West Ham’s Clyde: One of the Best as well as a black pioneer
PUBLISHED: 19:30 11 January 2017
Our West Ham Correspondent Dave Evans met up with Clyde Best
Meeting up with West Ham legend Clyde Best certainly didn’t start well.
The rendezvous was Upton Park station so that we could walk down, see what is left of the old stadium and then have some pie and mash in Nathan’s – but after waiting for 20 minutes it was clear he wasn’t coming.
Perhaps it was a chance for the ‘gentle giant’ to get his own back. When he arrived one Sunday in 1968 as a youngster, there was no-one to meet him at the airport and the stadium was all shut up.
I finally catch up with him at the Newham Hotel on the Romford Road after I had walked the length of Green Street.
“They said we couldn’t go into Upton Park as it is too dangerous,” he said, with a giant handshake as we settle into the hotel lounge.
He is a big, cuddly man and we sit in armchairs like two retired sumo wrestlers, weighing each other up.
“I love West Ham, that is where my heart is still,” says the Bermudan, dressed casually in chocolate brown.
“Every time I think about Bobby Moore, the tears still well up because I love this club so much. When we had the closing of the stadium, I wanted to come, but I had the flu and in a sense I am glad I didn’t because it would have broken my heart going through all that.
“You see how passionate the people in this community are for their team and you can’t help but feel the same way. Even now, I watch the television and the game against Spurs, I felt like breaking the TV because we had the game won.”
It is clear how passionate Best feels after all this time. He left West Ham to play in the United States 40 years ago, but the claret and blue blood still runs thick in his veins.
It is not surprising. Best made the big time at West Ham and also became a pioneer during his spell at Upton Park.
He endured a torrent of racist abuse in English football, something he certainly wasn’t expecting.
“I wasn’t prepared coming from Bermuda, where you just played, got showered and went on home. You would get abuse, but not the sort you got here,” he adds.
“Nobody warned me about it and it was certainly a wake-up call, but we were able to get through it, thanks mainly to two people for me – Jessie Charles and Ron Greenwood.”
If one of those names is not that familiar then it is important to our story to explain.
When Best arrived in east London and was met by no-one, he was eventually taken by a fan to a nearby house the other side of West Ham park.
That was the home of Jessie Charles, mother of Hammers duo John and Clive, and she proved a vital cog in Clyde’s career.
“She took me in and I ended up staying there for most of my career here. She was a God-send, a wonderful lady,” says Clyde with a smile.
“I think she played a big part in helping me settle in, especially being in a family of colour.
“She was prepared and really looked after us and played a pivotal part in my career.
“You couldn’t say anything bad about her. She will tell you she is my mum and I don’t have any problem with that. She was my mum away from home, she did a wonderful job and I will always be indebted to her.”
The other vital part of his time at Upton Park was manager Greenwood.
When Clyde speaks about him it is like he is talking about his father. Without the future England boss and Jessie Charles he would not have made it, adding: “When you look at Greenwood and West Ham we were the forerunners.
“The first weekend I was in a hotel and he took me to his house for Sunday dinner, he was great man. He was ahead of everybody when it came to playing black players, he gave me the opportunity and he was like a father-figure to me.”
Greenwood was certainly fearless. Racist abuse was rife in English football, with bananas being thrown at black players commonplace, but the manager fielded three in one match as Best recalls.
“We played Spurs and they had great players like Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean and Martin Chivers. That was the day myself, Clive Charles and Ade Coker played together, the first time three black players had played in the same team.
“The average age of the team was 19 and we beat Spurs and their boss Bill Nicholson could not believe that boys so young could play one-touch football like that. It was testament to the way we had been taught.”
That was the important thing to Greenwood, not whether a player was black, but whether they could play football.
Best could certainly play football and for a youngster arriving in England it was like a fairy story.
“I remember the first day of training, I had my picture taken with Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst. In Bermuda when I used to play with my friends, one of them was Roger Hunt, another was Peters and I was Hurst, not knowing that just a couple of years later I would be playing alongside these World Cup winners – you couldn’t write a script for a movie like that.”
With players like that alongside him, Best was certainly learning from the best.
“I was influenced by Bobby more than anyone because he would take me aside every Friday,” says the striker. “Him and club coach Jack Turner, who acted as our agent, would meet and if I was struggling he and Bobby would always pull me aside and have a word with me.
“Geoff Hurst was one of the best, it was a pleasure to play with him and all the World Cup guys. For me, he left too soon. For a big guy, Geoff’s movement was like a ballet dancer when he turned, he could go either way.”
Best played over 200 games for the Hammers, scoring 58 goals between 1968 and 1976 when he left for America, so are there any regrets about his time at the club? He thinks for a moment.
“I just wish we could have won more silverware,” says the big man, who was not in the team when the Hammers won the 1975 FA Cup.
“I had to go to America to win a league title with Tampa. We couldn’t lift the trophy we wanted and if we had done it the way Ron made us play it would have been an unbelievable achievement because not many teams played in that open, attacking way.
“We were the forerunners of the modern game. If Ron was coaching today then he would have caused havoc.”
Best was approached by a number of big English clubs during his time at West Ham about a move, but for him that was never going to happen.
“That is why I went to America,” he says as if revealing a deep secret. “I didn’t want to play for anyone else in England. West Ham was my heart and soul, they gave me my chance.
“I had lots of clubs after me. Chelsea, Man United and Liverpool and at the time they wouldn’t let me go and by the time Wolves came in, I said I didn’t want to go, so I went to America and it was a good move.”
So what about the future for the West Ham legend, who has just reached the age of 65.
He stretches out in his armchair, rubs his hand over his bald head with a look of contentment over his face.
“I am okay, touch wood,” he says reaching for the table.
“I have had no operations or anything and I have just reached retirement age and I get up when I want.
“I go for a walk on the beach with one of my buddies, then we sit down and talk for hours if we want, it’s nice to go back to your roots. I am blessed.”
So were West Ham and so was English football when the young, raw Clyde Best arrived on these shores nearly 50 years ago.
It may have taken me a while to find the giant Bermudan, but it was 100 per cent worth it.