Harry Redknapp once pulled an abusive fan from the crowd and put him on the field for West Ham United. This is the story of Steve Davies.
by Jeff Maysh | portraits by John Cairns
This feature, from Howler issue 03, later won a poll of Longform readers who selected it as their all-time favorite soccer story.
Ever since he was five years old, Steve Davies dreamed of playing for West Ham United. He grew up in the rain-thrashed English working-class town of Rushden, where by birthright he should have supported Rushden Town, or Northampton, or even Coventry City. But after watching West Ham triumph over Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup final, he became a long-distance fan, pledging his allegiance to the claret and blue of the Hammers.
“The other kids at school said I should support a local team. But I just knew I was West Ham. I can’t explain it really,” says Steve as I hand him a pint of English beer and we begin the interview. “I wore the shirt with pride and would travel to see the games as often as I could.” (A 182-mile round trip.) Young Steve devoured football magazines and decorated his bedroom walls with photographs of West Ham players.
“Trevor Brooking was my hero. I had hundreds of photos of Brooking,” says Steve of the West Ham legend who played 528 times for the Hammers and scored 88 goals, including a boy’s day-dream of a diving header to steal the FA Cup from Arsenal in 1980. Four months after that, a teenage Steve Davies sneaked onto a train to London to watch Brooking and West Ham United play Watford at Upton Park and was thrilled when the ball flew toward him as he stood in the North Bank.
“Amazingly, I caught it,” he recalls. “Next thing, Trevor Brooking runs over and signals for me to throw it back.”
But Steve couldn’t let go. As Trevor came ever closer, he clutched the ball. “I remember being that close to my hero. ‘Come and get it!’ I said.”
To Steve’s delight, he did. Steve gave back the ball and play resumed.
“It was a memory that stayed with me for ages,” says Steve. “It was all terraces back then, and when a player would take a corner, I could lean over and almost touch him. Almost.”
West Ham won 3–2, Brooking scored, and Steve had a story to tell his dad after making the long journey back to Rushden.
Steve’s father, a Welshman named Geoff Davies, was a broad-shouldered Sunday-league defender, and when young Steve came of age, he too began playing in the waterlogged Sunday leagues of the Midlands. “Dad played well into his forties,” says Steve proudly. Steve turned out for Fishermead, a strong pub team in neighboring Milton Keynes. “Every lad dreamed of playing for their favorite team, and every time I ran onto the pitch I wished I was playing for West Ham United.” His boyhood idols were all strong defenders like his old man.
“As a teenager, I pretended I was Billy Bonds when I played. I used to admire good defenders, like Ray Stewart. He was Scottish, and the best penalty taker — top corner every time — you wouldn’t pick one out. I also tried to model myself on Kenny Sansom, but I was never really good enough, if I’m honest.”
Like almost all young men who dream of becoming professional sportsmen, Steve’s limitations were slowly revealed to him on those frosty fields, and he became distracted by other things, notably West Ham United. “I started going to West Ham proper when I was 15, hence the accent,” he says, explaining why he speaks like an East End barrow boy. “I was down there every week, even going to away games. They were great days.” But Britain was suffering civil unrest, and the fall of its unions, violent miners’ strikes, and mass unemployment made the 1980s a decade of strife that created a microcosm of the soccer terraces: young men were angry, just because, and hooliganism was born.
West Ham signed a Portuguese striker and male model, prompting then–assistant manager Harry Redknapp to quip, “Dani is so good-looking I don’t know whether to play him or fuck him.”
When British laundry detergent brand Persil printed vouchers on the sides of their soapboxes for discounted train tickets, it made traveling soccer support feasible for an entire generation of youngsters. “Mum bought the Persil, I cut the coupons out, and I was off,” he says, and the ’80s whizzed past in a blur of industrial chimneys and foreboding clouds out of train windows.
Steve had crossed into an exciting new world that smelled of detergent, warm lager, and railway carriages, and he grew from boy to man standing on the terraces in faraway towns. “I’d get stuck in places like Sheffield and couldn’t get home, sleeping in empty stations! Fucking hell! But it was brilliant, and West Ham had great away support. We became notorious for it.”
As he drifted into his twenties, Steve’s desire to play professional soccer all but evaporated. “I still played on Sundays sometimes when I wasn’t away with West Ham, more so I could have a drink dinnertime,” he says. “You know, turn up, have a pint — that sort of thing.” His preferred habitat shifted from the chilly fields of Sunday-league soccer to the smoke-filled pubs of East London. Inside the Black Lion or the Boleyn Tavern, you could find Steve on any given Saturday, pint aloft, singing that popular waltz from 1918, famously adopted by West Ham fans:
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
West Ham United finished Division One runners-up in 1992–93, securing promotion to the top-flight of English soccer. It was only the second year since the First Division had been remodeled into the fancy Premier League with its loads of cash and players in shampoo commercials. English teams were beginning to attract foreign players with exotic names who performed colorful Italian hand gestures at referees. West Ham signed a Portuguese striker and male model, prompting then–assistant manager Harry Redknapp to quip, “Dani is so good-looking I don’t know whether to play him or fuck him.”
Steve now rarely daydreamed about playing for West Ham. In 1990, he had his first child, Chloe, and in 1993, a boy named Samuel Brooking, named after his West Ham hero, Trevor. To support his new family he became a same-day courier, driving night and day, delivering packages for companies. Finally, he could put to good use the knowledge of British geography he had acquired following the Irons cross-country.
“I remember one package in particular I picked up at a graphic designer’s place in Milton Keynes. I had to take it to Cambridge to be proofed, then they sent me to Bristol. Got to Bristol at half eleven at night, and they says to me, ‘You gots to take this to Manchester… and it’s got to be there for nine a.m.’ I couldn’t believe it. Turns out I was delivering the architectural plans for Manchester City’s ground, for their new Kippax stand.”
After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 that killed 96 fans, many English stadiums were rebuilt, giving the league a facelift. “This was the ’90s,” recalls Steve. “Everyone was getting new stadiums and all sorts. Football was changing, wasn’t it?”
With promotion came a claret-and-blue executive team bus with tinted windows and mini fridges that would deliver West Ham to play the giants of English soccer: Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. In their first season in the Premiership, West Ham finished a dismal 13th.
Steve’s best friend was Chunk, and Chunk was also a die-hard West Ham fan. Chunk’s real name was Steve, but the nickname was endearing. “He’s not fat or nothing,” explains Steve Davies. “He’s just too big to run.”
Steve and Chunk would travel home and away to watch their team, often driving the length of the country. Chunk was from nearby Hemel Hempstead and drove a gold Vauxhall Cavalier Sri, the type of car favored by substitute teachers and people with gambling debts.
“He’s a true mate,” says Steve. “My first wife was called Kelly, and Chunk’s missus was also called Kelly, and they got pregnant at exactly the same time.” The Steves and their Kellys once drove 230 miles to Torquay to watch West Ham play when the Kellys were five months pregnant. “Every five miles we had to stop for them to be sick at the side of the road,” Steve says. “We nearly missed the kickoff.
“Chunk called me up one day and said, ‘We got a preseason game over at Oxford — fancy it?’” remembers Steve, who never said no to West Ham. “We liked to get a couple of games in early. We get withdrawal symptoms when the season finishes in May. I very rarely missed a game, and I fancied a little away trip to Oxford anyways.” Steve’s mate Bazza was also in Chunk’s Cavalier as it idled outside Steve’s house.
When the stadium announcer saw Steve take to the field, he sent an assistant down to get the name of this new signing so he could announce it to the crowd. “I asked the guy, you been watching the World Cup?” Redknapp tells me. “The great Bulgarian Tittyshev?”
Court Place Farm sits amid the bleak fields of Oxfordshire, a patchwork quilt of icy horticultural land wrapped in the concrete ribbons of freeway that stretch 60 miles east to London and 148 miles west to Wales. There lies the picture-postcard city of Oxford, famous for its historic university and church steeples that inspired a mid-18th-century poet to christen it the “city of dreaming spires.”
Oxford City Football Club plays in the shadow of local rival Oxford United, who are two leagues above them, and both teams are still worlds away from the neon-colored cleats and mega-screen televisions of the Premier League. The schoolteacher who serves scalding-hot tea at halftime for Oxford argues that this is “real football,” played by real men who don’t use conditioner and work second jobs. Along the edge of the muddy field, the pitch is outlined with daisies. And while it may not host the pyrotechnics and prima donnas of the Premiership, Oxford City has enjoyed some of football’s most remarkable dramas.
In his book Soccer’s Strangest Matches, Andrew Ward chronicled “The Endless Cup Tie” of November 1972, in which Oxford City and Alvechurch played a qualifying-round FA Cup tie over six games and 660 minutes before Alvechurch player Bobby Hope’s 588th-minute headed goal finally divided the teams, and champagne flowed… in both dressing rooms. “It became an endurance test,” wrote Ward. “Alvechurch midfielder Derek Davies, a car-worker on nights, had to be rested from the fourth game… and a few minutes after the fifth game, an elderly Alvechurch supporter collapsed and tragically died.”
Yet on this summer night in 1994, an even stranger fixture was about to occur. Russell Smith, sports editor at the Oxford Mail, recalls that the town was excited for the return of Joey Beauchamp, the young Oxford United winger who had just transferred to West Ham for a fee of £1.2 million, a lad surely destined for stardom with the Irons. Beauchamp’s new teammates consisted of tough international players like Ludek Miklosko, Alvin Martin, American defender Steve Potts, and a crew of everyman sloggers keen to hack those snazzy foreigners in the Premiership for fun.
March 1, 2013. The 17.17. race at Monmore Green. Ballymac Clara explodes out of trap 6 like a dog possessed. By the first turn she is already placed second as the rest of the pack instinctively chases the electric hare zipping around the track. Bred from a champion stud, Ballymac is a young white bitch with distinctive black markings, and she thunders around the outside, ears pinned back, eyes bulging. This is her first major race, and expectations are high. On the final bend, she is ahead and romps home by an astonishing six and a quarter lengths, running 480 feet in just under 29 seconds.
“Get in!” Joey Beauchamp, 42, entreats a television in a deserted Oxford betting shop as the handsome dog crosses the finish line. “It was only a small bet, but she won easy,” he says with delight. “I had 40 quid on her.”
Beauchamp is no longer the lithe 23-year-old in the photographs he proudly keeps on his BlackBerry. There, on the tiny screen, he wears the claret and blue of West Ham and is volleying a ball goal-bound. The photograph is from the Oxford City match of July 27, 1994.
“Darren Anderton went to Tottenham for a million pounds the same time as I went to West Ham,” Beauchamp says as he steps out into the street, clutching his winnings. “We were similar players. There was no real left-footed wingers in England before Beckham; I was at the top of my game. That’s why the top clubs were all after me.” His breath, visible in the cold air, disappears high into the night sky.
“We honestly thought we had a serious talent on our hands in Joey,” recalls Mark Edwards, chief sports reporter at The Oxford Times. “The Oxford manager at the time said, ‘Joey could play for England.’ At the top of his game, no player could live with him on the left wing, he was that fast.”
Joey Beauchamp, the million-pound boy wonder, made his West Ham debut in front of a crowd of local admirers, friends, and family at Oxford City’s ground. “But unfortunately,” he says, “everyone remembers the game for a completely different reason….”
Chunk, Bazza, Steve, and Steve’s wife were sitting by a fence with the traveling West Ham fans when Redknapp emerged from the dressing room and greeted them. “Harry being Harry, he talks to people,” says Steve. “He said hello and all that. A few fans exchanged pleasantries. But there’s no airs and graces with Harry.”
The first half kicked off like almost every other of the hundreds of West Ham games Steve had watched in his life, over the thousands of miles he’d traveled as a disciple of West Ham United. “Lee Chapman was up front for us, on the edge of the area, and he went up against a little guy from Oxford,” recalls Steve. “Lee towered over him, but came down on his arse!” Steve was enraged. “Come on, you donkey, Chapman, you’re useless!” he shouted at the striker. “Get up!”
“If you’re watching your team and someone does something really daft, you won’t leave them alone for a couple of minutes,” explains Steve. “I think Chapman lost the ball again, he got tackled and got a cut on his shin. He went down, and I was shouting, ‘Come on! Get up, you donkey!’” Chapman was being hit hard by Oxford’s defenders. “He kept getting whacked, and I gave him crap for that,” Steve says.
“Oi,” Harry Redknapp said, “Can you play as good as you talk?”
Harry Redknapp delights in telling this particular yarn. Last time he told the story it was on British TV show A League of Their Own, at Christmas last year. “There’s a guy next to the dugout,” Harry told the host, “and he’s got West Ham tattooed all over his arms and neck, he’s got the earrings…. After two minutes, he started on me.” Today, speaking to me in his third one-on-one interview since taking over as QPR boss, he slips into storytelling mode.
“‘We ain’t got that Lee Chapman up front do we — I ain’t coming every week if he’s playing,’ says Harry, doing his impression of Steve. “Halftime I made five substitutions, and we only had the bare eleven out — I was running out of players. Then we got another injury, so I said to this guy in the crowd, ‘Oi, can you play as good as you talk?’”
The rest of the tale is hallowed football folklore. “I slung a leg over the barrier and Harry walked me down the tunnel,” says Steve. “What’s your name, son?” Harry asked, sizing up this apparent hooligan. “I couldn’t believe it. Inside the dressing room, the players were sat down resting at halftime.” West Ham was two-nil up, but the team was carrying injuries. “Then Harry and says, ‘Lee you’re off; Steve you’re on.’”
Chapman, shirtless, just nodded.
“I asked him, what size boots are you, son?” Redknapp recalls. The kit manager brought Steve a uniform.
“Alvin Martin was sat next to me, and as we stood up, he smacked me on the back of the head, like a little livener. We come on up the tunnel and I still thought Harry was having a laugh with me. I didn’t think I was actually gonna get on, or I thought I might get a minute or two as a joke.”
The crowd broke into applause as the teams appeared once again.
The second half kicked off with a shrill whistle. “I didn’t come out of Oxford’s half,” laughs Steve. “I was playing up front with Trevor Morley, goal-hanging! It was fucking quick football. This was a step up from Sunday league, to say the least. Oxford play Saturday football — I played Sunday football, pub football.
“I got a few touches, including a pass from Alvin Martin; I remember he called out my name in his Scouse accent. I was blown away. ‘Stevie!’ he shouted, and he sent the ball pinging to my feet. It had such pace on it, nearly knocked me over!”
Steve says he was out of his depth, trying to keep up with international players and fighting the urge to steal a glance over to the stands where his wife, Bazza, and Chunk were watching in disbelief. “I didn’t get any shots on target because I was never alone. This wasn’t like park football. Defenders didn’t leave you alone.”
When the stadium announcer saw Steve take to the field, he sent an assistant down to get the name of this new signing so he could announce it to the crowd. “I asked the guy, you been watching the World Cup?” Redknapp tells me. “The great Bulgarian Tittyshev?”
“It didn’t feel natural at all — that’s what people always ask,” says Steve. “I was just trying to stay calm. After the first five minutes, my legs were shaking; I was playing for West Ham! After that it was just ‘get on with the game’ kind of thing. I was running on adrenaline, and I was more worried about fucking up. I played a safe game, made a couple of passes hooking up with the center half, Martin” — who, Steve says, was “solid as a rock” — “and Beauchamp. He was hot property at the time.” In fact, Beauchamp scored a cracking goal in the 65th minute, a top-corner screamer, which was ruled offside.
“Suddenly, we were on the attack,” recalls Steve. “The ball went out wide — I’m sure it was Matty Holmes on the wing — and we pushed forward. I had two defenders in front of me and I was just sprinting forward, I think.” He didn’t purposely split the defenders, but neither was marking him tightly, and Steve flew forward, fast out of the traps. He picked up the ball from Holmes, and a clumsy first touch took him and the ball into the penalty area. Suddenly, thousands of eyes fell upon him as he escaped the pack. He was, for a moment, an image from a poster on the wall of his childhood bedroom.
In the history of professional soccer, no fan had ever come from the stands and played for their team. That’s not to say fans have never influenced a sporting result. Jeffrey Maier was a 12-year-old American baseball fan who became famous when he deflected a batted ball in play into the Yankee Stadium stands during Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series, between New York and the Orioles. There’s footage of Fernanda Maia, a quick-thinking Brazilian ballgirl, setting up a goal with a deft pass to a Botafogo player in the Campeonato Carioca final between Botafogo and Vasco da Gama. The closest story to that of Steve Davies’s is that of music fan Scott Halpin, who became a rock ’n’ roll legend when he attended The Who’s sold-out show at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in November 1973. The 19-year-old rock fan, then living in Monterey, California, bought a pair of scalped tickets for the show. When drummer Keith Moon collapsed for a second time due to drink and drugs, Halpin was invited to the stage and filled in for an entire set, drumming with his heroes.
But what happened that night at Court Place Farm in the 71st minute was even more remarkable. It made a legend of Steve Davies, the courier from Milton Keynes.
Sadly, Steve’s magical moment occurred before camera phones and YouTube. Almost every West Ham fan can tell you his story, yet there exists little evidence of what exactly happened: in the dusty archives of the Oxford Mail, the brown envelope that should hold the match reports from 1994 is empty.
I first tried to find the truth 10 years ago. I wrote letters to some 200 people named Steven Davies in East London and placed an ad in a West Ham fanzine that read: “Are you Harry’s fan?” No one replied.
Eventually, I found documentation of the game in London, hidden in the bowels of the British Library on microfilm that one must request access to a week in advance. There, you can trawl through ancient issues of British tabloid newspapers. Turn a lever and English news of the 1990s plays out like a primitive phenakistoscope of tabloid scandal and kiss-and-tells. Thatcher grimaces; topless models, with hair in perms and lips painted red, flash their wares. I also contacted Steve Bacon, West Ham’s loyal photographer, who had to hunt through years of negatives to find Steve’s moment.
Steve Davies finally came forward when a house fire destroyed his precious memorabilia in 2011. Searching an Oxford City online forum for evidence of that day, he found my appeal, from many years before, for him to speak about the game. Three months later, in freezing March, I flew from Los Angeles, where I live and work, to Oxford.
On an icy field, Steve nervously re-creates what happened. He takes me to the corner of the field where he watched the first half of the game, and where Harry called him out. Steve was the loudest voice in the crowd, the only supporter passionate enough to be noticed in the stands at a preseason game. And then he talks me through what happened in the 71st minute.
Half an hour previously, he had been sucking on a cigarette in the away supporters’ end, swigging from a bottle, and considering a third beer. Now he’s taken the pass in stride and is in front of goal; City’s veteran keeper Colin Fleet is bearing down on him, palms out, head down. The summer sun has dropped low beneath the bare trees on the horizon, painting the entire scene gold and casting long shadows.
“I just hit it,” he says with a shrug. “I hit it like nothing else. Know what I mean? I belted it.” The ball whistled low, past the outstretched hand of the Oxford goalkeeper, and ran into the bottom corner of the goal. Steve says he wheeled away in celebration, arms extended, head bent with disbelief. On the side of the field, Redknapp turned around and looked briefly to the heavens.
“It was like time stopped still — it was the greatest moment of my life,” says Steve. Somewhere in the crowd, Bazza and Chunk were losing their shit. Steve Davies had scored on his West Ham debut.
“After that, I was exhausted. I was on 30 cigarettes a day back then,” Steve admits. “I wouldn’t condone it. I had a couple of cigs and a couple of beers in the first half, didn’t I?”
He admits his goal was not spectacular: “I’m not gonna butter myself up, but they all count.” And when the full-time whistle blew, West Ham had won 4–0. Steve walked down the tunnel with the rest of his teammates, jubilant.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the dream was over. The kit manager wouldn’t let Steve keep his number 3 shirt — they’d need it against Newcastle the next week in the Premier League. And 25 minutes later, Steve was back in the Cavalier with Chunk, Bazza, and his missus, stuck in traffic on the freeway back to reality.
In the Magdalen Arms, Oxford, the waiter drops two plates of battered haddock in front of me and Steve. “What’s this?” Steve says, prodding the massive fish. “A whale?” It’s nearly 20 years since that game, and the former West Ham striker still has his head shaved. He has been divorced and remarried. His new wife, Tammy, says that to strangers, Steve can look “psychotic,” which his friends find funny. He has a dry wit and disarming sense of humor. After modestly recounting his brief but spectacular playing career, he asks me: “After all this time, why did you keep chasing this story?” He lights a cigarette.
I explain that his story is an allegory for hope.
That game against Oxford City happened to be the last time Beauchamp ever played for West Ham. Citing “homesickness,” he left the club after just 56 days. The Hammers had paid more than a million pounds, and in one of his only appearances, he had been outplayed by a £300-a-week courier from the crowd. Beauchamp was transferred to Oxford United’s rival, Swindon, infuriating his home team’s fans, before he was transferred back to Oxford. He would play 238 more games for his local team before his career fizzled out.
In 2010, he told the Oxford Mail that he had never wanted to join West Ham in the first place: “Oxford United told me that if I didn’t join West Ham, then Oxford would be over; they had no money. What was I supposed to do? I could never have lived with myself if I refused to join West Ham and then Oxford did go under.”
Was the real reason Joey Beauchamp ended up playing for his hated rival, Swindon, a secret plot to save the club he dreamed of playing for as a child? If it was, the fans haven’t yet realized it: “I still get abused by Oxford fans to this day about playing for Swindon,” he told the Oxford Mail soon after being arrested for drunk driving.
But Beauchamp fought back and this year took his first real job after attending a seminar for unemployed former soccer players: he works in a betting shop. “I’m playing football tomorrow, actually,” he tells me. “I’m turning out for a local pub team called Northway. I’ve got 36 goals this season. I’m their top scorer!”
The week after Harry Redknapp took the audacious step of putting a West Ham fan on the field, the club promoted him from assistant manager to manager. It is not known if the two events were related. By 1999, he had pushed West Ham to their second-highest finish: fifth place in the Premiership, qualifying to play in Europe. Spells at Southampton and Portsmouth followed, and he took the latter to its first FA Cup final in 69 years in May 2008. Portsmouth won 1–0. He led Tottenham Hotspur to the Champions League, becoming Premier League Manager of the Year, the highest accolade in English management. Last season, Harry was manager of the doomed Queen’s Park Rangers, whom he could not save from relegation. Speaking from his Range Rover, at the end of a stressful season, Harry Redknapp is driving toward his vacation spot — a modest RV park on the English coast.
“I was hoping he could play good,” he tells me. “I wasn’t trying to make him look silly. I thought I’d make his day. I could see he loved West Ham. He’ll never forget it as long as he lives. He came on, ran around, loved it, scored a goal. He played for West Ham!”
After his West Ham debut, Steve Davies returned to his normal life, but with a new outlook. Back in the smoke-filled pubs for the West Ham games, he was now Steve Davies, the fan who came from the crowd to score for West Ham. In the Boleyn pub, he would joke about his “long and distinguished career.” But at work, something had changed. He plucked up the courage to strike out on his own, launching a courier company.
“I kept the business small,” he says. “I done all right out of it, I suppose. I had three drivers, all earning decent money.” He still follows West Ham United, home and away.
As we finish our fish supper, Steve presses a final cigarette into the ashtray and tells me he has a confession to make. He runs a hand over his shaved head, visibly embarrassed, and says, “My goal was disallowed.” He smiles roguishly. “I was two yards offside. I ran up to the ref and told him, ‘You bastard, you spoiled my dream!’”
Jeff Maysh is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmaysh.