Sometimes, the tone of a season can be set right from the start. In 1988-89, an opening day 4-0 rout at Southampton, while Tony Cottee scored a first half hat-trick on his Everton debut, was a sign that it was going to be one of those years.
In 2002-03, missing a penalty to go 3-1 up on champions Arsenal in the first home game and throwing away three points that would have saved the team from relegation was another howler. And in 2003-04, picking up a player at a service station on the way to the first game was another sign all was not right. But such is the West Ham way.
West Ham had bought Irish striker David Connolly from Wimbledon that summer to score the goals to get them back into the Premier League at the first time of asking, so to see the coach stop off to pick up another striker, Liverpool loanee Neil Mellor, who started the game ahead of him, was not the ideal introduction. ‘You go to a club to compete, so it wasn’t the fact he had been signed, it was the way he was picked up at the service station and then straight into the team – that’s completely the wrong way to do it,’ Connolly, 46, told Blowing Bubbles.
‘I think it was an agreement between Glenn Roeder and Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, but you can’t take players on loan and promise them they will start ahead of others who have to earn their place, it’s not right. Glenn Roeder was a fantastic man and a fantastic manager, who I knew from my days at Watford, but doing that probably had a big impact on how I started at the club.’
Connolly came on to score the winner in that game at Preston, but with no Premier League games that weekend, his reaction to Roeder’s decision, and the manager dubbing him an ‘angry ant’ meant a winning start was overshadowed and made the wrong kind of headlines. ‘I shouldn’t have moaned to the press like I did but there were no Premier League games that weekend and it became the main story. I should have let my football do the talking. The whole game I was disheartened, and I don’t think I even warmed up, then I came on and scored the winner.’
Connolly already had plenty of experience when he arrived at Upton Park from Wimbledon in summer 2023, including two stints playing in Holland for Feyenoord and Excelsior, in an era when relatively few players from the British Isles played abroad, and joined off the back of two high scoring seasons for the Dons. ‘I’d scored 42 goals in 60 odd games, which was great form,’ he said. ‘After I came back from the 2002 World Cup with Ireland, I missed the next four or five months with damaged knee ligaments, but then got something like 24 league goals in 28 games, which was very good, one of the highest scoring ratios in the country, so I turned up at West Ham in great form.’
Connolly turned down Premier League clubs to team up again with Roeder, who had given him his debut at Watford, and despite having been relegated the previous season, he was full of ambition for his time with the Irons. ‘I was on good money at Wimbledon, but the opportunity to play for a club like West Ham is worth taking a cut for. I know some players were leaving but they still had the likes of Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, and Jermain Defoe then, and they’re the sort of players you want to go and play with.’
Roeder had known Connolly when he was a teenager, and knew his character well, so the angry ant nickname was meant with affection, and with insight. ‘Every player needs something to motivate them and I’d had a lot of challenges to become a pro when I was younger,’ he said. ‘I went through a period when I was about 18 when I was living in digs, but because of high interest rates, our family home was repossessed, which was very difficult for me to take, and made me very angry.
‘I worked really hard to become a pro because I wanted to put that right, and the day they were kicked out of the house, I was sent off in a reserve game and I sat in the dressing room, crying. Glenn knew I had a bit of anger and spirit, but I always tried to channel it into something positive. Along the way in life, you get a few kicks, but you have to get up and keep going, so I didn’t take too much offence at his comment, it was just that, at that age, it was news to me that deals like that went on in football, and I didn’t like it.’
Connolly’s strike partner until he left in the January transfer window was Defoe, and the pair worked together superbly. ‘I loved Jermain – I thought he was amazing, a brilliant finisher and the sort of player that you want to be around,’ he explained. ‘I was mainly left footed but I never had the power he had with either foot, and he did it with a tiny backlift, too. He was a great turner, he had explosive pace, power, accuracy – it was all brilliant.
‘When Glenn left and Trevor Brooking took over and played us together, I thought “just keep this, as a two, and we will score goals”. Then Alan Pardew, who had tried to sign me when he was manager at Reading, took over and played me deeper, which was a bit frustrating, as if we’d kept it that way, I would have scored goals for fun.’
But despite Pardew freely admitting his admiration for Connolly, the initial good run of form he had enjoyed at West Ham began to lessen somewhat, and the striker found the changes on and off the pitch wearing. ‘Alan had lots of good ideas, he would give a points system after games for shots, crosses etc, I think it was to make you aware of your effectiveness, but you would start to do things for the wrong reasons. The sentiment was right, but it didn’t really work, and with the changes he made, having started off like a house on fire, I didn’t continue in the same vein under him.’
The fallout of relegation continued into the new season, with Defoe finally leaving in January, and Connolly said it made an unstable environment. ‘For a club with such a history of stability as West Ham, relegation brings added pressure to make sure you get the next appointment right,’ he said. ‘Alan had done a good job at Reading, and he put faith in me and I played a lot of games but we just weren’t fluid enough. I think he was finding his feet, because the next season, West Ham didn’t play that differently, but they brought in Teddy Sheringham instead, and the style he wanted to play worked better with a player like him.’
West Ham ended up in the play-off final at Cardiff, against a Crystal Palace side who only sneaked in to the end of season shake-up at the death, thanks to Brian Deane’s last-minute equaliser in the final game of the regular season at Wigan pushing the Latics out of the frame, and an underwhelming performance condemned the Irons to a 1-0 loss and a second season outside the top flight. ‘We didn’t pay well in the final – maybe we thought too much,’ said Connolly. ‘I think I might have scored but I was a few yards offside, and overall it was a difficult game, hard to say who’d win, won by a scruffy goal. Towards the end, all three West Ham strikers were taken off and a whole new front line were sent on, which tells you a lot.’
Having started the season with high hopes, Connolly ended it feeling flat – and when he became aware of the picture becoming too crowded, he did not hang around. After 48 appearances and 14 goals, he was off. ‘You don’t leave a club like West Ham lightly because of what a big club it is, and money wasn’t anything to do with it, but when you put that to one side, your sense of pride means you want to go and play, and I didn’t feel that was going to happen,’ he explained.
‘We already had Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood there, then we signed Teddy too, so why hang around? I can’t recall how the news came about, and I wasn’t told anything officially, but there were a couple of clubs I could have gone to, and when I looked at Leicester, who had just got relegated, I felt the same way I did about when West Ham were they’d been interested, so that’s where I went. Ironically, our first game next season was against West Ham.’
The season after Connolly left Feyenoord, they won the Uefa Cup. The season after Connolly left West Ham, they won promotion back to the top flight, whilst Leicester finished 15th, and the season after that, they reached the FA Cup final. But he does not look back on his decision with any regrets. ‘That’s just how life goes,’ he said. ‘I was at Leicester one season, then I went to Wigan in the Premier League where I scored on my debut and we reached the League Cup final, but I missed it after playing in every round to get there.
‘I wished West Ham well, but there was no bitterness about what I missed out on. You can never look at things and assume you would have been a part of them, as it takes a lot of hard work to get anything in life. When I left Wigan, again it was because I knew I wasn’t playing a full part, so I went to Sunderland, where I ended up as top scorer and we won the Championship. Wherever you are, you don’t want to be a spare part.’
Five years after their parting of the ways at West Ham, Connolly and Pardew teamed up again, at Southampton, and this time, things worked out better. ‘I probably could have retired by then as I’d had loads of injuries, but he still respected me enough to bring me there when I hadn’t played for a long time, and signed me on the strength of watching one friendly. Over the next three years, we got a double promotion,’ Connolly explained.
‘I thought it would go well at West Ham and it started well, but it didn’t quite hit the heights. When you’re happy as a player, you’re more effective, and certainly for me, knowing that you’re playing and the manager relies upon you makes a big difference. As a player I value honesty, which was why I spoke out about the Mellor situation. Sometimes it’s good to be honest, because you show what sort of character you are, and staying at West Ham just didn’t seem the right thing to do, because I just wanted to play. I might have had pride but there was no resentment. I didn’t take it personally. I just wanted to play.’