Tribute to the West Ham United legend Ernie Gregory as he turns 90

Ernie Gregory has turned turned 90.

Not perhaps a name to ring a bell with a many these days. West Ham United followers of my vintage, however, will recall what a steadfast guardian of the Hammers’ goal Ernie was and how he went on serving the club in various capacities until he was past 70.

But this isn’t just about Ernie’s footballing talents, enough though they were to have Arsenal vainly trying to lure him there one time.

With West Ham part of my Recorder job, I got to hear a good few stories concerning a man whose friendship became a valued spin-off of work.

Ernie finished up working with no fewer than six West Ham managers –Charlie Paynter, Ted Fenton, Ron Greenwood, John Lyall, Lou Macari and Billy Bonds. No mean achievement at a club noted for keeping faith with their managers.

Paynter, who rivalled Ernie’s length of service and also topped 90, was the one to give a ground-staff job to the gangling youngster whose displays in district schools football the club had noted.

Charlie once told me about the day he signed the lad from the Carpenters Road neighbourhood. It had me chuckling.

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Proud neighbours

Charlie, as was typical of him, went in person to Ernie’s home. Hearing why he was there, Ernie’s mum said she thought it ever so nice, but it wasn’t possible.

An alarmed Charlie feared a rival club had beaten him to it – until Mrs Gregory explained that Ernie would soon be leaving school and must go to work and earn some money, so he’d not be playing football much any more. Charlie assured her that Ernie would be doing both on the ground staff.

Ernie once told me what a stir his being taken on West Ham’s ground staff had created in his street.

So proud were all the neighbours, they had a collection and bought Ernie a pair of shin pads to start his career with..

The lanky schoolboy filled out into a big, deceptively agile man, number two at West Ham to Harry Medhurst in a career fragmented early on by wartime Army service.

When Medhurst moved to Chelsea soon after the war, Ernie took over and soon earned a reputation for solid goalkeeping.

That doubtless owed something to a routine he’d developed to hone his game which I heard about long after from Charlie, not Ernie himself.

After home games, once the crowd had gone Ernie got Charlie out on the pitch with him and together they analysed any goal the opposition had scored on the day, discussing what more Ernie could have done to stop it. Sometimes they got so engrossed, an anxious-to-lock-up groundsman would be jangling keys on the touchline.

Over the years, Ernie was a father figure to young clubmates, some of whom gave him enough to put up with at times. I once ran across a pair of them gleefully slipping gravel into a hubcap on Ernie’s car parked on the club forecourt. They planned to cadge a lift and then scare Ernie by asking what the funny noise was his motor was making. The beggars reported that it worked a treat!

Though a stroke some while back has robbed Ernie of speech. a while after he retired as a player I asked Ernie if he’d ever thought about doing a book? “Who remembers Ernie Gregory now?” he answered.

The old lad would, I’m sure, be bucked by just how many today still fondly do.

One behalf of them all, congratulations, Ernie!

Get better soon.