Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Retro - Ian Bishop

I'm looking backwards - I can't face the future just yet.

I recently watched the Oasis documentary Supersonic and was struck by how totally and immersively it returned me to my teenage years. I was lucky enough to attend the bands seminal gigs at both Earl's Court and Knebworth, and their music was unquestionably the soundtrack to my journey from youth to young manhood, mostly accompanied by some questionable haircuts and a overly expensive collection of Adidas trainers. My Dad had Neil Young and Bob Dylan, my cousins had acid house and the Stone Roses but I had Oasis. They belonged definitively to me and my generation.


I'm mostly including this for Boneheads hair

As with most good documentaries - Hoop Dreams, Paradise Lost, Southpaw and Inside Job spring to mind - the subject stuck with me for days after until I began to think some more about the other cultural touchpoints of my life. As with any such reminiscing, my thoughts soon turned to West Ham and although my first Upton Park experience was with the famous 1985/86 team, they didn't really belong to me, or at least not in the same way as they belonged to those poor souls who had been following their predecessors around for years.

No, my West Ham experience began properly in 1990 when my Dad began to take me regularly to the North Bank as the club begin to rebuild after the John Lyall era. Lou Macari was in charge at the time and although he didn't last long, he oversaw the arrival of several new players, including Trevor Morley and Ian Bishop from Man City in exchange for Mark Ward. 

Morley was a big, old fashioned, physical centre forward with a surprisingly deft touch in front of goal. Bishop, by contrast, was a more modern kind of midfielder. Adept with both feet, mobile without being quick, trademark long flowing hair and a range of passing that we wouldn't see again from a Scouser until his namesake John Bishop decided to go on Celebrity Mastermind.

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They arrived in 1989, three years and a million miles removed from the memory of that era defining third placed 85/86 team. By this point, we had again been relegated and were bobbing around in the familiar seas of the middle of Division 2. Old, familiar names were still around - Gale, Martin, McAvennie, Devonshire, Parkes and Parris were still there - but the newer, younger generation of Dicks, Slater, Miklosko, Allen and Keen were slowly materialising to take the club forward.


The Messiah played centre mid

My first experience of that team came on 17th March 1990, when my dad decided to take me to an away game at the league leaders, Leeds. We got there about four hours early, as was his wont, and decided to take a stroll into town because what else would you do in the midst of the hooligan era when you have a child and you're in Leeds. I kept my West Ham top steadfastly hidden beneath my Rucanor shell suit and somehow we ended up on a free bus back from the city centre to Elland Road with a hundred home fans bellowing out "Marching On Together" as we went. At one point I thought the ceiling was going to cave in.

It was all mildly terrifying, but thrilling too, as was the experience of being in a three thousand strong travelling band penned into the corner of the ground. We were surrounded on all sides by rabid Leeds fans, and despite us bringing on Liam Brady we weren't a match for the Gordon Strachan led home team, who did indeed march on to a 3-2 victory.

Amid the general challenge for a 12 year old of trying to see anything in the days of terracing, I came away breathlessly impressed by my new heroes. Stuart Slater seemed like a star in the making, Jimmy Quinn was a tall, natural goalscorer and Ludo seemed the business, yet it was Bishop who drew my attention. I suspect that it was the hair at first, but I think it was also the fact he was up against an impressive Leeds midfield of Strachan, Gary Speed, Vinnie Jones and John Hendrie and he emerged with his head held high and his legs still attached.

In retrospect, I think Bishop seemed almost impossibly otherworldly to me. Had he been named Gianni from Genoa I wonder if we would have viewed him differently. Instead, he was Ian from Liverpool and I always felt that far too many fans focused on what he couldn't do rather than what he could.

He was, however, my new hero.

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By the 1990-91 season Bishop was central to the new look team being fashioned by Billy Bonds. The relentless grind of the second tier didn't seem to weary him as he played 40 games and drove the team to automatic promotion and an FA Cup Semi Final. His famous passing was in evidence as he combined frequently with wide men Slater and Keen to stretch opposition defences and his work in the centre of the park was enough to drive us to the top of the division for most of the season.

Consider the state of the pitches, the tackling and the refereeing in 1991 and then wonder how any central midfielder could have played that many games. Seemingly, because of his long hair, many Hammers fans dismissed Bishop as lightweight but his record puts the lie to that version of events. Frustrating as he may have sometimes been, Bishop never shirked his duties and as captain he should have lifted the league trophy on the final day of the season. Instead we West Hammed the fuck out of it, losing 2-1 at home to Notts County and somehow lost the trophy to Oldham. Indeed, all of this happened so late in the day that the engraver had allegedly already put our name on the trophy.

My most vivid recollection of that season, in which my Dad and I travelled the length of the country, was of a late Bishop winner at Port Vale. He picked up a pass from the right, cut inside and unleashed a 30 yard left footed swerving, dipping exocet that nestled in the top corner to give us a tense 1-0 win and put us top of the league. At that moment I felt my faith in Bish was being justified.

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That 1991 season was the culmination of a weirdly semi-successful period for the club. In 1989 we reached the semi finals of the League Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to Luton, after somehow hammering Liverpool 4-1 in the previous round. The following year saw us do the same thing again, this time losing the first leg 6-0 to Oldham before salvaging some pride with a 3-0 win in the return affair. 

In 1991, there was the famous FA Cup run that culminated in a 4-0 semi final defeat to Nottingham Forest and those of a certain vintage will understand the relevance of Tony Gale's red card, Keith Hackett and a half an hour rendition of "Billy Bonds' Claret and Blue Army". Bishop was in the middle of that latter cup run, and my main recollection of that Villa Park defeat to Forest was his manful struggle against the nascent power of Roy Keane.


If you're of a certain age - you know

Indeed, it was in this season that I decided Bishop was the perfect West Ham player. Maddeningly inconsistent at times, but underpinned by a belief in the beauty of the game. He always wanted to play passing football, a blessing and a curse for sure, but still entirely in keeping with our own self image.

 As an impressionable youngster I had yet to take on any of the world weary cynicism that I lug around with me today like a holiday suitcase. Back then I believed fervently in things like the Academy of Football, and the knowledge that at it's very core West Ham was simply the most special club in existence. 

And Bish embodied all of that for me. He wanted to play the game the right way. He wasn't a great goalscorer, but he was a scorer of great goals. Just look at this clip below of his West Ham goals, and I guarantee you will be surprised at the consistent quality you see. Left foot, right foot, header - he could score them all. Just not very often. If Slater was lightning, and Dicks was steel, then Bishop was something else entirely. He was flair



That Port Vale goal is at 1:49, by the way

When Bishop was in form, the world was illuminated for me. His passing was inch perfect and perfectly designed to spring the flat back fours that dominated English football at the time. With his long hair and languid style he seemed almost exotic, and his ability to take a corner from either side encouraged me to spend hours in my back garden, determined to become two footed like him and his batshit crazy new midfield partner, John Moncur. 

It was at the end of that 1991 season that he was on the fringes of England selection too, earning a call up to play for England 'B' along with the likes of Keith Curle, Carlton Palmer and Graeme Le Saux. Looking back, it seems slightly odd to talk of Bishop in those terms but it was then that Graham Taylor was trying to take the national team forward from the Bobby Robson era and plenty of players were given the chance to play at the time. Was he really any less deserving of a chance than Palmer, Andy Gray, Geoff Thomas, Barry Venison or Kevin Richardson?

To address that point, one then has to acknowledge the other elephant in the room when one talks about Ian Bishop - his sexuality.

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Back in the 1990's, English football had yet to come to terms with the idea of homosexuality and LGBT rights. Indeed, consider that it is 2017 and there is still no openly gay professional footballer in the top flight of the English game and it's probably fair to say we still haven't. 

The backdrop to this is that in March 1991 Trevor Morley was stabbed by his then wife in a near fatal domestic incident. As shocking as that incident was in itself, it soon took on a life of its own as supporters from other clubs were soon gleefully spreading rumours that the reason was due to her finding Bishop and Morley in bed together. 

The pair talk eloquently about it in this clip below, and Bishop also spoke in more detail to the KUMB podcast in 2014. The genesis of the rumour seems to have been that the pair were friends and had long hair and little else. It mattered not that they denied it, as they were hounded up and down the country by opposition fans only too delighted to shower them with abuse, and a salacious media who refused to let the story lie.

The FA seemingly got in on the act too, telling Billy Bonds that Bishop couldn't be considered for England selection due to the rumours, which sounds ludicrous until you remember that they wouldn't pick Julian Dicks due to his haircut and then twenty years later made John Terry their captain. I have no trouble believing the FA made that call. 




What struck me as I read all of the background to this is how little courage it takes to stand in a crowd of thousands and yell homophobic abuse, and how much more courage it takes to be on the receiving end of that and carry on. Consider how two straight men were wildly abused for the crime of being the subject of a rumour, and it's little wonder that gay players still don't feel comfortable in coming out.

As for Bishop, he admitted later that it did affect him but I can't say I ever noticed at the time. I had the team poster (which he refers to in the clip above) where he is holding hands with Julian Dicks and it made me laugh for years. Here was a man being hounded about his sexuality and instead of cowering away, he made light of it and laughed at the barbs and just kept passing them to death. There is great courage in that, and there was a great lesson in there for me as a teenager only just discovering girls and secondary school and books and puberty and all the other shit you go through when you're growing up. None of those things can compare to what Bishop went through, of course, but teenagers aren't very good with perspective.

I hope that when the times comes, my own children find some equally worthy heroes of their own as they enter their teenage years.

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Bravery is something that defines Bishop's time with us. You need steel to get on the ball and try and pass it when you're playing at Upton Park and are 2-0 down to Norwich on a pitch resembling Ypres, or as Harry Redknapp once memorably put it "You misplace a pass and thirty thousand people go fackin' WERRRRRRR". Bishop never stopped playing, never stopped probing and never said no. I always loved that about him. 

There is physical courage too, in breaking your ribs and carrying on playing because you've already made all your substitutes, as Bishop once did at Luton in 1992. It strikes me that anyone who can do that is probably tougher than any supporter stood on a terrace yelling "poof" behind a wall of other faces.



And it takes greater courage still to be true to yourself in the face of abuse of the sort Ian Bishop received. To keep your hair long, to keep smiling, to keep playing the way you believe and to hold hands with a mate in a team photograph because it's funny and you don't give a shit. When Bishop eventually left West Ham in 1998, he left it far stronger than he found it, and left because of the emergence of another young central midfielder with strength and courage - Frank Lampard - who would go on to become one of the best we've ever produced in this country.

***

So Ian, I salute you. If Oasis became the soundtrack to my youth then you were a huge part of the video that accompanied it. I'll remember your grace on the pitch, your long range goals, your silken passing and your unfair struggle off the pitch. I'll also remember this game at Spurs, the famous 4-1 win in 1994. Every Hammer who is old enough remembers this game, and yet it was only in watching it again this evening that I realised the hand you had in three of the goals. 




It is my hope that when one day West Ham do have a genuine and openly gay player, that we will look back to the abuse suffered by you and Trevor Morley, and further still to Clyde Best and remember what all of that meant. And I believe my club and fellow fans will stand up to be counted when we are needed most. 

As you said, it wasn't your story to tell and yet you were forced to live it anyway. But that's not how I remember you. I remember a central midfielder of grace and elegance who could pass like a dream in the rain or the sun, in London or in Manchester and I'll especially always remember that last minute winner at Birmingham. Cheers, Bish.

Ian Bishop - Appearances 287 (17) Goals 17

I'm gong 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...

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:58 PM

    My best memory of Bishop was against the all dominating Man Utd team of 93/94. From kick off he took the entire team on, dribbled around 2-3 players before unleashing a shot for the top corner that just grazed the top of the bar!

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  2. Anonymous11:11 PM

    I would love to see his stats from those early 90's seasons.

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  4. Although the vid. is of Bish's goals and, therefore, he's getting forward, my abiding mental image is of him barely leaving the centre circle; getting the ball and spraying passes around with terrific vision and technique. We often compared him to Jan Molby at his best. A really modern footballer.

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