Leroy Rosenior: ‘West Ham is a club that stays embedded in you always’

Former striker Leroy Rosenior lifts the lid on his time at Upton Park and his special connection with our fans

To those who were not alive then, football in the 1980s was a very different beast. Terraces, mud bath pitches, brutal tackling and affordable tickets are just some of the fixtures of the 80s that more recent joiners might find surprising.

Transfers were different too, because there was no such thing as the transfer window, so at any time, if you wanted someone, you could go and buy them. Towards the end of the 1987-88 season, floundering at the wrong end of the old Division One, West Ham most definitely wanted someone, someone who could score goals, as in 30 league games that season, they had managed just 30 goals.

Bids for Chelsea’s Kerry Dixon and Luton’s tank of a striker Mick Harford both failed, so in an unlikely gamble, manager John Lyall looked across to west London and down two divisions, for an answer to his problems, to Division Three Fulham striker Leroy Rosenior. Amazingly, it worked.

‘I wasn’t surprised that I moved away from Fulham, but I was surprised that it was to West Ham,’ Rosenior told Blowing Bubbles. ‘I’d started out at Fulham, then gone to QPR, who were in Division One but I hated their plastic pitch. It didn’t suit my game at all, so I was very frustrated and just wanted to be somewhere that I was happy.

‘I didn’t want to drop down to Division Three but Jimmy Hill, who was Fulham chairman then, persuaded me to, and I’m very glad he did because it worked and I got all my confidence back, so I knew I was good enough to show what I could do at the top level. I wasn’t expecting it to be with West Ham, but I’m very glad with how it turned out.’

The reason Rosenior was surprised to join West Ham was because he was all set to join Elton John’s Watford, until a reluctance to relocate from south London to north London meant he decided to say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, hello Green Street.

‘That week I’d been to Watford and agreed a deal, then I spoke to Elton John on the phone and he said “you know you’ll have to move to within 12 miles of Watford, don’t you?”. That was the club rule at the time, but I was living in south London, and there was no way I was going to move my family, so on the Monday morning I turned them down.

‘A few days later, at the training ground Ray Lewington hauled me into the office, and John Lyall and Eddie Baily were there, and it took about 10 minutes to agree a deal with West Ham. The next day I drove through the Rotherhithe tunnel to Upton Park, and without having trained with the rest of the team, I made my debut – against Watford. I scored the only goal, and we ended up staying up and they went down.’

Turning up to a dressing room full of strangers is another aspect of the 80s game that might cause some head scratching now, but a handy knack of scoring debut goals meant Rosenior was confident in his ability, despite the step up in divisions, and there was at least one familiar face.

‘The only person I knew in the dressing room was Tony Gale, who I’d played with at Fulham, and he said he’d recommended me to John Lyall, which went a long way towards me getting signed,’ he said. ‘The team were struggling when I joined but I didn’t know what the atmosphere was like before the game as I literally walked straight into the dressing room, put my shirt on and played – my focus was just on playing and doing well. After that win, the atmosphere was really upbeat, which picked us up for the rest of the season, and got everybody on side with my signing.’

Lyall left it until late in the season to bring in any new faces, in the shape of Rosenior and Julian Dicks, who arrived at the same time, and he says Dicks was a great person to arrive with.

‘Nothing bothers Julian so it was good to walk in with someone like him. We were both confident in our ability – not in an arrogant way, but we felt we should be there, and it showed. People talk about settling in periods, but surely the club has bought you because you’re playing well anyway, so you just take that form with you.’

One of the reasons West Ham had struggled for goals that season was failing to replace Frank McAvennie when he left for Celtic, so it fell to Rosenior to strike up a partnership with Tony Cottee for the remainder of that season, but the following summer, Cottee too left, for Everton, putting Rosenior in the spotlight.

‘Tony was a number 10, and I was a number 9, which are different roles,’ he explained. ‘My role was winning headers, getting the first ball and taking the battering – I always liked that side of things.
‘I would always help whoever was alongside me to score as well as scoring myself, so I didn’t have to fill Tony’s void, I had to do my job. That’s what they got David Kelly in for.’

An opening day 4-0 reverse at Southampton, as reports came in of Cottee’s debut hat-trick at Everton, set the tone for the 1988-89 season, which was to prove a gruelling slog, but for Rosenior, there was one major positive, the chance to observe up close the brilliance of Liam Brady.

‘Liam was an absolute joy to play with – I don’t have the words to describe how good that left foot was,’ he said. ‘He was graceful, creative, he had vision – in an era when Italy had one of the hardest leagues in the world, where many greats went and failed, he went and succeeded. He was one of the greatest players we’ve had in the British game, so to have the chance to train with him and see him up close was amazing.’

But despite the presence of Brady, Mark Ward, a young Paul Ince and many other great talents in the side, things were just not happening for the team, and despite Rosenior’s personal performance being one of the few bright points of the season, this was no consolation for the team’s bigger problems.

‘My performance didn’t matter. I wasn’t a goal counter, that’s not the way I operate – how the team overall did mattered,’ he said. ‘As a team, we just didn’t get enough results, which bred a lack of confidence and anxiety. I’m sure there are some players who in that situation think “but I’m doing alright”, but that was never the case with me or anyone else in that team. We were all in it together.’

That year, West Ham became the founder members of the too-good-to-go-down club, with the season ending in relegation, and the departure of Lyall.

‘Never for one second did we think he would leave the club,’ said Rosenior. ‘Relegation was totally our responsibility, and we were absolutely devastated when we heard. Nobody cared more about that club than John Lyall, and I think it was a bit of a kneejerk reaction – if he had stayed, we all knew would definitely come back up.

‘He wasn’t just a great coach and a great manager, but his instinct was absolutely spot on, with everyone at the club. He genuinely knew and cared about everyone there – it wasn’t put on – so when you put on that shirt, you knew you were doing it for someone who genuinely cared about you, and that is something that you rarely come across in football.’

In contrast to the intricate understanding of every aspect of club life that Lyall had built up over a lifetime at Upton Park, his successor Lou Macari’s reign was short, disruptive – and sadly predictable.

‘I got on really well with Lou, and people hire you because they recognise what you had done to achieve success, which he had had with Swindon, but what worked there just didn’t work at West Ham, especially not with those players,’ he said. ‘He tried to change the complete culture at the club, and it was a huge shock to the system – rather than get the ball down and play, we became a team that ran.
‘The change was too big, it was never going to work. It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t the players’ fault, it was just something that fitted Swindon, but didn’t fit us.’

Salvation for the team, however, came in the familiar form of his successor, Billy Bonds. ‘There seemed to be a great sigh of relief when Billy returned,’ said Rosenior. ‘People forget all the good things John had done, yes there were things that could have been improved but a lot was working, so you needed someone to come in and tinker a little but, but also to remember what the good parts were.

‘Maybe John could have stayed on a bit longer, introduced Billy to the coaching staff and then there could have been a handover, that might have worked, because no-one commands more respect anywhere than Billy Bonds at West Ham.’

Unfortunately for Rosenior, however, his observation of what was going on at the club was becoming less frequently from the training ground, and more often from the treatment room. ‘I had a bad knee injury, just from wear and tear rather than one incident, and after the game at Anfield at the end of the relegation season, I went in to have my knee cleaned out and the surgeon said he didn’t think I would play again because I had a hole the size of a 50p in my knee, caused by a fragment of bone that had come loose,’ Rosenior explained.

‘So many people had told me to retire, and I knew I’d never get back to playing at the level I had before, but I still worked for 18 months to get fit, and having missed the boat at West Ham, I was happy to go out on loan and play, just to show people that I still could.’

In another example of how football was different in the 80s, Rosenior says his injury was made worse by being mismanaged. ‘There was one time I played six days after cartilage surgery – there were people at that club who managed my recovery poorly, and didn’t take responsibility for it, asking me to play when I wasn’t up to it.

‘You can say I have responsibility too, that I should have said no, but you trust them to do their jobs right. That was the culture of the time. I played a few games under Billy but I wasn’t the same player, and it was obvious, so I appreciated it when he allowed me to go to Bristol City, to show people I wasn’t finished yet.’

Fortunately, from a young age Rosenior had been putting his injury downtime to good use, becoming one of the youngest people to earn their pro coaching licence, and with one eye always on a future in management. ‘Going back to my time at Fulham, Malcolm McDonald and Ray Harford always really inspired me, and working with John took things further.

‘What I learnt from him in particular is that it’s vital to be creative, and also how you manage people – not just players, but everyone around you – is vitally important. I ended up towards the end at Bristol City playing centre half, which gave me a different view of things. Years ago, John used to talk about playing it out from the back, using the keeper as an outfield player, and making the pitch as big as possible to give you control of the game.

‘Pep Guardiola does that now and people rave about it, but John Lyall was doing that decades ago.’

After playing, Rosenior spent several years in coaching and management at all levels, from non-league to having one game in charge of Sierra Leone, and in 2006 he had a stint at Brentford, succeeding former West Ham player Martin Allen, with whom he had played at QPR.

Rosenior joined West Ham in 1988, making an instant impact with his debut goal, and left in 1992, with injuries having restricted him to just 67 games and 23 goals. ‘West Ham saw a bit of the best of me, but sadly not all, because of my injuries,’ he said. ‘I’ve no regrets, though – West Ham was one of the best times of my career.

‘Everyone remembers it so fondly and even though I wasn’t there very long, it feels like home – not the building, because obviously that has gone, but the people. They remember you like it was yesterday, and that’s such a nice thing, something that I think players today won’t ever have.’

Rosenior is fondly remembered by fans, still involved with the club as ambassador for diversity and inclusion, and clearly West Ham still holds a special place in his heart. ‘I’m still in touch with a lot of the players – Tony Gale, who helped get me there, is the most naturally funny person I’ve ever met – and we had a great connection with the fans. West Ham is a club that stays embedded in you.’

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