one to hang on to old clubs, but I do have great affection for West Ham.’

And could his wanderings ever bring him back to the UK? Don’t bet against it.   

‘A lot has changed in football at home while I’ve been away, some good and some bad, but the circumference of the ball and size of the pitch are still the same,’ he said. 

‘West Ham is a special place, and seeing matches on television, it is a pull, of course.  There’s a possibility that I’ll come back to the UK at some point, but I’m thankful I’ve got a job to do here, helping people. 

‘I’ve never been someone to chase money, I chase challenges. People keep saying I should write my story. One day I will, and there will be no other football book like it.’

Anyone interested in helping donate boots to Liberia can contact Peter on pjfbutler@gmail.com

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