Bonzo's pride

The great Billy Bonds MBE tells Evening Standard correspondent and lifelong West Ham United fan Ken Dyer of his pride at returning to the Club he served with distinction for two decades

There were plenty of positives about West Ham's start to the new Premier League season - a home win over Cardiff City, a clean sheet, no injuries.

The other highlight of that opening Upton Park afternoon for me - and I suspect plenty of other fans though - occurred just before the first rendition of Bubbles.

Usually, with 15 minutes to go before the kick-off, the stadium is still half-empty. Not this time though because the word had obviously spread that a real Hammers legend was about to appear from the tunnel, as he had so many times in the past.

Then, there he was, a proud, erect, trim figure, walking out onto the pitch with his family - wife Lynn, daughters Claire and Katie plus grand-daughters Eloise and Elissa.

Billy Bonds waved to the four corners of the ground he knows so well - and a tide of emotion washed back down towards him from the grandstands.

It was a priceless moment and you could see just how much it meant to him. It meant a fair bit to the fans as well - including at least one cynical old journalist who, just at that moment, seemed to be suffering from a speck of dust in his eye.

Earlier I had popped into the lounge named after the man who made almost 800 appearances for the club over more than two decades and then went on to be manager.

Bill and his family were there, his grand-daughters marvelling at the pictures of their granddad around the wall.

Someone took a picture of him with Ray Winstone. Bill will say what a thrill it was to have his photo with the actor, but I'm not sure it wasn't the other way around.

Much later, after he had watched Big Sam's team comfortably beat newly-promoted Cardiff, he popped his head around the manager's office door. "Well done Sam, good performance and a great start."

Then he was gone, no fuss, ushering his family into their car for their short trip back through the Blackwall Tunnel.

What remained, though, was the warm after-glow following the return of West Ham's very own special one.

A couple of weeks later and the visit is still fresh in Bill's memory.

"It was good of the club to invite me," he says. "I thought it over because you know me, I don't like a lot of fuss but I wanted to take my wife Lynn, two daughters and their two daughters to Upton Park at least one more time before the club move to the Olympic Stadium.

"I wanted to show them the place where I spent more than 20 years of my life with some unforgettable memories.

"Everyone was terrific and it was a memorable day for me and the family. My daughters, Claire and Katie, haven't stopped talking about it since and they're putting pressure on me to come back more regularly!

"It was a surreal experience walking into the 'Billy Bonds Lounge'. I'd never been in there before and there were all those big photographs of me up on the wall.

"I met the owners, had a chat with the two Davids. David Gold spoke to me about moving to the Olympic Stadium and how that will be the next step up the ladder for the club.

"David Sullivan was explaining all about the Financial Fair Play rules and how the club will have to shift players if they want to buy.

"It was great to meet Ray Winstone and Perry Fenwick, who plays Billy Mitchell in EastEnders. They're both from the East End of London and proud of it.

"Tony Gale had told me what a nice man Ray is and it was nice meeting him in the flesh. Perry is a really good lad as well.

"Sir Trevor came in and we had a good chin wag and I met up with Bobby Gould as well. He's a larger than life character - I think he's a bit older even than me but he looked really well.

"Bobby Barnes was there, he works for the Professional Footballers' Association and has done really well for himself and I bumped into former goalkeeper Allen McKnight.

Billy Bonds

Billy Bonds MBE received a rousing reception on his return

"I was also delighted to meet up one of the coaches, Jimmy Frith. I think Jimmy has been involved with West Ham even longer than I was and I was chuffed to bits that he's still there because I heard that he had left.

"It's only right that Jimmy's still involved because although Tony Carr is the Academy Director there and has done brilliantly in bringing countless players through, Jimmy was always valuable to have around.

"He's a nice man and good to have around the youngsters as well because he was always someone they could go and talk to. He is a true East Ender and I imagine the parents appreciate Jimmy's presence as well.

"Jimmy was always a close confidant of mine and I was so pleased to see him looking so healthy. He's as good as gold. He loves West Ham and would never harm the club."

It was the response of the supporters though, which you feel, meant most to Bill when he walked out onto the pitch he made his second home for so long.

"I will never forget the fans' reception. It was just great," he says. "They've always been that way with me, I've always had a great rapport with them.

"They were great with me in 1967 when I made my debut against Sheffield Wednesday and they've never stopped since.

"I've always said that without the support they gave me I wouldn't have gone on as I did - I wouldn't have wanted to.

"Every game was great, running out there to that ovation, the atmosphere.

"It was exactly the same a couple of weeks ago. I really appreciated it and it's something I will take to the grave.

"When I left the club in '94, I didn't really get the chance to speak to anyone - players, fans, anyone. It was nice to go out there before the kick-off against Cardiff and give them a wave and to show my appreciation.

"I thought Sam's team did well against Cardiff. They looked in control for most of the match but they always needed that second goal.

"Hopefully they can make a good start in the Premier League again this season and then have a good cup run.

"If my daughters get their way I'll return but the trouble is the club will have to fine room for six of us again because they all loved it and want to come back!"

No problem for a true Hammers legend - no problem at all.

*This feature originally appeared in the Official Programme for the visit of Stoke City on Saturday 31 August. Order your copy online now here.