Mike Rowbottom: Haunting Hammers faces from a long-gone era

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I was given the framed team photograph as a wedding gift. 'West Ham United, season 1905-1906'. It may have been more for me than my wife.

For years I speculated over the characteristics of the players who had stared so gravely into the camera on that day. The broad, blond-haired figure at the front, with the feline look of an early F Scott Fitzgerald, I had always pegged for a goalscoring idol. The big guy in the back row, I reckoned, was another key player. There was an easy confidence bordering on amusement in his gaze.

Now I find I was broadly right. Scott Fitzgerald – real name W Bridgeman – was a local youngster who had scored the first ever goal at the venue the club occupy to this day. Billy Bridgeman, as he was known, set up a 3-0 win over Millwall at the Boleyn Ground on 1 September, 1904 in front of a 10,000 crowd. The result so infuriated the visiting keeper, "Tiny" Joyce, that he put his fist through the dressing room door. Plus ça change...

And the big guy, G Kitchen, turns out to have been George Kitchen, one of the leading goalkeepers of the day, who had just been signed from Everton and was about to make his mark with the club by scoring on his debut from the penalty spot. He added another four goals to his tally in his time at Upton Park. Goalies with goalscoring fantasies, eh? Plus ça change...

The fount of this knowledge is The Official History of West Ham United (Hamlyn, £20), painstakingly put together by Adam Ward and wondrously present in my Christmas stocking. This gift was unequivocally for me.

The picture I have lived with for the last 13 years is reproduced more fully in the book, the brick structure behind the players revealing itself as part of the Boleyn Castle which gave their home ground its name.

Also revealed is the career of the slighter, dark figure by Bridgeman's side. George Hilsdon, a schoolmate of Bridgeman, was only 18 when the photo was taken. Before the end of the season his goalscoring exploits earned him a transfer to Chelsea, from where he established himself as one of the leading forwards of the day and became an England international.

The picture has more information to yield. Standing in the middle row, between Messrs Hilsdon and Bridgeman, is the solid figure of F Piercy, keen-eyed behind a bushy moustache with waxed, pointed ends.

He, it turns out, was the hard man of the side, signed from Middlesbrough a year earlier and already establishing himself as the darling of the Boleyn Ground crowd. Ward notes that Piercy's "competitive" displays earned him the wrath of the FA, particularly after clashes with opponents against Swindon in 1907 and Millwall a year later. In short, Piercy was the Julian Dicks of his day.

Piercy also prefigured another West Ham favourite of more recent years when he took over in goal in a 1908 FA Cup tie and restricted the then league champions, Newcastle, to a two-goal win. Sixty-four years later, Bobby Moore performed the same valiant function after Bobby Ferguson was injured in a League Cup semi-final against Stoke.

The history of one other figure whom I have stared at so often is recounted in Ward's book – and it is a poignant one. Syd King, sporting a straw hat and a bouquet in his lapel for the gathering in the Castle grounds, was at the start of a 30-year-career as West Ham's manager.

It was a career that ended distressingly, undermined by drink. From the day the club was set up in 1895, under its original title of Thames Ironworks, booze had figured strongly in its make up. In the early years, drink was conspicuous by its absence as the club's patron, Ironworks owner Arnold Hills, was fervently opposed to alcohol.

Accordingly, the Ironworks players of early days were teetotal, and non-smokers to boot. Even by 1900, when the team had become known as West Ham United, the East Ham Echo still referred to them as "The Teetotallers".

Yet by 1902, when King took over as secretary/manager, steps had to be taken to stiffen penalties for misconduct, with particularly heavy fines going to those who drank.

Sadly, King himself succumbed to the demon drink, eventually being sacked by the club in 1933 after attending a board meeting while intoxicated, and being discovered dead within a month after downing a cocktail of alcohol and a "corrosive substance".

I'm staring at the photo now. Those pale, gone faces staring back. The more you love a thing, Vladimir Nabokov once said, the stronger and stranger it becomes. My picture's been in storage for a while, but today I'm putting it back on the wall.

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