Yesterday evening, at the London Stadium, the chants of Billy Bonds’s claret and blue army! rang out again, as they once did at Upton Park. The occasion was the naming of the stadium’s East Stand after the great West Ham man. He was there for the occasion, as was a gathering of some of West Ham’s finest players from Billy’s time at the club. He joined West Ham from Charlton Athletic as a 21 year old in 1967 and retired from playing in 1988 at the age of 42. Twenty-one magnificent years.
The ceremony took place before the evening game against Newcastle. We won that 2-0, incidentally. MC for the occasion was another West Ham great: Alvin Martin, a very fine centre back, who took over from Billy as captain in 1984. Before Billy arrived in the tunnel, Alvin read out the roll call of past players who formed the guard of honour. That brought back a few memories. It was interesting to hear who got the biggest cheers. The top two, I would say, before the final man out, were Ray Stewart, a brilliant Scottish right back in the 80s who took the penalties and never missed; and Ludo Miklosko, the highly popular Czech goalkeeper, who was at West Ham for most of the 90s. The final man (before Billy, that is) was, of course, Sir Trevor Brooking, midfield maestro from the late 1960s to 1984. He was interviewed by Alvin before Billy came out. He said of Billy recently, “I would trust him with my life.” (I think he might have said the same yesterday, but can’t remember!). In the 70s, when Billy was a marauding midfielder, he was Trevor’s minder on the pitch. Any player who tried to rough Trevor up, to stop him exercising his magic, would quickly be on the receiving end of a robust challenge from Bonzo. That was football back then!
Billy, hard man though he was, and no doubt still is, was visibly moved by the occasion. There were tears in his eyes as he spoke to Alvin. When he held his hand to heart, as he walked around our part of the ground, you knew that it was genuine in the extreme – done with a deep love for the club that he played for 799 times, a club record. The fans responded with that Billy Bonds song and, of course, I’m forever blowing bubbles. It was a joyous and moving occasion. I felt a tear in my eye, I have to say.
He looked great too. 72, but looking fit and slim in a dapper blue suit, cut in a modern style. He has kept his hair pretty long, too. Much as it was in the 70s. Respect to the man – an example, just as Geoff Hurst was, when I saw him and Trevor speak at a charity dinner in 2016.
Billy joined West Ham from Charlton Athletic, where he’d started his career, in the 1967-8 season. He was one of those great English players who never played for England. He got close. He was capped twice at Under 23 level, and was a non-playing substitute in a World Cup qualifier against Italy in 1977. Then, in May 1981, he was lined up for a cap against Brazil, in a friendly. In the last league game of the season, he collided with the West Ham goalkeeper, Phil Parkes and broke two ribs! Even Bonzo couldn’t play through that and he missed his chance. When you think of some of the midfielders and centre backs who have won caps for England over the years, it is outrageous he never got a chance to show what he could do. Same applies to another true Hammer, still playing superbly in our midfield: Mark Noble. As he comes towards the end of his career – maybe one more season at the top level after this? – his chance is probably over. But I’m certain that if he had had the opportunity, he’d have seized it and been pretty hard to leave out after that.
Billy was captain of the team between 1974, when he took over from Bobby Moore, until 1984, when the baton passed to Alvin Martin. He’d planned to retire then, but in fact played on until 1988. Manager John Lyall made him a youth coach straight away. When Lyall resigned after West Ham were relegated in 1989, Billy applied for the job, but Scotsman Lou Macari, a skilful ex-Man Utd midfielder but rather defensive manager, got it. It was a match made in hell, and he left after seven months. Billy took over in February 1990 and was manager until August 1994. In his first full season the club was promoted back to the top division and reached an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Forest won and went on to lose the 1991 final to Spurs. These were topsy turvy times for West Ham. They were relegated in 1992, but then got back up the following season, both with Billy still at the helm.
So, Billy Bonds might not be remembered for his feats as a manager; but as a player, he is one of the true West Ham legends – up there with the World Cup winning trio of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, and Trevor Brooking. It was a privilege to be there yesterday to salute him.
PS. A few more shots below. If you’d like to see the full “mosaic” greeting, which was created by everyone in the East Stand (me included) holding up different coloured plastic bags, take a look at latest news on the West Ham website.
Cutting the ribbon.