Over the course of nine seasons with Arsenal, Bob McNab was a fixture in the back-four, primarily at left-back. He won trophies, played with some of the legends of the game, and in a familiar theme with the current squad, endured several long-term injuries. In all, he played in 362 matches for the Gunners, including 62 in Arsenal’s double-winning 1970-71 season. Following his time at Arsenal, McNab played and coached in two different soccer leagues in the U.S. and Canada.
In part two of an interview with USA.Arsenal.com’s Kevin Mooney, McNab discussed his time in North London and how players have changed over the years.
USA.Arsenal.com: What is your biggest memory from your time at Arsenal?
Bob McNab: “I suppose you couldn’t beat winning the Double really. It had only ever been won once before in modern football. We played 21 home games that year and only four teams scored [against us]. And I’m a defender, so what does that tell you? Although it wasn’t that happy for me in that I was injured from September. It wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been, but to win, to do something that puts your name in the history of football, it’s terrific I think.
“I enjoyed my career and I loved playing. I loved the playing side of it.”
USA.Arsenal.com: What were your first impressions of Arsenal when you joined from Huddersfield Town?
McNab: “When I first got there, I had been bought for a lot of money and had that much experience. In those days, the mid-60s, I had only been to London twice, and I didn’t even have a passport. And I know Huddersfield weren’t a very good side, plus I was injured when they signed me. I had this pulled thigh muscle, and clubs like Huddersfield in those days, the guy that gave you treatment was the same guy that was doing the boots. And he was better at the boots, put it that way!
“And then you go to Arsenal, where everything is so professional. It was psychologically difficult when I started because I kept getting injured and flu and all sorts of things like that. A chronic ankle injury which I had to have surgery on, and other bits and bobs. Then I managed to turn it around and I look back on the fact that we hadn’t won a thing in 18 years, and the team was built, which you couldn’t do nowadays. It couldn’t happen now because any player who is going to be anyone goes to a Champions League team. I was bought for a record fee for a full back, so now I would have been going to one of the top four. I wouldn’t have gone to help build a team, because you want to be in the Champions League. It’s different nowadays.”
USA.Arsenal.com: Tell us about the early the days with Arsenal.
McNab: “I went [to Arsenal] and I’m glad to say I was lucky. I worked under Dave Sexton for a couple of years. Dave was more a forward coach than a defender, but he was a brilliant, innovative coach. I had never seen a coach at Huddersfield. We never saw any coaches. We’d just run around the field. Then we’d go with someone who is stimulating you, innovative, and a great fellow as well, but not that good at defending.
“And then Dave took the Chelsea job. We got Don Howe, who I had spent quite some time with. He was coaching the Reserves at the time. He and I were right on the same wavelength defensively. He changed us. We went from man-to-man marking under Dave, which I didn’t fault Dave for instituting because he brought it in just before I got there and they’d been so bad defensively – it was like two goals every game they used to give up if they were lucky. And man-for-man, it did let you highlight who was doing very badly, but I didn’t need that. I could have told you I was doing badly! I don’t want to isolate people like that. But it wasn’t a system I enjoyed. I used to say before, just let me switch my brain off before we go out. Don changed it, we worked on it, and he took a risk on it. We’d done well, going fifth or sixth in the League, gone to a couple of Cup Finals without winning one. Then Don took over, we went zonal, and the rest is history. One of the great defences of all time.”
USA.Arsenal.com: How are players now different from when you played?
McNab: “I think what’s happened is on top of the ground every week. The fields are the greatest change in the sport, that and a lot more athleticism. Technically, lots of the players today at the clubs lower down in the Premier League are not good footballers, but they can run. I look at them and I think ‘jeepers creepers’. I think defending is very poor overall now, as a generalisation obviously. There are good defenders, but not so many good defenders in good defensive systems of play.
“I think the offside rule is a real nightmare for defenders, this is interfering with play. Anybody in the final third of the field, believe me as an intellectual defender, is interfering with play. Say I’m playing left full back and there is nobody out wide, I can tuck much further in. Now if the guy is outside, I’ve got to be very, very aware of him, so I’m going to be in a different position. But how is someone interfering with play when he’s just adjusting his position? It’s just nonsense I think, but I’m a defender!
“I think it’s just made it so difficult for referees. [The] offside [rule] is difficult anyway, and then all of the sudden you’ve got to start thinking, they have made it so subjective. Now is he interfering with play? You see people in the six-yard box and they say they are not interfering with play. Are you kidding? It’s just nonsense. So that’s made it more difficult.”
USA.Arsenal.com: How do you think you would fare in today’s game?
McNab: “People often ask me who could play today. I could play today because I could run all day. I was a cross-country runner and I was always the quickest. It was weird, I could run distances and I was the quickest off the mark at any club I played for over 15 or 20 yards. It’s not usually a combination you get. Really explosive off the mark and then can run cross countries. But then the big lads would come up. I would have no chance over 200 metres against the [John] Radfords or the [Ray] Kennedys – the big men with the big, long strides, much like the Olympic runners today. A little guy at five-foot-eight is going to be up against it with a six-foot-four, six-foot-five, eight-yard stride type of guy.
“One thing I always look for in players is whether they can play one-touch. Because you will not go to the highest level of football if you cannot play one-touch. And I like one-touch. Too bad I didn’t have the technical ability to go with the intellectual ability! I saw everything, I did everything, but I didn’t have the technical ability of a Preki or a Charlie George. People like that, people with wonderful skills. I could see the same as them, but I couldn’t deliver the goods. But I was a defender! I got moved back pretty quickly!”
USA.Arsenal.com: What was the weakest part your game?
McNab: “Don’t mention crosses to me, that wasn’t my strong suit. If you speak to any of my old team-mates, they’d tell you crossing wasn’t my strong point. They used to say the fans ducked behind the goal when I crossed it. They’d have to wear tin helmets!”
USA.Arsenal.com: What have you been up to since you hung up your boots?
McNab: “I first came over [to America] in 1976 and then I went back in 1979 as assistant coach at Vancouver White Caps where we won the Soccer Bowl. That was nice. I just did one and a half years there and then that league went pear-shaped and I coached indoors at Tacoma. Then I coached indoor for a couple more years for [Milan] Mandaric – he owns Leicester now – in San Jose. I got Brad Friedel to England, I got Paulo Wanchope to England. He was from Costa Rica. So I did a few deals for people. I did quite well out of it.
“I’ve also worked with Paul Mariner at Adidas. I know the Adidas lads in Portland, I was technical director of their ESP – the Elite Soccer Program – I used to do weeks for them every year. We got coaches from all over the world. It’s similar to the one for basketball when you bring in all the prominent high school kids and you put on all the practices and whatnot. About 150 college coaches would come over every year. Then we started to get a few scouts. It was pretty good, I enjoyed it. Later, Jurgen Kinsman’s group took it over, and I just did the coaching and technical side of it. I really enjoyed that.”