By Colin Benson
Arsenal is much more than just a football club. It is an institution that, through the years, has shaped the lives of so many young men - helping them become not only better players but greater people.
The Arsenal family is unique, and Colin Benson finds out just what being a member of this elite establishment means to those who are part of it. This month he talks to a former England international who arrived at Highbury not as a blossoming youngster, but as a seasoned professional who had served Chelsea for over 17 years. John Hollins - a midfield dynamo, full back and natural leader - reveals just what being a Gunner means to him.
"They are the most professional club I ever worked for and everything was done with style, from the marble halls to the dressing rooms"
John, you were 33 when Terry Neill signed you from QPR in July 1979. How were you approached? Did it come as a bit of a shock?It came as a massive shock - and even more so to Lynda, my wife. I had gone off to sign for Ken Brown at Norwich and having agreed to join them on the way back I stopped at a telephone box - we didn’t have mobiles in those days - to tell Lynda it was all done and dusted. She said: “Fine, oh by the way Terry Neill has phoned, he wants to meet you to sign for Arsenal.” I went to the Thatched Barn the following morning and signed. I apologised to the Norwich chairman and Ken Brown, who said he would have done the same. So that’s how it started.
Most players at that age are looking for an easy way to wind up their careers, so what drove you to take on this demanding challenge?Tommy Docherty had taken over at QPR and made it clear he wanted to bring in the kids and I should go.
As a Chelsea legend, John, what did Arsenal mean to you? After all those years at Chelsea playing under different managers and regimes, when it came to Arsenal they were so stable - nothing was a problem. They are the most professional club I ever worked for and everything was done with style, from the marble halls to the dressing rooms.
In your first season you not only enjoyed First Division competition but ended up playing in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against Valencia in Brussels - what a start! Yes, it was disappointing to go all the way and miss out on penalties. It had been such a good journey beating Fenerbahce, Magdeburg, Gothenburg and Juventus in the semi-final - Juve was a massive scalp, and it was one of the big games of my career. They were firm favourites in Turin with an away goal but young Paul Vaessen scored the vital winner and we hung on. Defences dominated the final, which went to penalties. Mario Kempes and Liam Brady both failed with the opening attempts and then came my turn. The blood went out of the back of my legs just walking up to the ball but I managed to get through it, hit the ball into the top corner and just walked away listening to the cheers. We lost 5-4 in the end and the funny thing was that all the left-footers missed and the right-footers scored. It’s a strange experience as you walk up - the goal gets smaller and the goalkeeper gets larger. I don’t envy anyone taking one; even though I was the penalty taker at Arsenal, Chelsea and QPR it was still an ordeal in a shoot-out. You have to know where you are going to hit it - do not look at the goalkeeper, as he will shuffle one way and as you are walking back shuffle the other way. And don't change your mind. Just walk back in your usual stride and crack it! This one flew in the top corner and Pereira, who had moved for all of our kicks, had no chance.
"It’s a strange experience as you walk up - the goal gets smaller and the goalkeeper gets larger. I don’t envy anyone taking a penalty"
Arriving at Highbury as a seasoned professional you must have been very set in your ways. Did you find it difficult to adjust to the Arsenal way of doing things? It wasn’t difficult at all because they were such a great bunch of players. Young David O’Leary used to call me ‘Mr Hollins’ but that was mickey-taking I think. But everybody got on well with everybody. Terry Neill wanted me to help the youngsters through and enjoy what I was doing. This was a very, very good Arsenal team and I didn’t expect to get as many games as I did in that first season. At the start it seemed to be between me and David Price, who always did a fantastic job and scored valuable goals coming in at the far post, for a place in the team. I had always been fit, and at Arsenal I found new enthusiasm for the game. I learned a heck of a lot from Don Howe and Terry Neill, who taught me a different way of playing and I fitted into it nicely. I think a lot of that came from Dave Sexton, who really taught me every position to play: left back, right back centre back, right-sided midfield. My career was down to Dave’s teaching. This is something I think is missing today. When players go on they are given a piece of paper with instructions - do this, pick him up, and so on, whereas we were just told “you know your job, we’ve done it in practice - go on out there and do it,” and we did. I played a lot at right back against some difficult wingers and big Pat, who didn’t say a lot in those deep guttural tones but when he did it meant something, would say: “Show him inside Holly.” I’d say: “But he’ll have a shot.” He’d say: “I know that.”
At 36 you became captain of Arsenal, leading the side to the semi-finals of the FA and League Cups… I captained Chelsea and QPR but skippering Arsenal was absolutely fantastic - it was my crowning glory to walk out in front of the likes of Kenny Sansom, David O’Leary, Tony Woodcock, Alan Sunderland with his dry Yorkshire humour, Rixy, Brian Talbot, Stewart Robson, Paul Davis and Chris Whyte and toss the coin - which I usually won. It just gelled - we used to think we could beat any team anywhere. Unfortunately we lost both semi-finals, which could have gone either way, to Manchester United. Don Howe was a great inspiration, he was a deep thinker and not shy in pointing out your mistakes. He looked to be the serious one but he was always cracking a joke; he had a great funny side. But if you ever saw the vein at the top of his head going boing, boing, boing - watch out. He shouted to me once: “What colour are you playing in?” I said: “Red.” He shouted back: “Well flipping well pass to it then.”
Read the interview with Gilberto and more in the latest edition
It was perfection they were looking for, and we went on the pitch with a lot of knowledge. Don and Terry used to drill, drill and drill us in skills and moves. I had a fantastic career playing against the best players in the world and those last years at Arsenal were just a dream come true for me. I even won Player of the Year, and am so proud that my name is up there on the Arsenal roll of honour and that I got the MBE while at Arsenal. I went to the palace in the morning, had a quick lunch - a sandwich at Euston station - with my family and got on the train to play that night at Everton.
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