It’s July, there’s no football worth talking about, so in the absence of other entertainment here are a few of my favourite Arsenal players of ye olden times.
Liam Brady – Who among those who heard it can forget John Motson’s commentary of, “Brady! Look at that! Oh, look at that!” as the King of Highbury curled the ball into the top corner of the Tottenham net with the outside of his supremely talented left foot? Signed as an apprentice, he made his debut as a substitute in 1973 and soon became the heart of the Arsenal midfield. His artistry and influence grew year by year, and Brady was PFA Player of the Year in 1979, when he inspired an FA Cup victory as creator of all three goals against Man Utd.
His languid style disguised his incredible workrate. He could distribute the ball like Glenn Hoddle and tackle like Bryan Robson. He was completely balanced and always in total control of the ball, whether running at defenders or threading a pass through the narrowest of gaps. Opponents never knew what he was going to do and he was impossible to mark. For a while he carried a very poor Arsenal team that struggled through a long transitional period after the highs of 1971.
When he dropped the bombshell that he wanted to further his career abroad we were distraught, but we understood: Arsenal were successful but couldn’t provide a stage as big as Juventus. What left a sour taste was that so soon after the £1 million transfer barrier had been broken in Britain, a bizarre EEC currency transfer rule meant we could receive a maximum of £600,000 for the best player in the country.
Frank McLintock – Frank ranks as one of Arsenal’s most successful and inspirational captains. Signed from Leicester for £80,000 in 1964, he had already lost two Wembley Cup Finals, then lost two more with Arsenal in the sixties. It was his determination to break that curse that drove him to push himself and his teammates on as they struggled to overcome tiredness and a Steve Heighway goal in the 1971 final. Arsenal had played ten league games to clinch the title since winning the Cup semi-final replay, the last only five days earlier. But with time running out he could be seen with fist raised, roaring the rest of the team on, telling them they could still do it. The joy and relief on his face at the final whistle can hardly be described.
Although signed as an attacking midfielder, he never dominated games from that position. It was only when an injury crisis forced an unwilling switch to central defence in the 1969-70 season that he came into his own. At five feet 10 he was small for a central defender, but his coolness, incisively timed tackling and reluctance to defend deeply all kept pressure off his goal.
Voted Footballer of the Year in 1971 and made an MBE a year later, it was surprising he was allowed to leave Highbury in April 1973. QPR paid only £25,000 for his services, a bargain considering he nearly led them to the League title three years later.
Dennis Bergkamp – named after Denis Law, though Dutch authorities would only allow the name to be registered with a double ‘N’, as they thought it was too close to ‘Denise’ otherwise.
In 1998 Dennis was voted third best player in the world. To many Arsenal fans he’s the most skilful player ever to have worn the red and white shirt. The story goes that when he introduced himself to the rest of the squad they bowed in front of him and proclaimed in unison, “We are not worthy.”
His performances in that Double season were outstanding and it was rare to see a Goal of the Month competition where he wasn’t featured, sometimes more than once. His hat-trick at Leicester will be remembered for years. His speed of thought was what unlocked defences, and in his first days at Arsenal he was sometimes too quick for his colleagues as well. Fortunately Arsène Wenger improved the quality of those around Dennis, and the Dutchman’s moments of sublime skill then rarely went to waste.
If he had a fault it was that he allowed defenders to niggle him when things weren’t going his way and he got too wound up, but even so he may be the nearest thing to a true exponent of total football Highbury had seen. In the era of pushy agents and troublesome players Dennis was refreshingly loyal to Arsenal, despite being a self-confessed admirer of 1980s Spurs and Glenn Hoddle. He had a difficult time at Inter before coming to England, but there is no doubt that with his reputation enhanced at Arsenal he could have moved on for more money elsewhere. That he continued to grace Highbury is a testament to his manager, the supporters and most of all the man himself.
Charlie Nicholas – he promised so much that was never delivered, but he certainly improved the atmosphere on the terraces (remember them?) during the dark days of the mid-eighties. Nicholas was signed in 1983 when he was still only 21, on the back of a 50-goal season for Celtic the year before. There was big competition for his signature, and a suspicion in certain media circles that Charlie chose Arsenal only for its proximity to London’s nightlife.
In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the hero, Rob, has an ex called Charlie Nicholson. She’s the one who was a class above Rob, who he’d never be able to settle down with and who could only break his heart. She appeared perfect at the time, but when Rob looks back he can see she wasn’t meant for him and really their whole affair was all a big mistake. With Hornby such a massive Arsenal fan, I leave you to draw your own conclusions there!
Charlie (Nicholas, not Nicholson) scored the two goals that beat Liverpool to win the League Cup in 1987, though in truth both were scrappy and a poor way to remember his sometimes devastating skill. Sadly, although the devotion from the terraces never wavered, inconsistency was a constant problem. Like Anders Limpar after him, Charlie never fitted George Graham’s idea of the perfect player and he was unloaded to Aberdeen for £400,000 in 1988 – a loss of £250,000 on his purchase price.
He didn’t forget his time at Arsenal though, and endears himself to modern Arsenal fans with his emotional support of his former club on Saturday afternoons on Sky Sports.
Charlie George – When you think of famous goals at Wembley, Charlie George’s 1971 FA Cup winner is right up there behind Geoff Hurst. As the ball was played to him 20 yards from goal Brian Moore’s commentary said, “It’s Charlie George, who can hit them,” and two seconds later he’d scored the winner and was lying flat on his back – a celebration he had also done earlier in the season. He later claimed he was knackered and lay down to waste time.
Islington born and bred, Charlie was loved by the fans on the North Bank where he’d stood himself only a few seasons before. His flowing locks attracted as much attention as his skill and powerful shooting. With 15 goals during the 1970-71 season, after coming back from breaking an ankle early on, he did as much as anyone to help Arsenal to the Double.
Injuries blighted his career during the seventies, and like many maverick players he never got the international recognition he deserved, winning just one cap for England. He went on to play for Derby, Southampton, Forest and Bournemouth, but his heart has never left North London. He also made it compulsory for the ‘joker’ in any FA Cup winning team to wear the lid of the Cup as a hat since his 1971 lap of honour.