In the first installment of this occasional series, which looks at players who came through from the youth team (or academy) but never quite made it as first team regulars, we featured Roger Cross whose debut was against Burnley in 1968. A year earlier a certain Trevor Brooking had also made a league debut against Burnley and continuing this theme into 1970 Johnny Ayris made his first team introduction against the same opponents.
Wapping born Ayris was just 17 at the time and was seen as the next generation marauding winger to follow the fleeting footsteps of John Sissons and Harry Redknapp into the first team. His debut was a successful one providing the crosses (or assists in today’s terminology) for a Geoff Hurst hat-trick in a 3-1 victory. Ayris was used sparingly during the remainder of the 1970/71 season making a further 7 starts including in the infamous 4-0 FA Cup defeat at Blackpool where Moore, Greaves, Clyde Best and Brian Dear had been spotted partying into the early hours the night before the game.
At the commencement of the 1971/72 season Ayris had become a regular starter as the club recovered from a poor start to climb to a respectable mid-table position prior to a home clash against West London rivals Chelsea. The young Ayris started brightly and was giving the Chelsea full-back a torrid time much to the delight of the Chicken Run crowd as West Ham attacked the North Bank end in the first half. The full back in question was notorious 1970’s footballing hardman Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris who eventually decided it was time to let the young winger ‘know he was there’! The tackle itself became part of Upton Park folklore with some accounts describing Harris attempting to launch Ayris into row six of the terracing but my memory is that it was more of a robust bodycheck. Nevertheless, Ayris went right over the top of Harris and landed with a thump on the turf. He was to play no further part in the game, which West Ham won 2-1, and was hurried to hospital to be treated for a serious lung problem.
The Harris incident may not directly have ended his career but it had a large part to play. At just 5 feet 5 inches and a slender 9 stone he was utilised selectively in subsequent seasons by manager Ron Greenwood who felt the need to protect the young winger from the more agricultural players who inhabited top flight football at the time. Ayris made a further 33 starts over the next 5 seasons before being given a free transfer to non-league Wimbledon in 1977 and drifted out of the game at just 24 years of age.
In total Johnny Ayris made 50 starts for West Ham and scored 2 goals; the only league goal in a 3-4 away defeat at Manchester City. He had announced his arrival in the team with great excitement but ultimately was not able to make the grade. He had been a regular at England Youth level and possibly his career highlight was winning the 1971 UEFA Youth Tournament including a goal scoring appearance in the 3-0 final win against Portugal. The victorious England lineup that day: Tilsed, Dugdale, Dillon, Parker, Shanks, McGuire, Busby, Ayris, Francis, Eastoe, Daley.