“Dear Mr Syd King – The tape on Saturday ticked out, West Ham 1 Fulham 0. We shout from the office window, “West Ham won.” In reply the boys say “Tell us about Syd King and West Ham.” So here goes!”
East Ham Echo April 27th 1923.
Talk to most West Ham fans and they will invariably talk of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst and the West Ham team that “won” the World Cup in 1966. Few, if any, will mention Syd King and yet he was the man who more than anybody shaped the football philosophy of the club, the man who steered them to their early successes on the pitch, a man who shared the same ideals of Clough and Taylor but over fifty years earlier. A true West Ham legend.
As the title of this piece implies it’s impossible to talk about Syd King without talking about West Ham, the two are inextricably linked. In 1895 the workers of Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Ltd, paid a half crown each to set up Thames Ironworks FC to compete in the London league. Initially strictly amateur in ethos, the club won the Charity Cup in their first season and followed up by finishing second in the league and then champions the following season. Their subsequent entry into the Southern League did nothing to stem their success, as they were division 2 champions in 1899 and were duly promoted to the first division. Syd started his long journey through football with Northfleet and had the ignominy of once scoring a hat trick of own goals in a game against Swindon. He transferred to New Brompton in 1897 and eventually moved to Thames Ironworks in 1899. A tough uncompromising full back he was highly sought after and the “Irons” had to fend off stiff competition from Derby County for his signature. In his first season he was part of the Irons FA Cup run that ended, after seven games, with defeat to arch rivals, Milwall Athletic, who were formed from another East end company of docker’s who vied with Thames Ironworks for business contracts.
Thames Ironworks were still strictly amateur and most players were employed by the company, so in June 1900 they felt that their status, while noble, was holding them back, and a decision was taken to wind up the club and resign from the Southern league. They were back just a few days later under a new guise, West Ham United.
Syd King was one of the players retained by the club and he continued playing until 1903 when a recurring injury forced him into retirement. Considered to have above average intelligence he was promoted to club secretary in his final season and the following season took over the role of Secretary/Manager. By the end of the 1903/04 season the club were in financial turmoil. Poor attendances had forced a major cull of the squad and the club had only the finances to pay one player during the summer. Syd was tasked with finding the club a new home, preferably one with a railway station nearby. Acting on a tip off he settled on Boleyn Castle field on Green St which was owned by the Christian Brothers and, after initial objections from the Home Office, West Ham moved into what was to become their spiritual home.
The early years of the 20th century would see West Ham lose a lot of their home grown talent to rival clubs, (a situation that would be eerily replicated in the early years of the 21st century), players like Hilsdon, Barnes, Yenson, Bigden and Pudan would all go on to distinguish themselves for other clubs, prompting the Association Football 1905 edition to comment that;
“It is the proud boast of the West Ham club that they turn out more local players than any other team in the south. The district has been described as a hot-bed of football and, after a season or so the finished player leaves, to better himself as most ambitious young men will do.”
King would face a continuous battle to keep West Hams best players, but through his shrewd dealings in the transfer market he built up a reputation as an extremely capable negotiator.
In 1919 West Ham were elected to the 2nd division of the Football League proper, and there followed a period of mixed fortunes in the division continuing the trend of losing players to the bigger clubs.
One of the standout players of this period was local lad Syd Puddefoot. A prolific goal scorer (107 goals in 194 games), he was a vital cog in the Hammers machine and there was considerable outrage when King sold him to Falkirk for the British record fee of £5,000. Promotion had been in sight but without their talismanic centre forward the club slipped down to 4th place.
The 1922-23 season started badly for the Hammers, winning only 3 of their first 14 games, but with the new acquisitions purchased with the money from the Puddefoot sale and another crop of talented youngsters, they began to forge their way up the table. By February, West Ham was involved in a four way tussle, with Leicester, Notts County and Man Utd, for promotion to the top flight. They were also on an excellent FA Cup run and after a mammoth 3 game epic with Southampton reached the Cup semi-final for the first time. They faced formidable opponents in the semi’s in a Derby County side who had not conceded a goal in their own Cup run. 50,000 attended the game at Stamford Bridge and, after a shaky start, the Hammers ran out eventual 5-2 winners, the Daily Mail reporting that;
“West Ham have never played finer football. It was intelligent. It was clever, and it was dashing. They were quick, they dribbled and swerved, and passed and ran as if the ball was to them a thing of life and obedient to their wishes.”
The Hammers took their Cup form on into the League, and would win their next four games, scoring 15 goals and conceding just 3, before the historic FA Cup final of 1923.
It is estimated that around 250,000 people turned up at the brand new Empire Stadium at Wembley for the game that would go down in history as the “White horse” final. Over 1,000 people were injured just trying to get into the stadium and the spectators soon covered the entire pitch. The mounted police led by Inspector G.A Story on his white steed slowly regained the playing surface inch by inch, until the crowd were pushed back to the touchlines. The pitch was, by now, all but unplayable, but after considerable delays and interruptions (at half time the players were unable to leave the field and crossed over and restarted the game after a five minute break) an experienced Bolton Wanderers side claimed the Cup with a 2-0 win. West Ham had every right to feel aggrieved that the game went ahead, with the deplorable conditions completely negating their quick passing game, and the effectiveness of their wing play, but to the mystification of their supporters no protest was made. Syd King, interviewed after the game, simply said; “I’m too disappointed to talk. I just want to forget it.”
West Ham quickly put the bitter disappointment of Wembley behind them and secured promotion on the last day of the season (despite losing 1-0 to Notts County). Eight of the Hammers that played in the 1923 Cup Final would get international call ups, and with the team costing just £2,000 in transfer fees, offset by the £5,000 received for Puddefoot (who would himself go on to become an international) it was another example of the financial nous of Syd King.
The Hammers first nine years in the top flight of English football would see them yo-yoing up and down the division, finishing as high as 6th before eventually succumbing to relegation in 1932 after a disastrous season in which they conceded 107 goals. Most commentators at the time cited King’s stubborn refusal to buy players in this period, preferring to nurture home grown talent, as the main reason for the clubs demise, and Syd began to become extremely paranoid. Convinced, at first, that there was a conspiracy against the club, and then increasingly sure the club itself was conspiring against him. These delusions, combined with his reported heavy drinking, came to a head at a board meeting in November 1932, when King was allegedly drunk and verbally abused one of the directors. He was suspended, without pay, for three months. Rumours of financial impropriety (never proven) followed, and in January 1933 the decision was taken to sack him.
West Ham was Syd King’s whole world. He had taken them to the Boleyn, to their first FA Cup final and brought them to highest level of English football, now he was broken and betrayed. There were plenty of other offers for his services, but Syd was not interested. West Ham had been his life, and his life had been taken away. Just a few weeks after his dismissal, he committed suicide by drinking a corrosive substance mixed with alcohol, and this brilliant and eccentric visionary quietly slipped from memory.
“In the summer of 1895, when the clanging of “hammers” was heard on the banks of Father Thames and great warships were rearing their heads above the Victoria Dock Road, a few enthusiasts, with the love of football within them, were talking about the grand old game and the formation of a club for the workers of Thames Ironworks Ltd.”
- Syd King – The Book of Football 1905