I was sad to learn yesterday of the death of former Arsenal player and manager, Terry Neill. If you’ve read this site regularly down the years, you’ll know that the 1979 FA Cup was a hugely important moment in the life of this young football and Arsenal fan.
There I was, in my away kit – yes, a full kit wanker before such a thing had been invented, but to be fair I was only 8 – watching Arsenal v Man Utd at Wembley. Brian Talbot. 1-0. Frank Stapleton 2-0. The mighty Gunners in their glorious yellow and blue were cruising to victory but then United scored. Gordon McQueen, the big bollocks. Ah well, it was time for me to start to understand the concept of the consolation goal … but then Sammy McIlroy scored and within 2 minutes, and with just 2 minutes to go, it was 2-2 instead of 2-0.
At that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever heard or used the acronym WTF but somewhere in my little brain that’s exactly what was going on. WTF WTF WTF, with a much more polite ‘HOW?!’ thrown in. This isn’t what was supposed to happen. Arsenal’s players looked knackered all of a sudden. I sought reassurance from my dad who was watching with me, but before he could even try and explain ‘Well son, this is football. It lifts you up, it knocks you down, and sometimes it gives you a right kick in the nuts while you’re on the floor trying to catch your breath’, Arsenal kicked off.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times since I recreated what happened next. Outside on the grass. Inside in the hall, much to the consternation of my mother – ‘How many times have I told you about playing football indoors?!’ – the answer of course was ‘Infinity times + 1’. I didn’t care. The goal needed to be scored because it was the greatest goal in history.
I had to pretend to be Liam Brady, socks around my ankles due to a combination of exhaustion and effortless cool; an outside of the foot pass to Graham Rix and a first time cross as two United defenders attempted to close him down; and there at the back post, arriving perfectly as the ball sailed over the head of Gary Bailey – United’s impossibly blond goalkeeper, was Alan Sunderland to make it 3-2 and to win the famous old trophy.
As a young Irish kid living in England, an Arsenal team with six Irishmen and an Irish manager won the FA Cup. Is it any wonder that a connection with this club was forged forever that day? Even now I find it hard to put into words what that game did to me. Like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, it impacted the rest of my life – except I didn’t get cool super powers and a tight-fitting suit (which is probably a good thing these days).
I also think the next year provided me with a kind of perspective that has stuck with me too. 1979 was the second of three successive FA Cup finals, and the only one we triumphed in. The following year when we played second division West Ham, I remember feeling confident. We were The Arsenal, and they were a league below us. How would we not win and make it two in a row?
The answer, of course, is that we were The Arsenal and doing stuff like losing 1-0 to a team who finished 7th in Division 2 – behind Luton and just ahead of Cambridge – is part and parcel of our our very existence. It’s in our DNA. A few days later, we played the European Cup Winners Cup final at the Heysel Stadium, facing a Valencia side that included World Cup winner Mario Kempes.
It finished 0-0. It went to penalties. I was listening on the radio. Medium Wave. The comforting crackle, the sound fading in and out, and I heard us lose. Liam Brady missed his penalty, so too Graham Rix. The disappointment of the FA Cup final doubled by another defeat. Then Brady left for Juventus that summer. The tragedy and the trauma of the departure of your favourite player (who you’ve never even seen in the flesh at that point).
I dunno, I think you learn a lot from your formative football experiences. I had the joy of ’79, the pain of 1980, and then a long wait until Arsenal won anything again – the 1987 League cup when Charlie Nicholas scored twice as we beat Liverpool 2-1. If that doesn’t make you appreciate the good times when they come, and understand that success is often fleeting and cyclical, nothing will.
Terry Neill was the man in charge back then, and although after his sacking in 1983 he never managed again, he had a huge impact on my football supporting life. He never knew it, but I wonder without him if there would ever had been such a thing as Arseblog? Maybe, maybe not, but I thank him for it anyway.
Condolences to his family and friends, and may he rest in peace.
I’ll leave you this morning with a brand new Arsecast, chatting to Simon Collings from the Evening Standard about pre-season, selling players, gaps in the squad and lots more.