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Shortest First Team Careers

The Minute Men ...

by Roger Hillier

When the former Dundee United and Manchester United midfield loanee Ralph Milne passed away on September 6, 2015 it brought into sharp focus how short a Hammer’s career can be.


Milne’s single claret and blue first team outing lasted all of 22 minutes when entering the field of play as a substitute for Liam Brady in a League Cup tie back in January 1990. It may have only been a 22 minute career but it still guarantees the Scottish born player a place in the West Ham United players’ Who’s Who.


The midfielders' short tenure prompted an investigation by 'theyflysohigh' to find out if this was the shortest first team career in the club’s history.

As of October 2015, eighty players in the clubs history have clocked a single appearance for West Ham United’s senior team in a competitive match. Of these, 21 played less than the full 90 minutes as they came on as a substitute. In fact all 21 players were second-half replacements so none of these even managed half a game.

The answer is a resounding No!   A twenty-two minute appearance will not even get you into the top 10 of shortest careers!

Minutemen table

69 minutes between them!

Typically these were no more than cameo appearances. Probably so they could simply log a first team debut without any expectation of a significant or game changing contribution. Unless to replace an injured colleague, why else would a player be bought on with seconds remaining?


In the case of some very late substitutions, we are sometimes left in the dark as to whether a debutant actually touched the ball! Analysis by some West Ham United historians indicate for instance that Lee Boylan didn’t kick or head the ball in his fleeting seconds on the pitch.


So, it is not a prerequisite to actually have contact with the ball to warrant a paragraph or two in the next edition of The West Ham United Who’s Who!

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Table 2

Scoring Debuts in Solitary Appearance

Five players have the distinction of being called up for their one and only first team outing and marking the occasion with a debut goal. The table below summarises the five unique achievements.

On November 1, 1919 in the Hammers’ first ever Football League season, 16-year-old Robert Allen scored on his debut against Birmingham City while also becoming the youngest ever West Ham player. A record he held until Billy Williams came along two seasons later and who also made a scoring debut. In both debut game the 16 year olds ended up on the losing side.

Slipped through the net

Of the “one gamers” there have been a few small fish that slipped through the net who later become a big fish. Players who went on to carve out a long and distinguished career in the Football League include the following five: Harry Cripps, Steve Death, Phil Brignull, Ray Houghton and Keith McPherson.  

Of these five three progressed to make over 500 career appearances, two of whom registered club appearance records, and a fourth scored a goal which beat England in the 1988 European Championships. While the fifth, a former England Schools international, registered a respectable 200 plus senior appearances. All rose from West Ham’s academy.


Phil Brignull – May 1979

Another former England schoolboy international, Brignull made his Football League debut as a substitute on May 11, 1979 in the scoreless draw with Cardiff City at Ninian Park when he replaced John McDowell for the last 10 minutes against the Bluebirds. At the time those 600 seconds gave him the shortest West Ham first team career, a record he held for 15 years.

Two years later with first team opportunities diminished, Phil transferred to Bournemouth where in five years with the Dorset side he clocked a very respectable 129 league appearances.  

A highlight of his spell at Dean Court was as a member of The Cherries side which famously beat Manchester United in the FA Cup in January 1984.

He left the south coast club to make a tour of Welsh clubs starting with a loan spell with Wrexham before he journeyed south to Cardiff City until finishing at Newport County. All told he made 187 football league appearances with a single net with Wrexham.

Keith McPherson – May 1984

Captain of the Hammers’ under 18s when they lifted the FA Youth Cup in 1981 by beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on aggregate in the two-legged final, Keith must have felt he had a bright future in east London.  

But he had to wait another four years before he made his single first team appearance in the final game of the 1984-85 season in a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool on May 26, 1985.

In January of the following year the central defender left the Hammers and signed for Northampton Town in a £5,000 transfer. After 216 appearances for The Cobblers he moved on to Reading where he clocked over 300 first team games between 1990 and 1999.  

His final Football League club was Brighton & Hove Albion in 1999-2000 before moving to Isthmian League side Slough Town.  

Including his solitary claret & blue league game, Keith made an impressive 500 football league appearances and hit the back of the net 18 times.

Ray Houghton – May 1982

The best has been saved to last! Ray Houghton must be a strong candidate for the best player to have 'slipped the net' having made a single West Ham appearance before leaving the club to join Fulham.

Unfortunately for Houghton his time at the club coincided with the excellent form of both Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire and he never stood a chance of dislodging either of them.

His token appearance was as a substitute against Arsenal in the 2-0 defeat at Highbury Stadium May 1, 1982.  

He came on in the 77th minute for fellow Scotsman George Cowie. Although Ray was born in Glasgow he adopted Eire the land of his father for his international football career. And what an international and club career he had! 577 football league appearances with 67 goals, plus 73 Republic of Ireland caps.


Ray Houghton's career has many highlights but to summarise a few of them:

Evolving Game of Football

The game of football has evolved such that substitutions are a key part of any match today. Inevitably this means managers will use substitutes not only to replace injured players and to make tactical changes, but also to give players returning from injury and new players some short, and in some cases incredibly short, exposure to senior football. Hence a tendency today for junior squad players to be given what turns out to be a few seconds on the pitch.  





99_01_10 Manchester United v. WHU

Though timing can be everything for these cameo appearances as Ezomo (Izzy) Iriekpen will testify. On January 10, 1999 he had stripped down ready to come on as substitute against Manchester United at Old Trafford but the final whistle blew before he could actually get on the pitch.

That proved to be the closest he came to clocking a first team appearance before leaving the club in August 2003 to join Swansea City.

So near, and yet so far


Crossed Hammer Crossed Hammer

Harry Cripps – October 1959

Harry Cripps was a member of the Hammers’ successful youth team of the 1958-59 season which reached the final of the FA Youth Cup and won the Southern Junior Floodlit Cup.

While he didn’t reach the same heights as his youth team mates, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, he left the club in August 1961 to join south London rivals Millwall where he became a cult hero.  

Before leaving the confines of the Boleyn Ground he donned a claret & blue shirt for his solitary first team outing in a Southern Floodlight Cup tie at home to Millwall on October 13, 1959.

His team mates in a 3-1 win included John Bond, Andy Malcolm, Ken Brown, Ron Boyce, Vic Keeble, John Dick and Malcolm Musgrove.

Renowned for his fearless tackling the full back enjoyed fourteen seasons with the Lions clocking a club record number of 400 league appearances plus knocking in 37 goals. He left the Den in 1974 to join Charlton Athletic for two seasons.

Stephen Death - May 1969

A former England schoolboy international, Death’s 90 minutes between the posts was in the concluding Division One game of 1968-69 season against Manchester City in a 1-1 draw at Maine Road on April 30.

Rising through the Hammers’ junior ranks the Suffolk born player faced competition for the number one spot from Bobby Ferguson and fellow youth team product Peter Grotier.

One of the smallest 'keepers in the League, Steve left the Hammers' in November 1969. Signed for a club record £20,000 fee by Reading where he became a firm favourite with the Elm Park supporters and went on to register a record number of over 500 league and cup appearances for the Berkshire side and winning four of their player of the year awards.

The Royals also awarded their loyal custodian with a testimonial match in 1979 against a Young England XI managed by his former West Ham manager, Ron Greenwood

In season 1938-39, the last before World War II hostilities broke out, two West Ham players celebrated their first team call-ups with a debut goal in Division Two fixtures. The first was Dick Bell in the 2-1 home win over West Bromwich Albion on April 15, 1939. Three weeks later new signing Cliff Hubbard repeated the feat. In Hubbard’s case Manchester City were on the receiving end in a 2-1 home victory for the Hammers. The win over the Mancunians on May 6, 1939 was West Ham's last official Football League game for seven years.  


The 1939-40 Football League season was only three matches old when everyone's worst fears were confirmed by the declaration of war and the League programme was immediately abandoned and these games were deleted from the record books. Hubbard also scored a brace in one of these void games, in the 3-1 win over Plymouth Argyle. Unfortunately for Cliff his goals have been expunged from all official statistics.


In the 1950s the Essex Professional Cup was a cup competition given first team status with the Hammers typically fielding regular first teamers. In the cup’s last season, 1958-59, West Ham faced Colchester United in the semi-final at Upton Park on April 8.  Among the scores in the Hammers’ 4-3 victory was debutant David Hills. This was David’s solitary first team game before leaving the club for the non-league ranks.    

ALLEN Robert

Inside-right Cliff Ette scored West Ham's consolation goal on his first team debut in the Second Division clash at Deepdale against Preston North End February 3, 1934. Ette began his career with Northampton Nomads and signed amateur forms for Hammers after being personally asked, in a letter by West Ham manager Charlie Paynter, to turn out in the match against Preston North End. Mysteriously, he never appeared for the first team again.


ETTE Cliff Crossed Hammer CRIPPS Harry DEATH Steve BRIGNULL Phil McPHERSON Keith

Played in and scored the only goal in Eire’s European Championship game against England in the summer of 1988


The goal scoring hero in Eire’s shock 1-0 win over Italy in 1994’s World Cup


Football League Cup winner’s medal with Oxford United in 1986


Football League and FA Cup winners’ medals with Liverpool.

Crossed Hammer HOUGHTON Ray Crossed Hammer Crossed Hammer Crossed Hammer Crossed Hammer ETTE Cliff letter to play

The table below lists the West Ham players who have had the shortest first team careers to date. Fourteen players have made a single appearance which lasted 10 minutes or even less. That’s a total of 69 minutes of playing time between 14 players!  To get a top 10 spot you need to have been on the pitch for less than 7 minutes or 420 seconds.

Two Scoring Debutants in Single Appearance 1938-39

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