Sometimes it just takes a player a while to find the shirt that fits them right, and a quick look at the career of former West Ham striker Dave Swindlehurst would suggest he is just one such player. Born in Edgware, where the borough school team played in claret and blue, he nearly signed for the Irons as a youngster before going on to join Crystal Palace, who then still wore claret and blue, then almost signed for Aston Villa from Derby before finally pitching up at Upton Park in March 1983 for a two-year stint which but, for injuries both to Swindlehurst and a key team-mate, could have brought even more success to the squad in one of the club’s golden periods.
Life after football included a brief stint as an undertaker and managing in non-league before finding his second career as a PE teacher, which, now aged 65, he continues to enjoy to this day. ‘At school I had a teacher called Les Hill, who I loved dearly, who was a massive West Ham fan and I think he made inroads for me to join them as a schoolboy, so I think I upset him when I went to Palace instead,’ Swindlehurst said.
However, little did he know that going to Palace would introduce him to a future West Ham team-mate who would go on to be one of the club’s most fondly remembered and admired creative players. ‘Alan Devonshire and I were both trialists at Palace and he was just unfortunate that when Malcolm Allison – a former West Ham player, of course – came in as manager, he had a bit of a clear-out and let him go without even seeing him play, I think,’ he said.
‘It’s difficult to make a proper judgement so early on, but Alan certainly looked like a good prospect to me, and it could just as easily have been me who was let go. Malcolm was quoted later as saying that Alan was the one that got away. It certainly paid off when we were at West Ham though, because so many of the (18) goals (in 61 appearances) I got were down to him – he was involved in everything, a fantastic player. One of the biggest disappointments I had at West Ham was him getting injured, it was a Cup tie just after Christmas when he hurt his knee, and it was a massive loss to the whole side.’
After eight seasons at Selhurst Park, Swindlehurst spent three years at Derby, and when money got tight, the Rams’ record signing was a prize asset to be sold. ‘There had been a lot of speculation I might go to Villa, who had won the league in 1981 and European Cup in 1982, and I’d been down to the training ground to meet people, but then out of the blue there was interest from West Ham, and once John Lyall and Eddie Bailey came up for a chat, they didn’t need to sell the club to me at all.
‘I had a bit of an affinity through Les, and the possibility of playing with the likes of Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard was an amazing prospect. I couldn’t wait to get started. I had played in midfield for Palace and Derby too, so although I never ended up doing that for West Ham, John knew I was capable of that too.’
Swindlehurst arrived towards the end of the 1982-83 season, where the Irons finished eighth in the old Division One, and he pitched up shortly after a young Tony Cottee had burst onto the scene. With Paul Goddard and Francois van der Elst finishing the season as joint top scorers, and also Cottee vying for a place up front, Swindlehurst was particularly glad to have his old Palace pal Devonshire around as provider.
The 1983-84 season began brightly for the team, who won their opening five games, and for Swindlehurst, who scored in four of them, also scoring in four consecutive games in November, but in January 1984 Devonshire picked up a serious knee injury in an FA Cup win over Wigan, and the second half of the campaign was more of a slog for both Swindlehurst and his team-mates.
‘Alan doing his knee was a massive loss because we had several other injuries around that time, like Alvin Martin and Steve Whitton too. I’d got about 12 goals going into Christmas and we’d started the season so positively, but it was a lot harder work after that.’
As Swindlehurst’s goals became harder to come by, Cottee remained more consistent, beating him by four goals to be top scorer that season with 19. Coincidentally, four of those Cottee goals came on one of the most legendary nights in West Ham history, a night that Swindlehurst found himself to be out of luck – despite the Irons sticking 10 goals past Bury in a record League Cup victory.
‘What a night that was – when it’s going like that, the gameplan goes out the window and everyone just tries their luck from wherever they feel like, so that’s why the strikers sometimes miss out!’, he explained. ‘We hit the post and had a few near misses that night too – because everyone was feeling in the mood, they were trying their luck from 20 and 30 yards, rather than thinking about setting up the strikers, so that’s how you end up not being on the scoresheet.’
As the perfect West Ham post-script to the game, the Irons later signed one of Bury’s defenders from that night, Paul Hilton. Unfortunately for Swindlehurst, the following season was almost over for him before it had even begun, and when injury struck again on his return, he knew his days at the club were numbered.
‘We were in pre-season training for my second full season at the club, at Chadwell Heath, where the ground was pretty firm, and Bobby Barnes ran across the back of my legs so I went down heavily on my right knee and tore my ACL,’ he explained. ‘That was me out for half the season, and in my first game back against Spurs at White Hart Lane, I fractured my ankle in a challenge with Gary Mabbutt, which meant pretty much the whole season was written off, and I didn’t score once.
‘After that, at the end of the 1984-85 season, John started to make inroads to bring Frank McAvennie to the club, and he arrived in summer 1985, and everyone knows how that turned out, so that was pretty much it for me. I got fit for the start of that new season and went to play against the likes of Santos in the Kirin Cup in Japan, and scored a few goals, but when I came back John said he’d had a call from Lawrie McMenemy at Sunderland.
‘He said I didn’t have to leave, but I knew Frank was coming in, so the writing was on the wall for me. I didn’t want to leave, but after what had happened the previous season I knew it was going to be difficult to come back from that, so it was one of those times when you just sense it’s the right thing to do.’
Swindlehurst’s only regrets about his time at West Ham seem to be its brevity and the damage that injuries did.
‘With the class that so many of that team had, you just felt if we could have stayed injury-free we might have done something that whole season that I played, but fate intervenes and you just have to live with that.
‘John Lyall was great – he knew what he wanted, had a great way of doing it, and there was a great family thing around the club. Geoff Hurst had retired years earlier but even he helped Alvin Martin and I get sponsored cars, that’s the sort of atmosphere there was, and I used to travel to training with Billy Bonds – just being around him and seeing how he conducted himself was such a learning experience, I wish I could have learnt more from him. Some people don’t realise I was at West Ham, it showed promise but it was too brief – I wish I could have stayed there a lot longer.’
After two seasons at Roker Park, Swindlehurst played out in Cyprus for a while before a disagreement over how to treat a knee injury saw him return to England in 1988, and an unlikely brief stint in the spotlight once again. ‘My old Palace strike partner David Kemp was now on Wimbledon’s coaching staff, and told me they needed cover for striker John Fashanu just before the FA Cup final against Liverpool,’ he said. ‘He said I could get their physio to take a look at my knee and get fit for the new season, as obviously I was a bit ring-rusty.
‘They were a very close-knit bunch so I knew I wasn’t going to break into that group, and obviously I knew I was only makeshift, but I played a couple of games and got a few Cup final tickets, so that was a nice surprise.’
Post-football, Swindlehurst took his coaching badges, but until the right opportunity came along, was happy to earn a living however became available. ‘My first wife Dawn was part of Parr and Son funeral directors in Elmers End, so I did a bit of work for them – when you’re not working you have to have a go at what’s there,’ he explained.
After some time managing in non-league and working in the world of teaching, Swindlehurst returned to Palace’s coaching staff, before falling victim to boardroom politics. ‘I was put on gardening leave by Simon Jordan, I thought I’m not going to sit around here and wait, so I went back to the school I’d been at, and later took on a coaching role at Crawley Town, who were still non-league then. We did well, but again, like at Palace, I ended up being on the wrong end of a chairman’s decision, and so I went back to the school and they took me back again.’
Swindlehurst’s current role is at the Harrodian School in Barnes, west London, where despite the disruption to school sport caused by the pandemic, he is working hard to produce the potential future stars of English football. ‘We’ve tried to unearth a few – we’ve got one at Palace at the moment, who we have big hopes for, and a couple of others have gone to Chelsea, QPR and Fulham. Originally they used to be impressed by the fact that I was an ex-pro, but these days when they dig up videos, they usually just say things like “that’s you with hair”.
Falling as it did between the high points of the early 80s and the Boys of 86, and blighted by injuries to both himself and key team-mates, fate has been somewhat harsh on Swindlehurst’s time at West Ham, but it is a period that he regards with obvious affection. ‘I’ve not been back since the move, but the club did have me back to do ambassadorial work with the likes of Phil Parkes, and I’ve got nothing but love for West Ham,’ he said. ‘It’s sad it was only for a short time, but I’m very glad I went there.’