Sammy Nelson

Defining Moments - Sammy Nelson

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 Sammy Nelson is next to recall his favourites.


Leaving Belfast for Arsenal was huge for me. I was just a young lad, a teenager. I actually went to a rugby playing school – The Royal Belfast Academical Institution – but it was always football for me.

Nothing else mattered. I recall playing against George Best, who was a couple of years older than me, when he was at the Cregagh Boys Club. When I played with him in the Northern Ireland team years later he remembered everything about those days. In fact, years later Liam Brady and I went for a meal at a place called Football Football in Piccadilly and there was a pair of George’s boots on display, signed by him, with the names of youth clubs and teams he had played against as a boy.

"Gary Bailey thought he’d get the ball but he missed it and Alan Sunderland scored to win it 3-2. Phew. Afterwards we had a celebration meal but my wife was expecting our child so it wasn’t a particularly late or raucous evening for myself"

Sammy Nelson

Not Benfica or Real Madrid, or other European giants. But his opponents from back home. That spoke volumes about him. What a lovely guy. Back then as a kid, my dream was to be a pro footballer in England. I had been scouted in my early teens by a chap called Billy Wright, who shared his name with the then Arsenal manager.

Only this Billy was Irish. Then Arsenal took on another scout called Nick Heron, from Dublin, who covered the whole island of Ireland. These days they have a big scouting network, but back then just one guy was covering such a large area! My dad – who was called Sam – was an Arsenal fan so I was too. Coming to Highbury at 16 changed everything.

It was amazing to arrive at such a big club with an impressive history. It was a great time to arrive as the likes of Pat Rice, Charlie George, Ray Kennedy and many more were arriving too. Roger Davidson was another guy I became really good friends with. It was daunting but leaving Belfast for north London was a dream come true.


Beating Sunderland over two legs in the 1966 Youth Cup final was a major thing. It was only my first season and here I was with a winner’s medal. It was a magical summer really because the whole country was caught up with football fever and a few short weeks later England, of course, went on to win the World Cup.

That was 50 years ago – wow. There were so many great young players at the club and the camaraderie was very special. Bob Wilson, Peter Storey, Peter Simpson, Jon Sammels… player after player who went on to win the Fairs Cup in 1970 and then the ‘double’ the year after.

Billy Wright, the manager, left that summer and Bertie Mee came in, but it really is worth reminding people the foundations Billy left for that future success. He doesn’t get the credit at all for what he did but he played a big role. His legacy was felt at the Club for years afterwards when that success came. Ernie Walley was the youth team coach and he was a hard taskmaster.

But that is what we needed. Discipline and hard work. It is those qualities that our later success was built on. We had a great mix of kids from Ireland, Scotland, the Midlands, Yorkshire, London, of course… all over the place. But we were a great team together.


When you talk about discipline and hard work, Don Howe is right there at the very top. What a great coach he was. I started as a left winger but he pushed me back into a fullback position and I found my natural position.

Don just spotted things and knew what he was doing. He was streets ahead. If I had remained a winger and not changed position – or, rather, if Don had not changed my position – maybe I would never have succeeded at Arsenal. Probably not, to be honest. I played a few games as sub in the ‘double’ year but not enough to win a medal.

The commitment and loyalty of the team was exceptional. Everybody fought for each other, everybody had everybody’s back. Don really worked us hard, he was such a conscientious man who commanded total commitment. His knowledge was amazing and if others had ideas he was willing to listen – as long as they had a very good reason for their viewpoint.

He would encourage people to explain. That was healthy. We loved Don, he had complete respect for the man, and I personally owe him a debt of gratitude.


The 1979 FA Cup final was probably the best moment for me as an Arsenal player, but it should never have been so close. We should have been 3-0 or even 4-0 up before Manchester United pulled it back to 2-2.

We’d taken a two-goal lead and were totally dominating them. They had no answer. It was a very good performance by us and we controlled all elements of the game. David Price was replaced by Steve Walford and then, for whatever reason, United turned the tide.

They nicked a goal back out of nothing and then we were shot. They just ran all over us and got a second goal quickly. Did I think we were beaten? No. But I did look up at the Royal Box and think to myself ‘we should have been walking up there in a few minutes to collect that trophy’.

Then the match restarted, I kicked the ball forward, Frank Stapleton fed the ball to Liam Brady who went on a run and pushed the ball to Graham Rix who hit a deep, curling cross (another thing Don Howe had got us working on in training).

Gary Bailey thought he’d get the ball but he missed it and Alan Sunderland scored to win it 3-2. Phew. Afterwards we had a celebration meal but my wife was expecting our child so it wasn’t a particularly late or raucous evening for myself. It was just really nice, especially for the fans who had seen us lose the previous year’s final to Ipswich.