I was taken to 2 games at Highbury in 1976/77, aged 10 and was going as regularly as money permitted on my own as a teenager. I was getting to a good amount of home games in 1980/81 with money from a paper round etc but I was on my own coming from SE London. My mates were not Gunners but I did not care. It made no difference to me because once I got to the North Bank we were all there for the same reason. At the age of 14 I was not tall, (come to think of it I am not now!) but I used to get there at 1.30 and go right into the middle to ensure I got a place. By 3pm I was stood surrounded by the hard core and they were all a foot taller and mostly fully grown. I never saw a goal scored in the North Bank end but I didn’t care. I loved the crowd rising in anticipation, followed by the ecstatic celebration and forward surge down the terraces, halted by hitting a bar every 3 or 4 steps. I came home battered and bruised having only seen the goals we scored at the Clock End to watch those that I been unable to see live on MOTD.
In those early days we used to sing every player’s name when they were out for their warm up. Some players had their own special response to hearing their name, some would milk it and make you wait for the wave or salute and then there was Johnny Hollins running into the corner towards the North Bank with his finger in the air. I don’t get there early anymore as the seats have taken that requirement away. No danger of being locked out when your seat is being pre paid for or has your season tickets name on it so the pre match ritual has all but gone. Just a few of the biggest stars of today will have a name check from the faithful in the 5 minutes before Kickoff, because sadly 80% of us are not in our seats.
This brings me on to the point of today’s piece. Tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the tragic passing of one of our own, David Rocastle, taken from his young family and from us at the age of only 34. I am not enough of a writer to attempt to do justice to any sort of tribute to the great man. I have asked people to change their profile pictures to remember an Arsenal Legend and I have reposted a blog created around a chat with his son Ryan. I would not attempt to write nor could I as moving tribute as that I read this time a year ago from Tim Stillman on Vital Arsenal. So please if you are too young to remember what he means to Gunners of my generation please click here. http://www.arsenal.vitalfootball.co.uk/article.asp?a=522698
Rocky had his own salute the fans around Highbury as we sang his name before the game. You have all seen the Rocky’s raised thumb. As Brady and O’Leary were my 1970s, Rocky along with Davis, Merson, Adams and Thomas were my 1980s. Why? Because they were home grown. There is nothing more special to a football than seeing one of their own come good and win honours with the team with which they have the ultimate bond. So today is a rundown of those in my Arsenal watching lifetime that have grown up, broken into the 1st team and fulfilled their ambition of winning the league title with the Arsenal.
In 1988/89 Arsenal having lead Division 1 for most of the season, inexplicably dipped in March and April only to win a rearrange match at Anfield with the last kick of the season. George Graham has bought wisely to blend with the incredible group of home grown youth he had inherited from Don Howe.
David O’Leary - one of three brilliant Irish schoolboys to break through in the mid 70s, David was the only one left in the 80s, breaking George Armstrong’s appearance record in 1989 he is still our record appearance holder in the league and overall. An elegant and graceful central defender who read the game as well as any I have seen, he signed as school boy at the age of 15 and did not leave until 1993, 20 years later, following George Graham to Leeds. He played for us 722 ties and for Leeds on only 12 occasions. O’Leary could have left Arsenal at any time for Manchester United with Stapleton or followed Brady abroad but he remained loyal through the bad times finally receiving his reward as part of a back 3 with Bould and Adams that mad May evening in Liverpool. He was more of a squad player in 1991 but played more than enough to see his beloved Gunners crowned champions again. For me O’Leary will always be a legend.
Tony Adams – Arguably the ultimate Arsenal hero, joining as a school boy in 1980 aged 14 he had broken into the first team at 17, was a regular at 19 when he won his first trophy, the Littlewoods Cup, my first Wembley final. He was captain at 21, an honour he retained for the next 15 years until he retired a one club player. Adams epitomises everything about Arsenal and as we stand is unlikely to be surpassed as the most successful Gooner of all time. I will not spend too much time on this legend as most reader will know everything about our greatest ever. Suffice to say we will never see any professional play at this level for one club and the top of the English game again.
Paul Davis – joined as an apprentice in 1977 at the age of 16 Davis effectively had to fill the boots of Liam Brady as the left sided centre midfielder. Under rated by England Managers Paul was easily one of the most cultured playmakers of the 1980s. He never stepped up for England from U21s but not due to the lack of quality in his left foot, but more due to the plethora of to class alternatives at the time. Hoddle, Robson, Wilkins, Reid etc prevented Davis winning a single cap but to us he was a magician. He fell out with George Graham and whilst winning a medal in 89 he was a bit part player but in 1990/91 he played in 36 of our 38 game season in which we lost only one match on the way to our second title in 2 years. Now a PFA coach and an anti racism campaigner he remains one of my favourite ever Arsenal players.(Yes I was there in the North Bank when he swung a haymaker at Glenn Cockerill, for which he got an unprecedented 9 game ban and the Saints midfielder got a broken jaw)
David Rocastle – Quite simply one of the most gifted players I have seen in the Arsenal shirt. The fair of a Brazilian, as David Dein famously pointed out but from Lewisham. As a SE London boy there was an instant affinity for me. He burst on to the scene playing wide right but he was never a traditional winger. The ball seemed glued to his feet as he dribbled through teams seemingly only feinting with a shoulder drop to go one way and then swerving the other. He always wanted to carrry the ball into the danger zone, assisting so many goals and scoring the spectacular. Rocky was Arsenal for me between 1886 and 1990. Anfield was the pinnacle as by 1990.91 he played enough to gain a medal, but was often an onlooker plagued by a back injury that prompted Graham to sell him to Leeds. He did not want to go and cried when he was told. He played most of the qualifiers to help England to Italy for the World Cup finals in the summer of 1990 but was then omitted from the final squad. I like to think Mr Chris ‘Theo has no football brain’ Waddle that Rocky would not have blasted the penalty into space. He had too much of a football brain for that.
Michael Thomas You have to realise there were not academies as we have them know so Michael was another who signed as a school boy in 1982 aged 15. Mickey was another London lad from Lambeth, who came good with the Arsenal. Breaking into the side as a right back in the 86/87 season, with the arrival of Lee Dixon Graham miraculously converted Thomas into a tough tacking explosive central midfielder. Renowned for his surging late runs to join the attack Thomas will forever be an Arsenal Legend as he contributed what will ultimately be our greatest individual moment. Thomas scored the ‘It’s up for grabs now’ last minute winner to wrench the title from Liverpool on that crazy Friday night in May 89. He was not a great player but he gave us one of our greatest moments and for that Michael we salute you. When the late great Brian Moore, the best ever commentator was asked after retiring, what was the greatest ever moment he had witnessed in his profession, he has not hesitation in calling this moment. Thomas fell out with Graham after his second title in 1991 after over 200 games and 30 goals he was sold ironically to Liverpool. He never hit the heights after he left Arsenal but in 1991 George Graham had sold our 2 midfield Highbury heroes and the skilful exciting double title winning team began its drift into the ‘Boring Boring’ era
Paul Merson – To some now he might be the comedian on Sky Sports Soccer Saturday, who struggles with foreign names and gave us the term ‘A worldie’ but to me he will always be the ‘Magic Man’ Joining as an apprentice in 84 Merson made if debut in 1986 at the tender age of 18. By the 88/89 season he was the regular strike partner of Alan Smith scoring 10 goals and earning himself the PFA Young Player of the Year, on the way to the title. By the end of the imperious 1990/91 season he has shifted out to the left flank quite often and this is where he continued to play, cutting in a scoring so many spectacular goals. 91 saw him break into the England side and his star was seemingly forever on the rise. An incredible goal at Wembley in the League Cup final and a stellar performance in the FA Cup ‘Donkey won the Derby’ semi against the old enemy saw the now infamous beer drinking celebration with his adoring fans. Little did we know then that Merson at a press conference with his manager the following year would see him announce Alcohol, Cocaine and gambling addictions. The Arsenal backed one of their own and the FA astounding some by supporting Merse though rehab. Merson came out the other side as his skipper Adams would later, a wiser and better man, but he continued to produce for us on the pitch. I was on my way to a Stag weekend in Bournemouth when I was stunned and shocked to hear that Wenger was to sell the Magic Man to Middlesbrough in the summer of 97. So Merse never got to win the 3rd title he so richly deserved and the last of the attacking side of 1991 was gone.
Kevin Campbell – This entry might surprise some but he anyone whose legacy is this quote deserves a mention “Sometimes there really is nothing better in life than being a Gooner” Super Kevin Campbell burst on to the fans radar scoring 59 goals for the Youth team in one season, 87/88. After 2 loans he made his breakthrough at the back end of the 1990/91 season scoring 8 goals in 10 games to help us to the Division 1 title. He was sold in 1995 after helping the Gunners to a League Cup, an FA cup and a Cup Winners Cup. I can think of very few players in the modern era so loved by all the clubs they played for. He top scored for Nottingham Forest, saw them relegated and fired them back up with 23 goals, saved Everton from relegation virtually single handedly a top scored for them 3 seasons running and was part of the WBA side that survived on the final day in 2006. I think he is one of only 4 players to score hatricks with 4 different Premiership teams and he is certainly the highest scoring English player in the Premiership never to be capped by his country. Loved by all, but always a Gooner.
Martin Keown – This is a funny one because whilst Martin will always be an Arsenal legend his path to legendary status differs from all those home grown heroes mentioned so far. Why because Keown came through with Arsenal in the mid 80s. He signed as a school boy in 1980 and made is breakthrough into Don Howe’s first team in 1985, but it was soon apparent that the new boss, George Graham wanted to build his defence around a younger prospect, one Tony Adam. Consequently Martin departed for Vila and Everton and was not to return until February 1993. So he missed the 2 titles and was cup tied for both Cup triumphs in 93, and even then he has to dislodge one of Bould or Adams. Graham often utilised him ad a holding midfielder or man marker. It was under Wenger that Keown finally achieved Gunners Glory winning the title in 1998, but with only 18 appearances. By 2001/2 however he was an ever present alongside Adams and there is no doubt this was his year. In the Invincibles campaign he was in the final year of his second spell and Wenger gave him multiple substitute appearances at the end to ensure he reached the 10 game mark for his third league title in the red and White. Loved by all Gunners and hated by others fans, for his seemingly never ending capacity to throw his body on the line for the cause Martin will always be a Highbury Legend.
Ray Parlour – Christened the Real Romford Pele by Marc Overmars Ray will undoubted be one of most Gooners favourite players. He was arguably the only midfield or attacking player from the Graham era to truly bridge into the Wenger era. There is nothing more true than the adages that if you give 100% for the shirt your fans will forgive you the odd poor game and that hard work pays dividends. Ray Parlour would spit blood, would play any position and never complained when he was not selected, because he just wanted to be an Arsenal Player. His passing game and his football brain improved quite dramatically under Wenger. Wenger moved him from a tough tackling central role to playing wide right, with astonishing effect. He won the man of the match in the 98 Cup final and was integral to the 1997/98 Premiership triumph. By 2002 Wenger had brought in Ljungberg who took his right hand berth but this was not the end for Razor. Now he moved back into the middle to replace Petit alongside Vieira and steered the team to another double scoring a ‘worldie’ in the cup final against Chelsea. Not the expected scorer? Well no not by Celebrity Fan Zone Chelsea fan Tim Lovejoy who as Parlour picked up the ball 5 yards from the area ,uttered the immortal words “It’s only Ray Parlour” only to see Razor unleash a 25 yard curler into the top corner. Ray finally left after his final contribution saw Arsenal finish champions again after an undefeated season in 2003/4. He is still the arsenal player with more Premiership appearances than any other. Razor I will always love you but please stop working with Adrian ’Bloody’ Durham. It is beneath you.
Ashley Cole – I should be writing a paragraph here but you blew it mate
Jack Wilshere – I will write this final section of this piece in May 2013 when you will join this illustrious band of my home grown Arsenal Legends when you become the first homegrown since Cashly to win the title. Make it so!
My apologies to Martyn Hayes, Niall Quinn, David Hillier and Stephen Hughes. As homegrown Gunners who have won titles I salute you but you did not make my top 10.
Until next time and thanks for reading.
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