Tony Gale: ‘Ludo still says I owe him for how well West Ham played against United!’

Tony Gale reflects on 10 years at the heart of the most glorious and agonising moments of our history

General view at the West Ham United v Manchester City EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th September, 2023.

In life, some people choose to start at the bottom and work their way up, and others just choose to make life difficult for themselves by starting at the top. Tony Gale seems to fall into the latter camp.

‘When I made my debut for Fulham as a teenager, I was given Bobby Moore’s number six shirt to fill, and then seven years later when I turned up at West Ham, they gave me Billy Bonds’s number four. Talk about a hard act to follow – but that just seemed to follow me around in life,’ he told Blowing Bubbles.

Gale spent 10 years as a piece of the defensive furniture at Upton Park, at the heart of some of the most glorious and agonising moments of West Ham history, before becoming an unlikely Premier League champion with Blackburn, and then one of the country’s most popular radio and television pundits. His newly-published autobiography, That’s Entertainment, recalls some of the more memorable moments of his career, and those he encountered along the way – including West Ham’s greatest ever player, Moore.

‘Bobby was absolute footballing royalty and a bit of a mentor to me, because I knew I would be taking over from him at Fulham, so I hung on every word he said – and because he was a man of few words, when he did speak, you made sure you listened,’ Gale, now 63-years-old, said. ‘I was only about 16 and he was at the end of his career so he knew he was looking after a kid but one of the greatest compliments I can pay to his character is that he treated everybody exactly the same, from the tea lady at the training ground to the Queen, and that’s a wonderful trait to have.’

By the time Gale was playing for West Ham, Moore was commentating for radio station Capital Gold – ironically, another path down which Gale would follow him – and Gale said he always took time to pick him out. ‘!f he commentated on a West Ham game, he’d always say hello, and if the great man called you over for a word, you made sure that you went.

‘He also did some newspaper writing, and after a game against Wimbledon, he said I was the nearest thing he’d seen to watching himself play. He’d always said nice things in private but to do that in public was amazing. It meant the world to me. Of course, the lads asked me how much I’d paid him to write it.’

Gale was sufficiently highly regarded at Fulham to be made first-team captain at the age of 18, when they had turned down an approach for him from Liverpool, then in their prime under manager Bob Paisley. The 1983 season ended in huge controversy with Fulham missing out on promotion to the old Division One on the last day of the season, when fans brought a chaotic premature end to their game at Derby, and the following season a slump in form coincided with the end of Gale’s Fulham contract.

‘I really wanted to help Fulham get to the top flight, but the moment passed and when my contract expired, it was the first season of transfers being set by tribunal and West Ham and Chelsea both wanted me,’ Gale explained. ‘I’d grown up a Chelsea fan, as were all my family were, and I lived near their training ground – but because of John Lyall, I chose to go across the other side of London instead. It was like having a long lost dad come round. I chose West Ham because he was so nice and, as I found later, so good at his job.’

In summer 1984, Gale became part of what were known as the foreigners at West Ham – foreign, because in the days before the global transfer market, that is how people from west London seemed. ‘The other two foreigners were Phil Parkes and Alan Devonshire, who remain my best friends in football, because of all the travelling we did to training each day, with Phil deciding early on that I was the chauffeur,’ he said. ‘Dev had a sponsored car but he didn’t drive, and I’m not sure he does to this day. They must owe me about £20k in petrol money but they’ve never paid it.’

His first season in claret and blue, 1984-85, was nothing remarkable, but turned out to be just the warm-up for what remains the most memorable season in West Ham history. ‘In the summer of 1985 we had some of the best transfer dealings you’ll ever get,’ he continued. ‘Mark Ward and Frank McAvennie came in, and Dev was back after a hugely long lay-off, which was as good as another new signing.’

Famously, West Ham’s Boys of 86 ended up finishing third, only narrowly missing out on the title to Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, and had it not been for a slow start to the season, and one huge absence, they could easily have won it.

‘The team almost picked itself – Mark Ward, Phil Parkes and I played every game that season, Alvin Martin only missed a couple because of suspension, and a lot of others played almost every game, but Billy Bonds, who was the absolute heart of the team, missed the whole season with a toe injury,’ he explained. ‘If he’d played that season, we could have won it.’

A slow and ultimately costly start of just one win in the first seven league games gave no indication of what was to come, and when a solution was needed, in a masterstroke of management, Lyall left it up to the players to find it ‘John trusted us to sort it,’ he said. ‘The meeting was more about the lack of goals, but after it we improved at the front, we tightened up at the back too. First of all, you have to be hard to beat, then the flowing football comes from there.

‘We knew we had players who could score but we had to be playing as a unit, and once that happens, then all the flair players can do their thing and the goalscorers will click into action – and it did. John wanted you to enjoy the game – even defenders wanting to play out from the back, John would encourage that.

‘I remember a 3-3 draw with Forest, and afterwards he said how entertaining it had been, which was a word he used a lot that you don’t hear much these days. My book is called That’s Entertainment, and that’s one of the reasons why – first and foremost, people want to be entertained.’

However, the good times of 1986 were not built up or followed up, and the team began to decline. ‘I think he brought in some players who didn’t better the team or the squad, and it wasn’t long before Dev and I both got long term injuries – and once you take a couple of cogs out of the machine, that’s when problems start,’ he said.

‘At Fulham, the best player I saw was George Best. At Blackburn it was Alan Shearer, and at West Ham, it was Dev – he really was that good. I felt a bit sorry for John because when he had to rebuild and fill those holes, the players available weren’t of the same quality.’

Two of the better signings, however, were in 1987 Liam Brady, and 1988 Leroy Rosenior. ‘Liam was such a class act,’ he said. ‘I was injured when he arrived, but he said to me “you’re one of the guys I wanted to play with so hurry up and get fit” – to have someone as good as him say that was amazing.

‘He had injuries when he was at West Ham, but he had a great left foot. He was a passer, a dribbler, he could do everything. Not just that, but he was a fine man, too. For his last ever game, John asked if he wanted to start, and he said “no, let Kevin Keen play instead and I can come on towards the end”. He did that, and with the final kick of his career, scored a brilliant goal.

‘Leroy was great too, a really brave player in the days when strikers used to get tackled from behind, and maybe too brave for his own good, as it turned out with his injuries. I’d seen him at Fulham and knew he was good but would benefit from the sort of polishing he’d get from a coach like John, so when he asked me if I could recommend anyone, straight away I suggested him.’

In 1989, sadly not for the last time in club history, West Ham somehow managed to get relegated despite having a squad loaded with talent including Brady, Devonshire and the young Paul Ince, and this was followed by the stunning blow of Lyall’s sacking. ‘There were so many injuries that season that it was very rare for him to be able to field his best XI, but he’d been relegated and come back up before, so he was already preparing for the next season when the news came,’ he said. ‘It honestly felt like someone had died. It was a huge shock, for him as much as anyone else, and it was hard to handle.’

Lyall’s successor was Lou Macari, an experiment that was never destined to turn out well, but which did leave behind a legacy of impressive new signings, like Ludek Miklosko, Trevor Morley and Ian Bishop, for when Billy Bonds replaced him. ‘As a person Lou was fine, but I didn’t enjoy my football under him,’ Gale said. ‘I think he found managing at that level hard – he’d done well at Swindon but he was taking over a team full of players on a different level of ability. Billy was always still on the scene as Lou realised what a great guy he was to have around, and when he came back as manager, he was applauded back in the dressing room.’

That season saw the first of three successive seasons of Cup semi-final defeats – first in the League Cup, on the plastic pitch at Luton, secondly again in the League Cup, on another plastic pitch against Oldham, and most infamously, in 1991, in the FA Cup, on an appalling pitch at Villa Park against Nottingham Forest.

That game hinged on the only red card of Gale’s 730-game career, for a professional foul on Gary Crosby. ‘I was only booked seven times in my career, so I was hardly a hatchet man, was I?’, he said. ‘The new professional foul rule was only brought in that week. Referee Keith Hackett said he was told to be stringent applying it, and unfortunately I gave him the opportunity. I think most people would say he got it wrong – I nearly dislocated my shoulder when we went down, so how professional a foul is that?’

West Ham lost the game 4-0, and with it a chance to take on Tottenham in the FA Cup final, and just to add insult to injury, the card cost West Ham a chance of another trophy, too. ‘The galling thing was I was banned for the last three games of the Division Two season, and we didn’t have a recognised centre back,’ he said. ‘It was taking a vital cog out of the machine again, and although we did get promoted, Oldham came from 2-0 down in their last game to win 3-2 with an injury time penalty, and beat us to the title.’

Just to rub it in, when the trophy was presented to Oldham, it had West Ham’s name engraved on it. The 1993-94 season, West Ham’s first in the newly branded Premier League, was Gale’s testimonial season, as he clocked up a decade of service, but after 300 games, his exit was handled in clumsy and disrespectful fashion.

‘Occasionally they would hint at maybe needing to sell me because of budget issues, but I was playing well whenever I was called upon, and I made it clear that I’d signed a three year contract because it entitled me to a testimonial, so I wasn’t going anywhere,’ he explained.

‘Billy was still manager, but Harry Redknapp was part of his team and had a large influence on the team as well,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t done anything to upset anyone, and if Harry didn’t like me as a player he hadn’t said it.

‘Some of his actions made me think maybe he wasn’t that keen on me but I kept plugging away, and towards the end of the last season I was offered a two year contract by chairman Terry Brown and Peter Storrie, so I thought that’s nice, there’s no need to make any other plans.

‘Then, on the day of my testimonial, I was taken to one side and told there was no contract. I had too much on my plate to deal with it on that day, but after the game you realise that’s it – after 10 years, I’d left. The fans don’t know and I’d told most people that I was signing a new deal, so reality hit hard’.

What came next, however, was the most unlikely footballing fairy tale. ‘I never thought to pack it in because I loved football and I was a regular even towards the end of my career, so I knew I had it in me to carry on playing, but I didn’t have long to prepare to join another team,’ he said.

‘My old Fulham mate Terry Bullivant invited me to train at Barnet to keep fit and I’d rejected offers from Japan and America to see what would come along, then out of the blue I got a call from another old Fulham pal, coach Ray Harford, to play in Blackburn’s final pre-season friendly against Celtic at Hampden Park.

‘They’d finished runners-up in the Premier League the previous season, but their senior pro Kevin Moran had retired, so they needed someone experienced. I was 34, seven years older than the next oldest player, Colin Hendry, and I was free. Everything just fell into place – but you know what, I deserved it.

‘My career path of four games in a row went my testimonial, playing a friendly for Wealdstone against Farnborough, playing against Celtic at Hampden Park and then my Blackburn debut, in the Charity Shield. All those disappointments with West Ham over the years, and my first proper game for my next team is at Wembley!’

Gone from West Ham but not forgotten, Gale says his former team-mates showed their true colours when the teams met at Ewood Park in the Premier League. ‘Blackburn won, but afterwards the West Ham players were genuinely happy for me and how things were going,’ he said. ‘I’d left such a good bunch, you know how genuine people are when they’re happy for your success, so that was a great day.’

In the final twist, it was those same former team-mates who won Gale the first medal of his career, the Premier League, as West Ham denied Manchester United the chance to pip Blackburn to the title on the final day of the season. ‘Ludek still says I owe him a medal for how well West Ham played that day,’ he laughed. ‘A few days before, I’d phoned Ian Bishop and said we still needed a result from West Ham, and he said he was on a beach in Spain, and I thought West Ham are already packed up for the season. But that day showed the honesty of the Premier League. Liverpool, with nothing to play for, beat Blackburn, and West Ham, with nothing to play for, held United, which meant we won the title.’

After a brief stint with Crystal Palace, Gale retired and walked straight into a media career, which has kept him busy and happy ever since – again, following Moore’s lead. ‘I played 730 games and I reckon I’ve commentated on over 2000 more, that’s without going to games for fun – I’m a footballaholic. It’s been a great life,’ he added. ‘I’m lucky that the two clubs I’m most identified with are two clubs that people genuinely like, I love going back to both, even when I’m not working.

‘I have so many friends at West Ham, I’m very lucky to have been so involved. I love meeting people who’ve got one thing in common, we all love football, and I’ll never tire of that.’

That’s Entertaiment, by Tony Gale, published by Reach Sport, is out now

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