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Football League Greats: Billy Bonds

26 March 2013

A phenomenal 20 years, nine months and 12 days separated the first and the final of Billy Bonds' appearances for West Ham United.

His two decades of unflinching service saw many changes at the Boleyn Ground - not least his own gradual transformation from clean-shaven youngster to hirsute, bearded elder statesman, but throughout the years Bonds was a constant for the Hammers, both in the good times and the darker days.

Higher profile players came and went during his record-breaking Upton Park career. He fought in the trenches alongside Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard Senior, but ultimately outlasted them all. Billy Bonds was as close to indestructible, as it's physically possible for a footballer to be.

His 793 appearances for West Ham is a club record that may never be eclipsed, yet it's easy to forget Bonds was not actually a one-club stalwart, beginning his professional career as an 18-year-old full-back for Charlton Athletic towards the end of the 1964/65 Division Two campaign.

He played just two full seasons at The Valley. Ron Greenwood had heard his name mentioned in despatches and in May 1967 the Hammers signed the 20-year-old in a £50,000 transfer. It was a modest fee that arguably proved to be the best value for money deal in West Ham's history.

Bonds had already forged a reputation as a fearless and fanatically fit full-back with the Addicks. Good in the air and relentlessly willing to get forward, and in his first three seasons at Upton Park, Greenwood unleashed him on the First Division as a rampaging right-back.

The 1970/71 campaign saw the manager make a bold tactical change, switching the abrasive talents of Bonds from the back four to central midfield, as Greenwood searched for a foil to Trevor Brooking's elegant attacking instincts.

By his own admission, his redeployment to the thick of the action suited him down to the ground.

"It's true that I rarely bothered to wear shin pads when I played football and preferred to play with my socks rolled down," he once said in an interview.

"But perhaps the greatest enjoyment of my career came from the physical confrontation. I honestly enjoyed winning a good, hard tackle just as much as supplying a precise pass or scoring a goal."

By 1974 Bonds was so influential that Greenwood handed him the captain's armband, and the following year he led the team to a 2-0 victory over Fulham in the FA Cup final at Wembley - the club's first silverware for a decade.

His legendary drive and determination came to the fore once again in the 1975/76 season as the Hammers battled through to the final of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and although Anderlecht were ultimately too strong in the Heysel Stadium, Bonds' status as the heart and soul of the Hammers side was now beyond dispute.

The bitter disappointment of relegation in 1979 was tempered by the side's famous 1-0 victory over Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup final. Bonds then missed just one league game the following season as the Hammers romped to the final of the League Cup and the Second Division title, returning to the top flight after a three-year exile.

He celebrated his 35th birthday during the 1981/82 Division One campaign.

Bonds was now playing in the heart of the West Ham defence but his appetite for the contest and his physical capacity to easily cross swords with far younger opponents showed little sign of diminishing. For the next three seasons he featured in at least half of the team's league fixtures but in 1984 the Londoner finally conceded defeat to old Father Time and hung up his boots.

Retirement should have offered Bonds a well-earned rest but it was a temporary respite. When the Hammers were gripped by an injury crisis and implored him to return, his sense of loyalty and competitive spirit got the better of him, and three more years in the Irons ranks followed.

His last appearance finally came on 30th April 1988 when West Ham faced Southampton at the Dell. He was 41 years and 225 days old - another club record - and this time it really was the end of the Bonds era as a Hammers player.

His four-year return as the club's manager from 1990 was a rollercoaster ride.

Promotion in his first full season at the Boleyn Ground was followed by relegation and then a second promotion, but when he resigned in August 1994, the supporters made their feelings clear and those feelings were universally affectionate.

It remains a mystery why Bonds never represented England during his playing days but his career was not without wider recognition.

Four times he was voted the club's Player of the Year and in 1988 he was made an MBE for his services to football in The Queen's New Year's Honours List.

In 2013 he fittingly became the first recipient of West Ham's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

No player has given the Hammers more years of service and no-one was more part of the club's DNA over three decades.

Career Statistics:
Charlton Athletic (1964-67) - 95 Football League appearances, 1 goal
West Ham United (1967-88) - 663 Football League appearances, 48 goals

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