Monday, May 20, 2024

John Hollins: 1946 -2023

By Jon Spurling

When footballers play for multiple London clubs throughout their careers, they rarely gain genuine and lasting respect from all the respective teams’ supporters. Think William Gallas for instance. But the effervescent John Hollins, who turned out for Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers and then Arsenal between 1979 and 1983, proved to be a welcome exception to the rule. ‘I turned up at Highbury aged 33,’ he recalled, ‘which in those days was practically geriatric territory.’ At 36, he won the Arsenal Supporters Club player of the season (1981-82) award, which he described as being ‘as much of an honour as the medals I won with Chelsea.’

A whole – hearted midfielder with Chelsea between 1963 and 1975, Hollins rarely missed a game at Stamford Bridge throughout his twelve year Blues career, as Chelsea won the FA Cup against Leeds United in 1970 and the Cup Winners Cup in 1971 after a replay with Real Madrid. Hollins departed Chelsea after their relegation from Division One in 1975, and then put pen to paper for QPR, where he was a key component of a side which was pipped at the post for the league title by Liverpool in 1976.

Some doubted the wisdom of manger Terry Neill spending £75,000 on Hollins during the close season after Arsenal had won the FA Cup. ‘Initially, Terry told me that he needed me as cover for a season,’ Hollins said, ‘but I ended up staying for four years, and played 164 times, much to the surprise of both of us.’ I was fortunate to interview ‘Holly’ – as his Gunners team mates called him – on several occasions down the years, usually as Arsenal prepared to play Chelsea. ‘Ah – I was wondering when you’d call,’ he laughed after I phoned him in the lead up to the 2017 FA Cup Final between the two clubs. Softly spoken, and without a bad word to say about anyone, Hollins was nonetheless razor sharp in his observations of his four years at N5.

‘When I arrived, Liam Brady had already handed in his notice, so to speak. He’d be going at the end of the 79-80 season. There was a strange mood around the place, despite the fact Arsenal had just won the FA Cup,’ Hollins said. He recalled going shopping the day after he put pen to paper for the Gunners and bumping into an Arsenal fan who told him: ‘Welcome to the club John, but you’re not exactly a bloody spring chicken, are you? I could see what he meant. Arsenal had been linked with Johann Neeskens – the Dutch star – but instead they got an old crock like me.’ Hollins realised he would have to prove himself to Arsenal fans, and that many supporters would always see him as a ‘blue.’

‘I wasn’t sure that I’d actually get much playing time, and was a little nervous, to be honest,’ he admitted. He needn’t have been. Arsenal’s breathless 79-80 campaign, in which they played a (then) record breaking 70 matches, meant that Hollins appeared in around half of the Gunners’ games, with several cameo roles from the bench thrown in. He quickly endeared himself to his new team mates with his dedication to training, and his relentlessly upbeat nature. ‘John could make you think the sun was shining on a horrible grey and rainy day,’ former Arsenal defender Willie Young recalled. His positivity would be needed in the years that followed.

Hollins’ memories of the campaign remained vivid. ‘I played in the 7-0 thrashing of Leeds in the league Cup, which was an astonishing night, as all our attacks seemed to end in a goal. I remember the genius of Liam Brady, swerving and manouevring his way past defenders with his magic left foot. And I also recall eating chicken soup in East Germany when we went behind the Iron Curtain and played Magdeburg in the Cup Winners Cup. It still had the feathers on. East German food wasn’t the best….’ Hollins missed the cut for the FA Cup Final against West Ham, but came on as substitute for David Price four days later in the Cup Winners Cup Final against Valencia.

The crushing disappointment as the Gunners lost their second final in the space of four days was all consuming: ‘Players were on their knees, or walking round in a daze. No one said a word afterwards. The long season had caught up with us.’ Following Brady’s departure to Juventus during the close season, Hollins adopted the Irishman’s number 7 shirt (‘a poisoned chalice if ever there was one!’), and occasionally bore the brunt of the crowd’s frustrations. It was hardly a disastrous campaign – Arsenal finished third in the league to qualify for the UEFA Cup – but early cup exits meant that the crowd vented its disappointment that Brady wasn’t adequately replaced. ‘I couldn’t blame the Arsenal fans one bit for sounding off at us. They missed their hero and the team’s creative maestro,’ he said.

In the second half of the 81-82 campaign, Hollins began to fill in at right back after John Devine fell out of favour, and became a firm favourite with the crowd as he put in energetic and sterling performances which would have been a credit to footballers half his age. ‘Arsenal fans like converted players, who give it a go in a different position. Think Lauren – who was a midfielder but ended up as a great full back. It shows guts and determination,’ he said. Hollins’ reward was that Supporters Club player of the year trophy.

Now under pressure, following the sale of Frank Stapleton to Manchester United in 1981, Terry Neill appointed Hollins captain for the 82-83 campaign. Arsenal laboured in 10th in the league, and Hollins was present and correct as Arsenal fell in the League Cup and FA Cup Semi Finals to Manchester United. ‘It was a disappointing time,’ he recalled. ‘The club didn’t build on the cup success in ’79, allowed its two star players (Brady and Stapleton) to leave, and the youngsters who came in, like Paul Davis and Stewart Robson, struggled with the pressure of everything. Arsenal lost their direction.’

A consolation was that Hollins became one of a select group of players to wear the famous green and blue away kit. Ever tactful, Hollins described it as ‘a creative early ‘80s masterpiece.’

Since Hollins’ passing last week, Arsenal fans have paid tribute to his courtesy and patience with supporters, whether it was signing autographs, or spending time with sick children during Arsenal players’ visits to hospitals at Christmas. ‘That part of being a player was vital. Footballers should always look beyond their gilded cages and be humble. The game is nothing without fans,’ Hollins said.

He departed for Stamford Bridge once more in 1983, initially as a player but then became Blues manager after Chelsea were promoted back to Division One for the 1984-85 campaign. ‘I was a Chelsea man, but when I looked at the marble halls and the historic East and West stands, I quickly got what it meant to play for Arsenal, and I think the Arsenal fans got me,’ he said.

We did.

Thanks John.

John Hollins 16 July 1946 – 14 June 2023

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