The Boy Inside
By Robert Exley
Arsenal fans that grew up to play for their team
All boyhood fans grow up with the wish to one day play for the side they support. Similarly, as supporters we all wish for the players to support the club as much as we do. So, what of those lucky few who actually have realised their dream and turned out for the Arsenal? Well, oddly enough, not always have they treated the club well and conversely, not always have the fans or club for that matter, treated them as one of their own. Last August, Robin Van Persie stated during the press conference which unveiled him as United’s new signing that ‘'I listened to the little boy inside me ... that boy was screaming for Man United'. In the summer of 2005, the boy inside was actually screaming for a damn good lawyer. However just a few years prior, as the picture on this website page clearly shows, the actual boyhood Van Persie was in fact an Arsenal, and not United, fan. I am no cunning linguist myself, however after having been offered £250,000 per week I can only assume the phrase ‘the boy inside’ must closely resemble the Dutch word for ‘accountant’. After all, here’s word from the lips of the boy himself, stating that rather than a long harboured dream to turn out for United, ‘My dream is to play for Feyenoord first and then for Arsenal or Barcelona, that’s my dream’.
In recent years, another former boyhood fan to be lucky enough to play for the club is Ashley Cole. The Stepney-born former Mr. Cheryl Tweedy’s boyhood support of Arsenal has actually been verified to me by people I know who were acquainted with him when growing up and yes, I can vouch that it is a true story. Martin Keown also backs this up by stating that ‘He had a great deal of respect for senior players because he was an Arsenal fan living the dream just training with us’. On Twitter, Ashley cited David Rocastle as his Footballing idol when growing up and even recalled meeting the Arsenal legend, stating ‘he was a winger like I was and took time to chat when I met him as a kid. I miss him’. It’s a shame Ashley didn’t study Rocky’s way of doing things a little further. On leaving Arsenal, boyhood Palace fan Rocky wept tears of woe, as opposed to Ashley Cole who nearly drove his car off the road over a measly £55,000 a week (call me petty if you will, but why has Cole never faced prosecution for admitting to driving while using his mobile on the busy North Circular Road?). Rocky also refused to speak to Spurs after they made a move for him in 1993 out of respect for Arsenal fans, Ashley in 2005 however couldn’t wait to negotiate with our then title rivals.
However, even the most revered of former Arsenal fans turned players have argued over wages and have even flirted with the enemy. In the many PR operations that the Holloway-born Charlie George carries out for the Arsenal, he apparently cannot bring himself to refer to our near rivals by name and simply refers to them as ‘that lot up the road’. He did however nearly sign for them in 1975, Spurs even going so far as to line up a press conference to announce their steal until Derby came in at the eleventh hour. Back in the mid-1990s, on a late Friday Night old Big Match highlights repackage show called ‘There’s Only One Brian Moore’ on LWT, Charlie revealed this to be so and when jokingly booed by the audience, meekly said in mitigation ‘it’s just a job at the end of the day, isn’t it?’. Charlie of course still holds the Arsenal close to his heart; however nearly let his personality clash with Bertie Mee stretch to the extent that he was ready to move to N17 and wear the hated lilywhite shirt with a Cockerel on the chest which previously boasted a proud Canon, purely out of spite.
That said, Charlie’s relationship with the fans was often better than that with his manager and the club itself. He states that ‘I always got on fine with the Arsenal supporters because they saw me as one of their own. I liked a drink and a bet and they could either find me down the local or down the bookies. I was on first-name terms with half of them. I'd see them down the pub after a game and they knew they could come over and have a chat. I wasn't one of them footballers that hid behind the velvet rope. I didn't ponce it up like some superstar. There was no chance of me getting an ego because the supporters would keep me in check. If they thought I was talking b******s they'd tell me so. If I'd had a bad game they'd say, 'F*** me, Charlie, you were useless today. You couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo.' And I'd say, 'Fair point. Now get the beers in’.
Charlie hadn’t been the only one of the ’71 Double squad playing for his boyhood heroes. Jon Sammels too had grown up an Arsenal fan. It was he who also ended the 17 year trophy drought by scoring the goal that won the Fairs Cup at Highbury in 1970, but unlike Charlie was not fully appreciated by the crowd as one of their own. The story of Jon Sammels is fully told here by Brian Dawes’s article of a few years ago a snippet of which includes this quote from Sammels in his autobiography: ’I had a constant feeling of frustration. I went out in matches, tried to do my best and, to my horror, began to realise that the crowd was getting at me. It was a terrible feeling. Today I can put my finger on the trouble. If there was a crowd of fifty thousand at Highbury I would be trying to please every man-jack of them. Of course this is impossible. If a player satisfies only half of the fans he can consider he has done well. At the time I was unmarried and had no one to whom I could confide my inner thoughts. I simply went home and worried. It all seemed so unfair. If only I had not been trying on the field, I could have understood it, but I had always given a hundred per cent’. Sammels had been sidelined by the time of the ’71 Double triumph and had placed a transfer request around the same time as Arsenal were displaying their silverware through the streets of Islington.
Another former fan who later became a target for the boo-boys had been Kevin Campbell. Rising up through the ranks, the star of our 1988 FA Youth Cup winning side later became a member of GG’s last title winning side in 1991, as well as a frustrating member of our double cup winning side of 1993. His inconsistency made him a target for the discontented Highbury crowd, particularly in our FA Cup replay defeat against Bolton Wanderers from the second tier in January 1994. He was sold to Nottingham Forest by Bruce Rioch and more particularly, by Dennis Bergkamp’s arrival in 1995. On his return in August of that year, he was booed again by the Highbury crowd, however scored Forest’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw. Campbell however bears no grudge toward the Arsenal. A decade ago, despite by this time being a regular at Everton, it had been reported in the press that he had named his home ‘Highbury House’ in honour of his former idols.
Another product of the 1980s Arsenal youth production line who may well have been standing on the North Bank just a few years prior to playing for Arsenal had been Martin Keown. Born in Oxford to Irish parents from both sides of the border, young Martin was raised to admire a side that contained at least six Irishmen, as well as a manager from the Emerald isle. Martin realised his dream of joining Arsenal as a youth in 1980 and broke into the first team at the fag-end of Don Howe’s three year reign in 1985/86 at the expense of the rapidly declining Tommy Caton and made a positive impact on the side forming a solid partnership with David O’Leary. History could have been drastically different, as John Spurling in his account of Arsenal in the 1980s ‘All Guns Blazing’ told that ‘Tony Adams, still sidelined with a leg injury, must have wondered if his days at Highbury were now numbered’.
Martin seemed destined for a glittering future at the heart of the Arsenal defence until George Graham took over at the helm. Martin was sold to Aston Villa for £200,000 for asking for an extra £50 a week in his pay packet and Adams as a by-product went on to be the defensive rock which the Graham era was built upon. On the surface it looked like bad business. Martin eventually found his way back to Highbury in 1993 for ten times the fee we sold him for, however his transfer had laid down a precedent to would-be recalcitrant players on the contract front which remained until the Anelka saga thirteen summers later, by which time Keown had been back at Highbury for six years and now a veteran cornerstone of the defence Wenger inherited.
Of Keown’s former team mates from the mid-1980s, Steve Williams also realised the dream. After eight years and 277 appearances for Southampton, Williams joined his boyhood side in December 1984. As John Spurling notes ‘When he arrived at Highbury he shouted from the rooftops that he was an Arsenal fan , that his parents met on the North Bank and that his favourite players were Charlie George and John Radford’. However it would take a while for him to win over the crowd, particularly after early run-ins with Don Howe and after conceding the penalty which sealed our 4th Round exit to a third tier York City that year. Highbury Spy Steve Ashford, quoted in ‘All Guns Blazing’ remarked that ‘A lot of fans weren’t sure about him – you know really 50-50….A lot of fans thought ‘oh f**k off back to Southampton Williams’ and it took him a long time to win over with that attitude’. Williams defended his outspoken nature stating that ‘I couldn’t stand players who didn’t have the spirit, ones who made excuses and didn’t get stuck in’. Howe looked to off load Williams early to QPR; however in talks with the Rs, Williams deliberately priced himself out of the market as he wanted to remain at Arsenal.
It was Graham’s arrival in 1986 that brought Williams to the fore noticing his competitive spirit; he eventually won over many of the fans too in the process regularly going toe to toe with midfield battlers of the day such as Steve McMahon, Bryan Robson or Ossie Ardiles. GG had also utilized Williams as a mentor to the younger players like Rocastle and Thomas, however lost his place to the latter during the 1988 League Cup run and had failed to win his place back resulting in his exit to Luton the following summer. Apparently GG was not impressed that Williams had sulked about his non-inclusion, also failing to attend the League Cup Final at Wembley that year, the tabloid press alleging that he chose to watch the Eastenders omnibus instead – which Williams later refuted.
Of today’s side, Carl Jenkinson comes from an Arsenal season ticket holding family and Per Mertesacker has also been a fan since his teens and allegedly couldn’t stomach the 8-2 defeat to United which occurred just on the eve of his signing for Arsenal. However in terms of developing a winning side is there any significance of players being former fans themselves? Well, on re-signing the original Arsenal fan turned player 87 years ago, the club effectively build their name as a force to be reckoned with. Born in Plumstead to parents from the same Scottish diaspora within the Woolwich area to that which founded the club just five years prior to his birth, Charlie Buchan is undoubtedly the first known case of a boyhood Arsenal fan turning out for the club. Buchan states that: ‘Every Saturday afternoon I went down to the Manor Field to see what I could of Arsenal’s League and Reserve sides. As my weekly pocket money was the princely sum of one penny, I could not pay the three pence admission into the ground. I waited outside, listening to the roars and cheers of the crowd, until about 10 minutes before the end when the big, wide gates were thrown open to allow the crowd to trek out. In I rushed with the other Soccer crazy boys to see the finish of the game. It was enough to get a glimpse of my heroes and to watch the way they played the game’
Buchan won his first ever trophy for his school, the Woolwich Schools Shield, on the Manor Ground which had been home to Woolwich Arsenal at the time, stating that ‘I remember what a thrill it gave me to turn out on the league ground of my boyhood heroes, certainly a dream come true’. In 1908 he was offered the chance to play for Arsenal reserves against Croydon Common, for which he had to skip school for the day. He was found out by his school master due to the local newspaper’s headline of ‘schoolboy scores for the Arsenal’ as Buchan marked his debut with a goal. The dream was initially to end prematurely on a sour note however when Buchan was forced to leave Arsenal over a dispute with Secretary-Manager George Morrell about an expenses bill of eleven schillings for the tram journey to and from matches, equivalent to 55p in today’s money. He left to join Kentish side Northfleet as an amateur, later making his name during a 14 year spell with Sunderland by scoring an incredible 209 goals in 307 matches.
Buchan however was later to return ‘home’, even if home was now twelve and a half miles North from Plumstead. Herbert Chapman had called into Buchan’s sports shop in Sunderland personally to tell him they news that Sunderland had accepted their bid and to discuss terms. Buchan went to Arsenal in a deal which was eventually worth £4100. Arsenal paid £2000 as a down payment and thereafter £100 per goal scored in Buchan’s first season. Chapman’s predecessor, Leslie Knighton was sacked by Sir Henry Norris for initially offering Sunderland £7000 for Buchan’s signature, at a time when Norris placed a limit of just £1000. After Chapman convinced Norris to remove the limit on transfer fees, Norris had seen the error of his ways and stated that he later regretted sacking Knighton, even leaving him £100 in his will.
Buchan went on to captain Arsenal’s first Cup winning side and was part of the foundations for what would be Arsenal’s decade of success throughout the 1930s. Rumour has it, it was he who suggested the revolutionary ‘WM’ formation to Chapman, which was a cornerstone of our success for the following decade. However, Buchan was sadly never to taste success with the Arsenal as he retired from playing in 1928, just two years before Arsenal’s first ever trophy, winning the 1930 FA Cup Final against Chapman’s former club Huddersfield. Buchan, as Chapman’s first marquee signing, was the foundation stone for what followed and yet isn’t, as you would expect, commemorated as one of the 32 names which adorn the outside of our shiny new twenty first century Stadium. However, looking over the club’s turbulent historical relationship with former Arsenal fans turned players ever since, it’s probably not that much of a surprise.
*Follow me on Twitter@robert_exley
1st November 2012
User Comment and Reaction
User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.
Ron 10:27am 1st Nov 2012
I enjoyed reading that. Well done. PS As a kid i was at the game v West Bromwich Albion when Charlie scored his first goal. We were right behind the goal in the West Bromwich End and had to keep stum! Charlie from the corner of the pen box, past the keepers right hand and into the corner. 1.0 win. Great stuff. Ive told Charlie too! Albion were very strong at The Hawthorns in those days. - Post No. 30009
Ealing Gooner 10:55am 1st Nov 2012
Excellent article, especially the quotes involving "the boy inside". It does seem strange that it's the boyhood Gooners who seem to get the most stick at times (Perry Groves was another), but some like Mr Tweedy bring it on themselves. Does anyone know if the likes of Wilshere and Frimpong are Arsenal fans? Also don't forget the number of Arsenal fans who ended up at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, like Johnnie Jackson, Darren Bent, Stuart Nethercott (once a JG mascot at WHL), even 'Arry himself has admitted that he went to Highbury as a kid with his granddad. - Post No. 30010
SteveP 12:58pm 1st Nov 2012
your article held interest for me, even as a non-gooner, but you share the same misguided spleen over Ashley Cole. His reaction was that the club had reneged on a verbal agreement offering more than the £55k sum, hence his displeasure. oh & ever heard of hands-free. - Post No. 30014
maguiresbridge gooner 15:19pm 1st Nov 2012
You don't see to many of the players of today in a pub usually in a vip area drinking moet although charlie is fond of a glass himself.Its good to be reminded of history now and again.Good read. - Post No. 30018
billthered 15:38pm 1st Nov 2012
Great article but what should be stated is the players that have become Gooners after playing for us.Tony Adams,Frank Mclintock,Lee Dixon,Nutty Nigel,Bob Wilson,Uncle Bouldy and endless others,it's just a reminder boys whilst not everything is rosy at the moment it's our club if not team at the moment. - Post No. 30019
Robert Exley 17:54pm 1st Nov 2012
Steve P - I've heard that celebs often Google their name on a daily basis, so Ashley try harder next time. - Post No. 30021
Desperate Dan 21:35pm 1st Nov 2012
That decision not to pay Cashley £60k a week was the start of the downward spiral to where we are now.Diaby Rosicky and Chamakh all on £60k a week and they never play.Anyway what has Cashley won since he left?Nothing - Post No. 30024
weststandlower 23:37pm 1st Nov 2012
good article, much better then some absolute cack that gets put up on here - Post No. 30025
Fozzy's mate 18:28pm 2nd Nov 2012
Mr Exley a nice piece of nostalgia. An enjoyable read to boot. Ashley Cole disappointed me big time. A local lad who very rarely had a poor game and got stuck in. Many who know him more than us also say in reality he is a shy lad. I think on reflection we can be a tiny bit forgiving as no doubt fame turned his head. But with our boards supine and cash loving attitude, we have rolled over and let the fans heroes go to often now. I remember weeping as a 9 year old when Stapleton joined manure. But some legends would never go unless they had no choice. Our hearts mow lie with the likes of Wilsher and Jenkinson. I hope they join the likes of Rocky, TA and co as true legends of the club. - Post No. 30041
20th May 2013
Online Ed: 4th place trophy and CL qualifier secured