To be told a manager has signed you to replace one of your new club’s all-time living legends is a daunting enough way to get bedded in, but to find yourself filling the manager’s seat within days or arriving is another – but that is how Neil Orr’s West Ham career began. When he joined in January 1982, the 22-year-old was thrust from the part-time world of Greenock Morton in the Scottish Premier League into a West Ham side that had reached two Cup finals in the previous 18 months, and played in Europe, so it was a case of sink or swim for the Scottish defender.
‘It was a move out of the blue – I didn’t know anything about it until I had a phone call on Saturday morning, and by Saturday night I’d signed,’ Orr, now aged 63, told Blowing Bubbles. ‘John Lyall told me he wanted me as one for the future, as a long-term replacement for Billy Bonds, which was a pretty tall order, but when I left in 1987, Billy was still playing. The first game after I signed was away at Brighton, and I wasn’t registered, so I watched it from the bench, with John up in the stands. Halfway through the game he wanted to swap seats, so I found myself sitting in the boss’ seat before I’d even played a game.’
As part-timers competing in Scotland’s top flight, Orr says Morton were always favourites to get relegated, but regularly punched above their weight to finish mid-table. But when a team like West Ham came calling, offering full-time football, it was a big deal.
‘Ray Stewart, who was already at West Ham, was a friend of mine and once when we were together on Scotland U21 duty, I met John when he was at a hotel we were staying in,’ Orr said. ‘Morton was my home club, and we’d sold three players in the last six or eight months, so there was always a chance of moving on if you were a decent player. I was working full-time as a building site safety officer, and I was content with playing part-time, but of course if the opportunity of a full-time career came along, I was going to be interested.’
The winter of 1982 saw a disrupted football programme and when the move came, it was done and dusted in the blink of an eye – certainly before the newspapers had heard of it.
‘On the Friday night we’d had a reserves game at Kilmarnock, our first game in weeks, and then the next morning, I had a call asking me to go to the chairman’s house in Glasgow because there was some interest in a transfer,’ he said. ‘John and Eddie Bayley were coming up to watch the Old Firm and wanted to get the deal done before the game, but they were delayed, so I had to go back home and then wait for another call to go up to the Excelsior Hotel, and it was done there and then.
‘The wages were explained to me, but there was no negotiating, so I went back home, told my fiancée what had happened, and then the next day went back to Glasgow to fly down to London with them. On the way, I saw something in the paper about Southampton and Aston Villa being interested in me, but I’d already signed – that’s how John did his business.’
Once clearance finally came through, Orr’s first team debut was away at Manchester United, as Lyall put in him to try and liven up a team who had been knocked out of the Cup by Watford the previous week, but with no joy as they lost 1-0. Next up was the home debut, a 3-1 win over West Brom, and the first sign that things were different at West Ham.
‘It struck me that this was probably the first time I’d played in front of a big home crowd,’ said Orr. ‘I wasn’t intimidated at all, it was just a case of you’ve got a job to do, get on with it, but at Morton, if ever we got a big crowd it was because Rangers or Celtic were in town, so even though we were the home side, they had more fans. This was different.’
Having been signed with an eye on replacing the great Bonzo would be enough of a burden of expectation to cause many a player to buckle, but Orr soon settled into his new role – even if unseating him did not quite happen.
‘There was a bit of a settling-in period when I arrived but once I did come into the team I played for the rest of that first season,’ he said. ‘I was signed as a centre back and had a bit of a hamstring problem in the next pre-season, so when I was fit, Billy and Alvin Martin were in my position so I was moved forward to midfield, which wasn’t natural for me. I wasn’t the most creative, I was still defensively-minded.’
After two cup finals in two seasons at the start of the decade, things calmed down a bit for West Ham over the following years, but all that changed in summer 1985 when the arrival of another Scot, Frank McAvennie, changed West Ham’s history.
‘That previous season we weren’t great, and finished 16th, and in the summer we had a pre-season friendly at Orient. Somehow a fan managed to get into the dressing room, and he gave us what for, and told us we weren’t good enough,’ Orr explained. ‘Obviously the point of pre-season games is to get fitness, but the performance wasn’t up to standard for him, and he let us know. That was as close as I ever saw to anyone challenging John’s authority, but it had the desired effect, because after a bit of a slow start, we went on to have our best ever season, with Frank and Tony Cottee making the perfect partnership.’
Lyall may have guided West Ham to both the FA and League Cup finals, but it is the achievement of the class of 86 that remains his biggest achievement – and to this day, the club’s best league finish, in third place. But it could have been even higher.
‘We lost the first few games, but picked up a bit before Christmas, then there was a big break but after that, once we started winning, we got lots of momentum but we were always playing catch-up,’ Orr said. ‘We went into the last Saturday of the season still in the hunt, and when we heard West Ham fans cheering for Chelsea, who were playing league leaders Liverpool, we thought Chelsea must have scored, and that’s what John thought too, but it turned out to be wrong, Liverpool won and that meant they won the title,’ he explained.
‘We could still have finished second, though, as it was between us and Everton, who we were playing the following Monday night. We used a very small squad that season and we were getting through games but it took a lot out of us, and Everton’s players were playing for Cup final spots, and beat us 3-1 to take second place. It was agonising to come so close but miss out, and we can look back at a few games like Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest away, and Chelsea at home, which really cost us.
‘We had the best home record in Division One that season, and Frank was the second highest scorer, so we couldn’t have done much more. Out of their last 12 games, Liverpool won 11 and drew one, and they did the double that season. That’s what we were up against.’
Even though the team missed out on the highest prize, the third place finish only served to underline Lyall’s name in the pages of club history.
‘At first I called him boss but he would always insist we called him John,’ said Orr. ‘He could be ruthless when he needed to, but without being aggressive or vocal about it. He was a gentleman, and he was always in control of himself – he might shout the odd thing from the sidelines but he was never a screamer, he would guide people.
‘If things weren’t going well, he had a way of telling you and letting you know he wasn’t happy, but he did it in a way that you could always take something from it to improve your game. I had some managers who would lose control, that was their way of telling you performance wasn’t good enough, but John would never do it that way. There was always some useful advice in his feedback that you could take away.’
Remarkably, no signings were made that summer, and when injuries hit with a vengeance, mid-season signings including Stewart Robson and Liam Brady were brought in, further restricting opportunities for Orr, who was starting to pick up injuries.
‘Once they came, I was out of the team for a bit and things didn’t really pick up, so we finished 15th, 12 months after coming third. I managed to work back into the team for the start of the next season, but I didn’t play that many games and eventually realised John was changing the midfield, and I wasn’t in it.
‘When the 1987-88 season came along, I knew I wasn’t going to get much of a look-in, so I said if anyone’s interested in me, let me know. I played in another pre-season game at Orient, and helped turn things round. I played in the opening game against QPR, but that turned out to be my final game as before the trip to Luton, I heard Hibs were interested.
‘I missed the game, with Paul Ince taking my place, and the next day I had talks and agreed to sign – that was it, done. I went on to play six more years for Hibs, so it wasn’t an age thing, it was just John wanting to shake things up a bit.’
After retiring from playing in 1995, Orr moved into coaching, mainly at youth level, including a lengthy spell in Australia, and is now back in Scotland, most recently at Edinburgh University.
‘I didn’t harbour coaching ambition when I was playing, but I did my coaching badges and when I was asked to do some coaching at Dartmouth College in America I was surprised by how much I liked it,’ he said. ‘Working with adults doesn’t really appeal to me so much – in 1998, when Ray Stewart got the Livingston manager’s job, he offered me a position as his assistant but I turned it down, and I’ve not had many other offers, but I feel I can make more of a difference at this level.’
Looking back on his time at West Ham, Orr is proud to have been part of club history, and only wishes he could have done more. ‘The only bad memories I have are of a couple of pre-seasons where I was injured, so I overworked to try and make up for it, which probably made things worse,’ he said. ‘With the sort of advice you get these days, I’m sure I could have handled it better, but I’m certainly privileged to have been part of what happened at West Ham for a few years, and to have worked under John Lyall, who was a marvellous man.
‘The atmosphere was fantastic, and the fans were very passionate – they certainly let you know if they weren’t happy, as much as if they were! But most of all, I enjoyed the people I played with – they weren’t just good footballers, but off the pitch, they were good people too.’