As I wrote here, Ian Bishop was the heartbeat of that earlier team, and while they undeniably afforded us many great moments it was the later squad who would actually climb back to the rarefied heights of the top echelons of the Premier League, and allow us the small satisfaction of being on the first page of the table when Match of the Day eventually bothered to sling it up on screen after 50 minutes of punditry on Manchester United and Liverpool.
For me, as a young teenager gradually becoming a young twenty-something, the nature of my football viewing was also changing. I still went to home games with my dad, but away games often involved friends and overnight stays in far off towns and cities. By 1998 I had left school, had my first job in the city, had disposable income and my first serious girlfriend. It was the best of times, and, really all I needed was for West Ham to finally give me something to repay my faith in them.
It is an oft overlooked point, but on the watch of despised chairman Terry Brown the club improved gradually from the wreckage of relegation in 1993 to being an established Premier League side. This was marked by incremental improvement everywhere we looked. Billy Bonds was replaced by Harry Redknapp, the North and South Banks were replaced by the odd looking but much needed Moore and Brooking stands, and on the pitch there was a noticeable upturn in the quality of players arriving.
The improvement had been gradual, and far more to do with Harry Redknapp and the riches of the new Premier League than the work of Terry Brown, but it was undeniable and particularly gratifying to this youngster who had spent the better part of my childhood being whisked off to the Goldstone Ground and Vale Park while staring wistfully at Highbury and wondering if we might ever one day compete there on a more equal footing. A look at our league finishes in this time tells a tale:
1990/91 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1991/92 - 22nd (Relegated to Div 2)
1992/93 - 2nd (Promoted to Div 1)
1993/94 - 13th
1994/95 - 14th
1995/96 - 10th
1996/97 - 14th
The club had begun the process of solidifying themselves as a fixture in the Premier League without ever truly suggesting that our existence would ever be anything other than a struggle. The Grim Reaper of relegation (he looks like Neil Warnock if you're interested) was a constant visitor, and was so comfortable at Upton Park that he had his own seat in the corner, next to Mr Moon.
For West Ham to progress there needed to be an upgrade to better players. With money flowing into the game through the new league and Sky riches, we had to shift our self image to a more upwardly mobile vision of ourselves. For me that moment came in January of 1998 when we signed Trevor Sinclair from QPR.
The Cockney Feghouli
As far as I was concerned, he was the one who changed everything.
The process of improvement began before this point, to be sure. Harry Redknapp might resent the "wheeler-dealer" tag but he was an astute enough manager to realise that he needed to change the type of player he had at the club. And so it was that Trevor Morley became an ageing Tony Cottee and then John Hartson. Colin Foster begat Marc Rieper who in turn gave way to Rio Ferdinand while Martin Allen morphed eventually into Frank Lampard. These were the early indications that we were taking steps beyond our stride.
The Nineties - when the Academy produced footballers
If the authorities couldn't convict Harry Redknapp for having a bank account in the name of his dog, they should have at least been able to get something on him for the Sinclair deal. The winger arrived in a swap for the genuine but limited Northern Irish duo of Iain Dowie and Keith Rowland and a couple of million. It was a stunning signing and a blatant robbery of QPR, indicative of the increased ambition at the club under Redknapp and a textbook example of how to improve your side and clear up squad space in one swoop.
Sinclair had achieved national fame with an incredible overhead kick for QPR a few years earlier, but had stalled somewhat as their star had waned. By the time he arrived at Upton Park he was 24 and desperate to restart a career of much early promise. His debut was at home to Everton and couldn't have gone much better if he'd found the Templar Treasure in the Chicken Run. He started up front - the beginning of a long career with us spent moving around the pitch to cover up holes in the squad - and scored twice. The first was a springing header from a corner, and the second a nicely composed finish after a powerful burst into the box. We didn't win, naturally, but a new West Ham star had joined the firmament.
The highlights of that game are here and feature a couple of notable elements. Firstly, Slaven Bilic is playing for Everton which seems like a rarity, and the Everton equaliser is scored by an extra from Game of Thrones.
The most noticeable immediate thing about Sinclair was his sheer physicality. Short, but stocky and powerful, he moved like a middleweight boxer. The Boleyn Beluga reckoned he had the biggest arse he'd ever seen on a professional footballer, but I think that ignored the explosive power of the man. At a time when better pitches and improved fitness were making inroads to the game, Sinclair was the first of a new type of player at West Ham. He was a pure, highly skilled athlete.
Sinclair exploded into the consciousness of West Ham fans by scoring 5 goals in his first 6 games. By now I was giddy with excitement. I had loved the team of Bishop, Dicks and Slater and believed fervently in the Hartson, Kitson and Potts group but to my mind Sinclair was in the vanguard of a giant leap forward.
A couple of years prior, our Academy had finally sprung into life after a decade long slumber and suddenly we had Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand to supplement our outside purchases. To my mind, however, Sinclair was a symbol - a message to other players, agents and clubs. We're not messing about anymore, this is the type of player we sign now.
Those first few games of his were instructive - Everton (H) 2-2, Newcastle (A) 1-0, Bolton (A) 1-1, Arsenal (H) 0-0, Man Utd (H) 1-1, Chelsea (H) 2-1, Leeds (H) 3-0. To West Ham fans of that era, this was a remarkable run. I'm not sure I'd have fancied us to win a single one of those games and yet we went undefeated. It was a moment of era defining change. That little run was a slaying of historic dragons and a public exorcism of old ghosts. Yep, to the 19 year old me, this was the call to arms I'd waited years to hear.
There was a metaphoric passing of a baton too, as Bishop played his last West Ham game in that 2-1 win over Chelsea. This was the only game I can find a record of the two playing together for West Ham, but I rather like the idea that there is even the most tenuous link between them and me.
From there, we surged forward to a fifth placed finish in 1998/99 as Ian Wright and Neil Ruddock joined the party to bring experience and, I don't know, a better class of goal celebration to the club. That team was bonkers, finishing that high up the table despite having a negative goal difference. This came about largely because we took some absolute hidings that season courtesy of a wide open playing style that would produce a 4-2 defeat at Charlton one week and a 3-0 victory at Newcastle the next.
That high finish would gain us entry into the Intertoto Cup and an amazing cup run the following season, that culminated in the legendary 3-1 victory at Metz. Sinclair would play his customary full part, scoring in that game and generally being a key cog in the wheel. His finest moment of our finest season since 1985/86 came during the home game with Spurs.
This should have been the start of something.
Unfortunately that something was a decline. We would never again crest those heights as that 5th placed finish became the crowning achievement of Redknapp's time rather than the start of his legend. Paolo di Canio arrived at the end of that 1998/99 season and rather than relying on the team first approach that had served us so well up to that point, Redknapp instead began to focus the team around the mad Italian. This worked fine on the days when he was in the mood, and was a millstone on any day we had to go north of Milton Keynes.
Sinclair continued to be instrumental, however, and was displaying a flair for the spectacular. He scored a number of brilliant goals with us, none better than this effort against Derby which has somehow only survived in this 22 pixel Super 8 video recording made by a drunk Match of the Day cameraman on his day off.
The fact that this goal is so unheralded says a lot about the struggle Sinclair had to get noticed at West Ham. None of his rivals for an England place had the athleticism or technical ability to score this goal, and yet to this day few fans outside of the West Ham faithful will have ever seen it. In the meantime, Sven Goran Eriksson was trying anyone from his milkman to Emile Heskey to fill his troublesome left sided position, with the milkman at least having the benefit of being left footed.
Sinclair by this stage had agreed with new manager Glenn Roeder that he would play there in an attempt to force his way into the 2002 World Cup squad. He managed this at the very last minute when Danny Murphy dropped out of the squad, and incredibly was then called upon as an early substitute during the game with Argentina when Owen Hargeaves was injured. I can still recall the groan in the pub as his number was held up, and my own angry response to that. "Fuck you - you'll see" I thought, and see they did. Sinclair was outstanding in a tremendous England 1-0 win - the last good performance by an England side at a World Cup. His England career lasted 686 minutes and included World Cup games against Argentina and Brazil. Not bad, Trev.
It's possible that Sinclair should have left after this, his international aims achieved and with West Ham in turmoil. Redknapp had gone and so too had Ferdinand and Lampard, replaced with average, cheaper players in the true West Ham way.
But I like to think that Sinclair was loyal, and that he loved the club too much to abandon us. He certainly played as though he did and I particularly enjoyed his titanic performance at West Brom in that ill fated relegation season of 2002/03 when he scored twice in a seemingly crucial 2-1 win. In writing this series of articles I realise now that my heroes have always been brave players, who never shirked their responsibilities and never gave up the ghost. Sinclair's last game for us was the apocalyptic 2-2 draw at Birmingham on the last day of that 2002/03 season and Sinclair had to be led off the pitch after the game, as despondent as those in the stands. He would join Manchester City soon after, as Bishop had done. I quite liked that as I always had a strange feeling that they were our spiritual cousins in those pre-Dubai days.
When I look back on his time with us I find much to admire about Sinclair. His qualities as a footballer were always self evident, but his qualities as a man were frequently on display too. I think he was the most unselfish player I've ever seen at West Ham, prepared to play anywhere and to uncomplainingly do the work which others would actively seek to avoid. He never backed away from the challenge and never left anything in the tank. Look back at goals from that era and notice how often Sinclair is there celebrating the efforts of others. He was, in a team of egotists, the ultimate team man.
He played all over the pitch too, primarily as a wing back but also during one otherwise unremarkable home game against Everton in 2002 as a makeshift central midfielder. Other wingers would have moaned - Sinclair scored the winner in a 1-0 win.
But perhaps most importantly of all, he was also a man possessed of great joy. I think one thing that drew me to him was his evident delight at playing the game and playing for West Ham. Here was someone living my dream and doing me the credit of giving that dream every ounce of his energy. No football fan can ask anything more than that from their hero. I love that he still seems to cherish his bond with the club, and like Bishop before him, always realised the great privilege he had and played accordingly.
It never occurred to me in writing this article that I would end up mentioning the colour of Trevor Sinclair's skin or talking about race. This is primarily because as a then 19 and now 38 year old white guy, I have never had to face any discrimination in my life. I am so privileged that it never even occurred to me that Sinclair's skin colour was of any importance to anyone.
And now you know where they got the idea for The Adjustment Bureau
And yet, as a kid growing up in multi-cultural Goodmayes, one thing I did notice was how few of my friends of colour followed West Ham. My black mates all seemed to follow Arsenal and my Asian friends all seemed to support Manchester United or Liverpool. This is an observation so unscientific and useless that it might as well have come from a climate change denier, but it speaks to my own personal experience. Until we moved to the new stadium I hardly ever saw West Ham fans of colour at our games, despite our catchment area being among the least white in the country.
I always assumed that this was because when I was a kid fans of colour were only just feeling able to attend games and choose teams to support and that West Ham weren't particularly good. Similarly, due to me having a season ticket in the same place for years I guessed that I'd just fallen into a routine of seeing the same faces all the time and that there were fans of colour all over the rest of the ground. But perhaps there was something else.
In researching this article I noticed that while West Ham have a rich tradition of black players, and were the first English club to have three black players in their team (not the more heralded West Brom team of ten years later), not many of those players stuck around that long. Sinclair was the 27th black player to turn out for West Ham per this out of date link from Ex magazine, and of those players only four - John Charles, Clyde Best, George Parris and Rio Ferdinand - would make more than 100 appearances for the club. Compare that the outstanding Arsenal team of the time and their core of black players like Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and David Rocastle.
Young people want to look at their icons and feel a connection. It's why my three girls love the new Star Wars movies with their kick ass female leads more than they love Iron Man. I can't blame my teenage black mates from Ilford who identified more with Ian Wright than they did with Frank McAvennie.
This is not Frank McAvennie
Why is this important? Well, it seems to me that Trevor Sinclair, as well as being amongst West Ham's finest ever players, probably has a claim to being our greatest ever black player. Certainly John Charles and Clyde Best blazed a trail that was both terrifying and socially important, and Parris, Bobby Barnes and Leroy Rosenior played at a time of great significance and against a barrage of racist abuse.
By the late Nineties, racism was nowhere near as prevalent as it was then, but it would be foolish to think it didn't and still doesn't exist. Look at the paucity of black managers, coaches and officials. Remember that the England team were racially abused as recently as 2004 in Spain and that UEFA thought a fine of £45,000 was sufficient as punishment. Google Malky Mackay, Luis Aragones and Ron Atkinson. Ask yourself this - who do you think of when you think of players the media routinely describe as not having a football brain? Off the top of my head it conjures up images of Theo Walcott, Emile Heskey, Marlon Harewood and latterly Michail Antonio. Notice anything similar about them?
At the same time, think of the players who you've heard described as having a high footballing intelligence. Wayne Rooney, Lee Bowyer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne all jump out to me. That's right folks, we're living in a world where an erudite, well educated kid like Theo Walcott doesn't have a brain and yet Rooney and Gazza are bright.
This is what footballing intelligence looks like
I never even noticed this insidious brand of racism until a friend of mine, a father of two mixed race boys, pointed it out to me. I was, in my own clueless way, complicit in it becoming an accepted part of footballing analysis. White players are smart and savvy. Black players are big, strong, fast and dumb.
So what does all of this have to do with Trevor Sinclair? Well, nothing and everything.
There are obviously arguments that Rio Ferdinand, Ian Wright and David James could have been better West Ham players than him, but I think all enjoyed their peaks away from Upton Park. Sinclair was here for his best years and was outstanding. He was both athletic and intelligent, technical and pacey, smart and savvy. He put the lie to that bullshit all on his own.
As iconic figures in the black struggle to break into professional football I wish the club would do more to commemorate Best, Ade Coker and John and Clive Charles, but I'm not sure any of them were Sinclair's equal as a player.
I'm not a black West Ham supporter so I can't say for certain what his impact was on that community, but it in retrospect it looks to me like that team with him, Ferdinand, Hislop, Wright, Foe and others was the first truly multi-cultural team we had. Sinclair played most frequently, had the longest peak and was the longest serving of that team. I also think he was the best.
I'm aware that I'm writing about something I doubt I fully understand but that's never stopped me in the past, and indeed I hope people see this for what it is intended to be - a celebration of a great player. I would love to hear from those who have any better informed thoughts on the topic, or indeed who saw any of those older players in their primes. Maybe I'm doing them a huge disservice.
Either way, thank you Trevor, for your dedication, your brilliance, your joy and your love for West Ham. For joining at a pivotal time in our history and pushing us forward. For never stopping running, even when the reality of being 7-1 down at Blackburn hit you squarely between the eyes. For those spectacular goals that caused an entire generation of young Hammers to smash their kitchen windows in attempting to emulate them. And lastly, thank you for taking the legacy of those heroic black West Ham players who came before you and driving that forward too, by representing West Ham at the World Cup, taking us to fifth and a European title (of sorts) and making over 200 appearances and still smiling even when they made you play with Lee Bowyer.
I'm not sure we ever realised how good we had it with you out there, and you probably never realised quite how important you were. Cheers, Trev.
Trevor Sinclair - Appearances 203 (3) Goals 38
I'm going to write a few of these sporadically. I have already got a few suggestions for old match reports but if there are any other players to consider, then please let me know on Twitter (@TheHList). Please bear in mind the age range, mind you...