Paul Allen: ‘I never believed I’d be able to get in the West Ham first team at 17′

The FA Cup winner talks to us about making history and his time with West Ham

Scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup final is nothing that special. After all, every year someone does it.  

But being remembered more than four decades on for being prevented from scoring one of the most famous goals in FA Cup final history? Now that is proper sporting immortality.

In the 1980 final, West Ham midfielder Paul Allen had already made history by becoming the youngest ever player in the Wembley showpiece, and with time running out, and the team leading 1-0 against Arsenal, the 17-year-old found himself on the verge of even more history.

‘It was a very hot sunny day, and in the last 10 or so minutes, the game was stretched out and there were a lot of tired legs on the pitch,’ he told Blowing Bubbles. ‘Alan Devonshire played the ball to Trevor Brooking, who toed it to me, I got past the first player and the field opened up for me.

‘Just as I was going bearing down on goal, I hadn’t decided what I was going to do, then suddenly I was tripped and hit the ground.’ 

The youngest finalist was denied the chance to be the youngster scorer by, of all people, Arsenal defender Willie Young, with one of the most obvious trips from behind Wembley had ever seen, which only earned him a yellow card. 

Allen, on the other hand, earned pub quiz immortality — and has no great regrets about being denied his goalscoring chance.

‘I would have been more negative if they’d scored from what happened, but I don’t look at it with any anger or disappointment,’ said the now 58-year-old, who had only broken into the West Ham first team that season.

‘I didn’t know I would play until the Friday, so if you’d said you’re going to play in a Cup final and win, I would have settled for that. I have no regrets about the day, it was just great to be part of the club history, and it still means a lot to me.’

Paul was the first of the three Allen cousins — followed by Martin and Clive — to wear West Ham colours in the 80s and 90s, and although he was born deep in Irons territory in Aveley, growing up, his affections lay elsewhere.

‘My first introduction to football was my dad taking me to Upton Park in late 60s to see Clive’s dad, my Uncle Les, play for QPR,’ he said.

‘West Ham won and although I lived in a predominantly West Ham area, I came away a QPR fan. You can imagine the stick I got at school whenever I came in with a new QPR bag or anything like that. They didn’t take into account I was a fan for family reasons.’

His other uncle Dennis Allen, father of future West Ham midfielder Martin, was responsible for another of the young Paul’s first brushes with claret and blue. 

‘He played for Reading for 10 years and had a testimonial, in which Bobby Moore played,’ he said. ‘I remember being in the players’ lounge afterwards, and being absolutely in awe of seeing him — and also [future team-mate and Blowing Bubbles columnist] Phil Parkes, who was QPR keeper at the time.’

Whilst cousins Martin and Clive’s fathers were ex pros, a broken knee during his national service days prevented Paul’s own father scaling the same heights.

‘My dad was a decent player but I don’t know if he had what it took to be a pro and he never got a chance to find out,’ he said. ‘My parents were always very supportive, driving me around everywhere, but never put any pressure on me, you don’t realise until you’re older the sacrifices they make.

‘Scout Len Hurford spotted me when I was about 13, playing for Thurrock District. That part of the world has always been a strong catchment area, and West Ham wanted an influx of local youngsters, so I was called in for a trial at Chadwell Heath during half-term, with the first team training nearby and Ron Greenwood and chief scout Eddie Baily wandering round with a clipboard, taking notes.

‘The next day I was asked to play against Charlton, and after that I was committed to the club. I could get two buses from my house to Chadwell Heath and one to Upton Park — this was something I’d always aspired to.’

Having signed schoolboy terms at the age of 14, Allen arrived at a pivotal moment in club history, and as he worked his way up, he soon found himself playing alongside the likes of Tommy Taylor and Mervyn Day, who were being moved on as manager John Lyall looked to build his own side, and after his first season as an apprentice, Allen turned pro.

‘I wanted to get into first team as early as I could but never anticipate that it was achievable at 17,’ he said.

‘When the team was in the old Division Two, I went away with the England Youth team to Yugoslavia and when I came back, my dad told me how several other youngsters had been drawn into the first-team squad — not necessarily playing, but training and travelling with them.

‘I didn’t think anything of it, but then not long after that John took me aside after a training session and said that tomorrow I would be in the squad for a Cup match against Southend, possibly on the bench, but not likely to play. The next day I was as surprised as anyone when in the dressing room, he told me I was playing.’

That League Cup tie against Southend in September 1979 turned out to be a trilogy before, after two draws, West Ham won 5-1, with eight of the starting XI who would win that season’s FA Cup being in that line-up.

‘Results hadn’t been going well – we were a First Division team that had been relegated, expectations were high but results not up to it, so I got lucky getting in the team, then results picked up straight away and I stayed in for a while,’ he said.

‘I was lucky to be playing alongside such experienced players, people I had looked up to who were now my team-mates — even now, to think I broke into that team and stayed there was amazing.

‘John said don’t get over excited, you’ve got Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire around you, so when you get the ball, give it to them!  

‘I was 17 and I was in a team of adults — Billy Bonds was twice my age! But I was very lucky it was such a nurturing atmosphere. 

‘It was very daunting. These were men with families, but they always made me feel comfortable. They knew the sort of person I was, that I wouldn’t get too carried away, but I knew big names were there if I needed help.’

Just months after his debut, Allen found himself getting ready for the FA Cup final — not that he was nervous about it. ‘I can honestly say that I had no nerves all week leading up to it, I was just excited. I think my family watching had more nerves than me,’ he said.

‘Several players in that team had played in 1975 so they calmed things down, but also we were told “don’t let the day pass you by”. I don’t think there was any fear factor, Arsenal were a great side – I was playing opposite Liam Brady – but I just felt we were a very good side.

‘We may have been a Division Two club but we weren’t a Division Two side, as we showed when we went up the following year with the nucleus of that team and continued to do so well. 

‘The only time I got any nerves on the day was just before going out, because it’s only when you leave the dressing room that you can actually hear the crowd noise, and the only reason I was nervous was because I was so keen to do well.’

Youthful exuberance meant Allen was undaunted by the opposition, and as if to underline his age, “next day when I was on the balcony celebrating with the trophy, I was waving at my school friends down below!”

That famous win in 1980 was the start of good things for that side — promoted and League Cup finalists the following season, and slowly but surely building towards the Boys of 86.

‘The side grew in confidence after that Cup final win, but over the next two years I had a lot of injuries. We had some exceptional players in that team and John was just starting to get the balance right. 

‘Alan Devonshire and Trevor Brooking were exceptional, Billy Bonds was an absolute colossus, and I’d been a fan of Phil Parkes since he’d played for QPR, so to be playing in the same team as him was an amazing experience.’

But all good things must come to an end, and in summer 1985, so did Allen’s time at the club. 

‘I didn’t leave by choice to start with,’ he said. ‘My last season went very well and I was Hammer of the Year, but I never got offered a new contract.

‘They mentioned it briefly at Christmas, but nothing official was put in writing, and when we got to March or April, I was disappointed. 

‘As a home-grown player there since I was a kid, you wonder if people are taking it for granted that you’ll stay, so by the time conversations started, I thought I’d look at options.

‘I had an affiliation with Spurs through Clive’s dad Les, who was playing for them when I was born, so I knew the club and thought it was an opportunity to test myself somewhere else. 

‘The West Ham fans certainly made their feelings known when I came back as a Spurs player, so I know a lot of them were disappointed, but it was the right move for me and I don’t regret it.’

Having been at the club through such a transition period, ironically Allen left the season before it all came to fruition, with the club’s highest-ever league finish in the 1985-86 season, whilst his new club Spurs finished 10th.

‘Funnily enough, the year after I won the FA Cup final, I played in the FA Youth Cup winning side who beat Spurs in the 1981 final, so I could see the likes of Tony Cottee and Alan Dickens coming through on their way to that senior side, and as I was leaving, the next generation, with players like Steve Potts and Kevin Keen, was on the way up,’ he said.

In total, Allen made 186 starts for West Ham, earning an FA Cup winner’s medal and a Division Two winner’s medal. After his time at Spurs, where he won the FA Cup again, he went on to play for  Southampton, Luton, Stoke, Swindon, Bristol City and Millwall, before retiring in 1998.

Now he works in a player welfare role at the Professional Footballers’ Association, a job which he says owes something to what he learnt at West Ham.

‘My training there gave me good values and to appreciate others around me, they instilled good habits. 

‘As an apprentice, you still had to do your duties, and the same week I played in the cup final, I had to clean people’s boots. There was a rota for washing up, too, so you got an appreciation of just how much work other people did around you. 

‘There was a football team, but there was also a whole other team of people around them, who made things happen, and the way that taught you to pay attention to detail is something that’s really stuck with me.’

Allen is no longer the youngest player ever to play in an FA Cup final, Millwall’s Curtis Weston having made a brief substitute appearance in the 2004 final to beat his record, but he remains a part of football and West Ham history, as much for what Willie Young stopped him from doing, as for what he did actually do.

‘I’m very lucky to have been part of a team that was part of West Ham history, people still remember that team so fondly, which is nice,’ he said. ‘That means a lot to me, and it means a lot when people bring it up, it’s a pleasure to talk about it.’

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