I guess most of us, at some stage or other, dreamed of signing a contract to play for a professional football club? So it was to some surprise that when Crystal Palace offered Alan Stephenson professional terms when he was 17 that he said NO! Politely of course. Alan had played a few games in the Palace youth side and then the reserves but when his big chance came he told manager Arthur Rowe that “I was more interested in getting a job and would prefer to stay as an amateur.” Alan also had grave doubts that he would actually make the grade.
Born in Chesham in 1944, Alan went on to play 170 games for Palace between 1961 and 1968 and had finally signed professional terms in 1963. He finished his career at Palace as captain of the club. He also represented the England under 23 side on seven occasions. Meanwhile, West Ham were looking for a centre half to play alongside Bobby Moore. A few players had tried without too much success since Ken Brown had left in 1967 and that is why West Ham broke their transfer record in 1968 to gain the services of the lanky defender. Ron Greenwood had tried the resolve of Palace the season before, but that offer had failed. West Ham desperately needed some aerial dominance in defence and so it was that Alan Stephenson joined the Hammers for 80,000 pounds in March 1968 after Ron Greenwood went back with an improved offer.
Alan played 116 games over five seasons at Upton Park and his solitary goal was in a cup loss at Middlesbrough in 1970. He made his Hammers debut against Southampton in March 1968 in a goalless draw. Coincidently, his final appearance was also against Southampton in 1972 in a 1-0 victory. When he signed for the Hammers, Ron Greenwood had said to Alan, “if you do as well as the last player we took from Palace you will be doing very well.” Ron was of course referring to “Budgie” Byrne. The stats say that the first full season that Alan played saw the Hammers concede 19 goals fewer than in any season since the return to the top flight in 1958. A top eight finish had certainly been an improvement on the 12th and 16th finishes of the previous two seasons. Had Alan finally provided the backbone that Ron Greenwood was looking for in defence?
However, the following three seasons saw West Ham’s form dip again and Alan was eventually struggling for a first team place. Following a loan spell at Fulham he moved to Portsmouth where he finished his English playing career. Whilst his form for the Hammers was rarely poor, Alan never really fulfilled the promise he had shown in his early years at Palace, or indeed his first season at West Ham. When any player signs for a club record fee the expectations are always high. Perhaps this was a factor that weighed on his shoulders far too much – although Alan disagreed at the time. “I didn’t worry about the transfer fee paid for me. I accepted it. I was bought by West Ham for a purpose and they believed in me enough to pay that sort of money. I felt I must give 100% in determination every game in return – and that is what I do.” Alan never regretted his move to Upton Park. “Playing with the likes of Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds is so good and the West Ham fans create so much atmosphere.” Whilst Alan Stephenson did not reach the dizzy heights of our previous Palace recruit, Budgie Byrne, no one could ever doubt his commitment to West Ham.
In 1975 Alan went to South Africa and played for Durban United. Two years later he was back in England and he enjoyed a four year stint coaching the reserves at Orient before making his life away from professional football.