Arsenal 5  Bravehearts 4

On January 30, 1981, Highbury hosted one of the most remarkable friendlies ever staged, as Arsenal took on one of the youngest, not to mention bravest, opposition sides they will ever face.

The average age of the Heart Line team that emerged from the tunnel on a foggy Friday morning was just 12. Facing a full strength Arsenal first team might have seemed a bit of a challenge. But then these youngsters were used to that; aside from being passionate football fans, they had all battled to come through major heart surgery.

One of the Heart Line team, Elliot Cohen, now 35, takes up the story.

"In 1972, aged two, I was diagnosed as having a hole in the heart. This was corrected in an operation at Great Ormond Street Hospital when I was four. Some time in late 1980, then aged 10, I received a phone call from the British Heart Foundation, who had written to the television programme 'Jim'll Fix It' on our behalf, asking if I'd like to take part in a football match against Arsenal together with other boys who had had heart operations. As an Arsenal fan, of course I agreed at once!"

With top referee Clive Thomas officiating and Barry Davies providing the commentary as the BBC filmed the match for broadcast the following month, the match was complete with all the professional trappings. And David O'Leary's team were clearly doing their young opponents few favours, as they raced into a 3-0 lead by half-time.

However, for the second-half, Heart Line played their first joker, upping the average age of their team somewhat by throwing on Everton and Scotland ace Asa Hartford, who himself was born with a hole in his heart.

"He made all the difference to our team," says Cohen, though he does also recall the Scottish international having an unfortunate hand in one of Arsenal's goals. Nonetheless, Hartford helped inspire a dramatic comeback, and Terry Neill's half-time team talk was rendered even more useless as Heart Line made another canny tactical move, bringing on the rest of their 30-strong squad for the last 20 minutes!

"The players looked terrified when all the boys ran on during the second-half," smiles Cohen. "They were laughing and trying to keep the ball from us. We were running around like headless chickens."

Arsenal striker Frank Stapleton recalls, "The kids were quite poorly and looked weak and skinny. We were determined to give them a great day. One lad scored in front of the North Bank and he went wild."

In the end, the Gunners clung on for a 5-4 victory.

"We were a bit surprised they didn't let us win, but we still had a good day out," adds Cohen. "I thought I was the luckiest boy on the planet. I ended up caked in mud from the pitch and didn't wash for a month."

Elliot scrubbed up in time to join his fellow Heart Line team members down at BBC Studios the following month, where they were filmed for their appearance on Jim'll Fix It and presented with their badges by Jimmy Hill.

Today, largely through the efforts of Elliot Cohen, a number of the Heart Line team have been tracked down, and are special guests of Arsenal for tonight's match.

Heart Line squad: Elliot Cohen, Gary Thompson, Glen Atchison, Stuart Barthelemy, Simon Oakley, Michael Plumb, Gary Stevens, Guy Bennett, Jason Naylor, Simon Iveson, Gary Orton, Jimmy Downes,  Gavin Elkington, Nicholas Keenan, Philip Cryer, Paul Kingsley, Peter Spurgeon, William O'Sullivan, Barry Willett, Wayne Igon, Graham Smith, Jeremy Colson, Robert Warr, Grant Cooper, Patrick Headlam, Richard Kidman, Alan Gellatty, Darren Carton, Stephen Tolhurst, Gary McLaughlin. Special guest: Asa Hartford

Arsenal team: Pat Jennings, John Hollins, Kenny Sansom, Brian Talbot, David O'Leary, Willie Young, Terry McDermott, Paul Davis, Frank Stapleton,
Steve Gatting, Graham Rix and Steve Walford (sub).

With very special thanks to Elliot Cohen (and the Daily Mirror)

'It Happened At Highbury' is written by Dan Brennan, the author of The Official Arsenal Miscellany. The latest edition of the miscellany is now available in all good book shops.

 

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 9 Mar 2006