Monday marks 63 years to the day since one of the best days in West Ham United’s 125-year history.
For it was on 26 April 1958 that goals from Vic Keeble, Johnny Dick and Malcolm Musgrove secured a 3-1 win at Middlesbrough and the Second Division title.
The Hammers had started the day top of the table, level on points with local rivals Charlton Athletic, but ahead of the south Londoners on goal difference, and a point ahead of third-place Blackburn Rovers. The Irons knew victory over Boro at Ayresome Park would secure promotion, while Charlton met Blackburn at The Valley, where the winners would also earn a place in the First Division.
After a slow start which saw them fall as low as 16th in late September, West Ham had gradually climbed the table to reach the top following a 6-2 win over Swansea Town at the Boleyn Ground in mid-January.
Indeed, Ted Fenton’s team was free-scoring all season long, scoring six against Swansea, Lincoln City and Bristol Rovers before netting eight in a record win over Rotherham United in March 1958.
By the time they boarded the train to Middlesbrough, the Hammers had netted an incredible 98 goals in 41 Second Division matches, with centre-forwards Dick and Keeble and winger Musgrove combining to score 46 of them, while forward Billy Dare had needed 14 and midfielder John Smith eleven.
It was future Scotland international Dick who set West Ham on their way to promotion on Teesside, opening the scoring on 15 minutes, steering home John Bond’s free-kick.
Nerves were frayed ten minutes later, however, when Boro equalised. Prolific forward Brian Clough, who would of course go on to enjoy a storied managerial career, forced Ernie Gregory into a save, but Arthur Fitzsimons was on hand to score from the rebound.
By half-time, however, the visitors were in control as first Dick crossed for Keeble to re-establish the Londoners’ lead, then the Scot provided another accurate centre for Musgrove to head home.
Boro pushed hard in the second half, but Ken Brown kept the lively Clough quiet and the Hammers held on to secure the two points they needed to end their 26-year absence from the top-flight. Elsewhere, Blackburn won 4-3 at Charlton to join them.
For manager Fenton, who had joined West Ham as a 17-year-old in the same season the Club had been relegated, 1932/33, it was a moment to savour.
Writing in his book At Home With The Hammers, Fenton shared his memories of the sheer elation felt at securing promotion after so many seasons to trying.
“Ten minutes from the end of the last game of the 1957-8 season I knew we were back in the First Division for the first time in 26 years,” he wrote. “The promotion race in the Second Division that year was as close-run and as tense as that. Right up until the final moment when the last rites of the season were being administered, nobody was certain who would go up.
“Then at Middlesbrough – as tough a fixture as you could want for a decider – I knew it was us. With ten minutes to go, we were leading 3-1 and the crowds were streaming towards the gates. They had given up hope and I knew we were promoted.
“This was it, then. The dream of a lifetime. Ever since that first shattering season when I had walked into Upton Park, a scrawny youngster, and West Ham had dropped out of the First Division, this had been my ambition.
“Even in my most highly-coloured day-dreams I did not see myself as ‘the boss’ when we got back to the top class again. But, I had always had that feeling that I wanted to be around when it happened. The shock of relegation had made such an impression on me as a teenaged newcomer that I think I wanted promotion more than the FA Cup.
“Ever since becoming manager, I had made it a rule to be on my way to the dressing room as soon as the final whistle sounded. I always made sure the first person the team saw after a match was me. But not this time. Not at Middlesbrough.
“I couldn’t have got down the stairs. Not unless I had carried our chairman, Mr Reg Pratt, with me. He was hugging me like a French General who has just picked up a handful of medals, and was chanting monotonously in my ear: ‘We’re there, we’re there’. The tears were thick in his eyes.
“Down in the dressing room there was more pandemonium. The back-slapping sounded like a cannonade. I was thankful our season was over for I doubt if we could have raised a team for the bruises.”
Fenton and his players made their way to the station, where they jubilantly boarded the evening express back to London. There, at Kings Cross, they were met by throngs of equally jubilant supporters.
“The train journey back to London couldn’t have been better had we done it in a Rolls Royce,” the manager wrote. “And as the train drew into the station we could hear the soaring voices of our fans as they sang through our signature tune…
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high…
“And no matter how high they went, we were going with them. Numbers of times over the years I have heard that refrain lifting into the murky air over Upton Park, yet never with such significance.
“As we got off the train, so the cheering, laughing mob engulfed us. Among them, taking his chance with the rest, was the Mayor. And, in the background, was the emblem of the crossed hammers, the sign which had first caught my childish imagination as I watched the 1923 FA Cup final team make their tram ride of triumph so many, many years ago.
“That was the sign that enticed me to Upton Park, and here it was welcoming me back as one of the conquerors.”
Under Fenton, West Ham would finish sixth in their first season back in the First Division, 1958/59, with only a final-day defeat at Leeds United denying them a place in the top three.
And while the manager departed in 1961, the achievements of his team, and in particular that glorious victory at Middlesbrough, laid the foundations for the most-successful period in the Club’s history which followed.