Luke Chadwick: ‘We really should have won the league with the squad we had’

Life, like football, is all about being in the right place in the right time.

And in the case of former West Ham winger Luke Chadwick, although he managed to be in the right place, he had the misfortune that other people were too, blocking his path and sending him off in another direction.

As a result, his career turned out very differently from how it might have done.

The now 40-year-old had joined the Irons from Manchester United for Alan Pardew’s first full season in charge, in 2004, and played a key role in getting the team back up to the top flight following the play-off final disappointment against Crystal Palace the previous season, and although his West Ham career did not last much beyond that summer, his contribution as part of that team was significant.

Chadwick’s time as a top-flight star came at some cost, as he was the subject of public teasing in a way that seems unthinkable in the modern day, but he is a constant source of positive thinking and humour on social media, living back in his native Cambridgeshire, running fun football events for youngsters.

Having first trained with Arsenal as a youngster, he was spotted by Manchester United playing in a youth game and scoring Cambridge’s only goal in a 7-1 defeat by Essex, and signed for them at the age of 14, just as the class of 92 were taking over, and Eric Cantona was running the show.

‘I made my debut at United just a couple of months after they’d won the Treble in 1999, and was then sent out on loan in Belgium for a while, and when I was called back I thought I’d just be in the reserves but I went more or less straight into first-team squad,’ he said.

‘I was pinching myself every morning to be training with these superstars. It was a lot more intense, and if you made mistakes, you were told in no uncertain terms that standards had to be higher. It was very demanding but it was an incredible life experience.’

That first season of semi-regular involvement with the first team meant Chadwick had a great view of one of the most memorable moments in West Ham history; Paolo di Canio scoring that goal at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in January 2001. 

‘I was on the bench for that game and I was running alongside the pitch, warming up, when Paolo scored that goal,’ he said.

‘I wasn’t looking at the linesman, I was watching the game, so I assumed the flag must be up. West Ham thoroughly deserved to win the game. There was absolute disbelief in the United dressing room afterwards, though – no shouting or hair dryer treatment, just pure disappointment.’

However, not for the last time in his career, Chadwick had run into a problem in his path, or rather two of them, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, and when injuries began to take their toll on the youngster, it was not long before he knew what was coming next.

‘I was being kept out of the side by those two, so I couldn’t exactly push past them, and after my breakthrough into the team, I had problems with my pelvis and my hips,’ he said.

‘My biggest strength had always been my pace, and once I lost that, I could see that I wasn’t at the optimum level. I had built my game around being a winger who could run, so I sat down Sir Alex Ferguson, and we had a very honest chat about things. 

‘In training, it was clear that I was nowhere near as effective as I had been in my first season (where Chadwick won a Premier League winner’s medal), so after that I went out on loan to Burnley, and also to Reading, where I first encountered Alan Pardew.’

Leaving a club as big and successful as United were at that time could have been a big wrench, but when the time came, Chadwick was happy to make the move away from Old Trafford and closer to home.

‘I’d always wanted to move back down south as my wife had just had a baby, and there was some talk of Ipswich being interested, but I was on tour with the first team squad in America when it came through that West Ham were interested, and as soon as I heard that, I was in no doubt that that was where I wanted to go, and I was delighted to have been given the opportunity.’

The step down from Champions League to Championship was not an issue as far as he was concerned.

‘I don’t think it was that big a change of atmosphere, I’d been to Championship clubs on loan so I wasn’t just used to the United way and the set-up at West Ham was top notch – it was still a Premier League club, just playing in the Championship,’ he said.  

‘The squad might not have been as talented as the one I’d left behind at United, but there were some fantastic players there and there was a really positive atmosphere with the manager and coaching staff.

‘Playing for West Ham was a big draw, but so was playing for Alan Pardew — he knew me from when I was on loan at Reading and he trusted me to do a job for him. He brought me in with a clear role in mind, to play on the right and to challenge Sergei Rebrov. He put together a fantastic squad that season and we really should have won the league rather than needing to go up via the play-offs.’

That squad contained one player in particular who has earned a unique place in West Ham folklore.

‘Tomas Repka was a brilliant fella. He was pretty quiet in the dressing room but he showed his personality on the pitch,’ said Chadwick.

‘He was a lovely friendly guy but when he crossed that white line, something in him changed. Of course his discipline was in question at times, with the amount of cards he picked up, but he was an international standard player and a huge part of the dressing room, and it was only when the likes of Anton Ferdinand and Elliot Ward came through and played a huge part in us going up, that he was picked less frequently.’

Although Chadwick started off as a regular, injuries and tactical changes meant he soon found himself involved on a less frequent basis.

‘After leaving United, for the next few years I had to try and learn to play a different way,’ he said.

‘I started off really well at West Ham, but as time went on I played fewer games and towards the end of the season my form did dip a bit, so I didn’t have a chance to be involved in the play-offs, but it was great to be part of the squad that did manage to get the job of winning promotion done.’

When injuries forced him out of the team, unfortunately for Chadwick, the alternative combinations Pardew came up with seemed to work well, making it harder for him to get back in the side.

‘I was a bit injury prone, and then when I was out, I had to get back to fitness and form, only to find that the manager had changed the formation,’ he said. 

‘He put Marlon Harewood out wide right and Matty Etherington wide left, and the effect on the team was huge, so it was always going to be hard to get my way back in. I always accepted the manager’s decision though.’

It was not long before Chadwick’s future at West Ham, which had once looked so bright, was at an end, as once again, just like Giggs and Beckham at Old Trafford, somebody else was also in the right place at what for Chadwick turned out to be exactly the wrong time.

‘We went off to Sweden for pre-season and things were going really well, I was full of confidence, but then unfortunately they decided to buy a genius in my position!’ he said.

‘I knew they’d bought someone but when I first saw him at the training ground, I thought “look at the size of him, I’ve got nothing to worry about here,” but as soon as you saw him play, it was clear he was from another planet!’

The he in question was Yossi Benayoun, and such was his quality that Chadwick soon realised that it was time to be on the move again. 

‘I could have stayed but I wouldn’t want to be hanging around and not involved,’ he said.

‘Of course I was disappointed to leave West Ham as I was happy there and it suited my home life, but the only thing I had ever wanted to be was a footballer, so you accept that you have highs and lows, and you want to play. 

‘Leaving West Ham having also left United was more of a disappointment than a knock to my confidence, though. I was settled at West Ham, but Stoke offered me a chance to play, which was what I really wanted, so I took it.’ 

An initial loan spell was converted into a permanent transfer in January 2006, and after just one season at Upton Park and 32 appearances, Chadwick was gone.

After Stoke, Chadwick played for Norwich, MK Dons and Cambridge United, before retiring in 2016.

Sadly, one of the things that Chadwick is best remembered for, rather than being a Premier League winner at Manchester United, or an England U21 player, is the merciless taunting about his appearance, particularly on BBC comedy panel show They Think it’s All Over, whose hosts have since apologised for their treatment of him, right at the start of his career.

‘I was such a quiet shy lad, I never got any support for the abuse because I didn’t ask for it, and if anyone had asked I would have said I was fine about it,’ he said.

‘When I look back at what I went through it was a tough year but I suffered in silence and never sought any support. 

‘I don’t look back with bad feelings about the fact that no-one helped me, I don’t think you’re going to get help unless you ask for it — it was a tough period, but all part of my journey, and anyway, I was still having the opportunity to play for the best team in the world while it was all going on.’

After retirement, he admits: ‘I found it incredibly hard to admit I wasn’t a footballer any more. I went down the coaching route as I thought that’s what footballers are supposed to do but I didn’t really enjoy it, so stepping away from professional football has been great fun for me.’

Chadwick now turns out for Southern League Division One Central side St Neots Town, and runs the Football Fun Factory franchise company.

‘It’s about stripping football back to what it was like when I was a kid — it’s not about getting told coaching points, it’s purely about having the fun of running around with a smile on your face, which is what football should be all about for kids,’ he said. 

‘What I’m doing now is so rewarding, it’s not about trying to turn youngsters into pros, it’s about developing a love for the game so that when you’re older, you still want to play it because your first experiences were so positive.’

Chadwick’s career took in many highlights, including playing and winning trophies with some of the biggest names of the modern era, as well as fairytale finish at his hometown club Cambridge, and although it was only for one season, he looks back on his time at West Ham with genuine happiness.

‘I loved every minute I was at West Ham, I didn’t excel which I would have liked to do, but that’s life, you can’t pick and choose,’ he said. 

‘To say I played there at Upton Park under the lights, it was a great atmosphere and a wonderful experience. 

‘Obviously it was a hard season and we did lose the fans a bit when we weren’t playing to our potential, but at the end of the season, we got the team back up, which was the target, and that’s something I’m very proud to have helped happen.’

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