Text  Larger | Smaller | Default


In Retro: The fifty greatest Hammers

Filed: Friday, 31st August 2018
By: HeadHammerShark

Over the summer, West Ham Utd ran an interesting series of articles where they identified the “greatest” fifty players to have ever played for the club. I will confess that I find this kind of thing much more interesting than the general stuff that appears on the official site, which is usually a rehash of the previous week’s “the season starts on Saturday” article.

They're in it

So taken was I with the concept, and sitting on holiday with only our customarily inept start to the season for company, I decided I would have a crack at putting my own list together.

I should start by saying that I didn’t have a huge issue with the club list, as such an endeavour will always be subjective and indeed the list I present to you here would be different if I were to undertake this exercise again tomorrow. I have been tinkering with it for days, and have been switching names in and out like Manuel Pellegrini trying to find a functioning midfield.

The primary issue that one must address in trying to narrow down a list of over a thousand names to just fifty is one that all historians face - and yes, get me; two French beers and quick glance at Jimmy Ruffell’s Wikipedia page and I’m a historian – namely, how does one compare across eras?

When the club was formed in 1895, the laws of Association Football were noticeably different than they are now. As an example, the rule change stating that goalkeepers could only handle the ball in their own box was not implemented until 1912, seventeen years after the inception of the club.

How do we judge those who played under those conditions and then compare them to, say, Mitchell Thomas – a man who On The Terraces theorised had his own underground network of tunnels at Upton Park, such was his proclivity for turning up in places he wasn’t supposed to be?

Additionally, how does one allow for the changes in tactics, conditioning, sports science, speed, equipment, medical treatment, money, professionalism and the globalisation of the game? And how are we to judge those whose careers were interrupted by war?

With great difficulty, is the correct answer to all of that.

There is also the problem of adjusting for positional differences. It is fairly easy to determine a champion goal scorer in any era, but less easy to discern the classy full back or pivotal right half. I strongly suspect that defensive players from the very early era of the club have been harshly treated in these lists, because establishing their relative excellence is so hard.

This brings me to the unique problem of assessing footballers who I never saw play. My first game was in 1984, which I don’t remember, and I didn’t start attending with any regularity until 1990. This causes me the dual problem of wondering whether I am overrating those I saw in the flesh or punishing them because I remember them both in and out of form. One truth I have learned in this exercise is that players I didn't see never had bad games.

And lastly, what do we mean when we talk about greatness? Any true list of the greatest footballers to have ever played for West Ham would certainly have to include Liam Brady, Francois van der Elst, Paolo Futre, Javier Mascherano and Michael Carrick and yet none make my list. Being a great footballer is surely not enough – they need to have been great for West Ham. Using that criteria it is important to note that this list doesn't attempt to rank the players in terms of ability, but more in the sense of how valuable they were for West Ham. Dimitri Payet was clearly a better player than Trevor Sinclair, but the latter delivered greater value over a longer period of time.

So my approach was this:

- players needed to have made at least fifty appearances to qualify. This eliminated some outstanding players such as post war goal scorer Tommy Dixon and modern day icons such as Carlos Tevez and Marko Arnautovic.

- I tried, as best I could, to weigh up the level at which players were performing. In this scenario, early greats such as Harry Stapley and Frank Piercy were disadvantaged because they played in the Southern League, which was effectively the Third Division of English football at the time, largely as a result of professionalism having taken off in the North before the South of England. I also had to make a decision about what to do with wartime players and in the end I decided to include those appearances and players too.

- I tried to give due weight to those who achieved international honours. It may not seem like it these days, with caps given away like confetti, but for West Ham players it has always been notoriously difficult to achieve international recognition. Consider that we live in a world where Billy Bonds never played for England and Phil Jones has played at two World Cup Finals.

- I relied heavily upon contemporary notes and the recollections of those who have a passion for West Ham history. To that end I am indebted to the incredible work of Steve Marsh and Nigel Kahn at They Fly So High, the invaluable West Ham Stats from which all statistics are taken, and various wonderful books such as Jack Helliar and Tony Hogg's marvellous "Who's Who of West Ham 1900-1986"(/a>, and Tony McDonald's "Upton Park Memories", which I used as a sense check whenever I was concerned my own sentiments were drifting too far from reality.

- I also relied on YouTube clips and compilations which have put together with such diligence by people like Rob Banks and Dan Coker. In saying that, I did try and bear in mind that YouTube compilations can make anyone look good. I remain convinced that this explains 60% of our transfers in the Sullivan era.

- I compared my own list to that of the other definitive rankings that I could find. I located only three, although I would be delighted to find any others. They are reproduced below, for context. They are; this latest list from the Club which I would say is good but not great; an excellent 2016 effort by Blowing Bubbles magazine and; a, frankly, mad list from website West Ham Till I Die, from 2009. There won't be many lists that have Herita Ilunga above Ronnie Boyce, but fair play - those lads smoked some crack and came up with one.

- I tried to apply the Tim Breacker test. He was a good, solid, dependable right back who played for most of the Nineties and did perfectly well. But I saw the majority of those games and know that Breacker wouldn't be anywhere near a list like this. Yet if you were to undertake this exercise in thirty years you might allow yourself to look at his appearances and generally good reviews and think that he might be worth a place. I have no doubt that I have done this with some of the players from before my time, although in my defence I think there is quite a bit of value in being good enough to hold down a starting spot in a top flight team for a long period.

- Lastly, I allowed myself a liberal and malleable definition of the term "great". In the end I decided that greatness can come in many forms and thus I considered skill, longevity, fan feelings, statistics and the simple aesthetic joy of watching these players. As I said above, I would produce a different list if undertook this endeavour again, and before you have even finished reading it, I will have changed my mind and decided that someone is woefully wrong. Even allowing for the inherent flaws in my reasoning, what I have enjoyed in undertaking this exercise is simply learning more about my club.

And perhaps someday someone can explain to me how that 1960's side didn't win the league.

Alternate Rankings:

Of these, I have ranked them in order of preference, with the Blowing Bubbles version doing the best job of looking across all eras, as befits the group of highly knowledgeable selectors they put together. I don't actually know who was responsible for the official ranking, and while I think it's largely decent it has a couple of nonsensical names in there from more recent times who shouldn't be anywhere near such a list.

In defence of the West Ham Till I Die poll, this was done via a public vote and included only post war players. I suspect there is quite a lot of recency bias at play, and the results probably reflect a younger voting audience and also some fairly strong drug usage.

As it is, my own list includes twenty nine players who I never saw in the flesh. For those of us under forty, the reality seems to be that there were a lot of very good players in Claret and Blue before our time, although a proper examination of our history reveals an awful lot of underachievement. The 1960's alone featured an incredible amount of talent, and yet absolutely no threat to the league title at all. For a fan reviewing that era now, it is perplexing to see how little was achieved with so much.

And with that, the list:

The H List - In Retro - The Fifty Greatest Hammers - 50 to 41
The H List - In Retro - The Fifty Greatest Hammers - 40 to 31
The H List - In Retro - The Fifty Greatest Hammers - 30 to 21
The H List - In Retro - The Fifty Greatest Hammers - 20 to 11
The H List - In Retro - The Fifty Greatest Hammers - 10 to 1

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

Your Comments

comments powered by Disqus