Sandy Clark: ‘It was my choice to leave West Ham, but I wish I’d stayed longer’

‘It was my choice to leave West Ham, but I wish I’d stayed longer’

In the late 70 and early 1980s, English club sides had a secret key to success; the Scots.

Liverpool were kings of Europe, powered by the trio of Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness. John Robertson was Nottingham Forest’s standout player as they won the league and two consecutive European Cups, and Aston Villa had Des Bremner, Allan Evans and Ken McNaught as they won the league and European Cup.

West Ham may not have quite matched those achievements, but Ray Stewart, Neil Orr and Frank McAvennie all played their part in the club’s finest hours in the 1980s – and it is to the eternal regret of another Scot, striker Sandy Clark, that he did not stick around long enough to join his compatriots in that success.

‘When I look back on my career, I’ve got very few regrets,’ the former Airdrie, Rangers, Hearts, Partick Thistle and Dunfermline striker told Blowing Bubbles, ‘but the main one is that I didn’t stay at West Ham for longer.”

Clark, 65, is now assistant manager at Queen of the South, and had a short but successful spell at Upton Park in the 1982-83 season. 

Although it was only brief, he said that even at an early stage in his career, the experience of working with John Lyall left such a mark that it set him on the path for life after his playing days.

‘He turned out to be a massive influence on the whole of my football life,’ Clark explained. 

‘Airdrie had only been a part-time club so there was not a lot of tactical coaching, but John amazed me with how he set the team up, and had a different approach depending on who the opposition was, and he caught me with coaching bug right away. 

‘Because of him, I knew that I wanted to become a coach, and I started to do my qualifications the following summer. 40 years later I’m still doing it, and that’s mainly down to him.”

Stepping up

Clark’s step up from part-time football Airdrie to joining a top flight team in England who had reached two cup finals in as many seasons was an unlikely one.

‘I was 25 and had been at Airdrie for eight years, having signed a contract as a pro when I was 17 and never signed another one after that. In those days, a club just kept your registration and turned down offers, and there was nothing you could do about it,’ he said.

‘We were a part-time club and I was working nine to five as a branch manager for a credit company called Provident Financial, then training in the evening. 

‘Between what I got there, and my Airdrie money, I was probably on more than players at Rangers and Celtic were at the time, but in the summer of 1982 we got relegated from the Premier League and that’s when the club relented a bit.

‘I’d been there a while and so when a club like West Ham came along, offering £200,000, it was a no-brainer.  

‘I’d been unaware of their interest, but David Cross had just left and John looked at me as a similar type of player, and did his homework on me and then came up to the club to talk.

‘He had real presence in that small board room, and he brought Eddie Baily, who was a real character, with him. They sold the club with so much enthusiasm, and there were already a few other Scottish players there, that the deal was done in no time.” 

At that time, Scotland had a golden generation of talent, and English clubs and managers knew all about it – as did Scottish players.

‘Growing up, everyone in Scotland wanted to go and play down south,’ he said. 

‘I signed schoolboy forms at Airdrie at 13 which tied me to the club, and two years later Leeds wanted to sign me, but the rules then didn’t allow it. I was part of the same generation as players like Kenny Dalglish, but I only ever got to play against them in my time with West Ham – never in Scotland!

‘West Ham weren’t one of the teams making the news in Scotland but once I signed and understood the quality of players and its professionalism, it made me understand why they were good enough to get to cup finals and challenge for the league.”

Goal scoring

Up front that 1982-83 season, Lyall had options – Clark, Paul Goddard and Francois van der Elst, with a young Tony Cottee also on the verge of breaking into the first team – and once Clark got going, he soon hit five goals in five games for the newly-promoted Irons.  

‘Paul and I were the first choice pair, and I really liked playing with him, but what happened to me, and I’ve seen happen many times before, is that you make an impact and then things catch up with you a bit, and I took a bit of a step back at the turn of the year,’ he said – coincidentally, Cottee made his debut, and scored, on New Year’s Day 1983.

‘I was 26 so I wasn’t young, but I was inexperienced at that level of football, and I really should have stuck it out a bit longer as I’m sure I would have revived my standard at West Ham, but Rangers came in for me in the new year. I didn’t ask to leave, John told me that they were interested because he said I’d only find out about it through the papers otherwise, and that he didn’t want me to leave. 

‘If it had been someone like Aberdeen or Hibs, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but it was Rangers. I think he was a bit surprised by my reaction, and within a week he said ”if that’s what you want then I won’t stand in your way, but I don’t want you go to“. I certainly wasn’t scared of healthy competition for a place, that didn’t affect my thinking at all, I only left West Ham because it was Rangers who came knocking. My one career regret is that I didn’t stay at West Ham for longer.” Just 26 games and 7 goals, as it turned out.

Flying the flag

Although several important Scots flew the flag over Upton Park in the 1980s, in more recent years, other than Malky McKay and Christian Dailly, they have been thin on the ground – but the Scottish influence is well and truly present at the London Stadium these days through manager David Moyes, someone Clark has known and been friends with going back to their early days.

‘I’ve known him for years, he was a couple of years younger than me when he broke into the first team at Celtic, playing at full back, and I was at Airdrie, and I used to deliberately drift out wide to play against him as a bigger, more experienced player because I knew he was only a youngster, still learning, and not the best – and I got some joy,’ he said.

 ‘Even going back that far, though, he was a model professional. He found his level and worked incredibly hard to be as good as he could, and was always interested in the tactical and technical side of game, and what makes teams work.

‘When he became Preston manager I was at St Johnstone, we did our UEFA pro licence together and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.”

Praise for Moyes

Clark is full of admiration for Moyes the man and Moyes the manager.

‘The way he’s bounced back from that experience at Manchester United, and how he’s evolved, is incredible. He’s a proper football guy who really studies the game and understand how it works,’ he said.

‘I’m coaching at a hugely different level to him, and what amazes me is the way he has people’s respect and organises top players. I remember talking to Sir Alex Ferguson once, and he told me the way to motivate people as rich, successful and talented as he did was to make it competitive – make them want to play. 

‘David is doing similar things at West Ham now, as you can see from the response he is getting. The commitment and workrate of the players is incredible, and it’s entirely down to him.”

Clark arrived at West Ham as a striker with potential, and left it – regrettably early – as a coach of the future, changed by his experience with Lyall.

‘I played as a striker, so you know you’re going to try and get in the box and score goals, but John – who insisted people call him John, never gaffer or boss, the only manager I’ve ever come across who’s done that – educated me about so much more. He was so enthusiastic and organised, and that made for a great atmosphere.

‘Ronnie Boyce also put in a great amount of work coaching me as a striker, but with John, it was about my wider education. One of the most basic but important bits of advice he gave me was that there are two things a coach needs to know; what to do when you have the ball, and what to do when you don’t have the ball. That’s why I started my badges at 26 and ended up a fully qualified coach by the time I was 30.” 

Clark’s last visit to West Ham was for the final game at Upton Park, where he met many old team-mates, and revived many great memories.

‘There was such a special feel about that place,’ he said. ‘When I met my old team-mates that night, it was as if we’d just seen one another yesterday. They were brilliant players, and good people – that’s what sticks out about my time at West Ham.

‘It’s only when you get older that you look back and appreciate a bit more what you’ve achieved in life, and the standard you played at, and that night really stirred up a lot of memories.

‘It’s only in the last 10 or so years that I’ve really appreciated what I did there. It was my choice to leave West Ham, but it frustrates the hell out of me. I wish I had stayed longer.” 

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