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Nov 20, 2008

Scoring at the wrong time

A voracious appetite for birds, booze and drugs rarely complements a fruitful footballing career but Frank McAvennie, a striker who once scored goals as freely as he partied, made a genuine effort to marry the two.

From roadsweeper to the World Cup is quite a journey for a man who came to the game late. Though the Scotsman's footballing achievements have long been overshadowed by brushes with the law, admissions of Class A drug use and headline-making dalliance with glamour models.

His star may have shone brightly at times but McAvennie's is a classic tale of diminishing returns, rather like the cocaine he regularly shoved up his nose. Saturday 22 November will see the former St Mirren (twice), West Ham (twice), Celtic (twice), Aston Villa (briefly), Swindon (briefly) and Falkirk (even more briefly) player hit his 49th birthday. At one point that may have seemed an unlikely milestone for him to reach. Yet he's still alive and he's still causing trouble.

At the three clubs he revisited during his helter skelter career, he is remembered for a fantastic first spell and a second stint that failed to reignite the old magic. At St Mirren he was something of a late developer, only making the breakthrough to the Paisley club's first team at 21 after abandoning his previous occupation as a streetcleaner and the amateur football in which he honed his skills. In his first full season he earned the Scottish Young Player of the Year award. At the twilight of his career, he returned to Love Street for a brief but fruitless spell.

West Ham fans will never forget the season of 1985-86 and he was the name on everyone's lips that season, where the Hammers achieved their best league position in a 113-year history. McAvennie scored 26 goals while part of a wonderful partnership with Tony Cottee. Yet the season he came back to East London - 1988-89 - the Irons were relegated. It was during this latter period that his love affair with the mirror and the razor blade developed.

Celtic was the team McAvennie had supported since childhood and he achieved every Bhoys' dream when he scored the goals to secure a league and cup double in the club's centenary year - 1988. McAvennie maintains this was the proudest moment of his career. His return, at 34, saw him fail to match previous Parkhead heights as the Hoops languished in the doldrums.

Like pal and fellow Scot Charlie Nicholas, McAvennie's move south saw him exposed to a world of glamour models and flowing champagne. Yet at first, the bright lights seemed to inspire the man at West Ham, in contrast to Nicholas' poor start at Arsenal. Signed for £340,000 in the summer of 1985, McAvennie's pace and goalscoring exploits soon saw him hit the headlines.

By Christmas 1985 he led the First Division goalscoring charts. Yet he was not quite as famous as he might have been. A TV blackout after a contractual dispute saw no league football shown live or even as highlights for the first half of the season. It was not until the Third Round of the FA Cup, a late win at Charlton Athletic, that an English TV audience even saw McAvennie's fashionably flowing blonde-highlighted mullet in action.

ITV's Saturday lunchtime Saint and Greavsie proved McAvennie's anonymity among the general public by introducing him to pedestrians wandering through London's West End. Very few recognised him.

By the time the cameras were switched on in early 1986 perhaps McAvennie's best had already been and gone, though he continued to support Cottee's own scoring exploits. West Ham went into the last weeks of the season with a genuine chance of the title only to fall four points short of champions Liverpool. Everton beat the Hammers to second too.

Meanwhile, McAvennie narrowly lost out to Toffees striker Gary Lineker in the scoring charts, which the Scot put down to the England man's taking of penalties. Lineker's ability to escape the tabloid glare when McAvennie was hitting the headlines for reasons outside football was long a bugbear too.

Those West Ham goals soon won him a call-up for his country. Alex Ferguson - as was - was interim boss of Scotland after the death of Jock Stein and McAvennie was taken to the Mexico World Cup after scoring in Scotland's play-off win over Australia.

It was always likely to happen... McAvennie fell foul of the disciplinarian's discipline. Barricading Ferguson and assistant Walter Smith into their rooms so that he and Nicholas could head out for a 'bevvy' when the team were altitude training in Santa Fe was hardly likely to secure selection and McAvennie was only used a substitute during another failed Scots campaign.

The dream move to Celtic in the summer of 1987 followed a goalshy second season at West Ham, where a burgeoning relationship with 'Page 3' girl Jenny Blyth took his mind off the football but kept him in the headlines. As at Upton Park, success on the pitch swiftly arrived at his new club. The proud Celt secured his place in the Parkhead pantheon by scoring two late goals in the Scottish Cup Final but there were already problems.

McAvennie was commuting to London and back while playing in Glasgow to spend time with his busty lovely. Agent Bill McMurdo - who also represented George Best at the time - told how his charge was spending £4,000 a week while earning just £3,000.

The Bhoys were unable to pay him the cash he needed, so his time at Celtic was soon over and West Ham were able to lure him back before the end of the 1988-89 season. Arsenal, going for the league title, had been sniffing around but McAvennie chose to go for the devil he knew. It was the wrong decision; the Hammers were relegated at the end of the season.

Lou Macari replaced the sacked John Lyall as Hammers boss and the relationship between manager and star striker was never remotely cordial. Further disaster struck when McAvennie suffered a broken leg at the beginning of the next season, which he missed almost totally. Not only that, a £400,000 purchase of an Essex mansion proved to be at just the wrong time. The housing market crashed and the house, shared with Blyth, was repossessed within a year of purchase.

It was during that long injury lay-off that his use of cocaine began. And, as he eventually admitted, continued once he was back playing. He eventually departed Upton Park for Aston Villa after scoring a hat-trick on his last game for the Hammers in May 1992. It was too late, as they had again been relegated.

At Villa, Ron Atkinson was able to use him just three times before a return to Parkhead, where he again found himself at a club in crisis amid Rangers' nine league titles in a row. And in came Lou Macari as manager... brief periods at Swindon, Falkirk, back at St Mirren and out in Hong Kong followed.

A brief period in America signalled the end of his football career but not his time in the tabloids. A split from Blyth, a failed marriage and being twice being arrested for possession of cocaine all made the red tops over the years. In 1994 he rocked British football by admitting his use of the drugs and confessed to blowing £700,000 on the repossessed house, booze and drugs.

Worse nearly followed when customs officers in Dover found £100,000 of McAvennie's money wrapped like a wedding present alongside cannabis and methadone. The money was confiscated, making him instantly bankrupt, and he faced a long term in jail for charges relating to drug-dealing.

After a long wait, a court in 2000 agreed with McAvennie's claim that the money had been meant for a hunt for treasure buried beneath the sea in a shipwreck. Now resident in Newcastle, the man who had been earning £5,000 a week in his latter West Ham days was penniless and jobless, being supported by a younger new wife.

In the years since, with the old "devil's dandruff" now long forsworn, McAvennie is able to carve something of a living as an after-dinner speaker and match-day host at West Ham and Celtic, living off tales from his colourful career. A tell-all confessional autobiography was knowingly called Scoring: An Expert's Guide.

Yet trouble continues to follow him. A brawl the night before a charity match on the Isle of Man saw him charged with affray and disorderly conduct in July 2008. A boozy binge with fellow hellraiser Andy Goram had gone badly wrong and McAvennie faces a court date in January 2009.

"Bad boy Frank McAvennie in pub fight" said the Daily Mirror headline. At 49, he might enjoy being given such a youthful label yet the continued controversy and brushes with the law show he may not yet have learned the lessons of a career that should have delivered far more.

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