In Defining Moments former Arsenal stars select the situations that defined their career with the Gunners. This is a running feature and first appeared in the matchday programme. Ex-player Niall Quinn is next to recall his favourites.
#1 A pat on the back
I arrived at Arsenal for a two-week trial, but after one week Steve Burtenshaw told me to head back to Dublin and grab my stuff as the club were definitely going to sign me on a three-year contract.
It was pretty amazing – I was just coming up to my 17th birthday and it was all happening for me! Then Pat Rice returned as youth team manager and everything changed for me. It was a very significant moment for me.
Pat believed in me, but he also got me to believe in myself. He had been at Watford with Graham Taylor and seen the success of the big-man, little- man, forward combination.
Pat taught me how to develop a partnership with whoever I was playing with. On paper, some of the guys – such as Lawrence Osborne – were well ahead of me, but Pat encouraged and developed me and gave me that belief to go on. I made the first team but a lot of those lads never got near it.
I owe Pat a huge debt, because without him – and others, such as Paul Mariner, who was a massive England star but still gave us youngsters so much time and encouragement – I’d never have made it.
#2 Dream debut
I was on my way to Port Vale on loan. In fact, I had met with their manager John Rudge and the Arsenal Travel Club had even booked my train ticket to Burslem. I got to the train station and a club official had left a message for me to get back to Highbury quick.
There had been a mini injury crisis – coinciding with a slump in form – and even centre half Chris Whyte had been tried up front a few times. Tony Woodcock was injured, as was Mariner. John Cartwright had also been terrific for me and it had been suggested I should be given a chance.
So back I went to Arsenal and I was running out at Highbury to play Liverpool, the dominant team in English football, partnering Charlie Nicholas up front. It was December 1985 and the first ever English top flight game to be shown on TV in Europe, so when I scored after 20 minutes, pouncing after Bruce Grobbelaar parried a shot, I became a star across the continent!
It was surreal. I got sackloads of fan mail the following week – Arsenal fans from all over Europe wanting my autograph. I still remember being at home and ploughing through it all.
Was this really happening to me? We played Manchester United the following week away. They were on an incredible run and were favourites to win their first title for nearly 20 years under Ron Atkinson. I played again and we won 1-0. At Old Trafford! It was a whirlwind couple of weeks. I was just a teenager and couldn’t believe it was all happening.
#3 Wembley ’87
I had 26 close family members travel over from Ireland for the 1987 Littlewoods Cup final. It was a big, big day out. We’d beaten Spurs in that epic semi final series to get there – I will never forget, as long as live, Spurs being 1-0 up in the second leg and the stadium announcer at White Hart Lane announcing ticket details for the final.
If ever a dressing room needed a jolt of electricity to get motivated... George Graham, as you’d expect, added further fuel to the fire. We went out for the second half and played like a team possessed. We were fantastic and won it 2-1. I scored one of the goals too.
Then we won the replay by the same scoreline at their place again. George told us he deliberately lost the toss so we could play there again – he really fancied our chances away from Highbury. To go on to Wembley and win that trophy by beating Liverpool 2-1 – such an important trophy in the club’s history – meant so much.
It was a big day for the club and was George’s first trophy as manager. He went on to win a few more, of course. Many say it kick-started all the success that continues to this day, elevating the club above Tottenham. All I remember after Wembley was waking up the next day feeling awful. I had chicken pox and spent the next fortnight sweating buckets in bed!
When Leicester City striker Alan Smith came to the club in 1987, it put one more massive obstacle in my way to being a first-team regular. He was a class act and anyone who played with him will tell you the same. I was still learning my trade but Alan was the finished article.
So I was playing second fiddle to him; the problem was he rarely got injured and was never suspended. And he scored goals. Lots of them. He won the Golden Boot in the 1988/89 season. Ireland had qualified for the 1990 World Cup and Jack Charlton told me I really needed to be playing regular football – whether at Highbury, or elsewhere.
But I only played occasionally. I thought I was going to be on the bench when we won the league at Anfield in ’89. George said he would throw me on for the last 20 minutes if we still needed a goal. In fact, it was a late call to put Martin Hayes and Perry Groves – essentially lots of pace – on the bench, rather than a big aerial target (me).
I watched much of the game with our reserve goalkeeper Alan Miller behind the goal that Micky Thomas scored in. We were just a few yards from him when he scored that memorable winner. We had a terrific night back at a Greek nightclub called ‘Winners’ in Southgate. But the fact remained I was not getting in the team.
I badgered George to let me go and, finally, in March 1990 Howard Kendall took me to Manchester City. And he believed in me – it was a terrific move.
I’d play foot tennis for an hour and half after training at City to improve my game ‘on the floor’. I became a technically better player. I scored 22 goals in my first season at Maine Road. Looking back on Arsenal it was a terrific time, but I regret that people saw me as that lump up front.
I proved afterwards I wasn’t. I learned my trade at Arsenal – everyone was terrific. Colin Hill giving me lifts to training, the kit man Tony Donnelly was lovely, my mate Tony Adams, David Rocastle was just fantastic, as a player and as a man.
I could go on. I do still pine a little for the old Highbury. I walked past there fairly recently and thought back to all those wonderful times.
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