It's fair to say Tony Cottee's second coming at West Ham in September 1994 didn't get off to the best of starts.
Having returned to the East End from Everton in a swap deal with David Burrows, Cottee was back on Merseyside just three days later for a Premiership match against Liverpool. Early in the second half, the 29-year-old was on the receiving end of a heavy challenge from Rob Jones - only for referee Paul Danson to allow play to continue. Cottee was incensed, but quickly back on his feet, and launched into Jones to reclaim the ball, clattering the right-back far worse than he had been clattered himself moments earlier. Despite profuse apologies, Cottee looked up to see Danson flourishing a red card, and trudged off down the Anfield tunnel - sent off for the first and only time in his career.
Cottee had come back to his roots at the calling of Harry Redknapp, in his first season in charge of the Hammers. With 10 men, they ground out a goalless draw at Liverpool that day, although the result still left them in the relegation places. The following Saturday, Cottee hauled them out by netting the only goal of the game against Aston Villa at Upton Park. Yet after serving his suspension, a dreaded drought set in - and a full three months later, Cottee was still searching for his next goal.
West Ham picked up the odd victory here and there - a 2-1 triumph at Chelsea, and home wins over Crystal Palace, Southampton and Leicester - but as the week before Christmas rolled around, Redknapp's team found themselves back in the drop zone. Cottee was toiling away in vain up front, while his team-mates also lacked firepower to an alarming degree. In total, the Hammers had only bothered the scoresheet 12 times in 18 league games.
"There was pressure on me because West Ham had signed me to score goals - and they just weren't going in," Cottee recalled to Sky Sports. "But I was really enjoying my time working under Harry. I found him a good manager and coach, and he was very patient with me. We had the players, but we just hadn't clicked as a team."
Visiting the Boleyn Ground that Saturday were Manchester City, riding high in sixth spot under Brian Horton, and boasting a formidable attacking triumvirate of Paul Walsh, Niall Quinn and Uwe Rosler. The City forwards had already plundered 21 Premiership goals between them by that stage of the season. They were expected to give a defence containing 36-year-old Alvin Martin a thorough runaround.
Understandably at that time of year, with household funds tight, the attendance dipped slightly - but the majority of the 17,286 crowd got their money's worth within the first 10 minutes. West Ham went for the jugular right from the kick-off, carving out several early chances, and when Andy Dibble could only parry a Cottee shot right back at the striker, he side-footed home to finally break free of those demons of doubt. And like the proverbial London bus, another goal followed in double-quick time. A raid down by the right by Tim Breacker, from a move originally instigated by Cottee in his own penalty area, ended in the latter turning cleverly in the area and scoring past a stunned Dibble.
Ian Bishop ran the game against his former club, while Dibble made several fine saves, but in the 57th minute, Cottee completed his hat-trick - running onto Bishop's excellent through-ball, taking on Alan Kernaghan and curling a left-footed shot in off the far post.
"That first goal was a huge relief - you can see it etched on my face," said Cottee. "The second was a good team goal, and the third came from a great through-ball from Bish. It was a resounding victory.
"I loved playing with Bish because he was such a creative midfielder player. Being a City old boy as well, it added spice to the game from his point of view, and he played great that day."
Scoring hat-tricks was not unusual for Cottee - he had notched two trebles the previous season at Goodison - but this one stands out for him. "It's the only time I ever got a league hat-trick for West Ham at home," he noted, "so it's a very special memory for me."
Cottee's strike partner at the time was 6ft 4in Dutchman Jeroen Boere, who had bagged a brace the previous weekend to earn a 2-2 draw at Leeds. In Redknapp's recently-released autobiography, the former Hammers manager mentions the players' Christmas party that year. Organiser Dale Gordon hired minivans to ferry the players around and for reasons that are unexplained, Boere - known as 'Yozza' - set fire to the seats of one of the vehicles. The story quickly came to the attention of the press.
"I was on one of the minibuses, but not the one that was potentially on fire!" said Cottee. "We ended up at a nightclub in Romford and we had a boxing ring with big boxing gloves, and people were launching themselves off the balcony... it was all in good fun, in the days when there were no mobile phones around to capture the images. Because Yozza had damaged the back of the minibus, the company put a claim in to the club. It became common knowledge and made the newspapers."
Such parties are seriously frowned upon nowadays, but the lifestyle and occasional drinking culture of players was under much less scrutiny in the early 90s. As Cottee explains: "We worked our socks off to win a football match, and it was a time when a bonus meant something - we used to celebrate and enjoy ourselves. It's just a different world now, because of the amount of money involved."
Saturday 17 December, 1994
- Only 13 goals are scored across eight Premiership fixtures. Leaders Blackburn draw 0-0 at Leicester, while second-placed Manchester United lose 2-1 at home to Nottingham Forest.
- The National Lottery completes its first month, having created seven new UK millionaires.
- 'Stay Another Day' by Walthamstow's finest East 17 is in a five-week stretch at the top of the UK singles charts.
- The box office tills ring for Sir Richard Attenborough's turn as Kris Kringle in a remake of 'Miracle on 34th Street'.
Redknapp describes Boere as "a strange guy" and the tale of his life after leaving English football (he also played for Crystal Palace and Southend) is certainly unusual, and ultimately tragic. Boere went to play in Japan and after dinner with his wife Ann in a Tokyo restaurant one night in May 1999, he was attacked and stabbed by two men, resulting in the loss of an eye. He had to retire from playing and after a spell running a pub back in the East End, he became an estate agent in Marbella. Then news filtered through in August 2007 that he had been found dead, at the age of just 39, leaving behind Ann and a three-year-old son called Brandon.
"Yozza was a typical Dutch boy, very confident in himself," remembers Cottee. "He was actually a good player when you played to his strengths, and I enjoyed playing up front with him.
"I think he got in with the wrong crowd once he'd retired from football. He lost his eye in that one incident, and eventually he committed suicide which was horrible. We put on a fundraising dinner for the family - the footballing community looking after each other, which often happens."
Beating City took West Ham back up to 17th, but their struggles went on. They were still third from bottom in early March, but a 1-0 win at Arsenal kick-started a strong finish which saw them lose only two of their last 13 league games. They eventually finished 14th, five points clear of danger and a point ahead of City, who only won three league games for the rest of the season, leading to new chairman Francis Lee deciding to sack Horton and put his own man in charge. That man was Alan Ball; City were relegated the following season on goal difference, and would slide further down to the third tier before recovering.
"I ended up as top scorer with 13 goals, which was always my aim at the start of the season," added Cottee. "I got a calf muscle injury towards the end, so I missed some dramatic games, such as a win at Blackburn and the match that everyone remembers: the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on the final day, which stopped them winning the title. In terms of epic Sky moments, that's right up there with Aguero's clincher for Manchester City last year."
Cottee will be at Upton Park this Saturday night, hoping to see his beloved Hammers build on their win at Tottenham last time out, when Sam Allardyce pulled off a tactical masterstroke.
"I'm guessing they might look to do the same formation," said Cottee. "Undoubtedly it was the formation that won them the game - they didn't play with a central striker, so it was effectively six midfield players, with four central and two wingers.
"It was a tactic that worked very well. I know they're at home, but I think with it being against one of the big boys - Man City - I wouldn't be surprised if West Ham go for it again. I'm not a fan of that system because I love to see strikers on the pitch, but it was fantastically effective against Spurs. And if West Ham win without a forward, I'll be as delighted as everyone else."
You can read more Hammers stories in Tony Cottee's book 'West Ham: The Inside Story', published by Philip Evans Media - and don't miss West Ham's Saturday Night Football clash with Manchester City, live from 5pm on Sky Sports 1 HD.