In 'Defining Moments', former Arsenal stars select the situations that defined their career with the Gunners.
Terry Neill is next to recall his favourite memories.
A night at the flicks
So there I was, watching a film at the local flicks (that means ‘cinema’ for the younger generation) with a young lady, back in my home town in Bangor.
It was a Saturday night and at the intermission I opened my Belfast Telegraph sports supplement to discover I, young Terry Neill, a young hopeful at my local club, Bangor, was apparently heading to The Arsenal. The journalist was a chap called Malcolm Brodie, an absolute legend in Northern Irish sports circles. He knew everyone.
Malcolm was actually Scottish and came over to Northern Ireland when he was fairly young and stayed to become one of the absolutely true greats of journalism – I would actually say he was a genius. He became a dear friend of mine and many others, including Sir Alex Ferguson.
So back then, as a young lad sat in that cinema, when I saw dear Malcolm had written the story, I knew it would be true. That said, did I want to go? Well, I was settled, had a wonderful family and had enjoyed an idyllic childhood. My dad Billy was my best pal. I had good friends anyway and I was serving my apprenticeship as an engineer. So my job prospects were good. Not to mention the fact I was playing football for my local club and enjoying it.
In short, I really wasn’t too fussed about moving to London.
At the end of the film, I folded my paper up and went home. Arsenal thought I’d rush over to sign. I spoke to my dear dad and decided to go to The Arsenal.
December 23, 1960. That was the day I made my Arsenal debut at Sheffield Wednesday. The boss George Swindin had called me over in the pre-match hotel and said to me: “Terry, do you think you are ready to make your debut?” Now my instinct told me to say ‘give it another month, boss’. I was only a kid, I think just 18 years old at the time. “Well, you are taking Tommy Docherty’s place today,” added the boss. I was petrified because I thought Tommy would murder me. Then Tommy was the first person I bumped into afterwards. He had been brilliant to me from the moment I arrived at the club.
And here was how I rewarded him for all his kindness: by stealing his place in the team! In reality, he was absolutely brilliant about it. He could not have been more encouraging. I went out at Hillsborough and made an instant impression by scoring a debut goal. The corner came over, I controlled the ball on my thigh, before volleying it into the top corner past their great goalkeeper, Ron Springett. I never forgot Tommy’s generosity. Many years later when he left Porto I brought him in as an assistant to me at Hull. He was staying with friends in Rotherham and the rumour was the Scotland job was coming up and he was in the running, but he needed to be working. We had a pre-season friendly against the Japanese national side and I was player-manager. I could not believe my eyes when the sub board came up with my number. “Tommy, I was doing OK out there. I’m the manager!” I yelled. He had the biggest grin: “Well, I’m now the Scotland manager!” I couldn’t have been happier for him and he left with my blessing.
Within a year of signing for The Arsenal I had made my debut. And by the time I was 20 I became the youngest captain in the club’s history, a record Tony Adams would eventually break. It was pre-season and Billy Wright, who had replaced Swindin, just tossed me the armband. It was a really big surprise. Billy told me there was a lot of me in him. I wasn’t the greatest player, there were those with more experience and more talent, but I worked hard. I was a grafter. And for that to come from a great player like Billy meant an awful lot. Some of the younger lads would go off to the snooker halls after training, or have a few beers. But I didn’t. I was not really a drinker and was more concerned about continuing my studies at Regent Street Polytechnic for when I needed a ‘proper job’. But I was also happy to accept the responsibility of being captain of Arsenal.
5 minutes of madness
In 1978 we had some bad injuries when we played Ipswich in the FA Cup final. I am not one for excuses, but it is true.
When the final whistle went and we had lost 1-0, their manager Bobby Robson came up to me and apologised. He was a genuine, decent man. How football needs people like Bobby. We had been favourites and it rocked us.
The next year we played Man United and had cruised into a 2-0 lead with five minutes remaining. But United came back and levelled with two quick goals. People don’t give United too much praise for doing that but they deserve a hell of a lot of credit. But thankfully we had one last moment of glory when Alan Sunderland flew in at the far post and scored the winner with just seconds to go. 3-2 to us. People ask what I felt at the final whistle. Well it was pure relief.
Bobby Robson was so gracious the previous year and I was the same to Dave Sexton and Tomm Kavanagh on the United bench. Dave had been a terrific coach at Highbury when I was a player and a great man. I kept my composure at the end but it was a close run thing.
I knew there was discontent amongst the fans. We had not been doing well in the opening half of the 1983/84 season and a defeat to Walsall in the Milk Cup was the final straw. It was a sad time for me and I had tried – and failed – to bring in new talent. I had gone for Michel Platini and even Diego Maradona.
I wanted these guys at Arsenal. Another one I really wanted was Frank Arnesen, the Denmark international at Ajax. He was an Arsenal fan and still, to this day whenever I see him, says “Terry, should have signed me for The Arsenal.” But I hadn’t. The unpleasant job of ‘sacking’ me went to our lovely chairman, Peter Hill-Wood. He and Harold Needler at Hull City were the two greatest chairmen in the game – ever. They were knowledgeable, generous, but had steel. It was difficult for Peter when the time came. He told me he had not slept for a week because he knew it was coming.
In actual fact, it has to be the most amicable sacking in the entire history of association football. I think I had a cup of tea. There was never a fall out. They had to do what they thought was right for the club and I respected that then and I respect that now. As a postscript, I was the first Arsenal player to be awarded a testimonial back in the 1960s. But I got hepatitis and was out of the team and then moved on to Hull.
I spoke with Barcelona about playing them but it didn’t happen because we were doing well at Hull.
I never did get that testimonial.
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