Billy Bonds MBE

  • by Graeme Howlett
  • Tuesday, 29th October 2013

West Ham United legend Billy Bonds joined us recently on the Podcast to talk about the highs and lows of his long career at the Boleyn Ground. Firing the questions on behalf of were Chris Scull, James Longman and Graeme Howlett. Props to Jason Eve for transcribing the interview.

KUMB: You’ve recently received the lifetime achievement award; how was that for you?

BB: It was a lovely moment, not just for me but for my family as well. It was a lovely award to receive, the Chairmen spoke to me about it early on and he said he would like to give me the award at the dinner in London.

The best part of it all for me was going to the ground with the whole of my family and taking my two little granddaughters on the pitch. It was something I wanted them to see before we leave the ground, just to see where I played. That was a bit special. I think my granddaughters enjoyed it and my two daughters enjoyed it. It was a great day for them.

KUMB: Have your granddaughters seen footage of you playing?

BB: I doubt it. I would have thought they might have seen something on TV, but I would very much doubt it. I’ve never played any videos. I’ve never watched a video of the Cup Finals myself, so I wouldn’t think they have done.

KUMB: What kind of questions were they asking you? Do they have an understanding of what you mean to West Ham?

I don’t know whether they know that, but I think they got a good idea when they heard the applause out there. Kids at their schools? I suppose one or two of them [do]...

I know of one kid in one of my eight year old's class who regularly goes to West Ham. She’s a massive West Ham fan because of her mum and dad, and I think she said to my youngest little one: ‘You know I saw you go out on the pitch?’ So it gets back to them - and it was a lovely moment for them.

KUMB: When you were walking back onto that pitch, did it feel like you were coming back home?

I’ve never been away, really. I’ve never had a problem with the Club, that isn’t why I don’t come over. It’s just that I’ve never been one for going back. I don’t want to sit in a stand and talk to people about "oh, in your day" - and this and that. When you’ve had your time, you’ve had your time. I’ve left my mark on the Club and that’s great, because I’ll be remembered in the future.

KUMB: Talking about memories, you’ve had the sort of career that any West Ham supporter would dream of. You’ve played with Bobby Moore and lifted the FA Cup. If you could pick a particular moment, what would you say was the highlight of your career?

BB: It’s so difficult. All I ever answer to that is just playing football for a living. That’s one big highlight; people would give their right arm to do what I’ve done.

I started off working in a factory when I was a kid before I went onto Charlton’s ground staff. My dad got me an apprenticeship at a factory sitting and turning big propellors. I was there six months and I tell you what - I wouldn’t have wanted to do that for a living all my life.

So what I’m trying to say is, it’s not easy for people. I was lucky; I got out of there and was able to play football for a living. Imagine that! Earning your living from doing something like having a kickabout down the park, like you used to.

I had two great managers in John Lyall and Ron Greenwood. Every day was a pleasure working with them, because they were such great coaches. Obviously there were highlights - Cup Finals and things like that - but just going, being a footballer and enjoying it [was enough].

The fans as well; the fans were great with me, they got me through. I played until I was nearly 42 and I honestly don’t think I could have gone on that long without the fans backing. I loved the Club, the fans were great to me and it was great to play football for a living.

KUMB: You mentioned Ron Greenwood and John Lyall there; what were the main differences in their management styles?

BB: Well, Ron was John’s mentor really. They both loved to get the ball down and play, they both talked about the game the same way and they were both very intelligent people. They remind me a little bit of the current England manager, the way he talks about the game.

I think Ron was before his time. I came to the club as a right back and all Ron used to talk to me about was overlapping and getting forward. He taught me to get up the outside of wingers, it was never about tackling although I could do that anyway. Then it was about putting me into midfield.

Some people say I was a holding midfield player, but I wasn’t. Sometimes I’d get beyond Trevor Brooking and if I wanted to get into the box, I could. We didn’t have holding midfield players back then, not in our team anyway.

Then, when I became a centre-half - he tried me out in a a pre-season friendly against Portsmouth - I remember the first thing he said to me; he wanted me to bring the ball out and start attacks. That was the man’s mentality. John took that onboard and he was like Ron.

The main difference between them was that he was more of a disciplinarian. Ron was maybe a bit loose discipline-wise when I first came to the Club, whereas when John came in he was more disciplined, he started to tie us down for corner kicks and organise us a little bit more at the back.

Make no doubt about it, Ron Greenwood was one of the best coaches ever. He was a fantastic coach - and I think John Lyall would tell you that if he was about now.

KUMB: Thinking of the crop of players Ron Greenwood had, what was it like to play in the same team as Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst?

BB: Well, what a place to go and learn! I was at Charlton, I was a big raw right-back there and I use to get up and down the pitch - but what a place to go and learn your trade. That’s where I learnt everything, just playing with those sort of players you had to learn from them. It was daunting, I wouldn’t say it wasn’t.

I first met Bobby when I was 14 years old and he came over and presented medals to us at our end of season do; we'd won the league and the Cup. He was only about 18 then and we didn’t even know who he was!

We knew he was a good-looking lad, fit and that he was a footballer who played for West Ham, but we were mostly all Charlton supporters. Little did I know, that six or seven years later I'd be playing with Bobby Moore at Upton Park. I’ll always remember that meeting with him when I was 14.

To take over as captain from him was the next step. I had big boots to fill there; it wasn’t going to be easy for me.

KUMB: And having taken the captaincy, in 1975 you’re playing in a Cup Final against him. It must have been strange to be lining up against Bobby Moore that day?

BB: Yeah, it was weird. Bobby had left the club, he and Ron had fallen out. I forget what it was over now but he left the club and went to Fulham. But like all great players, they always bounce back and Mooro ended up in a Cup Final with a Second Division side! Mind you, they had some good players; Alan Mullery, another terrific player was in there with him.

I thought the world of Bobby. I thought he was fantastic, I loved him as a person and I was probably always in awe of him. He was always very good to me, a lovely man. But when you go into a Cup Final, it doesn’t matter if your mother's out there - you want to go and win and that is what it’s all about!

Nobody remembers people who lose Cup Finals so it’s all about going out and winning on the day. We didn’t play particularly well, Alan Taylor had that little golden spell and we had a goalkeeper against us [Peter Mellor] who was kind to us in a way, he didn’t have the greatest of games! So we ended up winning it, but afterwards you think about Bobby. The first bloke you go and see is Bobby.

KUMB: I was watching the footage back of the 1975 Final and as soon as that final whistle blew, yourself and Frank Lampard made a beeline for him straight after the final whistle?

BB: Graham [Paddon] was there as well, you could see he was disappointed as his head was bowed. We went over and all you can say is "sorry". Well, we didn't say "sorry", I think I said "unlucky, Bob" to him! You just have to go over to console him. I was lucky that I played in two FA Cup Finals and didn’t lose either of them, so I didn’t get that feeling - although I got it in the League Cup.

KUMB: We were saying earlier that you played for West Ham for over 21 seasons and had such a storied career. Who were the standout players that you played with?

BB: Mooro was a fantastic player. People would say he couldn’t tackle; he could tackle but it was all about timing. He wasn’t a powerhouse tackler, he wouldn’t go through people, but it was all about timing with him.

He wasn't the greatest header of the ball and in training he was probably one of the slower ones in the running exercises. But he had this amazing ability to read games and he had this magnetism about him. There was something about him, the blonde hair [and all].

He was a fantastic footballer and I can see him now knocking balls up to Hurst’s chest and breaking up attacks just by reading the game. He was made for international football and playing against the great players as he was a great player.

Also Trevor Brooking, a fantastic talent in midfield. When I played with him in midfield, if I played the ball up the right he’d be on the half-turn - and if I played it onto his back foot, sometimes he wouldn’t even have to stop. He’d just let it run and beat somebody by not even touching the ball. He was a fantastic player.

There’s lots; Alvin Martin; Alan Devonshire; Pop Robson... I don’t like naming them because I’m going to miss out a few and get slaughtered for not mentioning them! Parksy was world-class; Ray Stewart... Some really great players. Martin Peters; Geoff Hurst; Boycey... There was so many. Some really fantastic players.

KUMB: And also, just brilliant characters. You start naming those players and you can’t help but think what great characters they were?

The thing about a lot of them was that wasn’t too many flash ones there - certainly in the Cup Final sides I played in you didn’t get any real lairy ones. Especially the '81 side; a lot of them would probably get in many people's best West Ham team. There were good groups, there weren’t any lairy ones and if there were they soon got sorted out!

KUMB: We were talking about the longevity of Ryan Giggs' career, but he has got nothing on you! You were in the West Ham team right up until you were 41 years and 321 days old. How did you manage to have such a lengthy career when you were such a combative player?

BB: I was lucky in that respect because I must have gone into a million tackles! I always remember once, when I was in hospital, I had an infection in my toe and I missed the whole of the '86 season. I was in a bed next to Gerhard Ampofo who had broken his leg in a youth team game at Upton Park.

I was 39 years old then and I’d had half of my toe taken off, but I always think about that kid because I got over that and went on to play a couple more years. That kid’s career finished at 17, that’s how dicey it is. You get a bad one and it can finish you - especially back then. Nowadays there’s operations that you can have, it’s moved on a bit. Bu you just had to get a bad one and I could have ended up the same as that kid and not got anywhere.

So you have to be a bit lucky and be a bit knowledgable with what you’re doing out there as well when you’re in that sort of environment. But I was very fit and I was lucky, that was my big strength and I could run all day.

KUMB: What was it like trying to keep pace with everyone at 41? That must have been tough!

One of the highlights was playing against Paul Gascoigne, he made his debut against us. He was 16 or 17, he was very young. I was 39 years old and I was playing midfield that day and I did ok, I did alright!

He was a chirpy little bugger. He was giving me lots of stick and I’ll never forget that, he didn’t stop rabbiting at me all through the game calling me an "old git" and stuff like that! I think it was 50/50, even Stevens; I didn’t have a problem.

I think I could have gone on for another four or five years. Not at that level but further down the league. But when you go down the leagues you probably have to do a little bit more running because you don’t always get the ball back.

My wife started to say to me "you’re looking a bit gaunt now", so I went to see John [Lyall] and he said "there’s always a job for you here". I thought I'd take that, so I went and took the Youth team. But I was very, very lucky to play for as long as I did.

KUMB: So you became the seventh manager of the club in February 1990. Was becoming a manager everything you expected?

Yeah, probably, it was all new to me. All I’d ever done is play. I was in the right place at the right time in a way because I was a crowd favourite - I don't like saying that, but they liked me - and Lou had had a bit of a torrid time. We all know what happened and we don’t need to go into all that, but I suppose I was the obvious choice to take over.

Back then you didn’t have a Chief Executive; I had Club secretary Tom Finn, who was great. I wasn’t running the club but I had a budget and could do what I wanted with it and I had Tom Finn behind me guiding me through the financial stuff. I think it was everything I thought it was going to be.

I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, I found enjoyment out of winning games. It was great when you won a game as you'd go home on a Saturday night and be as high as a kite - it’s like winning any other game of football. Then you’ll go in on Sunday and Monday mornings and it’s the grind all over again.

But I’m pleased I did it. I think I did fairly well at it, probably as good as 75 per cent who have ever managed a football club. You get your top men, your Alex Fergusons and people like that but I did as much as a lot of people have. I suppose it was never going to be long term, it could never replace football for me. Playing football was my love, managing was my job.

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