Extracts of Blagg's football blogs as he follows West Ham United and England through the usual series of near disasters.

Featuring links to the Annual Billy Blagg Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs.

Also featuring guest appearances by 'Captain Olympic'.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

A night to remember: League Cup 71/72 - Part 2

Evening Standard/Getty Images Thought to be past his prime, Stoke City goalkeeper Gordon Banks
made a save for the ages in the '72 League Cup second leg semi-final versus West Ham.
West Ham's opponents in the 1972 League Cup semi-final were Stoke City, generally reckoned to be everyone's second favourite team; someone to support if you were a neutral.

The main reason for the bonhomie towards the men from the Potteries was the popularity of their manager, Tony Waddington, and his policy of picking up players who were assumed to be past their prime and giving them an opportunity to prove they were anything but. Waddington was also one of those bosses who liked to take a chance on skillful players who seemed to have lost their way or were seen as 'troublesome'. Jimmy Greenhoff, George Eastham and Peter Dobing were all first team members in 1972 and, along with Gordon Banks who was coming to the end of his glorious England career, they were seen as, depending on your view, a team of old men or experienced campaigners.

In fact, Stoke were neither and had proved themselves to be a good cup team in the early seventies, twice getting to the FA cup semi-final only to be beaten unluckily both times by Arsenal, a statistic which only seemed to confirm the suspicion that they were a bit of a bridesmaid side.

Stoke's journey to the semi-final hadn't be quite as spectacular as the Hammers', but a three match fourth round victory over Manchester United showed they meant business. But even so, West Ham were serious favourites in the two-legged semis and the first game played at Stoke's old Victoria ground just seemed to cement the odds.

It's not often you see the words 'formality' and 'West Ham' in the same sentence, but they appear in an old faded cutting I found from the Daily Express describing the first leg of what was to become a titanic struggle. Up until that time, no team that had won the first leg of a semi-final had failed to reach the final.

It was Bobby Moore who was the hero of the first leg, marshalling the defence and breaking up early Stoke pressure as the home side tried to gain an early advantage. So keen was Moore that night, the normally unflappable defender was even booked for what would now be deemed as a 'professional foul' on Jimmy Greenhoff. Elsewhere, Ferguson was defiant in goal and the whole West Ham rearguard were beating shots away in the opening quarter so it was probably no surprise when the Potters went ahead when the 33 year-old Dobing hit home unmarked after a Greenhoff shot came back to him off a post. But Stoke’s lead only lasted fourteen minutes, when the first of what was to become a number of the ties' significant penalties was given.

Eric Bloor was apparently the referee that night and he gave a spot kick when Clyde Best was adjudged to have been brought down, although there was more than a suggestion that the Bermudan had simply fallen over his own feet. Stoke protested vigorously but the decision was made. Geoff Hurst took the penalty and it is ironic that the match report made much of the fact that, 'Banks salvaged the dignity of getting his fingers to the ball'. In fact, Hurst's tactics at penalties were quite simple: hit them hard and fast into the top corner where the goalkeeper can't get them.

The England striker's premise was accurate -- like his kicking -- in that, even if the keeper guessed the right place, if the ball was hit at such a pace there was no way they could get to the shot unless they moved before the ball was struck. It was a tactic that had worked well to Hurst's advantage over the years and this time was no exception. Banks knew where the ball was going but there was little he could do to stop it.

After 67 minutes, West Ham made their 'progress towards the final a formality' (well, it was 1972!) when Harry Redknapp skipped down the wing that had been worn well by Stanley Matthews over the years and centred for Clyde Best to volley in for a 2-1 first-leg lead.

The second leg at Upton Park was played in front of the inevitable capacity crowd who expected to see the Hammers ensure a Wembley appearance. Again though, it was a tight game with the home side seemingly stuck in the grip of that age old problem when protecting a lead; push on and extend it to kill the game or keep it tight and let the chasers worry about it. There were chances at both ends but it was Stoke's centre-forward John Ritchie who struck late in the second half, after a defensive mix-up between Taylor and McDowell, to send the tie into extra-time.

West Ham at least now knew what they had to do though, and they laid siege to Stoke's goal. There were just minutes on the clock when Banks went out to claim the ball in a tussle between his team-mate, left back Mike Pejic, and Redknapp. The Hammers winger was pushed and the referee pointed to the spot. With barely a minute or so on the clock the situation was simple: Geoff Hurst v Gordon Banks for a Wembley final place.

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Geoff Hurst: The man entrusted with taking West Ham's penalties.
Memories can play tricks on you. I've heard people over the years (and Sir Geoff himself is one of them!) claim that Hurst put the ball exactly where he wanted it, in exactly the same spot where he had placed it two weeks earlier, and Banks somehow clawed it away. But the advent of a You Tube video doesn't seem to support this. In fact, Hurst hit the ball lower and slightly closer to the keeper than usual, but it may be this that makes Banks' save even more memorable because the England keeper was going for the corner and somehow adjusted his body full-flight to push his arms up and divert the ball over. ITV commentator, the legendary Brian Moore, said, "Banks has saved it…miraculously.." Banks afterwards confirmed he thought the save was better than the one he made against Pele in Mexico in 1970. I'm not sure it was but it was still a wonderful -- if sickening -- stop.

So momentous was the tussle between Hurst and Banks that the match is usually encapsulated to that two minute incident but, just after the wonder save, it's normally forgotten that, from the corner resulting from the Banks save, Redknapp hit the post with the Stoke keeper well beaten. Perhaps, in another parallel universe…

When the whistle blew, the two-legged score was 2-2 on aggregate and a replay was needed to separate the teams. The venue was Hillsborough where an incredible crowd of almost 50,000 clogged up the local traffic so badly that both teams arrived late. The vast crowd watched the two teams slug out a 0-0 draw. It wasn't exactly forgettable -- it was just that both sides seemed to cancel each other out and produce that other football conundrum of neither side wanting to make a mistake leading to a stalemate. The combined cup minutes and corresponding crowd sizes of both clubs were now starting to meet Guinness Book of Record standards and it was going to take yet another match to end the deadlock.

In fact, by the time of the second replay, it would be almost two months since the first leg tie at Stoke. The two clubs couldn't decide on a neutral venue; the Hammers wanting a London ground to avoid their fans travelling north again while Stoke wanted Old Trafford. To decide the issue, they tossed a coin and Ron Greenwood called. Apparently, Ron wasn't in a particularly good mood at the time.
The coach that had brought the West Ham team to Sheffield had been tampered with during the game, someone removing the petrol cap and tipping sand into the tank, and the team had to wait until replacement transport could be found to take them back to London. Greenwood’s mood wouldn't have improved by calling incorrectly and losing the toss for the venue. Tony Waddington made the decision of where to play. Manchester in January beckoned.

A night to remember: League Cup 71/72 - Part 1

West Ham's Bryan 'Pop' Robson hugs the England hero Geoff Hurst
West Ham's Bryan 'Pop' Robson hugs the England hero Geoff Hurst

Next Monday under floodlights at Upton Park, West Ham will face Stoke City. In the hurly-burly of the Premier League, it's another tussle for three points but long, long ago in another competition in another era for football, similar games between the same opponents produced a series of matches of epic proportions. Those who were lucky enough to see the games describe them as some of the best football matches they have ever witnessed. This is the story of those games.

It's a tale about a fantastic cup run in which West Ham beat some of the best teams of the day, eventually taking part as odds-on favourites in one of the great cup semi-finals decided over four games and 420 pulsating minutes before cruel fate and controversy intervenes to ensure it all ends in heart-breaking defeat. It may not be the type of story that you think will need re-telling after 40 years, but in many ways, the 1971/2 League Cup run is everything that West Ham United represents.

Like it or loath it, the very reason that you - young or old - support the Hammers can be laid bare on a miserable, cold, rain-sodden Manchester night in January 1972. Read on if you dare.

The League Cup run of 1971/2 began as it always does on a late summer evening when seasons hopes are high and anything is possible. The League Cup - now the Capital One Cup - was a secondary competition virtually invented to provide Championship sides (Premier League) with, initially another shot at gaining some silverware, later via a Wembley appearance and then, as the competition gained popularity, another chance at competing in Europe as the winners qualified for a European berth.

As things turned out though, the competition often threw up odd results, most significantly when Swindon beat Arsenal in the final in 1969. Not that West Ham was expected to end up us ignominious failures in 71/72 though, the Daily Express having already tipped the Hammers for the cup before a ball was even kicked.

In fact, West Ham at that time were an interesting side; still managed by Ron Greenwood, two of the World Cup winners were still there, the mighty Moore with his powers undiminished and Geoff Hurst still valuable for 20+ goals a season. Elsewhere, England prospects Frank Lampard, John McDowell, the elegant Trevor Brooking and hoped-for Moore clone Tommy Taylor were regulars. Billy Bonds was a wilder man in those days and he wasn't thought to be England material but he was a great club player nonetheless, while a young ginger-haired whippet called Harry Redknapp could be both brilliant or not depending on his mood. High hopes were still held for the big Bermudan striker Clyde Best and wearing the No: 11 shirt was one of the greatest players never to represent his country: Bryan 'Pop' Robson.

The Second Round draw paired the Hammers at home against Second Division Cardiff City. It should have been easy even if the visitors were led by an impressive Welshman called John Toshack but, as ever, the Hammers stumbled against lower opposition and, although Bonds put the home side ahead, Cardiff equalised through Alan Foggon and a replay at Ninian Park was required. In the interim though, the 3rd Round cup draw had thrown up an interesting prospect: the winners faced a home game against Don Revie's loathed and reviled but nonetheless brilliant, Leeds United - the Manchester United / Chelsea of their day

It's debatable who got most out of the prospects of the cup draw but, in a replay they were expected to lose, it was West Ham who came through in extra time against Cardiff after Hurst scored two vital goals in a 2-1 win.

It is a truth that when you think you have West Ham understood they surprise you. As my Granddad used to say of the Irons "Always expect the unexpected" and so it was the night of the cup game against Leeds. The eventual score was 0-0 but nobody knew how. The Hammers mercilessly battered Revies' team and only excellent and brutal defending - particularly by Jack Charlton - allowed the Yorkshire side to escape with a draw. Under floodlights, with the 35,000 plus crowd baying and swaying, it was described then as 'one of the best goalless games you could hope to see'. Even so, a draw was a gutting result. A replay at Leeds - and nobody won at Elland Road.

West Ham United youngster Harry Redknapp races down the wing
GettyImages  West Ham United youngster Harry Redknapp races down the wing
In the days before all games were covered by TV even if only for the goals, the replay in Leeds remains a mystery. Back then even the radio didn't feel the need to report on every ball kicked in every part of the country, but it didn't take a genius to learn that something special happened in Yorkshire that night when the result filtered through: Leeds United 0 West Ham 1 after extra time with Clyde Best scoring. The fans delirium was soon tempered by the thought of the next opponents though; the team who were to go on to win the league that season were the Hammer's next opponents, Bill Shankly's Liverpool.

An incredible 40,870 people piled into Upton Park to see this fourth round game. If the place was heaving for the Leeds visit then the bar rose, if possible, even higher for the visit of Liverpool. The old Upton Park under floodlights was always a magical venue but that night the crowd were enthralled by a game described by Desmond Hackett in the 'Daily Express' as 'one of the greatest games I have seen for years'.

The Hammers dominated the first half but went behind to a Bobby Graham goal and, with Geoff Hurst limping, it looked as if the cup run was to end, but Hurst's injury actually contributed to the Hammer's equaliser as the England man coming back painfully slowly from an attack was just in the right spot when Tommy Smith back-headed the ball to him following a Clyde Best shot. Interesting to note that Hackett's match report of the night mentions West Ham's 'notorious ill-luck' - you thought it was a new thing when you look at Dean Ashton? - and, with Hurst being replaced at half-time, the Hammers chances of getting through to the next round looked even slimmer as Liverpool looked for the replay back at Anfield. But then something magical happened.

The Hammer's keeper Bobby Ferguson threw the ball out to John McDowell who slipped it through to Harry Redknapp. 'Arry set off on a mazy run down the west side wing evading tackle after tackle for a full 30 yards until the by-line loomed and the ginger one looked as if he was sure to end in a heap in front of the photographers fronting the South Bank. But, it didn't happen. Instead, Redknapp crossed from the tightest of angles, the ball flew over an outstretched Clemence in the Liverpool goal and was met at the far post by Pop Robson, rising like a salmon to power in. It was glorious. Upton Park erupted; the Hammers celebrated and the dreaded replay on Merseyside was averted as they ran out 2-1 winners.

The papers the following day summed it up: 'West Ham - Pride of London'. When fans berate our ex-boss for his association with Spurs or, more likely, his annoying habit of remaining unbeaten against us, it's not the saggy chops that I see when I hear his name. Instead I see a skinny, ginger haired kid in shiny boots flying towards the South Bank at full speed and crossing a ball with speed and accuracy.

It was the 5th round now - the quarter finals - and once again the draw had given West Ham a home tie but equally it was against opponents Greenwood would not have chosen given the opportunity. This time the team due to visit Upton Park were already riding high at the top of the First Division, a side already being tipped to become perhaps the 'new Leeds', a side bristling with inventive football who'd already won at Upton Park in the league, the Hammer's next opponents were….. Sheffield United?

In 1972, Sheffield was celebrating their second season back in the big league. By November they were top of the division and, with players like the much-abused Trevor Hockey - a man who made weird-beard Derek Hales look like he suffered from alopecia - Alan Woodward and a young Tony Currie, the Blades were a team expected to go far. The Saturday before the cup game, Sheffield came to the Boleyn and won 2-1 and went into the quarter final expecting to complete a double. They didn't. In another magical night, West Ham simply blew them away in a 5-0 thrashing that could have run into double figures, so dominant were the men in claret and blue, playing scintillating football that had the home crowd - another 36,000 plus - roaring and singing as Sheffield chased shadows. The defeat was so epic that the Blades were never the same after, slipping down the league to finish 10th.

At Upton Park though, the celebrations went long into the night as Hammers fans looked forward to a semi-final - the first since the glory days of the mid-sixties - against perennial bridesmaid side Stoke City. The semi-final meant a two-legged affair so at least one match was guaranteed under the Upton Park floodlights.

The saga was about to begin

Sunday, 11 November 2012

More London2012 Photos

                                                                  Midnight after 'Super Saturday'

About as close as I'll ever get to a Gold medal

The view from the 'Help Desk'

                                                       When the crowds go home...

West Ham United: An Unreliable History

Prince Harry
Prince Harry looks around the dressing room at West Ham United's Upton Park in 2002.
Good to see that some readers of this blog take the time to write their thoughts and comments underneath. Input - good or bad - is always appreciated. Some though still prefer to email, and that's what occurred last week when I heard from a Mr Simon Bishop who resides in Chicago.

Simon is one of those Hammers fans who has never actually visited the ground - in fact, Simon has never even been to England - and supports the Irons through a hereditary chain stemming from his grandfather. Simon asked me why West Ham's home ground is called the Boleyn and I replied explaining that the Boleyn pub is just outside the ground. This prompted him to Google map the whole area and he wrote again to ask if I could explain further why, with the Boleyn at the centre, the roads around Upton Park are named after Henry VIII's wives: with Katherine Road (for some reason - never understood - my family refer to it as Kath-rine; the latter syllable sounding like bacon rind), Parr, Cleves, Seymour and Arragon roads all criss-crossing the area.

Well, of course, Royal patronage is something that West Ham have enjoyed for some time. Some may recall the 'rumour' that the Queen was a West Ham fan and certainly Her Majesty and Prince Philip opened up the Rio Stand and hotel in 2001. There is also a photo in the archives of Prince Harry being given his own claret and blue shirt with 'Harry' on the back following a visit to the training ground, some years back. Rumours that the shirt was, in fact, one of Mr Redknapp's old ones found crumpled in a locker and given a quick starch and iron by Doris the kit lady, can probably be discounted.

However, as every good West Ham fan knows, the Hammers' links to the Royal Family go back even further, several centuries in fact. The biggest Hammers patron must surely be Henry VIII who was a regular visitor to Upton Park back when the Hammers were known as Ye Olde Ironworkes. Anne Boleyn was, of course, an equally fervent supporter and this was one of the things that drew the couple together back in 1527.

It isn't something that is much mentioned in the history books but Katherine of Aaragon's preference for Real Madrid was a big stumbling block in her marriage to the King and made the lure of Anne almost irresistible to the famously footloose Henry. The King eventually dumped his first wife, although not before he bestowed the honour of naming the major farm road that ran from East Hame to Green Street after her. Katherine Road still survives today; sadly there are few farms and pigs down it now - although anyone stumbling down it on a Saturday night may disagree!

Despite the new Queen's fascination with the Claret and Blue, Anne was notoriously afraid of big crowds, and the jostling and good natured banter back on the Cockerel run – as it was then known – wasn't really to her taste. Subsequently, Henry used to leave the poor girl in the snug of the 'Postilion and Wild Boar' while he went to watch the matches. It was many years after that the pub was renamed the 'Boleyn' in honour of Anne's patronage and her predilection for Watney's Horse-rub Pale Ale.

Sadly, as every Schoolboy knows, Henry's passion for Anne didn't survive his love for football although surely the young Queen bought some of the misfortune on her own head (no pun intended) when – in a particularly vicious argument – Anne rather stupidly claimed she had a preference for local North London Towne soccer rivals, Tottingham Horsespurs. This was too much for Henry and he had her head lopped off for her bad taste. If only such things were allowed today all our lives would be much the richer.

Probably, the next major Royal connection was when the Queen Mum - then Queen Elizabeth, of course – visited the East End during the war. It was said after a German bomb hit Buckingham Palace that the Queen proclaimed: "At last, I can look the East End in the eye". I'm not sure the eye she referred to belonged to my Grandmother though, Nan was bombed out of her house three times during the blitz and certainly believed the Queen was no more than 'merely inconvenienced' by having to move to one of her ten other bedrooms.

They used to say in the blitz that there was nothing you could do with the bomb that 'had your name on it' and this was a constant worry to my Gran who had Mr & Mrs Doodlebug lodging in one of her upstairs rooms. She was a lot happier in 1944 though when she moved down to Poplar and lived next door to that nice Maltese lady, Mrs Veetoo.

So there we have it, Royal patronage and a brief potted history of West Ham. Never let it be said you don't learn things from this blog. Please feel free to keep posting and if you do prefer to email then
billyblagg@hotmail.com is your option.

Monday, 5 November 2012

2012 Paralympics

What to do with a dull game, played by giants interspersed by pointless stoppages and embarrassing interludes? Simple: put everyone in wheelchairs!

London 2012 Memories

Is is politically incorrect to ask if you really have to be partially-sighted to play Goalball? And game that involves laying on the floor is a winner in my book!

I don't think it unreasonable to suggest I got closer to this man than virtually anyone else that week.