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Ted Fenton : An Assessment

John Simkin

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In 1960 Ted Fenton published his autobiography, Home With the Hammers. It was an attempt to justify his record as manager of the club. The following year he was sacked (more of that later).

Fenton’s reputation took a blow with the publication of Brian Belton’s book “Days of Iron: The Story of West Ham United in the Fifties” in 1999. The book is made up of interviews with most of the West Ham squad in the 1950s. The vast majority of those interviewed had very harsh words to say about Fenton.

I think his story is worth studying as it shows you the best and worse of the West Ham club. Fenton was a talented footballer and he played for England Schoolboys in 1929 as an inside-forward against Scotland. He was signed by Syd King, the manager of West Ham United, and he made his Football League debut against Bradford City on 7th September 1932. King had himself been manager of the club since the 1901-02 season. When he was sacked in 1933 he was replaced by Charlie Paynter, who developed a close relationship with Fenton.

Fenton was converted from inside-forward to wing-half but did not become a regular in the first-team until the 1935-36 season. Fenton became a Physical Training instructors in the British Army during the Second World War and was able to play for West Ham during the war. Fenton was a member of the West Ham United team that beat Blackburn Rovers 1-0 in the final of the Football League War Cup played at Wembley on 8th June 1940.

Fenton was 31 years old when football began after the war. He played in 37 games in the 1945-46 First Division South competition. In 1946 he joined Colchester United in the Southern League as player manager.

Fenton was fairly successful at his new club and reached the fifth round of the FA Cup in the 1947-48 season. In August 1950 Charlie Paynter selected Fenton as manager of West Ham United. This meant that for 50 years West Ham had been managed by just two men. Fenton's starting salary at the club was £15. This was less money than he had been receiving from Colchester United.

At the time West Ham was in the Second Division and in his first season at the club he finished in 13th place. He did however, make two very good buys in Frank O'Farrell from Cork United and Malcolm Allison from Charlton Athletic. They joined a team that included Dick Walker, Ken Tucker, Ernie Gregory, Derek Parker and Harry Hooper.

West Ham United continued to struggle in the Second Division and despite bringing in players like Jimmy Andrews and Dave Sexton the club finished 12th (1951-52), 14th (1952-53) and 13th (1953-54). It was the goalscoring of John Dick that helped West Ham finish in 8th place in the 1954-55 season. Dick scored 26 goals in 39 appearances that season. Other young players such as Malcolm Musgrove, John Bond, Ken Brown, Noel Cantwell and Andy Malcolm had also been promoted into the first-team.

Fenton pointed out in his autobiography: "The only way to build the club was youth. There were lots of good players around, but I had no money to buy the key players we needed. There was always the problems of running a club on a shoe-string."

Fenton developed a reputation for meanness. Derek Parker used to travel by train from Colchester with Fenton, who did not purchase a ticket: "Ted knew that the ticket collector would always start from the back. Halfway through the journey Ted would get out and go to the back."

Malcolm Allison, the West Ham United captain, claimed that: "Ted Fenton would cheat you out of anything. We played an England amateur side. There were 22,000 at the match. The FA always gave you £5 to play against an FA team. We used to get £2 as a bonus. When we went to get our money we only got the fiver. They said it was £3 for playing and £2 bonus - they tried to do us out of two quid." Just before the next game against Nottingham Forest, Allison organized a strike. He told Fenton that the team refused to play unless he gave them the £2 that he owed them. Allison added: "He went upstairs, came straight back down and gave us the money."

Ken Tucker also complained about Fenton: "The Arsenal players told me that they had got ten guineas for a game with England Amateurs, that was the FA's rate for such matches. When West Ham played against them Ted only gave us £5. Apparently the cheque had gone to Ted and he paid us in cash."

Dick Walker was another player who clashed with Ted Fenton. "I didn't like him and he didn't like me". Walker saw Fenton's actions as: "A matter of taking over from someone popular and wanting to show you're in charge."

These disputes clearly affected the attitudes of the players. In the 1955-56 season West Ham finished in 16th place. John Dick was in poor form that year and only scored 8 goals in 35 league appearances. Billy Dare was top scorer with 18 goals. To make matters worse, West Ham was knocked out of the FA Cup by Spurs.

Malcolm Allison, the captain, took over more responsibility for tactics. Derek Parker argued: "We always thought Malcolm (Allison) influenced Ted (Fenton). He started changing styles... Malcolm was always one of the first in everything, in lots of respects. Ted was lucky to have people like that about."

As Ken Tucker, one of the senior players in the squad, pointed out: "Allison got the team organized. We used to stand over at Grange Farm and Fenton would ask Malcolm "What do we do now?" and Allison would step in and sort things out." Noel Cantwell added that "Malcolm (Allison) couldn't handle people. I was good with people. Malcolm got the other guys interested, pulled a group around him and he came back from Lilleshall with a lot of ideas."

The players were also very critical of club trainer, Billy Moore. He had been at the club since 1922. The young John Bond was shocked by Moore's approach to training: "There was only two or three footballs in the entire club. You got out for training about quarter past ten and ran round the pitch, ran a lap and walk a lap... You'd be doing this for about three-quarters-of-an-hour and then you's shout to Billy Moore to get the balls out. Billy would be standing at the entrance to the ground watching, with a fag in his mouth, that he never ever took out."

Before the beginning of the 1956-57 season Fenton sold Harry Hooper to Wolves for £25,000. Dave Sexton was transferred to Leyton Orient and soon after the season started Frank O'Farrell went to Preston North End. Fenton brought in Mike Grice and Eddie Lewis. Young players such as John Smith and Billy Landsdowne were also now regulars in the first team. West Ham United finished in 8th place that season.

Ted Fenton eventually agreed that Malcolm Allison should take over the training sessions. "I took charge of the the coaching at West Ham. I built the attitude. We used to get together and I used to make them come back for training in the afternoons." John Lyall, one of the youngest players at the club at the time, was impressed by Allison. "Malcolm Allison was a strong man... He battled for what he wanted... He had an open mindedness to try things. He had the same enthusiasm as Johnny Bond and Noel Cantwell, they were people who were progressive about their football."

Ted Fenton seemed to lose the respect of his players after the emergence of Allison. Ken Tucker argued that: "He (Fenton) was never straight-forward. He was against the players.... The players used to say he just pulled the names out of the hat." After one disagreement, Tucker threw his football boots at Fenton. One former player told Brian Belton that during one training session Fenton shouted instructions to John Bond. He walked over to Fenton and shouted: "If you could play at my level, you could tell me what to do." This was unfair as Fenton was as good as Bond in his prime. However, the incident shows that even the young players no longer respected Fenton.

The players were especially upset by the way that Ted Fenton treated Dick Walker. At the end of the 1956-1957 season Walker's playing contract was not renewed by Fenton. Instead he offered Walker a job "to attend to the players boots" at £4 a week. In other words, the former captain ended up doing the job he had done as a groundstaff boy 25 years previously. It is believed that Fenton treated Walker badly because he was so popular with the players and fans that he feared he would replace him as manager of West Ham United. After leaving the club Walker suffered from bad health and spent long spells in hospital. According to former team-mate, Tommy Dixon, Walker ended up as a tramp.

Malcolm Allison openly described Fenton as a "useless manager". Ernie Gregory disagreed claiming that he was responsible for several innovations: "We were the first team to eat steak before meals... We were told to put a ball between two players and you take two players out. John Bond and Noel Cantwell were the first of the overlapping full-backs... We used to train at Forest Gate skating rink - it was narrow, so you could practise working in tight situations." Jimmy Andrews argued that "Fenton was on to one-touch football, that was unusual at the time." Other players claimed that it was Allison who was responsible for these innovations.

Most players seemed to agree with Allison that he was a "useless manager". Mick Newman claimed that: "Fenton once told Billy Dare, when the player had asked him why he had been dropped, that he wasn't tall enough. Bill had been playing well for the club for years at that time and responded by asking Ted if it had taken him six years to work out that he was too small to play for the team."

Malcolm Musgrove later recalled: "Malcolm Allison was up-to-date with things that were going on in football, the technical side. I liked him because of his ability to get the best out of people, I didn't like him for what he could do to people he didn't like. Malcolm Allison was very helpful to me at West Ham.... Allison was a good skipper. He wanted to win, wanted to play football, and this was at the time when there weren't many passing sides about. Most teams used to get it, kick it to the other end and chase it, but we, through Malcolm's influence, always wanted to play from the back. We wanted to pass the ball around. He was a centre-half that didn't just belt it away, he got it down and passed it."

The fans enjoyed the style of football introduced by Malcolm Allison. The football journalist, Bernard Joy, remarked: "West Ham's tradition of playing colourful football as a way of getting away from the drabness of life in the East End."

According to Mike Grice, Allison also influenced team selection: "Three team sheets would go up for match days. Malcolm (Allison) would look at them all, take them down and go and see Ted (Fenton). When they went up again they had invariably changed." Billy Landsdowne remarked: "Fenton would give us a chat and on the way out of the dressing-room Malcolm would say what to do."

Mick Newman added: "Malcolm Allison was a great influence on the club. He introduced all-day training, doing weights in the afternoons. That wasn't very popular with most players, who were used to having their afternoons off. But Malcolm Allison more or less ran the playing side of things. He led by the force of personality really."

Brian Belton summed up the situation in his book Days of Iron: The Story of West Ham United in the Fifties (1999): "As such, what happened at the Boleyn Ground in the Fifties can be understood as a kind of revolution, a series of culture changing events, that included worker (player) control.... There was, as John Cartwright described it, a form of communism at the club. The players really ruled it. In short, the dictatorship of the football proletariat."

On 16th September, 1957, Malcolm Allison was taken ill after a game against Sheffield United. Doctors discovered he was suffering from tuberculosis and he had to have a lung removed. Noel Cantwell became the new captain.

West Ham United got off to poor start to the 1957-58 season. Fenton decided he needed a new centre-forward. Vic Keeble was playing in the reserves at Newcastle United. Fenton, who had managed him at Colchester United, telephoned Keeble and said: "I'm coming up Saturday, I fancy you Vic, I could well put in a bid for you. I'll take a look at you, see how you do." Keeble scored two goals in the first 45 minutes and at half-time Fenton knocked on the window of the dressing-room and said: "Vic, don't play too well in the second-half, they won't let you go." After the game Fenton bought Keeble for £10,000.

Vic Keeble formed a great partnership with inside-left, John Dick. West Ham's full-back, John Bond, later pointed out: "We got something like nine points in 11 games in 1957-58, and then Ted Fenton bought Vic Keeble from Newcastle because he thought he could be good in the air, which he was. But what he didn't recognise was what a good target man Vic was. We could play balls from defence into Vic Keeble and he would hold them in to himself or knock them off. He brought Jackie Dick into the play a lot more... and made more use of the wingers in terms of crosses. And from there we lost three of the next 31 games."

As Vic Keeble himself explained: "I partnered John Dick and we clicked instantly, scoring 40 goals between us. I was really enjoying my football and grabbed a hat-trick in a 5-0 win against West Ham, two in 6-1 wins over Lincoln and Bristol Rovers, and further braces in a 6-2 victory over Swansea and 8-0 thumping of Rotherham United." John Cartwright commented: "Keeble and Dick were telepathic."

By the end of the season Vic Keeble had scored 23 goals in 32 league and cup games. Keeble's brilliant play was one of the main factors in West Ham United winning the Second Division title that year. They had been promoted to the First Division after a period of 26 years in the second tier. Malcolm Pyke, a West Ham teammate, commented: "Jack Dick was a great goalscorer, but when Vic Keeble came he turned us around - it was his goals that got us up."

The authors of The Essential History of West Ham United point out that some journalists questioned whether Vic Keeble and John Dick would be able to score goals in the First Division: "It took the Hammers' marksman just 37 minutes of the opening game of the 1958-59 season to answer that question when he scored West Ham's first goal in the top flight for over a quarter of a century to put his side one up against Portsmouth and send the large contingent of East Londoners among the 40,470 crowd into raptures."

West Ham United finished in 6th place that season. John Dick was top scorer with 27 goals but Vic Keeble also did well with 20 in 32. Keeble injured his back in a game against Fulham on 31st October 1959. He only played one more game on 16th January 1960 before deciding that he would have to retire from professional football. He had the amazing record of scoring 49 goals in 80 games.

In 1960 Fenton published his autobiography, Home With the Hammers. In the book he praised former managers, Syd King and Charlie Paynter. He wrote of King: "Personality plus and adored by the players. He was the Herbert Chapman of his time."

West Ham United struggled for the next couple of seasons and on 16th March 1961 the chairman of the club stated: "For some time, Mr Fenton had been working under quite a strain and it was agreed that he should go on sick leave. For the time being, we shall carry on by making certain adjustments in our internal administration." The Ilford Recorder added that: "The Upton Park club are proud of their tradition of never having sacked a manager." This was untrue as Syd King had been sacked in 1933. Fenton had also been sacked and was replaced by Ron Greenwood.

Malcolm Allison later claimed that "Ted Fenton got the sack. They were rebuilding the stand and he was pinching some bricks and paint. Putting it in the back of the car. One of the directors caught him." Ken Tucker thought he had been dismissed because he had negotiated a reduction in the price of equipment, but was only passing on a percentage of the savings to the club. However, Andy Smillie believes that Fenton was a victim of "player power".

Would it have been different if the West Ham board had sacked Fenton earlier and placed Allison in charge of the first-team and Dick Walker carried on developing the youngsters? I believe it would. However, if that was the case, Ron Greenwood, would not have become manager in 1961. Greenwood was the first outsider to manage West Ham. He made some necessary changes but it was another insider, John Lyall, who learnt his football under Allison, who replaced Greenwood in 1974.


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