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Forklifts and Football: The playing career of Alan Devonshire

When West Ham paid just £5,000 to snap up a fresh-faced 20-year-old from non-league Southall in September 1976, nobody could have predicted just how good a deal the Hammers were getting.

A mercurial, moustachioed midfielder, Alan Devonshire is widely considered one of the most skilled players ever to don the famous claret and blue shirt. With almost 450 appearances to his name, serving the club for 14 years during a golden era at West Ham, Devonshire is arguably the club’s best ever buy with each game he played costing his team just £11.

As a schoolboy the West Londoner was almost signed by Crystal Palace but had his contract offer cancelled when Malcolm Allison was appointed manager. Devonshire’s father talked him out of quitting the game at that point. Soon after, he joined Southall where he developed his brilliant dribbling skills and strength to ride tackles. He went from famously being a forklift driver to playing for West Ham in the old Division One and winning the FA Cup in 1980.

“I started off at Crystal Palace playing for the youth team and by the time I was 18 I was promised professional terms by the club. But when Malcolm Allison came in he got rid of six players without even seeing them play and I was one of them. I instantly fell out of love with the game because I thought I was going to sign a professional contract,” said Devonshire.

“I decided not to play football for a couple of months and I went to work at Hoover. I got a job there driving a forklift truck around the department and I done that for some time. But eventually my dad shook me up and told me to get back out there playing football. I ended up moving to the non-league and joining Southall. I played for them for 18 months and learnt more in that time than anyone or any coach could ever teach me.

“I played my own game and learnt it as I went through. I was able to beat people and I was very quick. If people were going to whack me, then I knew I’d have to play one or two touch a bit quicker and things like that.

“During my time at Southall there was always a lot of talk about other teams watching me. Reading and Southampton were two teams who wanted to take me on trial but I wasn’t keen for that. I wanted to them to see if I was good enough or not for a proper contract. I later found out Eddie Baily and Charlie Faulkner were scouting me for six games before I was asked if I wanted to sign for West Ham.

"I went down to the club and they offered me a year’s contract for £100 a week. At the time, I was earning more money driving a forklift at Hoover and with the little bit of football I was playing for Southall. But I spoke to my dad and he convinced me to take the offer so that’s what I did.”

Devonshire signed for West Ham United in 1976 for the paltry sum of £5,000, receiving just £250 as a signing on fee. But as his time in East London grew, he proved to be a priceless asset in the Hammers’ first team and made his debut for the club on 27 October against Queens Park Rangers.

“I think they thought it was going to take a long time for me to work my way into the first team but I was in there three weeks after I signed,” said Devonshire.

“I remember John Lyall calling me up and asking me to go down to the club one Tuesday. He pulled me into his office at 6.30pm along with Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard and said he wanted me to play in the League Cup game against QPR. It was an unbelievable feeling. We ended up losing 2-0 but I remember walking out and the atmosphere being unreal. It all happened so quickly. Three weeks after giving my job up at Hoover I was suddenly playing in front of 25,000 at Upton Park against QPR. It was like a whirlwind.”

Devonshire’s career continued to flourish and just a few years later the winger was part of the infamous lineup that beat Arsenal 1-0 in the 1980 FA Cup final. And never more so than during that FA Cup triumph had the player’s ability shone through when his run down the left wing ended with the cross that led to Brooking scoring the only goal of the game. Having been relegated from the First Division two years earlier, West Ham became the third second tier side in eight years to take home the cup.

“It was unbelievable to play at Wembley. The cup final back then was the major competition to win. It was a very hot day, I always remember that but we really fancied our chances. We were a good side and even though we were in the second division, six of us ended up playing for our countries. We were a good side and we definitely deserved to win the game. It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic.”

Alongside the FA Cup victory, the Hammers would go on to win the Division Two title the following year and return to Wembley in the League Cup final with Devonshire’s creativity to the fore. His talent deservedly earned him an international call up with former West Ham manager, Ron Greenwood, selecting Devonshire to make his first appearance for England against Northern Ireland on 20 May 1980. Devonshire attained eight caps before injury brought an unfortunate end to his international career - his final two appearances, against Greece and Luxembourg coming at the end of 1983.

Devonshire signed off with the Hammers in 1990 and ended his playing career with a brief spell at Watford before embarking on a career in non-league management.He might only have scored 32 times for West Ham, but he created countless chances for others, establishing himself as one of the finest players to grace Upton Park.

“I think you only realise what you’ve achieved when you’ve finished playing. It can’t be taken away that you’ve played for your country because you’ve probably played at the highest level you can. I just loved playing football. I just got a massive buzz from playing it. I was just lucky enough to go as high as I did.”

*Joshua Browne interviewed Alan Devonshire for this piece at the end of March.

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