The international break is well and truly upon us. No real football for another eleven days as I type, and then Liverpool come to the Grove for a match that could have a massive bearing on the end of season placings. So I thought I would look at some of the players who wore the colours of both clubs down the years.
I have already written a piece about one, Geoff Strong, an idol of the very young me, on the occasion of his passing just under a couple of years ago. He was a success at both clubs and is still revered by those who saw him in north London and on Merseyside today.
Ironically the next big name to make that move north was another who hailed from the north-east, who featured as a striker for us, but like Geoff would show more versatility at Anfield. Rejected by the famous Sir Stanley Matthews at Port Vale, Ray Kennedy was working in a sweet factory and playing amateur football with New Hartley Juniors when Arsenal signed him in May 1968, turning professional six months later.
Ray got his first team baptism as a substitute in a European Fairs Cup tie at Glentoran in September 1969, but it was his second appearance, also as a substitute, that would set the tone for what was to follow. In the first leg of the final of the same competition the Gunners were three goals down to an excellent Anderlecht team on their own patch.
The 18-year-old was summoned from the bench and scored a memorable goal to give us a glimmer of hope for the second-leg, which of course was to provide our first trophy for seventeen years.
At the start of the following season young Ray must have wondered how many opportunities he would get from the bench. Arsenal had John Radford, George Graham, and Charlie George to score goals. He didn’t even feature for the opening league fixture at Goodison where Arsenal battled to a 2-2 draw, but as he scored Charlie George collided with goalkeeper Gordon West and broke his ankle. Two nights later Ray got his first start alongside Radford in a goalless draw against West Ham United at Upton Park.
From small acorns, as they say. After that blank sheet the partnership of Radford and Kennedy would terrorise top flight defences. Ray opened his account with the only goal of the game at home to Huddersfield, notched his second in a 2-1 win at Burnley, and then went on an astonishing run for one so inexperienced. Nine goals in eight games included his first hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest.
Ever present bar the opening day, Ray went on to play in 63 of the Gunners 64 competitive matches, scoring a remarkable 26 goals. Not bad for a teenager. Enhancing his reputation as a scorer of big goals it was Ray, who else, who climbed to head home the goal that won Arsenal the first leg of the double at White Hart Lane. Five days later he added to his medal collection as Liverpool were beaten at Wembley.
Quite remarkable was the young man’s all round ability. Not just a powerful header of goals he, like Raddy, was a wonderful outlet. A target man who, like his partner, withstood weekly clatterings into the back of his calves and ankles, so often deemed legitimate at that time. He could finish with both feet too, and brought his colleagues into play with tidy distribution.
Ray remained Raddy’s preferred strike partner in the following seasons, but gradually a little inconsistency crept into his performances, and for a very good reason as we were to find out much later. In 1971/72 he made another 55 appearances and scored 19 more goals. He was just a substitute as the team lost the Centenary FA Cup Final to Leeds. The following season he scored 11 times in just 42 appearances although ever-present in the second half of the season.
Ironically in his final season in Arsenal colours he played in each and every one of a fading powers 46 matches. His haul of 13 goals made him joint top scorer with Alan Ball. It was still something of a surprise though that Liverpool paid £180,000 for Ray in July 1974 (contrary to popular belief he was not Bill Shankly’s last signing). Bob Paisley had spotted something in Ray and, unable to fit him into an attack that already featured Toshack and Keegan, he converted him into a left-sided midfielder with responsibility to create as well as score goals.
Ten major honours came Ray’s way in six years at Anfield, plus 17 caps for England. He usually got an appreciative hand on his return to Highbury. As at Arsenal though there were days when he found motivation difficult. They were coming more often. Ray moved on to Swansea under his old team-mate Toshack in 1982, but there was to be an unfortunate parting of the ways when the Swans manager was critical of Ray’s contribution.
A final season at Hartlepool seemed a harsh way for such an accomplished player to bow out. However just a couple of years later the big man was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the increasing inconsistency he had displayed became completely understandable.
Today Ray lives, not surprisingly, a quiet life with his family. His drug regime is constantly being changed to try to ease the symptoms of his disease. In his book, ‘A Ray Of Hope’ the big man recalls noticing the tremors in his Arsenal days. On one occasion he couldn’t fasten his shirt buttons, but the symptoms came and went so he ignored them. That he went on to play at such a high level as the condition developed is a credit to his character, his strength, and his determination.
Thanks Ray, for helping to make my teenage years such a blast. Watching you and Raddy in full cry will always, I hope, stay fresh in the forefront of the memory. The Mickeys thought you could play a bit too.