Colin Benson selects one of the players from this season's Arsenal A-Z feature to talk about their time with the Club.
JOHN HOLLINS was 33 when he was signed from QPR in the summer of 1979 and although he brought with him the experience of 436 League games for Chelsea and another 151 with Queens Park Rangers, the inevitable question of age was raised in some quarters. But John, an England international, was no ordinary 33 year-old as he went on to prove in his 172 appearances for the Gunners, 13 of them in European competition.
John you were the Peter Pan of football but what was the very first lesson you learned as a professional footballer?
Never give up. In other words the game is never dead until the final whistle and if you can get one goal that quite often leads to two. Tommy Docherty the manager at Chelsea who gave me my break instilled this philosophy into everyone. I made my debut against Swindon in the League Cup in 1963. Tommy was very keen on giving players equal opportunities regardless of age. I captained Chelsea for one game at the age of 17 when we beat Birmingham City 7-0 at St Andrews.
Games against Arsenal were always very special and there was inevitably a lot of tension before the match. They were always 'The Arsenal' the team that everyone else wanted to beat and we did very well against them at Highbury but not so well against them at Stamford Bridge.
There was always an inspiring atmosphere in these games, particularly at Highbury which filled you with excitement and a sense of tradition. It had that something walking through the Marble Halls and down the narrow passage onto the pitch - it was perfect. A magic place; the roar of the North Bank and the steady ticking of the clock which seemed to speed up if you were losing, the big hand seemingly spinning faster and when it got to twenty to five you knew you were beaten.
What was the first inclination you had that Arsenal were interested in signing you?
I was actually on my way back from Norwich having met Ken Brown and Chairman Arthur South and had agreed to sign for them. I stopped at a telephone box to ring home and ask the wife to get QPR to send all my medical records off to Norwich as I was going to sign for them.
She said 'Oh - by the way Arsenal want to sign you.' I said look don't mess about. She said: 'No Terry Neill wants to meet you at the Thatched Barn tomorrow for breakfast.' So I went over there and Terry said he had to sign me right away because of the deadline for registering players for the European Cup Winners' Cup. So I signed a blank contract and the deal was done.
I had to apologise to Ken Brown who was very good about it and said: 'If I had the chance to go to Arsenal I'd go.' So that was it.
You played your first game for Arsenal at Brighton when you came off the bench to replace Liam Brady.
Yeah, well I said I'd always do that! (joked John). But flipping heck I wasn't there to replace Liam. He got injured; I had been brought in as cover and played right-back, midfield, centre-back and even left-back. But it is like I said never give up. Who would have thought I could make my debut for Arsenal at 33?
John, I believe you made a significant contribution in your first European game for the Gunners setting up a goal in our 2-0 victory over Fenerbahce at Highbury?
Yes, I pinged the ball across to Willie Young who put it away. He was greatly underrated, a solid defender and not many people went past him. He was also useful in attack at set pieces and was an ideal foil for David O'Leary.
Having overcome the Turkish side 2-0 on aggregate we were drawn against FC Magdeburg.
That's right and Willie scored again in a 2-1 win at Highbury. But I remember the second-leg more in what was then East Germany, as it was absolutely freezing cold - really raw. It was a bitterly tough game and I received an injury that kept me out for three-weeks.
A guy did me and opened up my knee on the left side. But it was so cold there was no blood and I said to Fred Street just put a plaster on it. Fred, as cool as ever, said: 'I don't think so John, don't look.' Of course I did and there was a big hole which needed nine stitches to close. It wasn't the best pitch, icy conditions, but at Arsenal we are made of tough stuff and we went through that no problem.
In 1981 you scored your one and only goal for Arsenal in Europe in a UEFA Cup tie against Winterslag.
I don't remember that one except that we were knocked out in a penalty shoot out after a 2-2 aggregate score.
In those days John all European cup ties were played on a straight knock-out principal over two legs. How do you compare this with the present format of mini-leagues?
I really think that cup competitions should be straight knock out. I know they have changed the title from European Cup to Champions League but I prefer the old system of the best team winning over two legs. I think there is more excitement when it is sudden death.
If you are in a league situation you get circumstances such as there were in the Barcelona Chelsea tie the other week. The edge had been taken off that game because Chelsea didn't have to get a result; they could afford to lose the game and still qualifyâ€¦You get games that mean nothing.
You can't do that in a knock-out tie and I like that feeling
of everything is on this game. You're either in or out of it.
That gives you a much better feeling.
Reflecting on your four years at Arsenal John, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
I just think that to be put into a team of outstanding youngsters as an old man and actually performing alongside those guys, who went on to become bigger and better players, was an achievement. I surprised those who questioned why Arsenal had signed me at that age.
The inspiration I got from being there gave me that extra drive and energy together with that never give up attitude that I wanted to play as long as I could. And just to put on the old red shirt was fantastic.
Fred Street helped. He was a little ahead of the game really taking us for stretching exercises before and after training and we did it to music. And it wasn't to Pink Floyd or something like that it was more like waltzes. I remember thinking; he's flipping mad, but it worked and more than extended my career...Thanks Fred.
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