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Despite West Ham’s best efforts Francois could not be persuaded to stay for a third season. He was set to join Standard Liege but as Standard wanted to pay the transfer fee in instalments, the deal fell through. Lokeren stepped in and agreed to pay the whole fee in a single payment.
At the start of his third season with Lokeren disaster struck. In the first game of 1985-86 he broke his leg and tore ligaments. Injuries which led to the end of his professional playing career. Van der Elst did not stay in the professional game. Instead he set up business running a ‘snooker palace’ in his home town of Opwijk, 20 miles outside Brussels.
West Ham United fans who watched the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final will remember Anderlecht’s diminutive right winger, Francois Van der Elst, tormenting the Hammers.
His brace of goals helped the Belgium side beat West Ham 4-2. Five years later, on December 23, 1981, he transferred from New York Cosmos to the Boleyn Ground for £400,000.
In an 18 month spell in east London he made 70 league and cup appearances netting a respectable 17 goals. Francois left the Hammers in the summer of 1983 to move back to his home country and joined Lokeren for a fee of £250,000.
A Belgium international, he gained 44 caps from 1973 to 1983 scoring 14 goals. Eight of these caps were awarded during his spell with West Ham United.
Born: Opwijk, Belgium December 1, 1954 Francois Van der Elst died on January 11, 2017 aged 62.
RSC Anderlecht Career
Francois Van der Elst’s professional career started with the Belgium side Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht, where he was an influential member of their successful teams of the late 1970s. RSC Anderlecht were not only a force to be reckoned with in Belgium, they also made their mark in European club soccer by winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup (ECWC) twice in three years and for good measure the UEFA Super Cup on two occasions.
'Swat' as he was known in Belgium was in the Anderlecht’s team for ECWC final wins over West Ham United in 1976 (4-1) and two years later over Austria Vienna (4-0), and in the side beaten 2-0 by SV Hamburg in 1977.
As winners of the ECWC Anderlecht qualified to meet the season’s European Cup winners in the two legged UEFA Super Cup. In the 1976 Super Cup final the purple and white's beat Bayern Munich 5-3 on aggregate. Van der Elst scored one of Anderlecht’s goals in their 4-1 2nd-leg victory.
Two years later in December 1978 they faced Liverpool and triumphed 4-3 on aggregate. Anderlecht won the first-leg at home 3-1 but lost the Anfield leg 2-1. Again Francois scored with a net in each leg.
1976 European Cup Winners Cup Squad
New York Cosmos
In 1980 Van der Elst left Anderlecht to join New York Cosmos for two seasons in the North American Soccer League (NASL), playing alongside German international captain Franz Beckenbauer and Netherland's Johan Neeskens. When the 1981 NASL season ended in October, Francois returned to Europe and signed for West Ham United in December 1981.
1976 European Cup Winners Cup
Stade du Heysel, Brussels
West Ham United 1981-82
West Ham manager John Lyall never forgot Francois Van der Elst’s winning performance against his side in the Brussels ECWC final.
And signing the talented right winger proved to be a shrewd move by Lyall. In Van der Elst's 18 month stay in east London he made a positive contribution to the side.
In his first season 1981-82 the club finished 9th in Division One on 58 points and in the following season improved to 8th place accumulating 64 points.
Claret & Blue Debut at Chadwell Heath
For a footballer used to European tournaments his West Ham debut was a very low key affair to help gain match fitness. Away from the spotlight the unlikely game was a previously postponed and hurriedly arranged Wednesday afternoon Football Combination fixture against Luton Town Reserves at the Hammers' Chadwell Heath training ground on January 6, 1982.
The Hammers side which drew 1-1 was:
Tom McAlister, Paul Allen, Everald La Ronde, Glen Burvill, George Cowie, Mick McGiven, Francois Van der Elst, Ray Houghton, Dale Banton, Steve Milton (E.Hollingsworth), Bobby Barnes.
Football League Debut
January 16, 1982
Ten days after his Chadwell Heath outing, he made his competitive first team debut in the Division One game against Brighton & Hove Albion at the Goldstone Ground in a game the Seagulls won 1-0.
The goal came in the 77th minute when a Sammy Lee through-ball found Andy Ritchie on his own, the Hammers defence pulled up expecting an off-side decision that wasn't given. The Brighton striker side-stepped a challenge from Phil Parkes before slotting home the winner.
Two minutes later Francois came on as substitute for the injured Alan Devonshire and minutes later the Belgian came within an ace of drawing West Ham level.
In the next month on February 6 Van der Elst netted the first of his season’s five league goals in a 2-1 defeat to Stoke City at the Victoria Ground.
The five goals straddled a 10 game spell starting in early February and concluding at the end of March.
By the end of the season he had appeared in 22 league games including his debut substitution and one cup match.
Van der Elst celebrates scoring the first of his 17 Hammers goals
Scoring goals in European finals was his speciality and he also performed on the small stage in testimonial games. His season’s goal scoring run also included a net in a 5-2 win over Weymouth United in a testimonial for long-serving John Clarke.
West Ham sent down a strong squad of 15 players to the south coast on March 23, 1982 and the five goals were shared by Dale Banton, Francois Van der Elst, Ray Houghton, Neil Orr and Paul Goddard.
Friendly v Weymouth United
International Career Resumed
Van der Elst's outstanding performances for West Ham had caught the attention of Belgium head coach Guy Thys. His two year exile from the international stage ended when he gained his 35th full international cap when coming on as a 62nd minute substitute in Belgium’s 2-1 friendly win over Bulgaria at the infamous Hysel Stadium in Brussels.
With Belgium’s place secured for the 1982 World Cup Finals his name was added to the 22-man squad for the finals in Spain. Francois made two substitute appearances in the tournament against Salvador (1-0) and on the losing side to Poland 3-0.
Preparation for Van der Elst’s second season with the Hammers included a busy August schedule of friendlies and a tournament against European opposition. The first trip was to Scotland to play Dundee United on August 1, 1982 where the 3-3 draw included a strike from Francois.
Five days later and the Hammers were in Belgium to participate in the four team La Gantoise Tournament. Their first game was in Brussels to face Francois’ former club, Anderlecht. Geoff Pike scored the game’s only goal to take West Ham through to the final against Hadjuk Split. No goals after extra time meant penalties which the Yugoslav side won 5-4.
Van der Elst also appeared in friendlies against Den Haag (August 8), HJK Helsinki (August 17) and Charlton Athletic (August 21). Another one of his goals came in the 2-0 win over the Dutch side.
Climb to 2nd in Division One
The pre-season preparation paid-off as West Ham United got off to a flying start in the 1982-83 season. Eight wins in the first 14 league games swept the Hammers to the giddy height of second place in Division One.
This excellent start included a five match winning sequence in which Van der Elst scored in four consecutive games. The bubbles burst as the club slowly slipped down the table to finish, for West Ham, a credible eighth.
The fleet-footed winger was a regular choice and he played in 40 of West Ham’s 42 league programme, plus seven of their eight cup ties. His nine league and three League Cup goals made him the Hammers’ joint top goal scorer with Paul Goddard in 1982-83.
Joint Top Goal Scorer
League Cup Hat-trick
Highlight of the season for Francois was probably his hat-trick performance against fellow Division One side Notts County at Meadow Lane in the 4th round of the League Cup on December 7, 1982.
His 16 minute hat-trick (70, 74 & 85 minutes) ensured the tie ended 3-3 and a replay at Upton Park. The Hammers comfortably won the replay 3-0 before exiting the competition at the hands of Liverpool in the next round at Anfield (1-2).
Van der Elst debut at Chadwell Heath v. Luton Town
One of Francois Van der Elst’s Belgium international goal scoring appearances was the European Championship qualifier against Scotland in Brussels on December 15, 1982.
He scored a brace and provided the assist for a third in Belgium’s 3-2 victory. The following morning’s English press report headlines focussed on Scotland’s performance. No doubt Francois grabbed them in the Belgian newspapers.
Did you know?
Goal in Dundee United Friendly
Exits from both the League and FA Cups gave the Hammers time on their hands. To fill one of the fixture gaps West Ham met Dundee United in a return friendly on Saturday February 19, 1983. As in the August 1982 game the honours were shared and again Francois scored. In a 2-2 draw he struck the game’s first goal in the 3rd minute. The Hammers other net came from first team debutant, Warren Donald. Dundee United’s second equaliser was courtesy of future Hammer loanee, Ralph Milne.
Last Game for Hammers
The game which turned out to be his farewell was the season’s final Division One fixture away at Coventry City’s Highfield Road on Saturday May 14, 1983. A memorable game as the Hammers won 4-2 with strikes from Tony Cottee 2, Paul Goddard and David Swindlehurst.
West Ham United lineup:
Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds (capt), Neil Orr, Alan Devonshire, Francois Van der Elst, Paul Goddard, David Swindlehurst, Paul Allen, Geoff Pike (Tony Cottee)
At the end of season 1982-83 Francois left West Ham United to move back to his home country when he transferred to Belgium side, Lokeren.
Many years later in an interview with Hammers News (January 2000) he explained his regret at leaving east London:
“I tell you, the one mistake I made in my career was leaving West Ham. It’s an old story but my wife wanted to come home. I had two young children and she wanted them to go to school in Belgium and so on. I would have stayed if I could. I had a two year contract and John Lyall invited me into his office and said he wanted to give me an extension to it. John even told me he could give me two tickets a month to go home for the weekend. I could go after a match on Saturday and come back on Tuesday without having to train on Monday. They did everything possible to keep me at West Ham.”
Goodbye to the Hammers
Transfer to Lokeren FC
Van der Elst
Date of Birth:
December 1, 1954
New York Cosmos
2 FA Cup
6 League Cup
3 League Cup
theyflysohigh would like to pass on our condolences to Francois' friends and family at this sad time.
Newspaper coverage courtesy of Richard Miller
The team that afternoon included nine from the 1980 FA Cup winning XI: Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds (capt), Alvin Martin, Alan Devonshire (Francois Van der Elst 80 mins), Jimmy Neighbour, Paul Goddard, David Cross, Trevor Brooking, Geoff Pike.
On the following Saturday, January 23, he started for the first time in the FA Cup 4th round tie away to Watford. A disappointing start to his West Ham career as the Hammers lost 2-0 at Vicarage Road.
Francois league debut as a late sub at Brighton
West Ham United 1982-83
Van der Elst - fourth from right
Francois’ Hat-trick Goals
West Ham players Francois (left) with Alvin Martin
Francois (left) with Ray Stewart