Filed: Saturday, 9th December 2000
By: Tony Fowles
Former Hammers star Frank McAvennie was recently acquitted of charges relating to conspiracy to supply drugs. And now the ex-playboy is looking forward to getting his life - and career - back on track.
It's been a tough year for the former terrace idol. Back in July McAvennie was charged with conspiracy to supply amphetamines and ecstasy worth in the region of '110,000 - a charge which left Frank facing the bleak prospect of several years inside.
But after a short trial in September he was sensationally cleared of all charges.
He said afterwards: "I don't know what to say at the moment. I need a few days to get my thoughts together.
"The result was the right one. I'm so pleased I can rely on the justice system because you can't rely on the police."
Inside the court the sorry state of the fallen idol's post-football life was laid bare for everyone to see. The court heard all about his marriage break-up, bankruptcy and five years unemployment. Not a lot to show for a player who was one of the best strikers in Britain at the height of his career in the late 1980's.
"I suppose that I'm a bad boy really, but I am not a drug dealer," he told the Ironworks Gazette. "That's one thing that I've never been.
"Everyone who knows me knows that I have done some stupid things, but I am not a drug dealer. I think even the media knew that it was nothing to do with me.'
And with all that firmly behind him now Frank is looking forward to the future - a future which could see him returning to the game he loves - despite all the problems it caused him.
"I'm only one step away from being a qualified coach," he said. "I'm up to the UEFA level and I can coach kids up to eighteen years old.
"I've been offered a job at Huddersfield; I've been coaching kids there so I've been training to get back in the game. I've also been offered jobs in Hong Kong, South Africa - I've been offered jobs all over the world."
Having sat his UEFA exams Frank will have the opportunity to pass on his knowledge of the game to all standards of players. But despite the rigorous programme which he has endured in order to get the badge, he still feels that there are a lot of problems within the system as a whole - a belief which echoes Harry Redknapp's comments some weeks ago.
"I still intend to kick football up the backside because there are a lot of people in the game that don't know what they are doing," he said. "They are earning a very good living but know nothing, so I intend to come back and wind a few people up.
"I've still got a lot to offer - you can't play football for seventeen years at the top and not know anything about it. All these people, even when you are doing your badges, no disrespect to them but they are teaching players, they are teaching me how to coach and they've never even played football.'
So having 'turned the corner' so to speak, it's a much more relaxed Frank McAvennie that sits with us today. And despite the passing of a decade or so since he last stepped out for West Ham, the big man is still easily recognisable. The trademark blonde highlights are still there; time has been kind to one of the best strikers ever to grace Upton Park.
Frank played for West Ham in two spells. He made his debut for the club on the opening day of the 1985/86 season in a dull 1-0 defeat at Birmingham.
Alongside homegrown star Tony Cottee ("you couldn't get a better partnership than that, it was superb" he says), Frank led the Hammers to third place in the old first division that season - the club's best ever finish in the top flight. He scored 28 goals in just 41 appearances. Cottee, who played the same number of matches hit 26.
In September 1987 Frank signed for Celtic in an '800,000 deal. He became an instant hit with the Bhoys, finishing their top scorer in his first season.
He made an emotional return to Upton Park in March 1989, enjoying a further four seasons with the club (who paid Celtic '1.25m for his services - '400,000 more than they had sold him for 18 months previously).
So having enjoyed so many good times here, does he miss the place?
"I loved it at West Ham," he admits. "I want to thank the fans for everything that they have done for me. When I was in prison I got a lot of letters from Hammers supporters, which was encouraging.
"West Ham fans are the best in the world, there are none better. The atmosphere is a bit different since it has gone all-seater - I loved it when they were right on top of you."
Conversation inevitably turns to THAT season - when, right up until the final game we were in with a real chance of breaking the Merseyside stranglehold and winning the title.
"We should have won the league," he admits. "We should have won it, but with the backlog of fixtures it was just too much for us. I suppose that West Ham were inexperienced at the time, and we were going for everything.
"Something was missing; we just couldn't finish teams off. Games were going into replays and then more replays, and it was too much. But it was a great season; it was my first year in England and I think that it was my best . My first season and then my last game are my fondest memories."
And what of his partnership with Cottee?
"Oh it was tremendous, you couldn't get a better partnership than that," he says. "It was superb me and Tony, the first couple of games we got it right, we sorted a few problems out."
And the rumours that they never used to get on?
"It was a load of crap," he says. "We were on the golf course once and we'd heard all these stories about how we were supposed to be fighting and all that. I said, "yeah, fighting to see who paid for the golf!"
Frank's biggest regret with the Hammers is that they never went on to equal the performance of that fantastic season.
"I regret that we didn't win anything that season, but we should have followed on the following season," he says. "Maybe someone at the club didn't want to take us that far. We bought some bad players - not bad players, but players who weren't West Ham players, like Stewart Robson for instance. He was a great player but not in a West Ham team.
"West Ham was all about one touch. Stewart was a great player but he couldn't play one touch. Dicksie was one of the greatest players that you could play with, great at one touch. He was hard and all that, but Stewart Robson? Give him the ball and the game stopped."
Robson, who was signed from Arsenal never really fitted into the West Ham system. And Frank certainly had no time for him.
"He thought he was a player, but he was a **** as far as I'm concerned," he says. "I never rated him at all; I didn't rate him whatsoever. He was good in an Arsenal team but no good in a West Ham team.
"He was cr*p because he used to stop the game. Every time you gave him the ball the game stopped, whereas before the ball would get put in and laid back and put into space for us to run on to. Now you had to wait ten minutes, have a break and he'd still have the ball! You know, he was one of them.
"Every time he got the ball there was always a fight. West Ham was all about playing it to whoever is nearest - that's what West Ham was all about. He used to stop that; he was slowing it down so people could get near us. It was a kick on right throughout the whole team."
Robson, McAvennie certainly didn't get on with. But one player he'll always be indebted to is Mitchell Thomas - who gave him the opportunity to say farewell to the Hammers fans in his farewell appearance on 2nd May 1992, when Frank came on as a half-time sub to score all three goals against Nottingham Forest.
Frank takes up the story:
"Bonzo [Billy Bonds] went off of me for some reason and he wasn't playing me. He was putting me on as a sub, and I was coming on and scoring. It got to the stage that it was just wearing me out, so for the last game of the season he came in to the gym on the Friday and said to me: 'Do you want to go on the bench tomorrow and say farewell to the fans?'. I said, 'Yeah, but I'd prefer a game'.
"The deal was - when I came back for John Lyall - that I was going to get offered another contract, and whatever capacity I was kept on in that I would get a testimonial. But when Bonzo took over he wouldn't have none of it. It was just one of these things, but yes Mitchell [Thomas] did help me.
"During the warm up it was a chance for me to go out and savour the atmosphere. Mitchell said to me, 'He's not putting you on is he?', and I said, 'No, he won't put me on at all'. Mitchell said, 'Get ready because you are coming on'.
"So I'm sitting there at half time and Bonzo came in and said, 'Frank, get yourself ready you're going on'! I said, 'Why, what's wrong with Mitchell?'. And he said, 'How did you know it was Mitchell?' I said, 'Oh I noticed him limping'!
"So that was a true story, yeah, he did me a big favour."
McAvennie remains a big fan of his former boss John Lyall, who he describes as 'the Guvnor'. It was widely reported at the time of his return to Upton Park that Arsenal had came in for him, and he cites the influence of Lyall alone as that which persuaded him to return to Upton Park.
And despite Billy Bonds not fancying him as a player in his final months with the club, McAvennie still felt for Billy and the way in which he was treated by the club.
"Bonds could have been a good manager," he says. "But it would have been better if John Lyall could have been there and Bonzo could have learned from him and had his help. It would have maintained stability."
But he was rather less forthcoming with praise for Lou Macari, who's short tenure at the club was far too long as far as McAvennie is concerned.
"I had an unfortunate experience to have had him as a manager twice," says Frank. I had him at Celtic as well, and he ruined my career the wee ****. But that was one of these things, you know?"
After leaving West Ham McAvennie continued his career in Hong Kong, before returning to Scotland and Celtic again after a short time away.
But it wasn't the most straightforward return, as he explains.
"I'd come back to Glasgow from Hong Kong and I went to sign for Partick Thistle, but for some reason I had left Hong Kong and not paid my hotel bill ...
"Thistle said that the club in Hong Kong would not release my registration forms until the bill was paid. So I said, 'Okay, I'll send the money over'. They said that if Thistle gave the guarantee that they will pay it then they would release the forms straight away.
"So they said that I could sign the next day. They'd called the press conference and the photo-shoot before I'd actually signed, so they said, 'You can sign tomorrow', and I said okay.
"So I went out onto the pitch for the photo-shoot, and whilst there I got a phone call on my mobile from Liam Brady [the then Celtic manager]. He'd rang me before and I'd never phoned back. I thought that he'd phoned me for a number or something.
"Anyway, Liam said, 'Have you signed yet?', and I said no. He asked me where I was and I told him, 'I'm in the centre circle at Partick Thistle'. So he's killed himself laughing and he said, 'well do you fancy signing for Celtic?' I said, 'yeah'!
"So I went to his house and he asked me what Thistle were paying me, and I told him a lot more that I was actually offered and that he would have to better it. So I'd done alright out of it and got over a years contract at Celtic!"
And once back at Celtic, McAvennie was reunited with another former Hammer, who Brady entrusted McAvennie with taking under his wing.
"Liam asked me to look after him", he said. "It was funny because he hadn't been scoring a lot of goals, so Liam said to me about letting Stuart take the penalties. It's funny because we were away to Partick Thistle, so I said okay.
"We played Thistle and it was a terrible game, but I got pulled down for a penalty - it was one of my dives! Stuart went over to take the penalty and I said, 'Not today wee man'!
"Brady had his head in his hands but I couldn't stop laughing because I knew that the Thistle supporters hated me because of all the publicity. So I thought 'oh balls' and I just ran and blasted it. I saw it go in the net and I ran towards their crowd - oh they hated me! I had to get a police escort out of the ground, it was really good fun!"