West Ham United supporters always expect their players to fight for the Club, but Eyal Berkovic took that demand literally on his Hammers debut!
The Israeli midfielder arrived in east London in summer 1997 after completing a £1.75million transfer from Maccabi Haifa, having impressed in the Premier League during a season-long loan spell at Southampton the previous campaign.
A creative midfielder with a competitive streak, Berkovic appeared to be the perfect player for West Ham, and quickly became a hero among the Boleyn Ground faithful. Indeed, it took just 90 minutes for the Regba-born player to make his mark!
Berkovic was the sole debutant in Harry Redknapp’s side when they ran out to face newly-promoted Barnsley at Oakwell on Saturday 9 August, adding valuable creativity and flair to a team which had finished 14th and scored just 39 goals in 1996/97.
West Ham started slowly, however, and fell behind inside nine minutes to a goal scored by Barnsley midfielder Neil Redfearn.
By half-time, with the Hammers struggling to find any attacking rhythm, Redknapp’s players were openly frustrated, and that feeling boiled over when they returned to the dressing room.
We started to have a fight in the dressing room! In my first game!
“It was a great team to be a part of during my time at West Ham, but there were some unpredictable moments along the way!” Berkovic smiled, when recalling his debut during a recent visit to London Stadium.
“I remember, on my debut at Barnsley we were losing 1-0. They had just been promoted, so this was not acceptable.
“Steve Lomas, John Moncur and I were playing in the same midfield and they said to me ‘Eyal, why are you not coming back to help the defence?’ and I said ‘Listen, you do the defending and I’ll make the passes to help us score some goals’. We started to have a fight in the dressing room! In my first game!”
The ‘fight’ seemed to have a positive effect, though, as John Hartson equalised eight minutes after half-time, before substitute Frank Lampard – on for Berkovic – scored the winner with his first touch.
“We came back in the second half and won 2-1 and after three or four games they realised that I passed the ball and they did the defending and together we made a good team,” Berkovic recalled. “That memory still brings a smile to my face!”
Berkovic went on to score nine goals in 46 appearances in his debut season in Claret and Blue, helping the Hammers to eighth in the Premier League and the quarter-finals of both cup competitions.
After two seasons, the playmaker was sold to Scottish giants Celtic. He is now a broadcaster and the owner of football club Hapoel Rishon LeZion in his native Israel.