Book Review: John Lyall – A Life in Football by Dr. Phil Stevens
When John Lyall was appointed West Ham United manager in 1974, he was only the fifth incumbent in the role for the Hammers and stayed until his sacking in 1989. Football was a very different game back then, in an era prior to Sky, the Premier League, foreign imports and wall-to-wall coverage on social media.
And perhaps then, rather aptly, this book does reflect this and is written in a gentle style belonging to a different age. An age of managers who were as we look back at that time, considered gentlemen, and included the likes of Sir Bobby Robson, Ron Greenwood, and indeed the subject of this biography, John Lyall.
The book is very traditional in its chronological timeline, with chapters taking the reader through the childhood of the Ilford born Lyall, through his playing youth and professional career at West Ham and his later coaching and managerial jobs at Upton Park and Ipswich Town.
Given that Lyall spent 34 years at the club both as player and manager, it is no surprise that the book is dominated by his time with the Hammers. The young full-back had four years in the youth team between 1955 and 1959, before making his senior debut in April 1959. However, his career was to be blighted by a serious knee injury that meant that he had to retire from the game in 1963 with less than 40 first-team appearances to his name.
Lyall was offered the position of Youth Manager and after proving to be a success and then later working alongside the Upton Park boss Ron Greenwood, took over the Hammers at the back end of 1974. The West Ham faithful were rewarded with years which saw the club win the FA Cup on two occasions (1974/75 and 1979/80), reach the European Cup Winners Cup Final in 1975/76 and the League Cup Final in 1980/81, and a third-place finish in the top-flight in 1985/86. Along with the good times, there were inevitability some bad times with relegations in both 1977/78 and 1988/89, the later seeing Lyall leave under a cloud despite his years of service to the club. He then stepped back into football in 1990, getting Ipswich Town promoted to the newly created Premier League at the end of the 1991/92 campaign. His stay at Portman Road lasted until December 1994, when Lyall walked away from football for good, to spend as he had promised, more time with his family. Tragically though, Lyall died of a heart attack in 2006 aged just 66.
There is no doubt that author Dr. Phil Stevens has invested time a great deal of time to research and chronicle the life of one of West Ham’s true legendary figures. However, as a reader it felt as if for a large section of the beginning of the book that it was a generic look at the club rather than Lyall himself. The book would also has benefitted from a more rigorous proofreading, as there was inconsistency around the format of quotes used throughout and also errors such as the detailing of ‘EUFA’ instead of ‘UEFA’ and referring to Nottingham Forest as Notts Forest.
With West Ham now residents at the London Stadium, the book will provide a link and look back to some of the best years that fans at Upton Park had, under one of the true ‘gents’ of the English game.