West Ham did not win any trophies in the 1985-86 season, but the achievements of John Lyall’s squad are still rightly celebrated at the club 35 years later. At the start of the season there was nothing to suggest they would challenge for the title. The club had enjoyed a decent run after being promoted to the top flight in 1981, but they had slumped alarmingly in the second half of the 1984-85 campaign and only stayed up after winning two of their last three matches.
“West Ham, Coventry, Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City, each of whom flirted with danger last time, will be lucky if they all escape again,” wrote David Lacey in his pre-season preview in the Guardian in the summer of 1985. He was not alone in having such low expectations for the Hammers.
With Paul Allen and Dave Swindlehurst departing that summer, Lyall brought in two players. The talented winger Mark Ward arrived from Oldham, and forward Frank McAvennie moved south from St Mirren. McAvennie had nearly signed for Luton but the club’s chairman David Evans had irritated him by slapping him on the back of the head and saying “Welcome to Luton”, so he decided to go to Upton Park instead. Lyall impressed McAvennie, meeting him in the early hours of the morning at Toddington service station as well flying to Glasgow to secure his signature. It would prove time well spent for the West Ham manager.
McAvennie and Ward were joining a talented squad. Goalkeeper Phil Parkes enjoyed a fine season, with penalty taker extraordinaire Ray Stewart at right-back, Tony Gale and skipper Alvin Martin forming a solid partnership at the heart of the defence, and Steve Walford and George Parris sharing duties at left-back. The gifted midfielder Alan Devonshire returned to the team after 20 months out with a persistent knee injury. With Alan Dickens, Ward, Neil Orr, and later Geoff Pike also contributing in midfield, Lyall was blessed with a fine engine room.
But the partnership between Cottee and McAvennie was their real strength. Again, things fell into place perfectly for Lyall. Having originally signed McAvennie to play in the hole behind strikers Cottee and Paul Goddard, the manager had to change his plans when Goddard dislocated his shoulder on the opening day of the season during a defeat at Birmingham City. With Goddard out, McAvennie moved up front and Dickens slotted into midfield.
It was a lucky moment for Lyall – not that it appeared that way at first. West Ham started the season terribly, winning just one of their first seven games. Unbeknown to Lyall, the players met for a frank exchange of views. Cottee was reminded of his defensive duties – “he was a lazy sod,” to quote McAvennie – and slowly the team clicked. They put together a club record 18-match unbeaten run in the league, which hurtled them up the table. Having been tipped for relegation, they were now challenging for the title.
McAvennie enjoyed a fantastic start to his first season in England, scoring 17 goals in the league before Christmas. He scored 26 in total in his debut campaign, finishing second to Gary Lineker in the race for the Golden Boot. Sadly, though, the general public were not able to see him in action in those early months. With the dispute between clubs and TV bosses leading to a blackout of football on our screens, there was an air of mystery surrounding new signings.
Newspaper articles described how McAvennie had gone through a number of jobs before finding football – mechanic, painter and decorator, waiter, tarmac layer – and how he had a reputation for liking a disco and a drink. His appearance on Wogan in November 1985 introduced him to the wider public and opened doors for him in the celebrity world.
McAvennie’s commitment could not be questioned. He only missed one league match all season and that was to play for Scotland in a World Cup playoff in Australia. Having played his part in helping Scotland qualify for the tournament, he arrived back in England on the morning of West Ham’s away match at QPR. He phoned Lyall to say he wanted to play. Despite the jetlag after a flight from Melbourne, he scored the winner.
The victory at QPR was one of nine straight wins in the 18-match unbeaten run between the end of August and Boxing Day. Cottee and McAvennie were banging in the goals while the defence remained solid; Parkes went 559 minutes without conceding a goal during the run. The unbeaten run eventually ended at White Hart Lane, where Steve Perryman’s late goal separated the teams.
West Ham were still in touch with league leaders Manchester United at the turn of the year but then came the big freeze during the winter of 1986. West Ham played just three league matches in January and February, and became embroiled in an FA Cup marathon with Ipswich – witness the iffy playing surface in the second of three replays – as the fixtures started to pile up.
From March onwards, the schedule was relentless. After beating Manchester United in the fifth round (after another replay), a disappointing quarter-final defeat to Sheffield Wednesday killed any hopes of FA Cup success. Back-to-back league defeats to Arsenal and Aston Villa completed a terrible seven days. Yet, with four games in hand on leaders Everton, the 15-point deficit could be retrieved.
West Ham would not lie down. A run of eight wins from nine games – including a crazy 8-1 win over Newcastle in which Martin scored a hat-trick past three different goalkeepers – meant that, going into the final weekend of the season, there was a realistic chance of the title coming to Upton Park for the first time. West Ham had to hope that Liverpool would lose their last match of the season and that they would beat West Brom on the Saturday and then Everton – who were also still in contention – on the Monday night.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. West Ham won 3-2 at the Hawthorns, but Liverpool clinched the title with a 1-0 victory at Chelsea. Rumours circulated that Liverpool’s match had finished goalless, but Lyall had to inform his players that, contrary to what they had heard, their title dream had gone. “It was heartbreaking,” said McAvennie. “I had never seen so many grown men crying.”
West Ham lost 3-1 at Goodison Park on the Monday, thus missing out on second place. For a set of players who had been getting through matches on adrenaline, the motivation simply wasn’t there. “I didn’t want to play on that Monday because of the heartbreak, and many of us didn’t,” McAvennie revealed.
Things would never be the same again for Lyall or West Ham. A lack of investment in the squad led to a disappointing campaign the following year, and the club suffered relegation in 1989. Sacked shortly afterwards, it was a sad end to Lyall’s 15-year spell in charge at the club. But his time at the club is remembered fondly by fans and, 13 managerial appointments later, no one has beaten the third-place finish he achieved 35 years ago.
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