When West Ham nearly won the league in 1986, their campaign was spearheaded by a relatively unknown Scot. But then everything changed for Frank McAvennie
• Hammer time: Frank McAvennie's goal tally was only bettered by Gary Lineker in 1986
Frank McAvennie is getting grief. He's in his car, heading north from his home in Newcastle to a speaking gig in Aberdeen and he's trying to tell a story about Russell Brand and a film he's planning on a charismatic footballer with a talent for scoring off the pitch and on, but he's getting interrupted. Women, eh?
"At the next roundabout, take the second exit."
"Aye, all right, darlin," he tells the honey in the satnav. "So as I was saying, somebody phones me and says, 'Big Russell is making a movie about a player and it sounds a bit like you'. Smashing lad, Russell. I've met him once or..."
"In 150 yards turn right, then proceed ahead for two miles."
"OK love, gie us peace, eh? Where was I? Yeah, I've met Russell a few times. He's a massive West Ham fan. Huge. He grew up watching me and Tony Cottee banging in the goals that season we almost won the league. Twenty five year ago now. Jesus. Imagine that. Twenty five years. Anyway, I spoke to Julian Dicks down in London and he said he was going to speak to Russell about getting us a part in the film. Hehehe, naw. Not a part, an advisory role maybe. Something on the football side of it, you know. He's a great talent, Russell, but he doesn't look like much of a football player, the big man."
"Traffic warning ahead."
"Cheers darlin'. See, this is me. Still can't get away from the birds. Hehehe."
This is him, all right; 51 years old and a father, a stepfather and a step-grandfather. Living happily in Newcastle these days, away from Glasgow and the kind of turbulence that came his way all too often, away from trouble and strife and secure in his marriage to Karen, his wife of ten years. "The Sun said it wouldn't last 12 months. To be fair, she's due a testimonial."
The phone has been going a bit these past months. West Ham people wanting to talk about better days. Old team-mates wanting to meet up, to revisit the near glory of '86, the year West Ham pushed Liverpool to the penultimate game of the league season and almost won the title.
These are grim times for the Hammers. No wonder they welcome the diversion into nostalgia. Bottom of the league, a lame-duck manager, a trigger-happy board and a squad of players that possess all the money in the world, but none of the talent or the heart of '86, of a team that is beloved in the club's history.
They should have won the title that season. Plenty of people will tell you that they played the best football. They'll tell you about their demolition job at Stamford Bridge and the eight they put on Newcastle. They'll tell you that it wasn't Liverpool who denied them the trophy, it was the weather. There was heavy snow that year. Upton Park couldn't cope. Between 6 February and 5 March they didn't play a single game, which left a pile-up of fixtures that crippled them in the end. In March they played every third or fourth day on average. In April they played on the 12th, the 15th, the 19th, the 21st, the 26th, the 28th and the 30th. "And you're on heavy pitches, remember. You're at places like Stamford Bridge and there's mud hanging from your ears after five minutes, there's so much mud that by the end you're identifying your team-mates by their number rather than their face. I hear players giving out about fatigue nowadays. Aye, that'll be right."
He finished second-top scorer that season with 26 goals. Only Gary Lineker scored more - and he had a load of penalties in his total. They put shame on the current lot. Avram Grant in the same chair as John Lyall? Wayne Bridge on 90,000 a week? "I'm not bitter," says Macca, "but what's all that about?"
The legend of McAvennie began 25 years ago. It was like this, he says: that season in England there was no television coverage for the first half of the championship race, not even a highlights package because of a stand-off between the BBC and ITV and the football authorities. The season began in a blackout. When McAvennie started rifling in the goals and propelling West Ham towards the top of the league he did it in relative anonymity. Everybody knew his name for those five months, but not many knew what this newcomer actually looked like.
"It's true. In about the October or the November they started the Saint and Greavsie show and I was on the first one. They took me on to Tower Bridge and stopped punters and asked them if they knew who the leading scorer in the First Division was. They all knew. Well, sort of knew. ‘Yeah, it's the Scotsman, McAdougie or something'. Jim Rosenthal was doing the interviews. ‘That's right, McAvennie's his name' Jim says. ‘Do you know what he looks like?' They hadn't a clue. They were like, ‘A huge-headed Jock, with a beard and that'. Then I'd walk up and say, ‘Actually, I'm Frank McAvennie'. And they'd be, ‘Get out of it!' Brilliant."
If Saint and Greavsie introduced Macca the footballer to the football populace, Macca the babe magnet was born on Wogan. "Changed my life, that," he says. Twenty two million people watching. Macca taking his seat with the words of his team-mates ringing in his ears. ‘For Christ's sake Frank, slow down when you're talking. Wogan will think you're wanting a fight if you don't.' That was the way of it after he signed from St Mirren. He went down there with his rapid-fire speech. Every time he called for a pass in training people thought he was spoiling for a scrap.
‘What's your problem, son?'
‘What you call me?'
He learned. Sloooow it down, Macca. "You know when people don't understand ye. They just nod their head like Churchill the dog. I went on Wogan and two days later I met my mum at Heathrow airport. I walked in the terminal and I knew immediately that life was different. People were staring at me. Old women were asking for my autograph. Young ones were giving me the look and all that. There were a few stages in the birds and partying thing. When I put blond streaks in my hair, that was a help. Nobody likes a ginger, eh? Then I signed for West Ham and money and girls were thrown at me and, hey, who was I to say no? Then I went on Wogan and it really took off. I was never under any illusions why it was happening. It wisnae because of my looks, it was because I was a footballer. Peter Crouch came up with the best line ever. Big Crouchy. ‘If you weren't a footballer what would you be?' A virgin, he says. Absolutely magnificent. And so true."
Macca was the toast of the east end in the spring of '86. West Ham beat Chelsea 4-0 at Stamford Bridge, then beat Spurs 2-1 at Upton Park. They were fifth in the league but had five games in hand. They won eight of their next nine games. Liverpool were being stalked by the London upstarts, McAvennie leading the charge.
"We played West Brom in our second last game of the season and beat them 3-2. Had Liverpool lost or drawn the same day it would have gone to the final weekend, but they won. I've never seen so many grown men cry than that day The thing was, we had a squad of about 15 players and only about 13 of us ever played. If you look at it, nobody except those 13 got anywhere near double figures in appearances. We were such a tight-knit group because there was so few of us. We're still that way now. We're in touch, most of us. It was never the same again, but it was a special time while it lasted."
West Ham now? Well, he looks on with dismay at his old club. "I don't have any sympathy for Avram, really. He hasn't covered himself in glory, has he? When 30,000 people see the team playing crap and he goes on telly talking about passing and commitment? Sorry. Don't talk to the fans like they're idiots. People are talking about Martin Jol and Sam Allardyce. Either of those would be better than Grant. He hasn't done enough for me."
Macca's crossing the Border. Satnav woman has been silenced. He's talking about the old and the new, life on the straight and narrow - and contentment. He's got a few projects in football. A bit of corporate. A gig in the media on occasion. The family is well. He's doing OK.
"You know my big problem nowadays? I used to party for three days and recover in one. Now I party for one day and recover in three. Happens to us all, eh? Slowing down at last."