In the currency of fan praise, the chant ‘he’s one of our own’ is as high as it gets. And in Tony Cottee, West Ham fans have someone who was one of them on the terraces, became one of their own on the pitch – in two separate stints at the club – and is now back among their ranks, cheering on the team he has always loved.
Circumstances may have dictated that the striker who ranks fifth in the club’s all-time scoring records spent six of his prime years wearing the blue of Everton rather than the claret and blue of West Ham, but as he told Blowing Bubbles, there was only one team he ever really wanted to play for.
‘I was a late developer as a kid – I always had talent to score, but the collective side and being a team player didn’t really interest me until I got a bit older,’ he said. ‘When I was about 12, my dad said he’d had calls from three clubs interested in me.
‘The first was Arsenal, the second was Crystal Palace, who were Terry Venables’s Team of the 80s then, so were an exciting prospect, but the third was West Ham, and as soon as I heard that, that was it – there was no need to think about it. As a fan, to have the opportunity to play for the team you love means no-one else enters your mind.’
With the youngsters initially playing on the concrete outside the west stand of Upton Park, Cottee soon encountered two people who were to shape his future career, West Ham’s legendary head of development Tony Carr, and manager John Lyall.
‘I was so lucky to have those two around me. John was an incredible coach, and we had a lot of respect for him. He was a bit like a headmaster, in some ways you were a bit afraid of him, especially when it came to talking about contracts, but you knew that if you had any real problems, you could go and talk to him.’
Famously, Lyall handed Cottee his first-team debut on New Year’s Day 1983 and he made the perfect start, scoring against Tottenham. A star was born, and over the subsequent years, the star rose, until summer 1985, when it looked like the ascent had stopped very suddenly.
‘Paul Goddard was our record signing and then that summer, we signed this guy from Scotland called Frank McAvennie, so even though I’d done really well, as the homegrown player rather than someone they’d spent money on, I thought I’d be the odd one out, and it bothered me,’ said Cottee.
‘I phoned John and told him what was on my mind, so he told me to come round to his house, and we sat in the garden having a cup of tea — imagine that happening with a player and manager today. He told me I would be his regular striker, alongside Paul, with Frank behind us, and true to his word, in the opening game that’s what happened. Then Paul dislocated his shoulder and Frank and I were thrown together, and that’s where it all began.’
“It allâ€ was the double act of two wildly different individuals and players who, over three decades later, remain close friends and the most famous strike duo West Ham have ever produced. ‘My first impression of Frank was that I couldn’t understand a word he said, as he had such a thick accent, and now he’s living back in Scotland, it’s as bad as ever — when you speak to him on the phone, you have to ask him to slow down,’ joked Cottee.
‘I didn’t know anything about him, I just knew what we’d paid for him, and that he was trying to get into the same team as me. Everyone plays a number 10 behind two strikers now, but John was doing it back in the 1980s, and adapting to that new way of playing meant we had an awful pre-season, we were all over the place.
‘Off the pitch we were completely different characters, but as long as you gel on the pitch, that doesn’t matter. It took a while for things to click, but once he moved up front and got his eye in, he became the new fan favourite, whilst I had a shocking start and didn’t score for six games.
‘I remember John left me out against Southampton and picked Greg Campbell ahead of me, and I thought “what is happening here?â€, but then I played in the next game at Sheffield Wednesday, scored, and then scored six on the trot, and the partnership was born.’
Their playing styles were as different as their personalities — but together, they worked perfectly. ‘Frank would always try and chase players down and win the ball back, but I wasn’t interested in that, I just wanted to score,’ said Cottee. ‘At one point we had a team meeting, without the boss, and after that we went on an 18-game unbeaten run which is still a club record, with the goals flying in from all angles. It was a great season — the fans loved it, and as players, we did too.’
The third place finish in the 1985-86 season remains West Ham’s best ever placing, and Cottee puts much of the success at the feet of Lyall. ‘He was great at getting the balance right between youngsters like me and senior pros, and he made you realise so much of it came down to the very basic things, like when the ball comes to you, before it’s arrived have a picture of what you’re going to do with it.
‘You see so many players who don’t decide what to do until the ball has arrived, and that half a second can make all the difference. He also instilled in us to sort things out for ourselves — his approach was “I can tell you what to do before, at half time and after, but on the pitch, you sort it outâ€. So many players these days wait to be told what to do, but he encouraged us to argue amongst ourselves — in the best way.’
But as Cottee’s personal stock rose, West Ham’s did not, and inevitably, once he came onto the England radar — the presence of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley restricted him to just eight England appearances — inevitably, his head was turned by the new teammates around him.
‘In life, you have a personal cap and a professional one, and as a footballer, you’re no different,’ he said. ‘West Ham should have won the league in 1986 — can you imagine what it would have been like if we had — but then after that, we failed to follow it up. I was going away with the England squad where you’re surrounded by people talking about challenging for and winning trophies, and also how much they were earning, but as a homegrown player at West Ham, none of that was happening for me.
‘I got frustrated in the 1986-87 season where I scored more than the season before, but the team only finished 15th, and then Frank was sold to Celtic and Paul went to Newcastle. We were linked with people like Kerry Dixon or Mick Harford but nothing came of it, and the more I heard when I was away with England, the more frustrated I got. I was 22 when I played the last game of my first spell at West Ham — I’d had a fantastic six and a bit years there, but then Everton came along, and I can’t stress how hard it was for me to leave.’
Having lost their home-grown hero, the 1988-89 season was one to forget for West Ham fans, culminating as it did in relegation and the sacking of Lyall, and the writing was on the wall from the opening day. As West Ham lost 4-0 at Southampton, Cottee scored 34 seconds into his Everton debut, and went on to bag a hat-trick.
When Cottee returned to his old stomping ground in new colours, he got a decidedly mixed reception. ‘There was some polite applause, but there was also some booing,’ he said. ‘It’s understandable some fans were unhappy with me, David Kelly was signed to replace me and it didn’t work out, and the team ended up being relegated that season. But even though I wasn’t there any more, I felt like I was being blamed for that. It was hard to take, and it did take a while to repair that connection. After all, I had been a fan.’
But a few years later, the Upton Park crowd made amends, and drew Cottee back home. ‘When Bobby Moore died, there was a picture in the paper of a woman laying flowers at the club gates, and it was my nan, which was very emotional for me,’ he said. Then there was a tribute game, with one player from each other Premier League side in a squad to play against West Ham, and I was Everton’s player.
‘We were all introduced one by one, and I was a bit wary after what had happened before, but when my name was read out, I got a huge reception, and that was it, the slate was wiped clean. If ever there was a chance to come back to West Ham, I knew I would take it.’
Cottee’s return in 1994 coincided with the arrival of new manager Harry Redknapp, and he is sufficiently savvy to know it was a clever PR move by the new boss. ‘He brought back Julian Dicks too, so Harry knew what he was doing, and that it was a great way to get the fans on side,’ he said.
‘It was fantastic for me to come back and have a second spell, and I really appreciated it and wanted to spend the rest of my time there, but as it turned out, it was only a couple of years. I was top scorer again, though. Cartilage operations meant I lost a bit of pace at Everton, and having been a greedy player the first time round at West Ham, I came back more experienced and a better team player. I savoured it more, too.
‘I signed a three-year deal that would take me into my early 30s, and I was happy to stay as long as I could, but after a while financial problems came up and Harry had to sell me. I was gutted to leave but I had to go to help the club.’
What made leaving worse was who had pushed Cottee out of the frame. ‘I’d been top scorer for two seasons, then I got injured at the start of my third season, and by the time I got fit again, new players like Florin Raducioiusu, Dani and Ilie Dumtrescu were all ahead of me. I knew they weren’t better than me but he had signed them, so I was no longer first choice.’
In the rather surprising absence of interest from any English teams at all, Cottee took an unlikely diversion to Malaysia for a short and unhappy stint. Leicester then offered him a way back to England, where he enjoyed what he calls ‘three unexpected bonus years’, keeping him playing in the Premier League up to the age of 34, and with both West Ham and Everton showing interest in re-signing him when he was there, although neither came to fruition.
In 2001, aged 36, Cottee’s playing career finally came to an end, in a way that left him deeply unsatisfied, but ensured him pub quiz question immortality, as he became the first player to play in all four tiers of the English game in one season.
‘I started the season at Leicester, then went to Norwich for a bit and then Barnet, in League Two, and I realised the only one missing for the set was League One,’ he explained. ‘The only League One team to show interest when I was available was Millwall, so I thought why not, but from the moment I arrived, it was obviously the wrong choice all round.
‘I was only there for six weeks and wasn’t properly fit, and only played briefly in two games. What was funny, though, was that they got promoted and manager Mark McGhee asked me if I wanted to go on an open-top bus tour with them. As a West Ham boy, I just couldn’t do that, and also as someone who only played for them for 19 minutes, it just wasn’t right. I really regret not having been at West Ham for longer — and I regret playing 19 minutes for Millwall.’
For all his historical contribution to West Ham, however, at the moment, Cottee remains no closer to the club than being a fan, as his links to potential ownership bids for the club have won him no friends in the boardroom.
‘I was involved in the Landsbanki takeover (in 2006) which of course didn’t go well, and before David Sullivan and David Gold bought the club, I was speaking to other investors, and more recently I was involved in the PIE bid. I saw their plans and I think it would have been good but David Sullivan chose not to deal with them, which is his choice,’ he explained.
‘I don’t get involved with bids because it’s good for me, I get involved for the good of the club. I go to games with my friends, and I went to last season’s European away games as a fan — I’d love to be involved, but the management don’t want that. I’m 57 so I’ve got 10 or 15 years of good service I could give the club, if only they’d let me. The fans have been brilliant to me, and would do anything for me, and I’d like to do that back.
‘I’d love to have a role letting the board know how fans feel, because I only want what’s best for the club, and as lockdown showed us, without fans, football is nothing. A lot of things have improved around the club, but there’s so much more that can be done, and I’d love to help do it, but until there’s a change of ownership, I don’t think I’ll be back at West Ham in a working capacity.’
*This interview was conducted before the recent death of club co-owner David Gold