Feature

Nigel Winterburn

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 programmeNigel Winterburn is next to recall his favourite memories.

BIRMINGHAM TO WIMBLEDON (VIA OXFORD)

OK, so this is not a defining moment at Arsenal, but without it I would never have got to Arsenal. As a teenager I was at Birmingham under Jim Smith. But in my second year there Jim was sacked and Ron Saunders came in. I was released, but it just spurred me on to prove them wrong.

Jim took me down to Oxford but after just two weeks there Dave Bassett at Wimbledon had been in touch looking for a left back. Jim sent me down to London. Well, as a quiet bloke from the Midlands I was scared at the very thought of going down there on my own. Dave Bassett thought Jim had stitched him up.

My chance quickly came in a pre-season friendly, and as Dave still says, I “turned into a beast”. He thought I was an unassuming kid who was going to be eaten alive. Instead I was crunching into tackles and he loved it. Jim offered me a contract at Oxford but by then I wanted to stay at Wimbledon. This was in 1983 and I ended up being Player of the Year for the next four seasons. My transfer fee? I believe it was a bottle of whisky.

 

Nigel during his Wimbledon days

Nigel during his Wimbledon days

 

 

WIMBLEDON TO ARSENAL (VIA CHELSEA)

I had four great years at Wimbledon and I was being noticed. Chelsea wanted me and I even had talks with their manager (I think it was John Hollins, but I can’t quite remember). I waited to hear from them and then shortly after they announced they had signed Tony Dorigo – another left back. Never heard back from them.

Fortunately it worked out for the best as three days later Arsenal got in touch. George Graham brought me in and I was up against Kenny Sansom, England’s left back. But I wasn’t daunted – I just saw it as a challenge. I was played at right back at the start but, if I’m honest, the first six months was tough. I’d been used to playing in front of crowds of 6,000 at Wimbedon and it was a great buzz.

All of a sudden it was reserve football in front of a handful of fans. I had to bide my time. As for Chelsea, I remember little of our conversation now, but then things I don’t like I tend to block out.

 

Nigel Winterburn (left) with George Graham (centre) and Alan Smith (right)

Nigel Winterburn

 

 

MISSING THAT PENALTY...

As I said, I began playing on the right and adapted well. Micky Thomas was pushed further into midfield and Kenny was at left back still. From Christmas 1987 onwards, we didn’t have a recognised right back so I filled in. I knew I would get a first team chance and this was it.

Before I knew it, in my first full season I was playing in front of over 90,000 at Wembley in the 1988 League Cup final versus Luton. The League Cup was a much bigger trophy in those days. We’d missed a few pens that season – I think Micky had, and also the usually reliable Martin Hayes – so I’d stuck my hand up a few weeks earlier and said I was more than willing to take one.

I saw no reason not to, to be honest. But then we weren’t awarded a penalty for ages. Until Wembley. We were 2-1 up and this would have made it 3-1. It seemed unusual a left back playing at right back would step up to take the penalty, but if I’d taken one or two in the league nobody would have thought anything of it.

I ran up – only for Andy Dibble to make a great save. To make matters worse, Luton scored twice late on to win 3-2. It was a day to forget, but also a game I believe helped us win the title a year later. We’d experienced real pressure and we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose a trophy like that again.

 

Kingsley Black of Luton Town evades Winterburn's challenge

Kingsley Black of Luton Town evades Winterburn's challenge

 

 

ANFIELD '89

We had a couple of bad results in the build up to going to Anfield, losing at home to Derby and then drawing 2-2 with Wimbledon (a game in which I scored from 35 yards with my right foot – it was a great effort with one of the old Adidas Tangos, which were great to play with and really moved around in the air!).

I went into every single game believing we would win – and Anfield, despite the quality of the opposition, was no different. You always believe. That Liverpool team was special, one of the best in Europe, but George got his tactics bang on that night. He kept saying beforehand it was more important not to concede, because the longer the game went on at 0-0 the more they would panic. And if we could score a goal too, then who knows?

He was right. We scored and Liverpool didn’t know what to do – should they try and score or defend a 1-0 home defeat safe in the knowledge it would still clinch them the title? Micky Thomas had missed a chance pretty late on but when he ran through again in injury time I was confident he wouldn’t miss again. I had a great view actually as I was a few yards to his left and just behind him when he stuck the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. There is a big picture of Micky scoring in the players’ entrance and if it was just a little wider I would be just on the right of it charging up to support him!

Unfortunately for me, I’m just cropped out. I remember very little of the celebrations, as you can imagine, but there is no two ways about it: that game, and that split second, may just have changed the course of the club’s history.

Would we have won the title again in 1991? Then both cups in 1993 and the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later? Who knows?

It was the standout game of my career and one I will never – could never – forget.

 

Winterburn (centre, with a hand on the trophy) at Anfield in 1989

Winterburn

 

 
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