There can hardly be any footballer, from any era, who gave more loyal service to one club than did Ernie Gregory to West Ham United. As a big, dominant, charismatic goalkeeper he was a linchpin of the Upton Park side for a dozen seasons in the middle years of the 20th century, a reassuring and often inspirational influence as the Hammers won the Second Division title in 1958.
Later he served West Ham as a coach, offering sage guidance to fine keepers such as Phil Parkes and Mervyn Day, and even after his 1987 retirement brought an end to his remarkable 51-year official tenure at the club, he was a regular visitor at the Chadwell Heath training ground, keeping an eye on the new generation of young keepers and delivering typically shrewd scouting assessments.
Though necessarily athletic, Gregory wasn’t an overtly spectacular performer; rather he specialised in canny positioning and safe, unshowy handling. He was unfailingly courageous, too, in an era when referees offered goalkeepers scant protection from fearsomely brawny centre-forwards, the likes of Trevor Ford, Derek Dooley and Nat Lofthouse, who seemed to bounce off him like lightweights when they encountered his muscular frame.
As a boy Gregory was a promising boxer, and on the football field he was a defender, but one day his goalkeeper brother Bob broke his leg and Ernie took his place between the sticks. Thereafter he progressed to the West Ham Boys side, for whom he was playing in the English Schools Trophy final in 1936 when he was spotted by the Hammers manager Charlie Paynter.
He was approached, too, by Arsenal and Sunderland, but he was an east Londoner to his boots and never contemplated joining anyone but West Ham, which he did that year. While still unpaid he helped local amateurs Leytonstone to win the Isthmian League title in 1938, then turned professional with the Hammers in 1939.
Aged only 18 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Gregory served in the Essex Regiment, also finding time to make half a century of appearances for the Hammers in unofficial emergency competition. Having lost the first half of his twenties to the conflict, he made his senior debut in a 4-1 Second Division victory over Plymouth Argyle in December 1946, and by season’s end he was the club’s first-choice goalkeeper, a position he retained, injuries permitting, until 1959.
For much of that period West Ham, managed from 1950 onwards byTed Fenton, were a moderate Second Division side, despite the presencein their rearguard of such luminaries as Malcolm Allison, Noel Cantwelland John Bond, and they owedplenty to Gregory’s heroics for keeping them buoyant.
There was no shortage of observers, especially in the East End, who maintained that he should be rewardedby full caps. But he was unable to oust such formidable rivals as Manchester City’s Frank Swift, Bert Williamsof Wolves and the Birmingham City man Gil Merrick, though he was granted one outing for England ‘B’, against France in 1952.
In 1957-58, during which he entered his 37th year, Gregory was still at the top of his game as the Hammers lifted their divisional title, and he remained a major force as Fenton’s side performed wonders by finishing sixth in the First Division. However, that spring he lost his place to the talented young Irishman Noel Dwyer and he made the last of his 406 senior appearances in a 2-1 home defeat by Leeds United in September 1959.
At that point, extraordinarily, Gregory was less than halfway through his tenure with the Hammers, whom he served as a coach for the next 28 years, through the managerial regimes of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall, helping with the development of, for example, the club’s trio of World Cup heroes, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. He offered experience, continuity and wisdom to wave after wave of Upton Park hopefuls, while setting a peerless example of integrity and simple dignity – and, frequently, entertaining them with his infectious brand of humour. He was summed up admirably by one of his star pupils, the England goalkeeper Phil Parkes, who described his mentor as the greatest servant West Ham have ever had.
Ernest Gregory, footballer and coach: born Stratford, London 10 November 1921; played for West Ham United 1946-60; married (wife deceased, and one daughter, deceased); died 21 January 2012.