The John Lyall Years

For those of us of a certain age the name John Lyall is synonymous with a golden era for West Ham United. Lyall won two FA Cups in his time as West Ham manager, and also took the club to a European final, a League Cup final, the second division title and a best-ever finish in the old First Division. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light – Lyall was manager for 15 seasons between 1975 and 1989 and despite all the success there were also long barren spells and of course two relegations.

It’s highly likely that in today’s game Lyall would have been fired immediately after taking West Ham down in 1978. Those who defend David Moyes currently point to the fact that had Lyall not been given more time to rebuild the team in the late 1970s, West Ham would not have gone on to achieve their peak of third place in 1985-86.

Lyall had been an apprentice and a promising left-back at West Ham in the early 1960s when a knee injury forced him to retire. Born in Ilford he had the club in his blood and he stayed on the pay-roll performing various duties from office clerk upwards until eventually being appointed as Assistant Manager to Ron Greenwood.

In 1974 Greenwood announced he was taking the role of General Manager, responsible for scouting and recruitment, but Lyall was to be promoted to the role of first team coach, responsible for team selection and tactics. Lyall got off to a flying start, though it should be remembered that the key acquisitions that season of Keith Robson, Billy Jennings and Alan Taylor were at the behest of Greenwood, it was Lyall who moulded them into a team which went on to lift the FA Cup at Wembley in May 1975, beating Bobby Moore’s Fulham 2-0.

With confidence high the team started 1975-76 and were top in November but then went on a disastrous run in 1976 winning just one of their final 22 league matches and winding up in 18th place just six points above the relegation zone (22-team league and 2 points for a win). That disappointment was eased by magnificent form in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup competition, overcoming 4-0 deficit at half time in the first leg against Den Haag to with the quarter-final on away goals and a 2-1 first leg deficit on the semi-final to beat Eintracht Frankfurt 4-3 on aggregate. The Final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels ended in a 4-2 defeat to Anderlecht but the die had been cast with the league form.

In 1976-77, although a point and a place better off than the year before, safety was only secured in the final match with a 4-2 win over Manchester United. When Greenwood left to become England manager in 1977 Lyall became responsible for recruitment as well and his first forays into the transfer market were not overly successful, Derek Hales signed from Derby County and never really got going. It wasn’t until he signed David Cross from West Bromwich Albion at the turn of the year that Lyall showed he could spot a player, but by then it was too late. A good final run was not enough and a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool on the final day left West Ham waiting for Wolves to complete their programmed needing them to lose both games. Wolves won both and Lyall was consigned to the second division.

However, he still had David Cross and Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, Alan Devonshire emerging as a force, Trevor Brooking as an established international, Billy Bonds, Frank Lampard and the other emerging talents of Geoff Pike and Alvin Martin. Much of the issue had been the goalkeeping position. Mervyn Day had been PFA Young Player of the year in 1975 but had a sudden loss of form and confidence and many of the team’s defeats could be pinned on Day’s hesitancy. A new goalkeeper was needed.

Given the lack of transfer activity generally, the signing of QPR goalkeeper Phil Parkes came as something of a shock, not least because the £565,000 paid was a world record for a goalkeeper at that time. Lyall showed he was not afraid to pay the money for the right player. He paid a further £430,000 to Dundee United for right back Ray Stewart, at the time a British record fee for a teenager, and £200,000 to Manchester United for Stuart Pearson.

Whilst it did not have the desired effect of gaining promotion immediately, the team went on a cup run that saw them lift the FA Cup again at Wembley, this time as underdogs beating Arsenal 1-0 in the final. Lyall knew that he had the beginnings of a new and exciting team – but Pearson was ageing, and he needed a new young striker to replace him. He raided QPR’s squad again to buy Paul Goddard for a club record £800,000 in the summer after the cup final.

Cross and Goddard’s partnership was legendary – West Ham blew away everything put before them in 1980-81 winning the title with 66 points, a second division record for 2 points for a win, and by a massive 14-point margin. They also narrowly lost to Liverpool in the League Cup final after a replay and reached the quarterfinals of the Cup-winner’s cup, beaten by a Dinamo Tblisi side that would have beaten anyone.

It is a measure of how good that side was in 1980-81 that on its return to the First Division Lyall felt the need to add just one more player, goalkeeper Tom McAlister joined as cover for Parkes. Otherwise, it was the same team that beat Tottenham 4-0 at White Hart Lane in their first away game and maintained a place in the top six until December when the harsh winter upset the rhythm and the team eventually finished ninth.

Lyall had taken the opportunity to sign tormentor-in-chief from the 1976 Final in Brussels, Belgian striker Francois Van der Elst, and scoured the Scottish leagues again hoping to uncover the next Ray Stewart, paying £400,000 to Morton for Neil Orr. David Cross returned north to Manchester City. Lyall had offered him a new contract and Cross admits that after the tribunal hearing where his fee was set at £175,000, he saw Lyall traipse back to his car and instantly felt regret.

Lyall meanwhile set about finding his replacement and signed Sandy Clark from Aidrie, Scottish Footballer of the year and highly promising. Despite a good start to the campaign that promise failed to materialise and hen he was offered the chance to return north of the border by Glasgow Rangers, Lyall allowed him to leave with no hard feelings. His replacement Dave Swindlehurst seemed a much better prospect and with youth team players Tony Cottee and Alan Dickens making their debuts it seemed the future was bright.

Lyall was the manager of the club in almost every respect. He negotiated with players, took training, picked the team, set the tactics, no doubt he also arranged the Christmas party. Whilst a lot of players saw him as something of a father figure, some of the younger players also felt a little intimidated. Tony Cottee recalls a time he went to ask for a pay rise and Lyall put an offer to him. When Cottee said he would have to speak to his father first, Lyall slammed the phone down in front of him and said “There! Call your dad!”

The 1983-84 campaign started with five straight league wins thanks in no small part to new signings Steve Whitton and Steve Walford, who, along with Cottee and Swindlehurst up front, Devonshire and Brooking in midfield and Bonds and Martin at the back and big Phil Parkes in goal made a formidable all-round team. Injuries however cost dear and despite being third at the turn of the year, the loss of Devonshire with an ACL injury and a car crash that robbed the side of Alvin Martin and Steve Whitton proved too much and the team spiralled into ninth.

In the summer of 1984 the West Ham board gave Lyall permission to speak to QPR about the vacant manager’s role at Loftus Road following Terry Venables’ departure to Barcelona. QPR’s offer was generous. Generous enough for him to consider it an offer he could not refuse. He informed the West Ham board he had accepted QPR’s offer. Despite having given him permission to discuss the vacancy with QPR, the West Ham board made life awkward for Lyall – they advised him that as he still had a year left on his contract they would be seeking £150,000 compensation from Rangers. Their Chairman Jim Gregory baulked at this and Lyall felt uncomfortable with the situation and withdrew his acceptance. There was no doubt a bitter taste in the mouth of all parties concerned.

1984-85 also proved frustrating, only the emergence of Paul Allen as a top-class midfielder provided any consolation as West Ham finished 16th just two points off relegation. Lyall’s contract was up for renewal and the West Ham board seemed to want to make him suffer for considering leaving, offering him just a three-year deal when Lyall had requested five. They eventually settled on four – the West Ham board seemingly reminding Lyall that they had stood by him through the bad times and he should be grateful.

No one had any idea what was about to happen. Lyall again went to Scotland and again took a gamble. He paid £340,000 to St Mirren for striker Frank McAvennie with the objective of playing him just behind Cottee and Goddard. Paul Allen had been sold to Tottenham, so a replacement was needed, and an unsuccessful scouring of the Dutch First Division meant that 48 hours before the start of the campaign Lyall again had to gamble on an unknown in winger Mark Ward from Oldham.

Both new signings started the season at Birmingham. Paul Goddard dislocated his shoulder five minutes in forcing Lyall to put substitute Dickens into midfield and push McAvennie up front alongside Cottee. West Ham lost the game 1-0. Indeed, West Ham lost three of their first four games but the players noticed McAvennie’s work rate was in a different league and held a meeting chaired by Captain Alvin Martin. It was agreed: Cottee had to work harder – Neil Orr had to cut out the fancy stuff (he was no Michel Platini) and the defence had to hold a higher line.

Following that meeting West Ham went 18 matches unbeaten (12 of which were wins), with Cottee and McAvennie scoring goals for fun. McAvennie found himself in the Scotland team for their World Cup play-off against Australia and in the papers for his playboy lifestyle. West Ham suffered more than most during the harsh winter of 1985-86 – the south and south-east were affected more than the north, so they had more games postponed. A cup run to the sixth round ended in defeat at Hillsborough and meant they played only one league match (a 2-1 win over Manchester United) in the eight weeks between 19 January and 15 March 1986.

When they returned to league action, they were unfortunate to lose away games at Arsenal, Villa and Forest but then went on another Lyall-inspired run that saw them playing three games, sometimes four in the space of a week. A 4-0 win at title rivals Chelsea and an 8-1 drubbing of Newcastle at Upton Park were among the highlights. Somehow, going into the final Saturday of the season West Ham could still win it if they won their last two games away at WBA and Everton and Liverpool lost at Chelsea. Although West Ham won at WBA, Liverpool beat Chelsea and won the title. Had Liverpool lost that day the title would have gone to the winners of the Everton v West Ham game at Goodison Park on the Monday. As it was, it was winner takes nothing. A deflated West Ham lost 3-1 at Goodison finishing third, and as a result dropping out of many people’s memories as challengers that year.

Cottee and McAvennie score 54 goals between them, so expectations were high for 1986-87 but injuries again played their part and despite maintaining an early challenge, they fell away finishing 15th despite the signings of Stewart Robson from Arsenal, Liam Brady from Ascoli and the emergence of Paul Ince from the youth team.

The team fell into decline and Lyall seemingly could do nothing to stop it. Frank McAvennie left for Celtic in 1987 and Tony Cottee for a British record fee of £2.3 million to Everton in 1988. Replacements Leroy Rosenior and David Kelly meant well but were not really up to the job. Purchases like Tommy McQueen from Aberdeen and Gary Strodder from Lincoln hinted at a desperation from Lyall to recapture the magic of lower league and Scottish transfer that had worked so well in the past.

But the game had moved on. Lyall was (to my mind at least) the best manager the club ever had – yet towards the end he seemed to treat the club’s finances as though they were his own, in much the same way Arsene Wenger did at Arsenal towards the end of his tenure. He was careful with transfers and budgets to the point of potentially disadvantaging the team. Lyall cannot be blamed for that; it’s just they way it goes when someone becomes synonymous with a club.

It certainly did not mean he deserved to be treated the way he was in the summer of 1989 when his contract expired. Unceremoniously dumped, not offered another position within the club and replaced with the anti-Lyall Lou Macari. Most fans and certainly those players who had served so loyally under Lyall, felt he should have been given the chance to get West Ham back up.

Lyall instead had a spell as Technical Adviser to Terry Venables. He went to Ipswich Town and gained promotion with them in 1992, guided them to safety in 1992-3 but with the team bottom of the league in December 1994 he resigned and did not return to football. Lyall passed away in 2006 and the relatively young age of 66 following a heart attack. We will never see his like again.

Written by Robert Banks

My youtube series “The John Lyall Years” follows the fortunes of the club during John Lyall’s tenure, merging match footage with interviews, newspaper cuttings, news items, music, TV and cinema from the time. It is a must for anyone who remembers those heady days.

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