Feature

Charlie Nicholas

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.

Charlie Nicholas is next to recall his favourite memories.
 

NEARLY A SPUR...

Not a lot of people know this – in fact, I’m unsure if this has ever come out – but I could have ended up being a Spurs player. They came in for me before anyone else. It was December 1982 and Spurs legend Bill Nicholson contacted Celtic to ask to be kept informed of my situation.

For me it was a non-starter because I was flying at Celtic, the club I loved, and could never see myself leaving. Suffice to say, I never spoke to them. But then Celtic told me I could leave. I didn’t see that coming at all. But in those days clubs completely controlled the players.

Once I got my head around it and swallowed my pride, I had to decide on where to go. Liverpool were the best club in Europe at the time and wanted me, but then so did Arsenal. Liverpool should have been the club.

But in my head all I could hear was ‘The Arsenal, The Arsenal, The Arsenal’. I loved the way Don Howe called them ‘The’ Arsenal. It was special. The club was incredibly professional, more so than any other club I have encountered. And the history. I loved the red shirts with the white sleeves too.

And coming from Celtic – a club with a huge Irish connection – I had seen Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Pat Rice, Pat Jennings and many other Irishmen turn out for the Gunners.

It all added up for me. I signed for Arsenal. Sorry, The Arsenal.
 

FATHER FIGURE

I had one at Celtic. Danny McGrain. What a guy. He was respected by all, strong, powerful, kind… everything a young lad needed at a massive club like Celtic. He was always there.

But I didn’t have that at Arsenal. What I did have was some ruthless critics.

I was 21 years old, had been in London for three months and realised that was what I was missing the most – someone to look after me. Terry Neill, the manager, told me he was trying to re-sign Liam Brady. They were also pursuing Ray Wilkins. Vladimir Petrovic – a wonderful Yugoslav international – had been at the club the previous season.

So it looked like Arsenal were looking for better players. But they didn’t materialise. And all the pressure was on me. If things were going badly, the press were on my back. As I said, three months in I realised I was the one they were coming after.

Tony Woodcock was one of the best finishers in Europe. Kenny Sansom, David O’Leary and Graham Rix were all top class and could have got in the Liverpool team. But we needed more top players. I was also shocked that players called Terry Neill ‘Terry’. He was the boss and we should have been calling him ‘boss’ or gaffer’. Not ‘Terry’.

Don Howe was amazing – a coach on another level who demanded everyone’s respect – but I still needed that Danny McGrain-type figure. When things were going wrong, it was all coming back on me, the expensive glamour signing. My debut was unremarkable, then I scored a couple at Wolves and then that was it for months. Pat Jennings would invite me around for dinner, as did David O’Leary with his wife, Joy. Pat was the senior guy but very quiet, although quite possibly one of the loveliest guys you could ever wish to meet – he wasn’t always going to be there for me like Danny. David was too young. I felt a little on my own and struggled to settle because of it.
 

ANONYMOUS FACE

Glasgow derbies are fervent. There are other aspects to Celtic v Rangers you don’t get elsewhere. I did well in them though. And I did well in north London derbies too. I had that big game mentality – the bigger the game, the more they got out of me.

I’d actually scored at Spurs three times earlier in the season – once when we won 2-1 in the League Cup and then I got two when we hammered them 4-2 in the league at Christmas time.

The following April we beat Spurs 3-2 at Highbury and I scored a goal they still talk about today, when I dribbled through their defence and dinked the ball into the far corner – right in front of the North Bank.

I remember Paul Miller falling over as he was wrong footed and the ball nestling in the net. Then pandemonium. I ran into the North Bank and my abiding memory is this contorted face of this guy in the crowd. There is a moment in life when you stare into somebody else’s eyes and this was it. I can picture his face right now, like it was yesterday. The North Bank was so close to the pitch and I could not take my eyes off this guy, it was like he had completely lost it.

I thought he was going to explode. Whenever I look back on that game – and that goal – his face is the first thing that comes into my head.
 

THE STREETS OF ISLINGTON

George Graham came to the club in May ’86 and it was all change. He was a talented coach who had complete authority – and he was more interested in the team ethic, rather than individuals. You could feel things were coming together.

We reached the Littlewoods Cup final in April and I was determined to be fit, even though I had been struggling with a knee injury first picked up at Nottingham Forest earlier in the season. I really worked hard to make that game, real intensive training. It was touch and go but I made the team.

I’d been used to winning trophies at Celtic and hadn’t expected it to take so long to have a chance of silverware at Arsenal. Ian Rush scored first – and Liverpool never lost when he scored first – but it was mine and Arsenal’s day. I was in the right place after hitting the post to tuck away a second chance to level. Then I scored with a wild deflection that totally wrong footed Bruce Grobbelaar. We won 2-1.

I remember Bob Wilson behind the goal jumping higher than anyone else. I was going to hug him but thought better of it – after all, he was working as an unbiased journalist!

But what I really remember was going to Islington Town Hall with the trophy. There were thousands and thousands of people out. Well over 100,000 – probably many more. It was at that moment I realised how big the club was. I had been there for three years but hadn’t appreciated it. Many had stayed away because the football had not always been great.

But that was a truly defining moment because I understood the sheer scale of Arsenal Football Club. When I was at Celtic we never did trophy tours around Glasgow, but that day in Islington blew me away.
 

ONE LAST TRY

My contract was up in the summer of ’87. In those days you couldn’t just leave as a free agent, the club could still demand a fee for you. George and I had a strange relationship. He was not a confrontational type, he wasn’t a shouter or a baller.

But after my two goals in the Littlewoods Cup final we decided on a new one-year contract, an opportunity for me to show I could fit in to his style of play. Also, I could feel George was on to something at the club. The attitude had changed, there were exciting young players coming through, Arsenal was a club on the up.

There was one other thing that made me want to try again and sign on: the fans.

That image of all those thousands and thousands of fans on the streets of Islington really made an impression on me. Alan Smith had joined the club and George had stressed the importance of pressing and pressing. But I realised pretty quickly into the 1987/88 season that it was not for me. I played the first three games and it was in the third – on the plastic pitch at QPR – where I struggled.

I knew it wasn’t for me. Niall Quinn, Perry Groves and Smith were all pushing for places and playing. The older players like myself, Graham Rix and Kenny Sansom were on our way out.

QPR 2-0 Arsenal, on August 22, 1987, was my last game for the club.

I had always wanted to try my luck abroad. But George denied me that. I talked to Toulon and was really up for playing in France. Ken Friar – who was and is a great man – even came with me. Ken was one of the first people I spoke to when I realised I had to leave and try and resurrect my career elsewhere.

But George said no. Just like that. No. I don’t know why but I wish he’d said yes. Brian Clough came in for me – he wanted to take me to Nottingham Forest – as did Derby County. But George then said he didn’t want to sell me to another English club.

I have to stress, I really didn’t want to leave Arsenal. There was and is no bitterness towards the club. I love Arsenal. But I had to leave to save my career. Then Aberdeen made contact. I have to say, the north east of Scotland was not top of my list – I wanted to play somewhere warmer – but I spoke to them and signed in the first week of January 1988.

It broke my heart when I left Arsenal, believe me.

Aberdeen worked out well for me. I mean, Aberdeen hadn’t been part of the plan, but I ended up winning a couple of trophies and had a terrific time up there. I will never regret my time at Arsenal, but it was a shame it ended like it did.

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