Marco Boogers failed West Ham as a striker, but West Ham, Harry Redknapp and the media failed ‘barmy’ Marco Boogers as a human.
The clip is painfully short, its pre- and postamble lost to the ether. But that immortal line remains, preserved for eternity as one of the Premier League’s most enduring and iconic soundbites.
“Well, United were scarcely recognisable from the team we’ve known over the last couple of seasons,” said Des Lynam. “What’s going on, do you feel?” he asked, a question as loaded as it was typical in its effortless delivery.
“I think they’ve got problems,” came the answer. “I wouldn’t say they’ve got major problems. Obviously three players have departed. The trick is always to buy when you’re strong, so he needs to buy players.
“You can’t win anything with kids. You look at that line-up of Manchester United today and Aston Villa, quarter past two when they get the team sheet, it’s just gonna give them a lift and it’ll happen every time he plays the kids. He’s got to buy players. Simple as that.”
Alex Ferguson heeded that advice by December; it did not go well. But Alan Hansen would later admit the comments, while they soon backfired, “made him” as a pundit. There was even a semblance of truth to them: a United side built around the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were 12 points behind Newcastle by the time the suspended Eric Cantona had built up his match fitness and, along with Peter Schmeichel, embarked on the most decisive individual sequences of form in title run-in history. Experience saved youth.
Neville himself admitted as much last September: “I’ve said many times that Alan Hansen was right, you don’t win anything with kids. The Class of ’92 didn’t win that Premier League title. We had Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Brian McClair and Peter Schmeichel. They pulled us through it.”
Four days after Hansen’s comments, it was Neville who bore the brunt of the target placed on the collective backs of United’s gilded academy products. Marco Boogers was out to make a mark, and did so around the defender’s upper right thigh.
In the summer of 1995, Harry Redknapp was contemplating which method West Ham could best use to shatter their glass ceiling. His first season as manager was forgettable, a finish of 14th compounded by early exits in both domestic cup competitions. It was their second mid-table placing since promotion in 1993 and with it came a sense of stagnation.
The response was to gamble. West Ham made 11 signings between May 1995 and January 1996 as they collected enough players to field an entirely new team: Peter Shilton in goal, Marc Rieper and Slaven Bilic in defence, then a midfield and attack of Robbie Slater, Stan Lazaridis, Steve Jones, John Harkes, Dani, Ilie Dumitrescu, Iain Dowie and Boogers. A little top-heavy, granted, but not particularly outlandish by Redknapp’s standards.
Their priority was clear. Only Crystal Palace, Norwich and Ipswich had scored fewer goals than West Ham the previous season; each were relegated. Tony Cottee was their one player to reach double figures. Firepower was required.
Marcus Stewart was the club’s primary target but Bristol Rovers wanted £1.5m for the courtesy. Boogers was six years older but available at around half the price. Arsenal had just signed Dennis Bergkamp for a club-record fee and West Ham decided to pluck up their own Dutch courage.
Boogers arrived with a fair reputation. West Ham crowed about how he had just been voted the Eredivisie’s third-best player of the season with 15 goals, although it was later claimed that the award was specific only to his club, Sparta Rotterdam.
Still, a Dutch Under-21 international had to have something about him.
“I could have gone to Napoli or Everton, and Borussia Dortmund wanted me as well,” the striker said at the time of his signing. “But suddenly West Ham came in. That was a beautiful club to me, with the famous colours alone. So I chose West Ham.”
That was his own sliding doors moment. Malign intervention stopped Boogers playing alongside Fabio Cannavaro or for a side that would be European champions within a couple of years. His and West Ham’s bubble would soon pop.
The Hammers were outright Premier League leaders for a matter of seconds in 1995/96. Danny Williamson’s early opener against Leeds at Upton Park was the falsest of dawns as Tony Yeboah twice punished some slack defending to secure an away win.
Boogers came on for Keith Rowland on the hour mark as Redknapp chased a point. His debut was inconsequential, immemorable. His second appearance was anything but.
It came as Manchester United sought to exact a modicum of revenge. The 101-day gap between their meetings with West Ham in the spring and summer of 1995 allowed wounds to fester and grudges to forge. Memories of Ludek Miklosko, of Michael Hughes, of their first failure to win the Premier League title, were still as fresh as they were painful. Goals from Paul Scholes and Roy Keane either side of a Steve Bruce blunder at least represented some form of retribution.
But the game is not remembered for any of the three strikes. Boogers had again been thrown on as one final roll of the die, this time in the 72nd minute. He would not see out the game, yet left with quite the souvenir.
The forward, who cited Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme as his favourite actors in an interview conducted shortly after his move, channelled their combined martial arts skills when chasing down a lost cause. Bruce passed the ball out to Neville on the right and it was duly played down the line. Boogers was already off his feet and close to full speed by that point, eager to make a better impression than four days prior.
“Marco Boogers, frustrated on the substitutes’ bench for most of the evening, and then finding Manchester United’s possession play in the closing stages a little too much to take,” said commentator Clive Tyldesley as the striker trudged off. Dermot Gallagher has never had an easier decision to make. And while Redknapp offered that typical manager’s defence – “that’s not in the boy’s nature, he’s not that type of lad at all” – even he must have realised then that this story would not have a happy ending.
The Sun were in their element. ‘HORROR TACKLE!’ was scrawled across Thursday morning’s back pages and there were even implications that he had been specifically hired to injure a United player. Boogers attempted mitigation by suggesting that the wet grass had made him slide too far, while pointing out that Neville was able to finish the game – all two minutes that remained. But it was equivalent to shouting into a tornado.
He served most of his four-match suspension back home in Dordrecht with his pregnant wife, understandably reluctant to deal with the intense media focus. It was an ill-fated attempt to avoid the spotlight.
West Ham’s ClubCall reporter, desperate to interview the forward, phoned Upton Park’s PA announcer Bill Prosser, who also arranged the players’ travel. Asked whether Boogers had been booked on any return flights to the Netherlands, he replied that “if he has gone back to Holland, he’s probably gone by car again”. The journalist misheard the second portion of the sentence as “he’s probably gone to his caravan”, and thus the myth was born.
The story was handled with care and due diligence by the nation’s best-selling newspaper. Which is to say that The Sun opted not to really research the situation and ran with another back-page exclusive:
‘Barmy Boogers Living In A Caravan’
It is a wonder he played twice more upon his return to England. Cameos in defeats to Aston Villa and Blackburn came and went, as did Boogers by the turn of the year. A knee injury that went undetected during his medical had worsened and on December 28 he was granted permission to return to the Netherlands again. By February he was gone.
“We had our meeting in the Hilton hotel at Amsterdam. I didn’t see a caravan, or a tent for that matter. He is certainly not mentally unstable. It is absolute nonsense,” said managing director Peter Storrie in September 1995. Buried in the preposterous soap opera storyline was that rather uncomfortable subplot: Boogers’s psychological well-being. He himself denied he “was supposedly unwell in the head”, yet the weights placed upon him must have been suffocating: those of expectation, of fatherhood, of homesickness, of scrutiny. Boogers did not help himself but that was perhaps the one thing he had in common with West Ham and the press.
Whether Boogers really was ‘psychologically unfit to play football’ – as a doctor’s note attested upon his return to England – is unknown. But being dubbed ‘barmy’ by the national press can only have exacerbated any personal struggles.
Redknapp was particularly crass, describing Boogers as “the player who has caused me more problems in football than anyone else” a month into the season and alluding to his convalescence in the Netherlands becoming a more permanent solution. “It seems that every player who can tie his own bootlaces is worth £1million. I’ve got one who can’t even do that,” he said. “He’s coming back on Tuesday but I wouldn’t put money on him still being here Wednesday. He doesn’t like the way we train and he doesn’t like being tackled in training. Now I can only hope to sell him back to a club in Holland.
“Bloody Boogers! I was having a good day until someone mentioned his name!”
It was a remarkable character assassination that looks utterly irresponsible two decades on. Boogers, a club employee and their most expensive signing of the summer, was hung out to dry by the manager in a conference room that positively lapped it up.
Eight years later, Redknapp seemed to realise the error of his ways. “Sometimes I look back and wonder whether it wasn’t out fault,” he noted in a FourFourTwo interview. “You bring ’em over here for loads of money and then leave them to get on with the day-to-day bits and pieces of life and that’s not easy. They don’t speak a word of English and after a month Marco’s wife was crying, she’s missing her mother and we can’t understand any of it. It’s not right because we expect them to arrive and settle in just like that.”
To suggest a lack of aftercare would imply any sort of guidance before or after. Boogers failed West Ham as a striker; West Ham failed Boogers as a person.
Yet there was one staunch defence of the forward as criticism built. “Of course he’s the kind of player I expected,” said Redknapp soon after that Old Trafford red card. “I knew exactly what I was getting. Suddenly people have been telling me that I hadn’t seen him play and bought him off a video. I don’t know who dreamt that one up. I had seen him play, once, but I did watch a video as well. Then I get silly letters written to me and people dreaming up ideas that I didn’t know who he was. What a load of nonsense.”
In his autobiography published three years later, Redknapp made a confession. ‘I admit for the first time in my life I signed a player purely on video evidence. Someone sent me a tape of Boogers in action and urged me to watch it. I was very impressed. I took the risk and signed him. He could play a bit but certainly he was nowhere near as impressive as the video made out. Not like it said in the brochure, if you like.’
Boogers contested the point that he was targeted only on the basis of brief, flattering clips, stating that West Ham scouts had followed him throughout his final season at Sparta. Once more, it seemed as though he was misinformed.
Redknapp at least learned his lesson.
Boogers played once in the period between his final game for West Ham in December 1995 and his second debut for RKC Waalwijk in March 1997. West Ham finished 10th and were on course to come 14th by that point, summer 1996 signing Florin Raducioiu publicly chastised by Redknapp for taking his wife shopping at Harvey Nichols instead of reporting for League Cup duty at Stockport. It is a claim the striker still denies.
While Redknapp has spent many of the intervening years slapping thighs with fellow football men and sharing uproarious stories about one of his worst signings seeking solace in a mobile home, Boogers has admirably kept his counsel. It would be intriguing, if unlikely, to hear his side of those few months in east London.
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