Charlie George Interview: Always One Of Us

May 8 is the anniversary of Arsenal sealing their first Double in 1971, as Charlie George lashed in a 20-yard shot to beat Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley in extra time. To celebrate that fact, here’s an interview I did with Charlie a few years back, when he had just released his autobiography. 

This first appeared in The Gooner, issue 157.

Phil Wall: Charlie, a couple of not so cheerful subjects to start. In international football, you only had the one cap –

Charlie George: Sixty minutes!

PW: You give a vivid description of what that was like, and it’s easy to see why you reacted the way you did [Charlie told Don Revie where to go when substituted after being played out of position], but is there a small part of you that thinks, “Maybe I should have bided my time”?

CG: Not really. If you make the decision you’ve got to stick by it, haven’t you? What I did was my honest reaction. I’m not the kind of person to change a decision.

PW: Your relationship with Bertie Mee wasn’t the best, and you contrast that with playing under Dave Mackay at Derby, who was really close to the players.

CG: I think as a manager you’ve got to have a good relationship with the players, but there’s also got to be a bit of distance, you’ve got to respect one another. As I explained in my book I don’t think me and Bertie got on, and that was pretty common knowledge, but you get on the best you can to do the job. I don’t know about the other players, I can only answer for myself on that.

PW: If there’s one incident in your book that marks you out as ‘one of us’ – the fans – rather than ‘one of them’ – the Club – it’s when you went to watch the first team away at Bristol Rovers when you were supposed to be playing for the reserves.

CG: Exactly right, yeah! Someone actually brought a picture in the other day that showed me going down with the supporters to the stadium. I think we won 3-0. I was an Arsenal supporter long before I was at any football club, I’m an Arsenal supporter now, and I think that incident just shows my great affiliation and love for the Club. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but there you are.

PW: It’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever doing that then, never mind now.

CG: Well I was probably a bit different to other people in that way!

PW: In your playing days people got hacked from behind all the time. You must have come off the field black and blue sometimes.

CG: Well I think the game has changed radically now they’ve stopped the tackle from behind. In the old days there were so many hard players, there was one or two in every team and when you got tackled you stayed tackled. But I think the people that played then enjoyed it like that!

PW: I once read that John Radford was the first player to put shinpads down the back of his socks as well as the front, to protect his ankles. Were you aware of that?

CG: Well big Raddy used to get kicked quite a bit in the old days. I’m not surprised, because it was a good way of protecting the Achilles and the back of the calves when people were coming in through the back.

PW: Players did just seem to get on with it though – is that a cultural change?

CG: If you look at the way the game’s gone, it’s changed dramatically, probably got a lot faster, there’s a whole different outlook on football now. Even referees and linesmen have changed – the referees become stars now. In my day if you swore at the referee they probably swore back, so you had a bit more respect for them as human beings.

PW: But you once got sent off for swearing at a linesman, didn’t you?

CG: I did! That was early on, ’69 or ’70 – he obviously really didn’t like what I called him! In the old days though you could have a little bit more interaction with them. Clive Thomas was one, you could say ‘Oh come on, Clive,’ and he’d say ‘Go on, p*ss off,’ and sometimes you appreciate that.

PW: Modern pitches are so much better than those of the ’70s. Do you think your career would have lasted longer if pitches had been better in your day?

CG: I don’t think so with me, and personally I loved playing on the mud. I loved playing on heavy pitches, I didn’t like playing in the heat. It just seemed to suit me, I don’t know why. I loved playing in the wet and mud and everything – I did that when I went to Derby.

PW: In the seventies everyone did that at Derby!

CG: Yeah, I think when you play football on that, though, it brings out a little bit more ability. If you have it . . .

PW: When you left Arsenal you nearly signed for Tottenham. How would you have felt if you’d beaten us in a cup final, or done a Denis Law and sent Arsenal down?

CG: I don’t think that would have ever happened – say no more! I guess what you have to realise though, is that football is a job and players do move. We had the great Pat Jennings who came here from Tottenham – fantastic keeper – and I don’t think he ever got stick. I seriously can’t really answer the question though – for one thing I have friends who are Tottenham supporters! Though most of my friends are Arsenal supporters, and I don’t know how they’d have felt and how I’d have felt ’cause it never happened. It’s a difficult one.

PW: What would you have done if Spurs had wanted you as a kid and Arsenal didn’t?

CG: I honestly don’t know. It didn’t come into it, I don’t think. West Ham wanted me, there were a couple of clubs wanted me but I don’t really think Spurs came into it at that time. But I’m an Arsenal supporter, and I was then, and that wouldn’t have changed. When you’re involved in a sport and a club wants you, you probably go there, but it wouldn’t have made me change my affiliation.

PW: You talk in the book about Alan Ball coming in on double the money that others were on after years of service. This happens all the time now – do you think it affects morale?

CG: Well in the old days at Arsenal we had a scheme where when you’d been in the team a few years your loyalty bonus increased, and we did all of a sudden get one player coming in on top money, and that wasn’t right. You can’t have one rule for one and one rule for the others. Maybe to a degree that did affect things, possibly with the younger lads – I don’t think it created a good impression. But really they shouldn’t know what everyone else is earning, should they? Keep it to yourself. When I was at Derby I was earning more than other people; when I was at Southampton others earned more than me, but I was happy with what I was on.

PW: You seemed to be unlucky in moving to Derby and Southampton just after they’d won trophies, and you couldn’t join Forest just before their great success [Derby refused to sell Charlie to Forest, managed by ex-Derby boss Brian Clough] – that must still hurt a bit.

CG: Not really. Derby had just won the league and they wanted to buy me, which was an honour. And to be fair I think we should have won the Double that year. At Derby we had some fantastic players, but unfortunately I dislocated my shoulder and did my elbow a few weeks before the Cup semi-final. I don’t think even Dave Mackay realised what an influential player I was at the time, but I’m convinced we would have definitely won something if I’d have been fit.

PW: Possibly the Cup semi was a bit like the 2004 semi – Man Utd maybe just wanted it more. They didn’t have the league either time, so that was their season.

CG: I think it’s hard to answer a question like that. In 2004 I wasn’t involved of course, but let’s be fair we should have been three-nil up in the first ten minutes. I don’t think they wanted it more than us, they scored the goal, that’s all. We had a real hard week, we had Chelsea twice, and I just feel if we’d have scored first we’d have won by two or three. I can’t see how they might have wanted it more, I would never say that.

PW: You went off to the States and Australia to play in the close season. Can you imagine players getting that sort of freedom now?

CG: Well they don’t need the money now! Though it wasn’t just that, you used to get a holiday in a sense as well. Nowadays there’s so much football – well I’m not sure if there’s much more than we had but it seems non-stop with the intensity – and I guess the players are more like athletes now so maybe they need a bit more time to rest.

PW: To me as a kid, Ray Kennedy leaving Arsenal was a big shock. Did you feel then that was the start of the Double team breaking up?

CG: Well it possibly coincided with it, yeah. Ray was quite a big influential player for our team. And I do think we got broken up too soon, I think that team should have been kept together for another two or three years and gone on to reach the potential it was capable of. Ray went on to a great career at Liverpool, and no one here had ever seen him as a midfield player, so a great move by Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. And Ray was a tremendous player and had a great touch, but yeah, I do feel the team did get broken up too soon. We should have been kept together a bit more.

PW: Moving on to the current season: will Chelsea go past our 49-match unbeaten run?

CG: That’s a good question. I think they’ve got the capability, they’re very, very strong. They remind me of the old George Graham side, very difficult to beat.

PW: And they’re getting the luck.

CG: Well you need a little bit of luck in anything. And they do score quite a few goals, though I think we’ve been top scorers for the last three seasons. From that point of view I’m not sure why anyone thinks we need a striker, actually. But they are a good side. I hope they don’t beat it. I’d like to get them up to 48 and then play them and smack their backsides and they can start all over again. But records are there to be broken, aren’t they? And everyone laughed at Arsène Wenger when he said we could go through the season undefeated. It didn’t happen then but it happened after, so when Arsène says something you stand up and listen.

PW: What will we do when Arsène leaves?

CG: We’ll have to cross that one when it happens. Football’s a funny game: the football club itself is the most important part of the structure. Players come and go, managers come and go, but there will always be people to come in and make sure this Club is held in the high esteem it should be.

PW: A lot of Arsenal fans gripe about how the Club and team are portrayed. Do you think that media coverage of Arsenal is fair?

CG: It never has been! That’s why they’ve always had a strong solidarity within the Club, a camaraderie going back at least to the fifties, I think. Our team certainly had it. When the press had a go it was water off a duck’s back and we turned out to prove them wrong. I don’t think we got the credit we deserved, but then I’m very biased towards Arsenal!

PW: Vieira has gone, which on the face of it leaves us a bit short in the middle. Do you agree, or do we have the players to cover that?

CG: You’ve just got to have faith in the manager. Vieira was a fantastic player for us, and an absolute gent, one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet. He was nine years here, we bought him for £3.5 million and the manager sold him for thirteen and a half, so great business. But you have to have faith in the manager because he’s not done bad in nine years for us.

PW: As a local, you must be especially pleased that the Club is staying so close to Highbury. How would you feel if the decision had been made to move to, say, Kings Cross or Wembley?

CG: Well Kings Cross is not too far. Wembley is another situation. I am absolutely delighted and amazed that we’ve got a stadium 300 metres away, still in this area. I just think it’s absolutely fantastic that we stay in Highbury, just two minutes away, and will be here for at least another hundred years.

PW: What will you feel like when we do move?

CG: I think it’ll be sad because we’ve had great games and tremendous atmospheres here, but if we stay here we stagnate. Even Newcastle, who get 52,000, haven’t won a domestic competition for 50-odd years. We’re a bit more fortunate than that, but we have to increase our revenue, get more people into the stadium, so it can only benefit the Club.

PW: Liverpool looked far inferior to us last season, but won the Champions League. Does that give you hope we can do it?

CG: I think that shows you that in a cup competition you don’t have to be the best team to actually win it. Their form in the competition was amazing, and good luck to them. There’s every reason to believe that we can win it, I don’t see why we can’t. I just hope I’m not dead by the time we do.

PW: A lot of fans are disappointed with the name of the new stadium – why couldn’t it have been called the ‘Arsenal Emirates Stadium’, for example? What’s your view?

CG: I just think, “Does it matter?” If you look at the trend in football you’ve got the Reebok Stadium and all the others, and that’s the way football’s going. When you’re building a new stadium of that magnitude, it’s a colossal amount of money and we’re just fortunate that we’ve got sponsors for ten years or more, which is great. So I don’t really see it as a problem.

PW: I know you’re strongly in favour of getting behind everyone who pulls on the Arsenal shirt, but there must have been players over the years who you’ve looked at and thought, “What are they doing playing for Arsenal?”

CG: There probably are – people might have thought it of me! But if they wear the shirt, as you say, you’ve got to get behind them. We’ve had some bad players and we’ve had some great players. But they’re all out there trying to do their best and if their best is not good enough then they won’t get in the side, so to me supporters have got to get behind the players.

PW: What do you think of the women’s game and how much notice do you take of Arsenal Ladies?

CG: I’m not a great lover of watching the girls play football, but they’ve done extremely well and it’s a new era for football. And the standard is definitely going up. Who’s to say, in 20 years time there might be a women’s team in the league – which may be no good for football, but great for pulling them afterwards!

PW: Frank McLintock and Kenny Sansom always call Arsenal ‘we’ on TV – are Arsenal different in having that effect on former players?

CG: Every player that’s played for this football club notices that this is a proper club, the way it’s run. And I’m always the same, I always say ‘we’, that’s just the great respect that everyone holds. Possibly that is different to other clubs, yes.

PW: Most fans have a view that the club would rather fanzines like The Gooner didn’t exist. Do you take any notice of the fanzines, and are you aware if any of the players ever read them?

CG: Again I can only speak for myself, and I don’t even read our programme really, I don’t seem to get that much time. I think it’s up to the people like yourself doing it, as long as you’re not being too detrimental to the Club, then great. I think the problem is that when things are going badly people in fanzines want to be detrimental, and if that’s how you want to be then don’t be part of it.

PW: We’re all supporters and we’re all spending our money, though.

CG: Yes, you’re all supporters and you’re all entitled to an opinion, but if that opinion goes too far then I think you’ve got to be a bit careful.

PW: What do you think when you look back at pictures of yourself dressed as a glam rocker in the 1970s?

CG: That’s just how it was then. I was very fortunate that Kent Gavin, who was a photographer at the Daily Mirror, was a big friend of mine. We were very close and he used to think things up, and I used to do them. Probably when we’d had a drink or two and I agreed to it and I couldn’t get out of it!

PW: One final question: if you could change one thing in your career what would it be?

CG: That’s a very difficult question . . . be Chairman of Arsenal Football Club!

PW: A good ambition. Charlie, thanks very much for your time.

CG: A pleasure

Follow me on twitter: @AngryOfN5

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