The Curious Case of Marco Boogers

Someone sent me a tape of Boogers in action and urged me to watch it. I was very impressed.

This was the revelation of former West Ham manager Harry Redknapp in his 1998 book, Harry Redknapp: The Autobiography.

The then 28-year-old Boogers arrived at Upton Park in July, 1995, after netting a potent 103 goals in 238 league appearances for a range of clubs in the Netherlands (FC Dordecht, FC Utrecht, RKC Waalwijk, Fortuna Sittard and Sparta Rotterdam). With Bristol Rovers’ Marcus Stewart priced at £1.5 million, Redknapp plumped for the £800,000 acquisition of the Dutchman – reportedly beating off competition from Everton, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund

While few football fans outside of the Netherlands knew much about Boogers, he was voted as the third best player in the Eredivisie for the 1994/1995 season. With the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Ed de Goey, Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, Ronaldo and Patrick Kluivert having brilliant seasons, this was an impressive achievement for Boogers – especially considering he was playing  for 14th placed (out of 18 teams) Sparta Rotterdam.

At 1.85m, Boogers was seen by West Ham as the perfect goalscoring foil for the 1.70 m fans’ favourite Tony Cottee. Even though 1.85m Iain Dowie returned to the club after a decent season with Crystal Palace, following a four-year barren spell with Southampton, his £250,000 fee and unpopularity with the Hammers faithful suggested that Boogers would be a starter alongside Cottee. However, Redknapp’s idea that he had found an imposing number nine evaporated once Boogers arrived for pre-season.

With rumours circling among the tabloids, upon the Dutchman’s arrival, that Boogers had been signed based on a video tape, Boogers and Redknapp (up to 1998) always claimed that West Ham scouts watched him several times during the 94/95 season. Even though the Premier League and its associated profitability were three seasons in, if mid-table West Ham admitted that they spent £800,000 on a player without doing the necessary scouting, it would have been both embarrassing and criminal for a club who were renowned for their tradition of developing talents like Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters, Frank Lampard Sr., Alan Devonshire, Alvin Martin and Cottee.

Regardless of his price-tag, when the slender 168 lbs Boogers arrived for pre-season at West Ham’s base at Chadwell Heath, where his dislike for the intense English-style pre-season training was immediately evident, Redknapp decided to start Dowie upfront with Cottee for the Hammers’ opening game against Leeds on 15 August at Upton Park.

Along with Ilie Dumitrescu and Dani (da Cruz Carvalho), Boogers was West Ham’s main signing that summer. So, intrigued by the mystery of his arrival and ability, the Hammers fans welcomed his late second-half entrance when he came on for defender Keith Rowland as West Ham looked to find an equaliser, after going 2-1 down to two Tony Yeboah goals. Boogers cut a forlorn and despondent figure despite his warm welcome and failed to make an impact in his cameo appearance. However, he certainly left his mark on English football in West Ham’s next match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. With Cottee deployed as a lone striker upfront, Boogers was unleashed in the second-half.

Within minutes of coming on for midfielder Danny Williamson, Boogers locked Gary Neville in his sights and as the Englishman aimed to control a high ball, Boogers sprinted several yards before a rib-high challenge on Neville. A brawl ensued, including a stand-off between Roy Keane and Julian Dicks, before Boogers was sent off by referee Dermot Gallagher. With Neville a divided figure in football fans’ eyes, even at just 20 years of age, the league took notice of the Dutchman and as Boogers left the pitch, he was serenaded with the chant of “one Michael Boogers” by the West Ham faithful. He didn’t take Viagra like the fans did. Despite protesting that the tackle was down to the wet pitch and that Neville finished the match, Boogers was handed a four-match ban. From this, he returned to the Netherlands – leading to one of football’s great myths.

The caravan legend was born out of a phone call West Ham’s travel arranger Bill Prosser received from a Clubcall reporter. The reporter had looked to get an interview with Boogers over the tackle after The Sun carried the headline ‘Horror Tackle!’ as its main Thursday sport story (the match took place on Wednesday night). Boogers, homesick and deeply affected by the media attention that had dogged him since his arrival, began a leave of absence during his four-match ban at home in Dordecht.

Prosser told the reporter he had not booked any flights for Boogers and that he had “probably gone by car again.” When said aloud on the phone, this was misunderstood by the reporter as “he’s gone back to his caravan.” With Clubcall being one of the main tabloid football news agencies in the 90s, it led to the headline on the backpage of The Sun reading ‘Barmy Boogers Gone to Live in a Caravan.’

Boogers and his family had found it difficult to adapt to the bustle of London. Even though the Boogers’ had spent three years in the metropolis of Rotterdam from 1992-1995, they left for London without any English and without their families. It particularly affected Boogers’ wife, who was very close to her mother. Redknapp has since spoken of his sympathy towards the Boogers’ over how difficult foreign players’ adaptation was back then, saying in 2003:

It’s not right because we expect them to arrive and settle in just like that. There’s no after-care. It’s not on, but that’s how it was at West Ham. Now it’s different at the top clubs who employ people to look after foreigners.

Nonetheless, Boogers vowed to return and apparently did so with a doctor’s note that said that the Dutchman had been “psychologically unfit to play football.” Boogers’ public stance, however, was that “he was not mental, but just had a sore stomach.” Boogers never broke into the Hammers starting line-up and made just two more sub appearances when West Ham played Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa in October.

Boogers damaged cartilage in his knee in training in December, which sealed his fate and time in England – playing just 44 minutes as a substitute for West Ham in four defeats. Adding to the reasons why scouting is so important, Boogers had previous knee problems at Sparta Rotterdam which West Ham were oblivious to and which made his Eredivisie goalscoring achievements all the more admirable. After emergency surgery in London, the Dutchman was allowed to return to the Netherlands for rehabilitation and during his recovery in Dordecht, Boogers’ son was born – epitomising the fact that nothing was keeping the family in London.

Upon his return to fitness in the New Year, Boogers was loaned to FC Groningen but his knee problems returned and while he did not move back to London, he still technically remained a West Ham player. From this, a mutual termination of Boogers’ contract was agreed in the summer of 1996 and despite returning to the Netherlands with Eredivisie side RKC Waalwijk, the Dutchman never managed to reach the goalscoring feats he had achieved with Sparta Rotterdam. An injury-plagued spell with Waalwijk (just 9 games in 1996/1997) led to Boogers dropping down a league to the Eerste Divisie with FC Volendam (25 goals in 51 games from 1997-1999) and then to his hometown club FC Dordecht (66 goals in 128 games from 1999-2003).

Marco Boogers is now technical director at his beloved Dordecht and his brief four appearances at West Ham epitomise two contrasting notions of modern day football: foreign players need time and support to adapt but also, in the words of Harry Redknapp, “never buy a player unless you’ve seen him play yourself.”

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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