If you judge a man by the company he keeps, then Geoff Pike is not just West Ham class, but world class.
Not only was he part of the 1980 FA Cup winning team, the 1981 team he rates even more highly, and the boys of 86, but he also shared a pitch with many of the greatest names in footballing history when his early footballing education at West Ham saw him spend summers on loan to the Hartford Bicentennials, later the Connecticut Bicentennials, playing in the NASL.
‘My first match for them was against the New York Cosmos, and I’ve got a photo of me tackling Pele – if the photographer had taken it one second later, he would have caught me dispossessing him,’ Pike told Blowing Bubbles.
‘I also played against the likes of George Best, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer when I was out there as a 20-year-old, and if you can’t learn something from that, then you don’t deserve to be a footballer.’
And learn something he most definitely did, as guided by John Lyall right from the very start of his career to well past the end of his playing days, Pike made a major contribution to West Ham history, establishing a close bond with the fans that endures to this day.
‘I grew up in South Ockenden and without anyone knowing, my primary school teacher contacted the club and said “you need to look at this boy”, so in summer 1966, just after the World Cup, I went down to Chadwell Heath, aged 10, and the first person I met was John Lyall, who was youth team coach and also helped out with the schoolboys. He said I was a bit young but as I was there, I may as well play, and at the end of the session, he said “make sure you’re back here on Thursday” and that’s how it started,’ Pike explained.
But had he not forced the club’s hand to take action, Pike could have ended up playing for another great of the English game, Bobby Robson.
‘When I was 15, I had a week’s trial at Ipswich, and Bobby phoned me three times in a week, asking if West Ham had said anything yet, and how if I signed for him, I’d be in the first team by the time I was 18,’ Pike said.
‘But my heart was set on West Ham, so I phoned (scout) Wally St Pierre, to tell him the situation, and he said “give me a minute”. Five minutes later he called back to say that they were signing me, and that’s how it all started.’
In 1972 Pike joined as an apprentice, and then two years later as a full professional, being part of the team that reached the 1974-75 FA Youth Cup final against, of all teams, Ipswich.
Whilst the senior side won the FA Cup that season, the youngsters could not make it a double, as a team including Pike and future FA Cup winning team-mates Alvin Martin and Paul Brush – as well as future Irons manager Alan Curbishley – lost 5-1 on aggregate.
‘For two summers on the trot I’d been out to the States, so I was in my third season in a row without a break, and halfway through that season Ron Greenwood told me I needed to buck my ideas up or I wouldn’t get a new contract,’ Pike said. ‘Maybe it was the kick up the bum I needed, though, as a couple of months later I was in and around the first team.’
The 1974 season was also Lyall’s first season in charge, as Greenwood’s successor, although the future England manager was still involved until he took over the national team in 1977, and having won the FA Cup in his first season, after that, Lyall struggled.
In 1975-76 West Ham finished two places above relegation from the old Division One, the next season three places above the drop and then the following year, with Greenwood gone, after 20 years in the top flight, West Ham were relegated.
Fortunately, considering how history was to turn out, the West Ham board kept faith with Lyall despite his failure to build on his good start, and Pike says there was never any suggestion his position was under threat.
‘Look at how it is now, with Spurs getting rid of a manager after four months – how is someone supposed to achieve anything in that time?’ he said. ‘There was no pressure on John. In those days, people were given time – the thinking was that he’d come through with Ron and was his protégé, and Ron had done OK for us, so let’s give him a go.’
Having been the first person Pike encountered on his first visit to the club, Lyall was to play a hugely important part in Pike’s playing career – and beyond.
‘He was like a second father to me – I made my debut in 1976, against Birmingham, when he was manager with Ron on his shoulder, and when John took over completely I was an established first-team player.
‘Years later there was a time when my mum was in hospital with a brain haemorrhage, and we were due to play at Southampton. I said to him “I don’t think I can play, I’m not sure I can be available because I won’t be right for it”.
‘John asked how she was and then said “she’s your biggest fan, what would she want you to do?” and because of that, I played.
‘He used psychology to get me on the pitch. I’m sure it wasn’t because he particularly wanted me to play in that game, but it was because he wanted me to be in a better frame of mind, and it worked.’
In 1980, Lyall steered West Ham to another all-London FA Cup final, this time against hot favourites Arsenal, who were in their third consecutive final, and an injury to Pat Holland meant Pike lined up alongside former FA Youth Cup final team-mate Martin, with Brush on the bench – but no Curbishley, who had moved to Birmingham a year earlier.
‘One of Alan’s problems was that he was portrayed as the next Trevor Brooking, which was detrimental to his development,’ said Pike. ‘He was being wrongly pigeon-holed and needed to be his own player. Maybe he did the best thing for himself by moving on as he may have hung around and not gone anywhere.’
As all West Ham fans know, Brooking was the hero that day with his low header proving to be the winner on a scorching hot day at Wembley.
‘We didn’t know what the team was going to be until Friday lunch time, the day before, then we had to come home, get our bits together and drive to the ground to get the bus to our overnight stay,’ said Pike.
‘I didn’t think I’d be involved – I thought the best case scenario would be as sub – but Pat Holland was injured, so I got in. Paul Brush had been in the team leading up to the final but he got left out – maybe it was because I’d scored in the last game before the final that got me.
‘John played Stuart Pearson deeper, rather than up front with David Cross, and Arsenal just couldn’t deal with us – Phil Parkes barely had a shot to save all day. Arsenal had great individuals like Liam Brady, who everyone knew could turn the game, but one of our great strengths was that we were a unit, with a real team ethic, all wanting to do the best they could for the sake of everyone else.’
Following that FA Cup triumph, Lyall made QPR striker Paul Goddard the club’s record signing, setting up a season that saw the Irons back at Wembley in the League Cup final, playing in Europe and running away with the Division Two title.
‘People ask who’s the better team, the Cup winners or the next season, but I have to say the following season,’ said Pike. ‘With Goddard in for Pearson, we were even better – promoted by Easter, in another Cup final (losing to Liverpool in a replay after they had scored a highly contentious late equaliser in the first game) and playing in Europe, not many teams can do that.’
The European campaign only lasted three rounds, but was an unforgettable experience. A first round 3-1 loss to Real Madrid’s reserve side, Castilla, at the Bernabeu, was marred by crowd trouble, so the return leg at Upton Park was played behind closed doors – not that this was as big a deal for the players as some people might think.
‘People ask if it was odd, but in those days when players got injured, they played in reserve games at the main ground in front of next to nobody, so we’d all done that at some point,’ he said.
Next up was a trip to Timisoara in Romania, after a comfortable first leg win.
‘That was an eye-opener,’ said Pike. ‘The communist bloc was totally unknown to us, and we had to fly into a military airbase. Because they didn’t have floodlights, the game was played in the afternoon, with the crowd going back to work afterwards.’
The third and final leg of the adventure was again out east, to face Dinamo Tblisi of the then-Soviet Union, who won the first leg at Upton Park 4-1 and despite losing the return game 1-0, went on to win the tournament overall.
‘We couldn’t get anyone out there to see them so when they turned up, that was the first time we’d seen them,’ he said. ‘They were absolutely outstanding, and thumped us at home.
‘Going out there, we flew via Moscow, where there was a six hour delay which meant we got snowed in and had to stay overnight, then fly on the next day. It was quite an experience.’
On January 1, 1983, Pike was again at the heart of the action when a significant event in West Ham history occurred.
‘We were at home to Spurs, and John was unwell so Ronnie Boyce was in charge of the team. Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking were both unavailable, so before the game, Ronnie told me that John wanted me to be captain, which was wonderful news,’ he said.
‘Making his debut that day was a young Tony Cottee. We’d all seen him in training, and there was no doubt he was a great finisher.
‘During the game, we had a free kick which I took, Joe Gallagher headed against the bar and he followed it up and tucked it home, and his West Ham career began. But I always remind him that I was his captain that day, and that I set up his first goal as well.’
That game was a rare example of Lyall being absent from Pike’s career, because throughout his time at the club, there was the double anchor of Lyall on the touchline, and Bonds on the pitch.
‘John never raised his voice – you didn’t have a technical area in those days, but there was no shouting from the sidelines,’ he said. ‘We never had to look to the bench for advice if something wasn’t going right, because he’d coached us to be able to make those decisions for ourselves, when we needed to.
‘Billy wasn’t a shouter and a screamer either, he just led by example. I remember one game where we were struggling a bit, and all of a sudden he ran past me and tackled someone straight into the Chicken Run, and immediately I thought “I can’t let him do it on his own”, and it bucked my ideas up.’
Cottee’s partnership with Frank McAvennie was what inspired the Boys of 86 to what remains West Ham’s highest ever finish, third in the old Division One, but that season and the one after, injury and the form of Neil Orr meant Pike was featuring less frequently, and soon, after 12 years, it was time to move on.
‘Leaving was a challenge,’ he said. ‘Things weren’t going too well on the pitch (West Ham won none of his last eight appearances), I wasn’t helping the team much and I was only playing intermittently.
‘I spoke to ex-Hammer John Bond at Birmingham, who asked if I’d like to go there, so I said I’d take a look but two weeks later he was sacked so that didn’t happen, and instead I ended up dropping down to Division Three with Notts County.
‘John Barnwell sold it to me very well, I was captain and in the first season we just missed out on promotion, and the following year he got sacked and was replaced by Neil Warnock. We didn’t get on, so I ended up going to Leyton Orient, and when a pelvic injury meant I had to retire, I got straight into coaching the youth team.’
From there, Pike got into player education and working for the Profession Footballers’ Association, before once again, Lyall made a significant intervention. ‘He told me I should be involved with the FA, and because it was him who said it, I made a point of going for it, had four or five interviews and eventually got a job there, working for 12 years on designing coaching qualifications.’
Today, Pike is in demand all over the world, coaching coaches in places as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Canada and the Philippines.
Closer to home, however, his legacy is not so highly regarded.
‘My relationship with West Ham as it is today is non-existent,’ he said. ‘When the Billy Bonds Stand was opened, no-one contacted me or asked me along, and I felt I had to phone Billy and apologise.
‘I’ve had no real contact with the club and one time I phoned to see if I could get some tickets for a game for my son, they told me how much it would cost me. I’m not after freebies, but that attitude was so disappointing.’
Fortunately, though, Pike’s bond with his former team-mates – and West Ham fans – is as strong as ever.
‘Whenever I’m asked to a reunion or a fan event, I’ll always go – I would never not do something for the fans,’ he said. ‘In the future, I don’t think there will be this relationship between fans and players like there is now, but every time I’ve been to one of these events, it’s been absolutely jam packed. I seriously can’t believe the number of people who want to turn up and listen to us ramble on.’