Sam Small: The modest Birmingham-born cabinet-maker who was West Ham United's first Wembley match-winner
What do Sam Small, Ronnie Boyce, Alan Sealey, Alan Taylor, Trevor Brooking, Ricardo Vaz Te, Angelo Ogbonna have in common?
The answer is that they are the only seven players to have scored a winner for West Ham United at Wembley Stadium.
Sam Small was the first, netting the only goal of the game as the Hammers defeated Blackburn Rovers to win the inaugural Football League War Cup on 8 June 1940 – exactly 81 years ago.
While most West Ham supporters are familiar with the Club’s other half-dozen Wembley heroes, Small is less well-known.
So, to mark the anniversary of the Irons’ historic first Wembley win, with the help of Small’s son John, we look back on the career and life of the Hammers’ first matchwinner at the Home of Football.
Sam Small was born in the Gosta Green area of Birmingham in May 1912, beginning his football career as a teenager with Bromsgrove Rovers.
The young centre forward’s talent saw local giants Birmingham City sign him at the age of 21 in April 1934, and he would go on to make six first-team appearances for the Blues, who were then in the Football League First Division.
In January 1937, Small joined West Ham United, making a memorable debut by scoring twice in a 5-1 Second Division win over Bury at the Boleyn Ground.
By the season’s end, the hard-working striker had netted 12 goals in 18 league appearances to help the Hammers rally to finish in sixth position.
After netting 18 goals in 37 Second Division games over the next two seasons, including a hat-trick at Norwich City in March 1939, Small and his teammates saw their careers curtailed by the outbreak of World War Two.
The conflict saw Small and his wife move back to Birmingham, where he worked as a coachbuilder, but he continued to travel to London to represent the Hammers in regional war-time competitions.
Small was in the prime of his career during the war years, and he scored 80 goals during the seven seasons in which league football was suspended.
Of those 80, eight came in the Football League War Cup – a national knockout tournament introduced to replace the FA Cup.
Played in a seven-week period between mid-April and early June 1940, the competition saw West Ham defeat Chelsea, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, Birmingham and Fulham – with Small scoring three times – to set up a final meeting with Blackburn Rovers at Wembley.
More than 42,000 fans braved the threat of a German air raid to watch the tie, which kicked-off at 6.30pm to enable factory workers to attend after their shifts had ended. Also among those present were survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation, which had taken place that week.
The only goal of the game arrived on 34 minutes and it was Small who came up big, firing into the net after goalkeeper James Barron had parried an initial shot from Alec George Foreman.
Small was a fitting match-winner, having played in all nine ties.
The Hammers players – including half-back Norman Corbett, who had arrived midway through the game in his Army uniform – celebrated jubilantly after captain Charlie Bicknell had lifted the cup, but only briefly, as many had to return to their service units.
In the early 1960s, he was also a scout for Birmingham City, who were under the management of the former England goalkeeper of the 1950s, Gill Merrick
A modest man, Small returned to Birmingham, where he kept his success to himself, according to his son John.
“I remember my Dad as a quiet, reserved and diligent family man,” John told whufc.com. “Following his playing career, as a skilled cabinet maker, he worked as a foreman at the Eccles Caravans in Stirchley for many years.
“In the early 1960s, he was also a scout for Birmingham City, who were under the management of the former England goalkeeper of the 1950s, Gill Merrick.
“It is one of life’s little mysteries that Dad never discussed football in any detail with me; I recall accompanying him on a few scouting trips, but never to a Blues match!
“Such was his reticence, I only discovered by accident that he had played for West Ham United in The War Cup. The family was watching the TV programme ‘All Our Yesterdays’, expecting to view footage of the damage inflicted on London during The Blitz.
“Then, much to everyone’s surprise the Pathe News clip of the War Cup final was included in the item. It was only when I asked him if HE was the Sam Small who scored the winning goal, that he admitted it. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock at the age of 13, to hear this news for the first time!?”
While his modesty meant he was not keen to shout about his unique achievement, every West Ham United supporter should never been afraid to shout about Sam Small’s influential role in the Club’s history.