Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Remembering John

It might well have gone unnoticed amid the build-up to the game this evening, but today marks the one year anniversary of John Lyall's sad passing.

John Lyall was not only one of West Ham’s most loyal servants, enjoying a 34-year-long association with the club, but he was also one of the East London side’s most successful managers.

He helped the Hammers to win the FA Cup twice, took them to the brink of European glory and guided them to their highest ever league position. He would later go on to manage Ipswich Town, leading them from the second division to the Premier League. Of all his achievements, perhaps the most memorable was West Ham’s win over the mighty Arsenal in the Cup Final of 1980, when the second division side outsmarted their London rivals in a 1-0 victory. This remains the last time a team from outside the top tier has lifted the FA Cup.

A native of East London, John Lyall joined West Ham as a groundstaff boy in 1955. He showed promise as a reliable left-back and appeared in the 1957 FA Youth Cup final and in February 1960 he made his senior debut against Chelsea. His playing career was cut short after three years by persistent knee injuries, and after a spell working at the Upton Park offices, he joined the West Ham coaching staff. He was taken under the wing of the side’s manager Ron Greenwood, who not only gave him great guidance and assistance, but at an early stage assigned him managerial responsibilities, such as sorting out transfers and contracts.

Lyall was appointed assistant manager in 1971 and three years later, with Greenwood taking up the England job, he was appointed head coach, with Mick McGiven as his assistant. His first full season in charge brought immediate silverware. After beating Ipswich in a contentious encounter in the semi-final, West Ham overcame Fulham in the "Cockney final" of 1975 by two goals to nil. A year later, despite a tenacious performance against Anderlecht in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, the Hammers lost 4-2 to the Belgians.

The team’s fortunes thereafter took a downward turn, and in 1978 they were relegated to the second tier. They bounced back in thunderous fashion in 1981, with a tally of 66 points, a joint record for the division (this was the last season in which two points were awarded for a win). Before doing so they staged one of the great FA Cup upsets when they overcame Arsenal, the holders, in the 1980 final.

Arsenal had come to the final exhausted after requiring three replays to dispatch Liverpool in the semi-final. Those four games had also given Lyall plenty of time to study his opponents, and his decision to play David Cross as a lone striker, pulling Stuart Pearson back to bolster the midfield, effected the desired result. After a rare header by Trevor Brooking in the 13th minute, the Hammers employed the tactic of contain-and-counter-attack which completely shut out the Gunners.

Under Lyall’s tutelage, West Ham went from strength to strength throughout the 1980s, and in 1985-86 they finished third, the side’s highest ever position. They did it in style, too, with the impish partnership of Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie particularly delighting. Had English teams not been banned from European competitions after the Heysel disaster in 1985, West Ham would have qualified for the Uefa Cup.

In May 1989, after a series of stuttering campaigns, West Ham were relegated after a 5-1 thrashing by Liverpool at Anfield. Lyall, the longest serving manager in the first division, was sacked in June. Many fans and commentators thought the decision ill-judged, hasty and even cruel, given the years he had dedicated to the Hammers, the silverware he had brought to a club that only two years beforehand would have been playing European football.

A year later he took the helm at Ipswich Town. Resuming his partnership with McGiven, he once more displayed his managerial acumen. In particular, his decision to retain the services of the ageing Ipswich legend John Wark was a bold one, but it proved to be shrewd. He lifted the struggling and unfancied outfit to the second division title, earning them a place in the inaugural Premier League in 1992.

Although they did not play the most attractive brand of football, Ipswich did punch well above their weight. By January 1993 Ipswich were in fourth place, pushing for Europe, and to their more optimistic fans, for the title itself. Yet they lacked stamina, and after poor results they drifted down the table, finally ending in 16th.

The 1993-94 campaign witnessed an even more dramatic plummet, with Ipswich narrowly avoiding relegation. By December 1994, with Ipswich rooted at the bottom of the table and doomed to relegation (a fate that was duly realised), Lyall and the club departed company.

Lyall commanded respect and was widely held in affection by the players he worked with. The old-fashioned virtues of politeness, honesty and loyalty came naturally to him.

"Respect and good manners, Ron Greenwood used to tell me, was all that you can ask of anyone," he said. "You don’t need education for that or wealth."

Other reading:

David Lacey's tribute; The Guardian Obituary; The Independent Tribute; David Miller Remembers;

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