Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Terry Neill – RIP

Former Arsenal boss Terry Neill passed away this week. Jon Spurling (@jonspurling1) remembers his time at the club.

My mum wasn’t much of a football fan, but as I began following Arsenal in the late ‘70s, I discovered that she was rather partial to the plethora of Irish accents swirling around the Arsenal team of that era. Player wise, Frank Stapleton, Liam Brady and David O’Leary were from the Republic, and Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson from Northern Ireland. Then there was the Belfast born manager Terry Neill, who had the honour of being appointed the club’s youngest captain at the age of 20, back in the ‘60s.

When I mentioned to mum that I was about to interview Terry (back in ’98) at the sports bar and brasserie in Holborn which he’d bought after leaving Arsenal in 1983, she waxed lyrical once more about his ‘lovely voice.’ Terry was charm and bonhomie personified during the interview, whereas I was a little nervous, being new to that kind of thing. His voice was even richer and deeper than when he was Arsenal boss, mainly he said, because of his smoking habit. Mum would have loved listening to him. He was poetic and occasionally lyrical (especially about Liam Brady’s magical left foot), but also never less than honest about his playing days and his (at times) turbulent managerial career.

With a shrug of his shoulders and a wry smile, Neill admitted he ‘kind of missed out on the action’ when it came to his playing career. A regular in the Gunners defence for much of the ‘60s, he played both at wing and centre half, and appeared in the notorious 1968 League Cup Final (‘a bloody awful match to play in’), which Arsenal lost to Don Revie’s emerging Leeds United, and missed the following year’s final against Swindon (‘probably no bad thing,’ he laughed) where Bertie Mee’s side lost 3-1 to the Third Division side. Neill was ruled out due to a bout of jaundice, and from that point on, he was never a first team regular, as the Frank McLintock / Peter Simpson central defensive partnership went from strength to strength.

Despite playing in five matches leading up to the 1970 Fairs Cup Final, he didn’t play against Anderlecht, and was appointed player manager of Hull City aged just 28 in the summer of that year. Neill looked at me long and hard when I asked him how he felt about missing out on that historic final (which ended Arsenal’s 17 year trophy drought) and the 1970-71 Double season. Surrounded by plumes of cigarette smoke, he said: ‘Bertie Mee and Don Howe were shrewd judges of players and ‘Stan’ Simpson and Frank were better central defenders than me. Their achievements in the early ‘70s prove that. But it’s always hard to leave the place you call home,’ Neill said.

Whatever frustration he felt at missing out on Arsenal’s resurgence, he channeled it into his managerial career with Hull City (between 1970 and 1974) and Tottenham (1974-76). ‘They mistrusted me because of my Arsenal connection,’ Neill said, ‘but after nearly getting relegated in my first season, we then finished 9th in the second, so progress was made, at least.’ Chairman Denis Hill-Wood summoned Neill back to Highbury in the summer of 1976.

‘It was impossible to say no to the old man,’ Neill chuckled, ‘but now Arsenal fans mistrusted me because they reckoned I was a Tottenham man. Which I wasn’t, obviously.’ One of Neill’s first signings -Malcolm Macdonald – was pinched from under Tottenham’s nose, and Neill went back to White Hart Lane to sign central defender Willie Young and goalkeeper Pat Jennings, both of whom became Arsenal cult heroes.

But Neill’s first season at Arsenal was a struggle, as he criticised the players publicly (claiming they ‘couldn’t beat eleven dustbins’ after a dismal run of form) and failed to keep larger than life personalities like Macdonald, Alan Ball and mercurial midfielder Alan Hudson in check. He clashed with former playing colleagues Peter Storey and George Armstrong. ‘It was a baptism of fire; some of the problems were of my own making,’ he said.

Unquestionably, Neill’s most effective managerial move was to bring coach Don Howe back to Highbury in the summer of 1977. ‘Don sandblasted the players who needed it,’ he told me, ‘and nurtured the home grown talent we had in our ranks, like Liam (Brady), Graham (Rix) and Frank (Stapleton). Doing things the Arsenal way.’ At one point in our conversation, Neill’s wife Sandra joined us at the table for a glass of wine, and told me that her husband and Howe were like man and wife. ‘Pauline (Howe’s wife) and I used to say to one another: ‘What the hell do they talk about? They’re at work all day, and then they ring each other in the evenings too.’

By 1978, Arsenal reached their first FA Cup Final for seven years, where they lost 1-0 to Ipswich Town, but they were back the following year, where they won the famous ‘three minute final’ against Manchester United 3-2, having led 2-0 with just five minutes remaining. ‘It took me a few days to process what we’d done, as I was so convinced we’d actually thrown it all away when they clawed it back to 2-2.’

The ’79 FA Cup Final victory was as good as it got for Terry Neill at Arsenal. Despite reaching the FA Cup Final and Cup Winners Cup Final in the 79-80 campaign, Arsenal lost both show piece matches to West Ham and Valencia respectively. ‘Heroic stuff and all that, but bitterly disappointing,’ Neill said.

The departures of Liam Brady to Juventus in 1980 and Frank Stapleton to Manchester United in 1981 were hard to take. Should Neill have done more to try and keep them? ‘I spent hours and hours with both Liam and Frank, talking to them. But the board wouldn’t budge on wages, or invest in squad depth which may well have seen us challenge more. Bigger European clubs and United would always pay way more than Arsenal would for players. That was how it was. Still is. I shared the frustration of the Arsenal fans.’

Over the next few years, Neill tried unsuccessfully to convince Diego Maradona to join, (‘the military junta out there didn’t want their prize bull to go’); Tottenham midfielder Glenn Hoddle (‘He wanted to come but the Spurs board black balled it’); and Danish striker Preben Elkjaer; (‘I sat in the same bloody Chinese restaurant night after night with him, but he wouldn’t budge’) as Arsenal, with crowds plummeting, began to tread water.

Increasingly under pressure from disgruntled supporters, Neill’s last throw of the dice was signing Celtic forward Charlie Nicholas, who rejected Manchester United and Liverpool to head to N5 in the summer of 1983. ‘There was too much pressure placed on him by the media, and he didn’t ever fully adapt to the English game,’ Neill said.

By Christmas of 1983, with Arsenal losing at home to 3rd Division Walsall in the League Cup, supporters finally lost patience with many chanting ‘Neill out, Neill out after the game. ‘I’ll never understand how we can play like super heroes at Tottenham in the round before, and then like a bunch of pantomime horses against Walsall,’ he said. Neill was fired on December 16th.

I asked Neill why he’d quit football management at the young age of 42: ‘I did have other offers, but Arsenal was my spiritual home, and nothing else could ever come close to them. That’s why.’

I asked Neill how he’d sum up his managerial career at Highbury. ‘I was okay. Don reckoned I talked too much sometimes, and I think some of the players agreed with him! I wasn’t a Chapman or a Graham or a Wenger (who’d just won his first double at Highbury). But however much those men loved -or love – the club, no one loves them more than me. I’m an Arsenal man through and through.’

For many middle aged fans like me, Terry Neill was our ‘first’ Arsenal manager, and that unforgettable victory over United in ’79 remains as vivid and spine tingling forty three years later. Terry Neill – thank you.

Terry Neill May 8th 1942 – July 28th 2022