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.
Winger Alan Skirton, a six-footer with power and pace who became the most expensive non-league footballer when Arsenal paid Bath City £5,000 for his transfer and overcame tuberculosis to become a first division star, tells us what Arsenal means to him.
AS: Arsenal – there was just nothing to touch it. It was just incredible. When you had played 11 games for the first team you got a blazer. I was as pleased as punch going down to the West End to get measured up. It was marvellous. It meant the world to me.
Arsenal was, and still is, a lovely football club. I came to a tribute night for my friend Frank McLintock and sitting next to me was a lady and her son. It was Geordie Armstrong’s wife and son... tremendous.
This is what Arsenal is all about.One of the players who is sadly not with us anymore but not forgotten by the Club who has embraced his family. I just think this is incredible; it’s something Arsenal is so fantastically good at. They never seem to forget. Anybody that has been connected with Arsenal will always be very, very glad about it.
I enjoyed every minute of my time there and the teams I played in with the likes of George Eastham, Joe Baker, Jimmy Bloomfield, George Armstrong, Jon Sammels, Frank McLintock and others would be a mile in front of the stars of today.
Highbury must have seemed a million miles away from your home city of Bath, Alan?
AS: I was with Bristol City as a kid but they didn’t want to take me on part-time so I played with Bath City. Funnily enough the first time Arsenal came into my life was when playing for Bristol City and beating them 4-3 in an FA Youth Cup match!
"I even had to run around Highbury with Bertie [Mee] on my back. I tell you I threw up every morning and afternoon at those sessions. But I thought the world of that fellow; he was such a lovely man"
I was working in the audit section at the Guildhall in Bath before doing my National Service and my father just couldn’t believe I was going to play football for a living. Both Arsenal and Chelsea wanted to sign me and he would only let me go to Arsenal as they allowed me a day release at college to do maths. Paddy Sloan, the Bath manager and an ex-Arsenal player, helped persuade him.
I had only played a couple of games in the reserves at Arsenal when I went down with TB. That knocked me out for 18 months. I was at home convalescing under medical supervision when I received a letter from George Swindin who said he had been informed that I had been playing football when I was supposed to be laid up.
He told me to report to London where I would be looked after. Somebody had snitched on me playing in what was little better than a pub team in a local field. I was frustrated at the inactivity and just wanted to play football. I scored seven goals in that game and maybe it was someone from the opposition who decided to tell on me.
So what happened?
AS: Well, I’m afraid to say I rang back and lied to Mr Swindin, denying my participation claiming it was my brother who had played. He was very nice about it and seemed to accept my explanation, which wasn’t very clever, but I had enough sense to behave myself after that.
It was Bertie Mee, the physio, who got me in the first team. When I reported to Highbury I was still on 10 tablets a day but he ran my guts out to get me fit. I even had to run around Highbury with Bertie on my back. I tell you I threw up every morning and afternoon at those sessions. But I thought the world of that fellow; he was such a lovely man.
Wingers were all-important at this time and you were up against some formidable names to earn one of the two places on the team. Danny Clapton, Joe Haverty, Johnny McLeod, George Armstrong and Jackie Henderson were all on the Highbury pay roll.
AS: It was just incredible. Danny was direct with pace like me but much more skilful. He was a hell of a player but they left him out and I made my debut at Burnley. Johnny McLeod and little Joe were ball playing artists.
Joe was some character. I remember lining up on the wing at Newcastle and there was little Joe standing alongside me. He’d forgotten he was on the other flank and we kicked-off side by side.
George Armstrong was everything. I used to joke with Billy McCullough, our left back, that we did not need him because Geordie was always back there doing the full back’s job. I never saw anyone work harder on the field than Geordie, going up and down covering the whole left side.
My main role was to get to the line and get crosses over but I scored a lot of my 53 league goals by moving inside. They made me practice hour after hour crossing with my left foot and although right-footed I had two seasons on the left wing.
You split with the Club over a question of money. Is that a decision you regret now?
AS: That’s so true. Like a silly idiot I asked to go and quite honestly it would have been no more than £300 I was arguing over. I left for Blackpool and really want to kick myself. It’s so stupid - what I did it doesn’t bare thinking about. It’s the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life.
I had felt very let down by Billy Wright, who seemed to be stalling on giving me a rise having said he would sort it out. I got the hump and foolishly wanted away. I never saw eye to eye with Billy so there was some friction between us. Everything changed when Bertie Mee took over but I’d already set the wheels of change in motion and played only two games under his management.
"I left for Blackpool and really want to kick myself. It’s the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life"
My timing was disastrous because the maximum wage, which had been £20 a week, had just been lifted through the endeavours of George Eastham, and I was suddenly on £40 a week. Not only had it doubled but we also had the incentive of an extra fiver if we were 11th, up to £50 extra when we topped the table.
Bertie Mee’s first game was at Sunderland and on the coach going up there the players had a meeting. It might sound greedy, as it was the opening day of the season, but we were professional footballers and wanted to know whether we would get the £50 bonus for being top, if only alphabetically, if we beat Sunderland.
When we took a vote Terry Neill, our captain, and two other players refused to put their hands up. Anyway, Bertie came into the dressing room before the game and addressed everyone saying he believed we had a problem that he smartly resolved by telling us we would get that bonus if we were top. I scored two goals that afternoon and we won 3-1.
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