As unofficial football honours go, being the answer to the quiz question: ‘Who scored the first ever goal in the Premier League?’ is a pretty enviable one to have — and for those who did not know, the answer is Brian Deane, then of Sheffield United, against Manchester United.
The striker is mainly remembered for his days with Leeds, where he had two stints, and Sheffield United, where he had three, but he also played a key role in a short stay at West Ham, during one of the club’s most important transition periods. Signed by new manager Alan Pardew in October 2003, Deane stayed for the rest of the season and fell just short in his ambition of helping the Irons win promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, as they were beaten in the play-off final by Crystal Palace. But his memories of his brief stint at the Boleyn give an insight into a turbulent time at Upton Park.
‘I was at Leicester, who had just been promoted that season when West Ham came down, but I wasn’t in the team, and I felt I still had a part to play, so when the opportunity came along, I was very open to the idea,’ he said. ‘I’d always thought about going to play in London but it hadn’t quite materialised, and because they’d just come down, I thought there were certain characteristics about the club that would be challenging. When I looked at that squad with the likes of Don Hutchison, Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick, I thought it had great potential so I was enthused by the idea.
‘I didn’t pay attention to what was going on off the pitch. Alan Pardew had just taken over and told me the whole situation, and what he wanted me to do, and he said I could bring some ability and talent that the squad didn’t have, so it seemed like a good adventure.’
Although he was a newcomer, by dint of his age, straight away Deane was one of the senior pros in the dressing room. ‘I was 33 or 34 at the time, and I remember how when I was younger, I’d played with Brian Marwood at Sheffield United late in his career, and I was always trying to pick up as much from him as I could. Now, I was in that position and it was my turn to try and give something back to the younger members of the team.’
His debut, at home against West Brom, was one to remember, even if not necessarily for the right reasons, as the Irons went 3-0 up, with Deane scoring twice, only for Defoe to then be sent off, and Deane to score an own goal as the team went down to a 4-3 defeat. ‘You can only affect what you can affect – I got two goals on my home debut, even though we lost,’ he said. ‘I’d played in front of big crowds before so I wasn’t intimidated, all that really matters is fans just want to see commitment, as long as you do that, you’ll be ok. Goals on home debut certainly make you feel more comfortable as well.’
West Ham were a team in flux that season, trying to shed the past of the disastrous relegation season under Glenn Roeder, who was kept on for the start of the next campaign before being replaced by Pardew, and with a significant churn of players leaving and coming in. That season the team were always on the fringes of play-off contention, without really asserting themselves, and Deane says Pardew had planned on needing the three extra games at the end of the season if they were to go up.
‘The way he had mapped out the season, we weren’t going to get automatic promotion, but we were confident we’d make the play-offs and planned for that. He was very meticulous about his preparation for games, and as the season was coming to an end, we felt we had some momentum.’
When Defoe left for Spurs in January, striker Bobby Zamora was part of the deal coming the other way, adding to West Ham’s options up front, which meant Deane was not always getting picked, a situation which, unsurprisingly, did bother him somewhat. ‘Of course I was disappointed that I wasn’t starting more games, but having later gone into management, maybe then I understood the boss’s mindset a bit more,’ he said. ‘It’s never easy when you have a senior pro who wants to play, and I always did well when I played. I know that with the goals-to-games ratio I had, I could do some damage, but he wanted me to go in a different direction.
‘There were a couple of games where I wasn’t sure about how we went about it tactically but overall I thought we went about things the right way, I liked what he did and I understood it. You can always look back with regrets, but the kind of transformation he had to make in a short time under pressure, I thought he did well.’
Increasingly, Pardew seemed to regard Deane as an impact player from the bench, something the striker was not entirely satisfied with. ‘I didn’t really understand and I wasn’t happy with the explanation. Perhaps I should have handled it better at my age, but I still wanted to play and contribute, and I’m not the sort to be happy on the bench,’ he explained. ‘If you’re a manager, though, and you come in and have so much turnover to deal with, you have to find a way of managing and winning, and if you look at how we were at the end of the season, for the play-off semi-finals against Ipswich, you could see how committed everyone was.’
Whilst being left out was frustrating, Deane says it never made for a bad atmosphere. ‘There wasn’t any kind of rivalry (between the strikers), we all wanted to win and do well, but we’re pros so we got on with the job,’ he explained. ‘If you’re a manager and you always get on with everyone, you’re doing something wrong — there will always be people disappointed, and there should be.
‘I remember I was on the bench for a home game against Sunderland and I was absolutely fuming I wasn’t playing. We were 2-0 down at the break, I came on and we won 3-2 and afterwards he made a speech in front of everybody, about how he knew I wasn’t happy with starting like that, but I’d showed my professionalism by doing the job that was asked, and changed the game, and he got the team to give me a round of applause.
‘That showed fantastic man-management, it wasn’t about individuals, but he showed that he valued my input, and that really taught me a lesson about how to treat players for when I went into management. If there’s a situation, front up to it, don’t duck it, or it will just fester and get worse.’
In a difficult time, managing high-profile players still on Premier League wages, whilst trying to build a team to go back up, Pardew faced a hard balancing act, but one Deane says he handled well. One player who could sometimes need particularly careful treatment was legendary Czech defensive hardman Tomas Repka.
‘I’d always had a good tussle when we played him, we had good mutual respect – he’s the kind of defender you want in your team, his attitude to defending and what he’s prepared to do for the team was old fashioned, but it’s the sort of school I’m from,’ said Deane. ‘You want to be in the trenches with someone like him — sometimes his head went and when it did, it was a challenge, but he was a cool guy, I liked him, and he was very funny too.’
The final game of the regular season was away at Wigan, and Deane was sent on in his usual impact role, with the desired result — a 90th minute headed equaliser to secure a fourth place finish and a play-off spot, whilst also dashing Wigan’s hopes and instead throwing a lifeline to Crystal Palace, who had staged a late sprint into contention under the management of former West Ham striker Iain Dowie. That was to turn out to be a bitter twist of fate, because it was Palace that West Ham met in the play-off final — and lost to.
‘That was an odd day,’ he said. ‘When they went ahead, I was sent on and got a standing ovation from their fans for having helped get them into the final, but they doubled up marking on me and totally neutralised any effect I might have, so I could do nothing — and it was my last involvement with the club, too, which was very frustrating.
‘Before the game, the boss had already told me that whatever the outcome, I wasn’t going to be offered a new contract, because if you’re going up, of course you have to invest heavily, and as it turned out, we didn’t go up anyway. Perhaps if we had gone up that year, we would have struggled and then come back down, so maybe it worked out the right way in the long-term, it’s always hard to say about these things.’
Defeat, and knowing it was the end of the West Ham road, hurt Deane. ‘I was sold on the idea of coming down, contributing and seeing how it goes, but had I known it was just the one year, maybe I wouldn’t have come,’ he said. ‘I knew how much I’d put in and I wanted to settle with the team, but as it turned out, I found myself on the move again, back to Leeds. It was an easy move for me as I live about three miles from the training ground, and it didn’t make much sense to be away from where I had everything, so that was what I did.’
Two years later, after stints with Sunderland, Perth Glory in Australia and Sheffield United, Deane finally retired, after helping the Blades get back into the Premier League after 12 years away. Some of the lessons he learnt under Pardew were then put to the test when Deane entered management — in Norway. ‘I knew opportunities would be limited at home and I had to get my own identity, so I went abroad,’ he explained. ‘A lot of players get shooed into management positions here, especially if they have a certain reputation, and I knew that was going to be difficult for me so I thought why not leave my comfort zone?’
Things looked promising in his two seasons with Sarpsborg 08, with decent league finishes and a Cup run, but when he returned to England, full of hopes, things failed to happen. ‘I wanted to get into a role here as quickly as possible, and I remember being on my pro licence course being told you have to stay current, so I gave myself two years to get a job, but I couldn’t even get in the room with people and when it didn’t happen, I stopped,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to start all over again. I thought with my experience, I at least deserved an opportunity to get into the room with people to tell them what my ideas were, but I didn’t get it, and so I decided from my point of view, that was enough, it wasn’t meant to be.’
Instead of management, Deane is now involved in helping ex-pros to make the transition out of football and back into the real world, through Phoenix Sports and Media, a company set up with Andy Cole, Tommy Johnson, Michael Thomas, Rod Wallace and others. ‘As soon as you’re out of football you’re out of the bubble and players who spend all their time from 16 through to their 30s often find they’re short on other life skills, they’ve missed out on the building blocks of personal development,’ he explained. ‘We’ve all seen how that can affect individuals. Not a lot of people understand what goes on beneath the veneer of being a player; we have a duty to make people more robust, and you can only really understand that if you’ve been in that position.
‘The PFA, by and large, does good things, but they’re reactive, not proactive. It’s fair to say kids nowadays are different to how we were coming through in our day, there are more support networks in place now but there are still some things that have been lost.
‘A lot of the time, the game falls short in making sure players are looked after — it’s not just about football, we want to see them become rounded individuals. As long as they can perform on the pitch, people don’t care too much, but if someone has everything sorted off the pitch, they’ll be better on the pitch as they’ll be more focused.’
As with many ex-West Ham players, Deane said it was the experience of being a visiting player that inspired him to become a home player. ‘The Chicken Run used to be brutal at giving stick, so I always used to enjoy the banter and wanted to do something that meant I could look them in the eye,’ he said. ‘Upton Park could be intimidating for home players too but if you gave 100 percent and they could see that, then fans can’t ask for any more, and you can’t give it.
‘I really enjoyed being at West Ham, and we had some great laughs — Kevin Horlock was one of the best guys I’ve ever come across. I’m more of a country boy, but living in London was interesting too, so it was great to get to know the place and I really enjoyed my experience there.’