Before it was the Academy of Football, life for trainees at West Ham was the School of Hard Knocks — and one who knows this more than most is former Irons striker Brian Dear. Stag, as he is known, was a key part of one of the most exciting and memorable eras in West Ham history, as a member of the squad that won the FA Cup in 1964 and the team that won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965, and in both cases, those teams were largely comprised of players who had come up at West Ham the hard way.
‘I joined as a ground staff boy in 1959, and the club made us work as well as play,’ Brian, now 78, told Blowing Bubbles. ‘There was no training ground then, we used to train at Upton Park, and after we’d done that, coached by some of the first team, we had to sweep out the dressing rooms, polish the taps, clean the windows, take care of the first team’s kit — the lot.
‘We played in a few junior competitions, but we never played Saturday football. We had a team in the Metropolitan League, where we played against teams like St Neots, Bedford and Eastbourne, who were all fully grown men, many of them ex-pros, playing against us, aged 15 or 16. It was character-building stuff, but a whole load of us who came up that route, including Ronnie Boyce, John Sissons and Bobby Moore, went on to play for the first team.’
Although the phrase the Academy of Football has become associated with West Ham’s production line of talent, it was also one that was associated with the number of first-team players from that era who went into coaching, such as John Bond, Noel Cantwell, Dave Sexton and Frank O’Farrell. Cassettari’s CafÃ© was their favoured meeting place, discussing tactical formations with salt and pepper shakers and sauce bottles, and as far as West Ham history was concerned, the most important of this group was future Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison.
‘Malcolm was so far ahead of his time, he had so many ideas, and he used to give manager Ted Fenton an absolutely terrible time,’ said Dear. ‘I remember one time the first team had a whole new set of kit and Malcolm decided to cut the sleeves short, because he thought that looked better.
‘His biggest contribution, though, was mentoring Bobby Moore. He thought he was amazing, and it was thanks to him that Bobby got his first team debut. Malcolm was unwell and they were going to play someone else in his place, but he said “no, you’ve got to play the kidâ€, and so Bobby made his debut against Manchester United in September 1958, aged 18.’
In 1961, Fenton departed and was replaced by Ron Greenwood, a man who would reap the harvest of young talent that his predecessor had sown. ‘Things changed when Ron came in from Arsenal — he was really into coaching, and had lots of ideas. First of all we bought Chadwell Heath, our first training ground, which had been the sports club for a pharmaceutical company on Liverpool Street called Allen and Hanbury, for about £25,000.
‘All it had was a cricket pavilion, tennis courts, two toilets, a few pitches and a little shed where you could get a cup of tea, but that was what Ron wanted,’ said Dear. ‘His idea of football really changed the club, he had so much more of a vision than Ted. Ron loved the European style of football, and we were different from a lot of other sides of the time in that we weren’t aggressive.
‘Ron didn’t like aggressive people, and he didn’t like aggressive football — we hardly ever had players sent off, and that certainly marked West Ham out as being a bit different from some other sides at the time. You’d never have had anyone like Billy Bremner of Leeds, or Ron Harris from Chelsea, or Dave McKay from Spurs, in one of Ron’s sides.’
The core of the team Greenwood built and guided to glory was the ground staff boys. Dear made his debut at the start of the 1962-63 season, and was only an occasional starter over the next few years, as his fellow former apprentices won the club’s first trophy in the 1964 FA Cup final. But a year later, he was in the thick of the action as the team returned to Wembley to follow up that victory with another triumph, in the Cup Winners’ Cup final, despite the inspirational Moore having missed three months of the season with what was much later revealed to be his first bout of cancer.
‘We were lucky to get through the first round (a 2-1 aggregate win over Belgian side Gent), and I wasn’t in great favour with Ron then — I was a bit of a bull in a china shop, and whenever there was any trouble he seemed to think that I was involved,’ said Dear. ‘In February we got to the quarter-final, against Lausanne, but the game was delayed for a week because of snow, which meant we had a league game against Sunderland before the rescheduled match.
‘Ron decided to rest John Byrne and give me a chance instead. We lost 3-2 but I scored twice, and then Eddie Bovington suffered a knee injury which ruled him out, and when I was in the bath, Ron said “Have you got a passport, because you’re coming to Lausanne with usâ€, and I said “I’m not coming if I’m not playingâ€! I scored the first in a 2-1 away win, then we beat them 4-3 at home, with me scoring twice including an 89th minute winner.’
With the best timing of his life, Dear had hit a goalrush, which ended up being 14 goals in 15 games including more vital goals to help the Irons back to Wembley for another final — but most famously, earning him a place in the record books, for the fastest-ever five goal haul by one player in an English league game. ‘We beat West Brom 6-1, and I scored five in 20 minutes either side of half time,’ he said. Since 1965, only Sergio Aguero has matched this feat, against Newcastle in October 2015.
Three years after Dear’s five, Geoff Hurst went one better, scoring six in an 8-0 win over Sunderland, becoming one of only two players, along with all-time club record scorer Vic Watson, to find the net six times in a game. But he could not match Dear’s speed. Crucially, Dear had cemented his place in the team for what was to be the biggest win in the club’s history, a 2-0 triumph over TSV Munich, on May 19, 1965.
‘It may not have been the greatest game but it was the biggest trophy, and Ron absolutely loved that — it was just what he wanted,’ said Dear. ‘When you look at that side — Joe Kirkup, Jack Burkett, Martin Peters, Ken Brown, John Sissons, me, Bobby, Geoff Hurst, Ronnie Boyce — we were all ex-groundstaff lads, who had grown up together and look what we had achieved, as a unit. Two trophies in two years, with so many of the side homegrown talent — only Manchester United have ever done anything like that.’
But that was as good as it was going to get for Dear at West Ham, as once again, he fell out of regular first-team contention. In 1967 he had a loan spell at Brighton, and with the emergence of new talents such as Clyde Best and Trevor Brooking, in 1969, Dear left West Ham to join Fulham.
‘My last game was against Leicester, when — again — I scored against Peter Shilton,’ said Dear. ‘I did him eight times in four games — he was the best keeper in the country, and no-one gave him that kind of treatment. He said I drove him mad, so I always used to say “unluckyâ€ to him afterwards. I really didn’t want to leave — a lot of us lived near one another, about five minutes away from the ground, and I had a young family, so why would I? But Fulham’s manager Bill Dodgin was a nice guy and they had some great players including Cliff Jones and a young Malcolm McDonald, so I went.
‘I played about 14 games and scored a few but he could see I wasn’t really happy, so when Benny Fenton — brother of my old boss Ted, and they’re still the only brothers ever to play in the West Ham first team together — said he wanted to take me to Millwall, and they could get some money, so I thought why not. That was a disaster, though, and left in summer 1970.’
Dear was soon watching his old team-mates train when he got a call to go into Greenwood’s office. ‘I thought he was going to ask me to stop hanging round the training ground, but he asked me if I wanted to come back to West Ham,’ he said. ‘I was absolutely delighted, but he said not to tell anyone, and to go away and train on my own, then they’d see how things were. It all went well and I got a contract for the season — and then Blackpool happened.’
The story of how West Ham’s FA Cup embarrassment on and off the pitch at Blackpool in January 1971 was the beginning of the end of an era for the club. ‘The pitch was awful and everyone thought the game would be called off,’ he said. ‘That night, me, Bobby, Clyde Best, Jimmy Greaves, Rob Jenkins the physio and a couple of others went out and had a drink, and got spotted coming back, and word got back to the club — it could only have come from someone working on the door of the hotel as they saw us.
‘The worst part was that the next day, Blackpool came to the same hotel for their pre-match meal, so they could tell that something was up with us. I didn’t play, Bobby Howe took my place, and a Blackpool player called Tony Green had the game of his life as they beat us 4-0.
‘On Monday I had a call from Bobby saying he’d been called in by Ron, and that we’d have to go to the ground. Ron said “we’ll pay you to the end of the season, but you won’t play againâ€. And that was the end of my West Ham career.’
Dear admits he was in the wrong. ‘Ron had everything in his favour – he’d done me a favour by giving me a second chance, and I’d let him down, I accept that,’ he said. ‘Clyde was only a youngster who’d been shown the wrong thing by senior pros, Jimmy and Bobby were too big names to take on, so I was the easy target.’
Greaves and Moore’s days were numbered after the event though, and it was also seen as a turning point for Greenwood at the club, too. After that, Dear dropped out of league football to take up a lucrative offer to join non-league Woodford Town, where a friend had big ambitions for developing the club and its ground that never came to fruition, but the move opened the door on a post-football career in the catering and pub business, including working for Southend United.
Today Dear is still closely connected to West Ham, regularly attending games as an ambassador, and the spirit of the groundstaff boys, and how important that is to the club’s identity, remains strong within him.
‘Clubs invest so much in academies these days — look at all the great talent we managed to produce, Ferdinand, Johnson, Carrick, Joe Cole, Defoe, Lampard — and they were all sold,’ he said. ‘Now Mark Noble has gone, will there be anyone local left in the side? I hope the club manages to find more boys like that, like we were – because it really matters.’