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 the final installment of an interview with USA.Arsenal.com’s Kevin Mooney, McNab discussed soccer in America and gave his thoughts on this year's World Cup.
USA.Arsenal.com: How did you first end up in America?
Bob McNab: “The reason I came over to America was I was in the last year of my career at Wolves. I left Arsenal at the end of my career and I went to Wolves for a year, which I didn’t really enjoy, as I was commuting. Bobby Moore, who I had played with for England, gave me a ring and asked if I’d come over to America. And we went to San Antonio for a guest appearance one mid-week and played against the [New York] Cosmos. We beat them 1-0, and they asked us to come over and play in the summer. So I was in San Antonio playing, and I really enjoyed America. Loved America.”
USA.Arsenal.com: How has the game evolved in America?
McNab: “It’s a lot better now. It was all foreign players in those days. Now, the American players are doing well. I always thought the national team over-achieved, personally, but they really do well. They’ve got some good results under their belts. They did well under Bruce Arena, they had a good record, and the coach they’ve got now seems to be doing very well. It amazes me that they do so well. But then I think one of the benefits they have is that they do play a lot of games together. Again, to me they’ve always over-achieved. I look at them individually and there are not too many Premier League players if you think about it.”
USA.Arsenal.com: How do American players differ from British players?
McNab: “In my time the difference was night and day. There weren’t really any American players. It was really difficult. You had played with world-class players and then… well, it was very difficult. But now, there are some good players. Brad Friedel is probably still, if not the best goalkeeper in England, he is No 1 or No 2. And he has been for the last 10 years. Kasey Keller had a good career, Clint Dempsey at Fulham is doing quite well in Britain, and he’s getting a living. And the midfielder at Glasgow who then went to Manchester City, Claudio Reyna. I remember seeing Claudio playing for his university team with Bruce Arena when I went scouting for players, he was very good then. One-touch. He was a very good player. Watching the game, I couldn’t understand why nobody marked him. He was quality beyond anything on the field, and I thought, why don’t they put somebody on him? I’m a defender and I thought surely they have somebody who could just defend, like in basketball just put somebody on him!
“People are brought up differently from when I was. I was born just after the war, a very tough time. Let me say it this way: Footballers don’t come from Beverly Hills and Brentwood. All I ever did – we had no TV, no nothing – all we had was football. And if it rained we played with a rolled up sock or rolled-up ball of wool indoors, in my house. You couldn’t swing a cat around in the house it was that small. Footballers come from those regions. Too many guys now are staying indoors playing with their Nintendos. And that’s also why there are not enough good players in America.”
USA.Arsenal.com: Why do you think professional soccer has struggled over the years in the U.S.?
McNab: “I think one of the problems soccer has is that there is not much money in it over here, and the great athletes are going to go to American football, basketball, and baseball. It makes sense. And if you are small like I was – five-foot-eight – I‘d go to baseball now, wouldn’t I? I’m not going to have too much success at basketball!
USA.Arsenal.com: How has the game itself changed over the years?
McNab: “It’s just more about entertainment now. The ball is being tweaked. It is much lighter and does a lot more than it did when I played. In the mid-1990s, while I was looking for indoor players, I was in Miami watching a tournament with senior amateur and semi-pro players. I sat with a fellow who was pretty honest. And I said the football’s not bad! There are some good quality players.
“There were two penalties as well. They had a penalty from the 12-yard spot, and another from the top of the ‘D’. So if someone got tackled, the last man or something like that, you could have a penalty a little bit further out. And also every sixth foul in a half, they used to do that in indoor as well, would result in a penalty on the further out [spot]. And really, it helped the referee control the game. So I could understand that.
“But the goalies are so small! I said to him, the only thing I have a problem with is that the goalies are so small! He said, ‘oh no they’re not. The goals are higher. They’re nine foot. And they are a foot-and-a-half wider’. And that was FIFA’s way to try to get the game more goals. Because the goalies when I was playing were six foot, and now they’re six-five or six-six. So players are bigger – just like the NFL.
“So what they did was, they kept the goals the same size, but they tweaked the ball. Some of my friends work for Nike and Adidas, and they were telling me after Roberto Carlos kicked that bending free kick, I think it was in France in 1997. It was with his left foot. A kid in the crowd about 10 yards off the post ducked. But it went in the goal! It bent all the way in!
“The following World Cup, they tweaked the ball so much that nobody scored from a direct free-kick because the ball just took off and floated. Goalies, if you watch now, they don’t catch the ball very often. They parry everything, which tells you the ball is moving around. The ball moved around enough when we played. Someone like Charlie George, who played with me, could hit it and it knuckled, it did all sort of bloody movement.
“In fact, David Seaman told me in May, he was doing his coaching and he said the ball is changing every month. Now we can’t coach catching the ball from a shot; we coach batting it down. It used to be a typical continental thing in my day, Europeans used to do that. But now, that’s what David was saying.
“These things have changed the game. But the greatest leveller of two football teams will always be the surface of the field. And now they play on perfect fields. If you go to Emirates and Highbury before that, and the training fields – the training fields at Arsenal are absolutely spectacular. They’re like what we call a ‘cricket field’ in England – they’re perfect. So that helps you to play, if you can play.”
USA.Arsenal.com: It’s World Cup this summer. What are your thoughts?
McNab: “One of the things I don’t really like about the World Cup is that there’s 32 teams, and when we played there were 16. Let’s be honest, how many of them have got a prayer? It’s all about money. The way they do it now, if you think about the actual tournament itself, the pre-qualifier. England played teams I’ve never heard of! When I played they never could have played a friendly at Wembley, no one would have gone and watched them. We wouldn’t have played Norway in my day, and I don’t think Sweden would have got to Wembley. The way they structured it before, they would have a pre-qualifier and then they’d go to the next stage. And THEN the big boys would come in, like in the Champions League. Now, we’re playing Azerbaijan and Georgia, and they should be playing one another. And then Italy and Spain and the big countries come in. But it’s all about getting money for the federations.
“It’s very difficult when you are manager and you recruit players from Central or South America. I would be very reluctant to recruit anyone from there. When they go on a trip back to their home countries – you know what jet lag is like – flying halfway around the world and then having to come and play. I did it once for San Antonio, Bobby Moore and me, and I was practically losing my vision when I got back. It was just over-tiredness and with jet lag. I don’t see me flying to Brazil or Costa Rica or Honduras and playing on Wednesday, and then going back to London on Thursday and playing on Saturday.”
USA.Arsenal.com: How do you think Group C and the much anticipated USA v England match-up will turn out?
McNab: “I think it’ll be tighter than most people perceive, but I still think it’ll be England. Put it this way, if England had the choice of who to pick, they’d have picked those teams to play against to go through: Algeria, Slovenia, and the U.S. If you aren’t going to beat them, you aren’t going to beat anybody or go very far, are you? Not being disrespectful to America, but I often do this as an exercise: If you were the England manager, how many of the American players would you take in your squad? Maybe Landon Donovan?”
USA.Arsenal.com: Any predictions for who will lift the trophy?
McNab: “I’m not saying they are going to win it, but one of those African nations might emerge.”
USA.Arsenal.com: Do you think the US has a shot at winning the whole thing?
McNab: “They might as well stay here with me.”Copyright 2017 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