Tonight, Arsenal will wear black armbands and observe a period of silence in remembrance of Theo Foley, George Graham’s assistant between 1986 and 1990, who died last week at the age of 83.
He was a key part of the League Cup success in 1987, and the incredible league title win at Anfield in 1989. Jon Spurling recalls his contribution to the club.
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When 1971 Double winner George Graham was appointed Arsenal manager in May 1986, his choice of assistant manager, Dublin born Theo Foley, raised eyebrows among some doubters. Millwall boss Graham may not have been the highest profile choice for the role – Barcelona coach Terry Venables seemed poised to be installed as manager before the deal collapsed when news leaked to the press – but at least Gunners fans were fully aware of who ‘The Stroller’ was. Foley on the other hand admitted: “Much of my career had been spent away from the limelight.”
Outspoken, genial, intense and approachable, Foley got his professional break at Division Three South outfit Exeter City before moving to Northampton Town, whom he helped steer from the Third Division to the top flight, for one season only. The tough full back, who also won nine caps for the Republic of Ireland, suffered several knee injuries which meant that his top flight appearances for Northampton were few. Foley managed Charlton at the start of the 1970s, but was unable to restore the glory or the crowds to the once imposing Valley. “By the late 70s and early 80s, I was coaching at QPR and Millwall, which I always thought was my level,” Foley explained. “And I was happy at that level too, because I just loved being involved in the game with two wonderful clubs. I never aspired to ‘greater things’ because for me, the biggest privilege of all was to be a football man at any level.”
By 1980, Graham’s and Foley’s careers became intertwined. Under Terry Venables, the pair coached together at Queens Park Rangers. Foley recalled: “George was still quite relaxed away from the training pitch and had an excellent sense of humour. As a player, he was known as a fella who liked to party. But you could see that on the training pitch, he had the highest of standards, and pushed the players hard. You could see the ambition in him. He learnt a lot from Terry, and he was quite clearly going to be fine management material.”
When Graham told Foley he’d accepted the managerial role at Millwall in 1982, Foley told him: “You’re mad. They’ll eat you alive there.” Graham responded: “I’m taking you with me.” The ever enthusiastic Foley thought for a moment and told Graham: “Great, we can be mad together.” In their four years at The Den, the pair learnt what it meant to manage a club – beset by hooligan problems – on a shoe string budget, and man manage complex characters including Keith “Rhino” Stevens and John Fashanu. They perfected the ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine, with Foley lending an ear and putting an arm around the shoulders of players brassed off by Graham’s exceedingly high standards, and his penchant for handing out fines for lateness and scruffiness. Not that Foley was always a soft touch – he once stunned John Fashanu by pinning him up against a wall when Foley tired of the player’s reluctance to push himself hard in training.
In 1986, when Arsenal came knocking for the 42 year old Graham, he once again informed Foley: “I’m taking you with me.” There was no argument from his erstwhile number two. Foley recalled: “To me, Arsenal are up there with the very best of football clubs. It was such a thrill to walk into Highbury for the first time as assistant manager and see the East and West Stands, the marble halls, and Herbert Chapman’s bust. I felt very humble to be there, and sometimes had to pinch myself to believe it was true.”
It had been widely speculated that Graham would appoint former Gunners team mate, and ’71 Double winning skipper Frank McLintock as his assistant, but Graham declined to do so: “I’d seen too many close friendships break down in football and I wanted to stay friends with Frank.” Perhaps it was also because, in Foley, Graham saw those same essential ingredients which he regarded as key in a raft of new players he signed in his early years at Highbury. Here was a retired, tough blue-collar footballer, with no airs and graces about him, who’d spent all bar one season playing in the lower leagues. Foley had suffered a fair few knocks and set-backs in both his playing and managerial career, knew the game inside out, and understood the psyche of footballers. Now, he was finally being given a crack at the big time, albeit in Graham’s considerable shadow.
Foley was also very adept at following his manager’s instructions, something which Graham demanded of all those around him. “My job was to set the mood at the start of the working day … putting the players at ease, checking that they were ok, but also setting the tone and the standards. George pretty much took the training every day, but I’d also spend time on one to one work with the players, and look after small groups. I was also someone the players could speak to individually about things they might not want to raise with George.”
Graham and Foley inherited a club in turmoil, and riven by cliques. In a matter of weeks, Graham jettisoned Woodcock, Mariner, Keown and Robson, and within a year or so, Anderson, Williams, Nicholas, and Rix were either frozen out, or sold. In their place came Groves, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, and a clutch of youth team graduates made their mark in the team. It was a rapid churn of personnel. Foley recalled: “George was very direct and very clear with what he wanted, and the pushing, harrying style of play he wanted the team to deploy. And when things didn’t quite go to form, or youngsters’ heads dropped, which of course they did on occasion, I’d often go and speak to them privately and try and help them, and put George’s instructions in a slightly different, more soft way.”
Plucked from Colchester for a mere £75,000, Perry Groves had the honour of being Graham’s first signing. Initially, Groves alternated between playing on both wings at Highbury, and recalled the encouragement given to him by Foley: “He’d talk to me about the differences between playing at lower league level to the top flight, and he had the human touch to him, always insisting that I was good enough for Arsenal and that George had faith in me, otherwise he wouldn’t have signed me.”
Paul Davis explains: “Theo was very good with the youngsters. He was great at reading facial expressions and body language, and would quietly make a beeline for any player who perhaps didn’t quite grasp what George had said, or was a bit down in the dumps. You could talk to Theo about private stuff in a way you wouldn’t with George.”
Charlie Nicholas – an early Graham victim – recalls: “It was very, very serious under George Graham, as it needed to be. But sometimes you also need to vary the tone and the mood, and Theo was always in a good mood. He was very funny and direct and lightened things up. George let Theo do that, because it meant he (Graham) could remain stand offish, which he always was. You could vent at Theo about George. Theo was a bit of a filter.”
In his autobiography Theo Give Us The Ball, a Lifetime In Football, Foley explained: “If George gave them stick, I’d pick them up.” Foley added that the players referred to the manager and his assistant as “Fire and Ice,” although Charlie Nicholas claimed: “We called them Theo and Gadaffi, actually….”
Foley developed a nuanced approach when it came to dealing with Gunners stars. He’d have friendly wagers with the young Kevin Campbell to ensure that he continued to impress at youth and reserve levels. He’d know which players needed to be placated (“Groves and Winterburn used to be very excitable in the dressing room,” he recalled), and on the rare occasion that Graham wasn’t around to take training, Foley would take charge. Unlike with Graham, players could take liberties with Foley.
In Alan Smith’s autobiography Heads Up, Smith recalled: “One morning, Niall Quinn launched himself at Theo, rugby tackling his countryman during the warm up, with both ending up at the bottom of a grassy ditch.” If Foley felt that the players hadn’t given training their all on his watch, he’d tell Graham, who’d then drill and kill them on the training ground the next day. When Arsenal were at home, Foley would tee up crosses for goalkeeper John Lukic in the warm up, prompting the North Bank to chant: “Theo Give Us The ball, Theo, Theo Give Us the ball.” And on occasions, Foley would gleefully blast the balls into the North Bank.
He also developed a close bond with midfielder David Rocastle, whom Foley gave a lift to training, so much so that Rocastle was nicknamed “son of Theo” in the dressing room. Foley’s son Paul – then at school – recalled the thrill of coming downstairs and seeing Rocastle chit chatting in the front room with mum Sheila before leaving for London Colney. When Foley departed Highbury, Rocastle gave him an England shirt inscribed with the message: “To Theo, you will always be my no. 1 coach, wishing you every success as manager of Northampton Town, from your stepson Dave ‘Rocky’ Rocastle.”
Foley was ecstatic when Arsenal defeated Liverpool at Wembley in April 1987 to win the Littlewoods Cup in his and George Graham’s first season at the club, and enjoyed “perhaps the best night of my life” when the Gunners won at Anfield in May 1989 to bring the title back to N5 after 18 long years. He was honest about his thoughts before the match. “I didn’t give us much chance,” he confessed. Foley even recalled telling Lukic to “boot it long” in the dying seconds, as Arsenal prepared to mount their final onslaught. But at the tail end of the following season, when Arsenal limped home in fourth place, Graham decided that Foley had outlived his usefulness as assistant manager.
When I interviewed him at the turn of the century, Foley – ever protective of Graham – was reluctant to give the precise details of what occurred behind the scenes, but Graham was incensed when, after suggesting (forcibly) to John Lukic that he move to QPR in order that David Seaman come the other way, Foley suggested to Lukic that he remain at Highbury and fight for his place. Graham did bring Seaman to Highbury, although Lukic ended up at Leeds, where he won another league title in 1992. Graham also objected to Foley’s ‘softly, softly’ approach towards Anfield hero Michael Thomas, when Thomas’s form fluctuated badly in the 89-90 campaign. There were also stories circulating that Foley remonstrated with Graham over his ‘freezing out’ of Brian Marwood, one of the stars of the 88-89 title winning campaign.
In his book The Glory And The Grief, Graham explains: “…in my view, he (Foley) started to get too close to the players…it reached the point where I considered that the players had lost a little discipline. I decided that we could get a vital edge back into our training if Theo swapped jobs with reserve team manage Stewart Houston.” Foley refused to do so, and departed to manage Northampton. “I regret leaving in the way I did,” he explained. “I acted too hastily, and in hindsight, George’s insight that he needed fresh blood in the team proved spot on. Arsenal won the title again in 90-91, with Seaman in goal, and because George knew which players to sell and which ones to buy. That’s why he was such a great manager, and I didn’t pull up trees at Northampton!” Despite Foley’s disappointment at the way in which his career at Arsenal ended, he and Graham remained good friends.
It’s tempting to speculate about what might have happened had Foley remained as Graham’s right hand man. Perhaps a kind word and the occasional gee up from Foley to the mercurial Anders Limpar might have seen the Swede maintain the stellar form he displayed in the first half of the 90-91 campaign. Maybe with Foley as a go-between, the unnecessary “freezing out” of Paul Davis – which was only to the detriment of the team – in the wake of the Benfica defeat in 1991 could have been avoided. With Foley around the place, Mickey Thomas could – possibly – have eventually recaptured his early promise.
It’s all conjecture of course, and Graham’s sheer ruthlessness was his greatest asset. But it’s true to say that after 1991, Graham’s approach became harder and more attritional, which was reflected in the way the team performed, and the departure of several gifted players. In the Irish Examiner last week, Larry Ryan suggested that with Foley gone, Graham’s “conscience” also left him. Only the ‘bad cop’ remained, and the team finally tired of hearing the same demanding voice week after week.
Foley was linked with the Irish national team’s assistant manager’s job in 2002, and worked at Charlton as a match day host until a couple of years ago. In 2018, his autobiography, ghost written by his son Paul – a former skipper of Maidstone United – was published. Sadly, Paul was diagnosed with a brain stem cell tumour in September 2012, and his condition later deteriorated to the point of severely limiting his mobility. He died in April, two months before his dad passed away.
Tonight, Gunners players will wear black armbands for the Norwich game as a tribute to Theo Foley, who – by acting as a perfect foil to George Graham – contributed so much to Arsenal’s renaissance during the late ‘80s. The tribute is only right and proper for the man who, perhaps slightly ruefully, believed the maxim: “Be tight with the players, but be tighter with the manager,” was the most important in football.