Cropley, Hudson, Petrovic – What If?

Recalling a trio of Arsenal’s midfield maestros from the mid 1970s through to the early 80s

Cropley, Hudson, Petrovic – What If?

It was Alan Hudson’s birthday recently, and social media was full of messages of good wishes to, and fond memories of, one of the great 1970s footballing mavericks. Alan’s talent was one which still flourished within the physically intimidating, and helter-skelter atmosphere of football which prevailed back then, one which could push creativity and intelligence, at times, to the margins. Hudson’s career at Highbury was brief, too brief by far, but still contained enough moments which echo down the years, and resonate with supporters of a certain vintage; passages of games which stand as a testament to a player who burst on to the scene full of promise, verve and brio, but who departed leaving only a trace of the complex and satisfying tastes he had within his gift to bestow. It is forever a regret that Hudson’s Arsenal career is one which ultimately has a sense of disappointment about it: that occasions like his second half substitute appearance against Man City in a League Cup quarter-final replay in 1978, when he turned the game our way, came so bafflingly infrequently.

Hudson’s Highbury era sits bookended, appropriately enough, by two similarly blighted, frustrated, and truncated Arsenal careers, two players who came to North London, one at the behest of Bertie Mee, the other of Terry Neill, ready to blaze a trail in the dark skies which hung over Islington at times in the seventies and eighties; but both of whom left behind them nought but a tangible disappointment and sadness at their leaving; and now, looking back, a realisation too on my part that both were perhaps footballers who merely appeared at the wrong times; men at odds with the nature of contemporary football as it was in the mid-seventies; and then 1983: footballers who would flourish in the modern game?

In late 1974, with Arsenal in the doldrums, embroiled in the first of two successive battles against relegation, Bertie Mee went shopping north of the border and came home with a young midfielder from Hibernian, Alex Cropley. Making his name with the Edinburgh side in the early seventies, he featured in Hibs’ famous 7-0 victory at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day in 1973, scheming, assisting, and scoring one goal himself. Five up in 37 minutes, Hibs destroyed their rivals with Cropley’s goal acknowledged as the best of the lot, a dipping volley from outside the box. Alex had been 21 at the time, a new addition to ‘Turnbull’s tornedoes’, who that season beat Celtic at Hampden Park to lift the League Cup. In an interview with The Scotsman Cropley was described thus:

‘Modesty forbids Cropley to point out that he was also special. Not only did he have a sweet left foot, he knew how to find space where others couldn’t. Although slightly built, he was wiry and fearless in the tackle’

Originally hailing from the English garrison town of Aldershot, where his father briefly played professional football, he never-the-less quickly graduated to full Scottish international honours in October 1971, benefiting from the Scottish FA relaxing hitherto stricter eligibility rules; indeed he made his debut in the same game as our own Bob Wilson, who similarly benefited from the same rule change. But in 1972, as the season built towards a climax, which for Hibs was a Scottish FA Cup final, Cropley received the first intimation of what was to blight his career from there on in. Playing at Brockville, against Falkirk he had his ankle broken by non-other then Alex Ferguson. Cropley not only missed the show piece occasion at Hampden but was left with a weakness which would compromise him from that point onwards.

As he recovered, Arsenal, in the throes of transition, put in a bid for him of £150,000, rivalling a similar one from Chelsea: and Cropley chose Highbury, saying that, “Arsenal was a learning curve…big city, big club, marble halls. Wonderful!” Cropley broke his leg in January 1975, but returning to full fitness by the start of the 1975/76 season he quickly became a regular playing 19 games, scoring five goals before a another break to the same leg again pretty much put paid to his time with the Gunners. However, in that period at the start of the 75/76 season, although only amounting to a handful of matches, Cropley showed enough glimpses to have won over the Highbury crowd with his range of passing, his time on the ball, and combative approach – and in so doing he provided a pre-echo of the qualities which a young Paul Davis would soon be bringing to the Arsenal midfield. A standout recollection is his performance against Man City at Highbury on 4 October, 1975 in a 3-2 defeat: Arsenal’s midfield that day was: Kelly, Ball, Cropley, and Brady - a tasty ensemble! However, when Neill took up the reins at Highbury, Cropley soon became superfluous to requirements. On leaving the Marble Halls, Cropley said,

“I would like to have stayed there, but they had so many good players coming through like Liam Brady and Graham Rix.”

With Villa he won the 1977 League Cup, and became a firm favourite before a fourth break did for him. A tackle from West Brom forward Ally Brown left poor Cropley with his left shin hinged in a right angle.

“I was never the same after that…I can remember how it happened, how I was lying. I can still smell the grass. I looked at my leg and saw a big hollow where the break was”.

Cropley soldiered on, but at the age of 32, called time on his career in 1982, just as a very different kind of player was about to sign for the Arsenal fulfilling his dreams, following protracted negotiations which only added to the glamour and mystique he represented. Say the name Vladimir Petrovi? and a faraway look appears in the eyes of most middle aged Gooners; be sure too they are thinking of what might have been! The Serbian footballer who has since been coined the ‘adored failure’ made a mere handful of appearances for the Arsenal but left an impression totally out of kilter with such a small body of evidence.

After joining Arsenal on a summer training camp in 1982 and looking every inch the replacement for Liam Brady the club had searched for, he was curtly told he could not after all sign for the Gunners due to a Yugoslavian rule which stipulated a player could not play abroad before the calendar year in which their 28th birthday falls and Petrovi? would not be 28 until 1983. The move fell through, with Petrovi? returning to Red Star Belgrade a “sad and disillusioned young man”. Neill though was nothing if not persistent and maintained contact with his man and as Christmas approached Arsenal were offered the chance to galvanise the deal, with Petrovi? coming to Highbury initially on a loan deal costing £40,000 with the option to make the deal permanent at the end of the season. He had lifted the spirits of the team at the summer camp and almost immediately reconnected with the club when he finally arrived, setting up a chance for Woodcock on his debut which caused Alan Sunderland to spontaneously break into a round of applause. In the next home game he cracked home a sizzling free-kick which Jon Spurling has commented unleashed a surge of adoration for the new player. Drifting right he was quickly offering a nice counter-balance to the creativity Sansom and Rix provided down the left. But for all the promise and Petrovi?’s undoubted ability and technical excellence as early as his second game Neill and Howe were already fearing the little man may simply not be built to withstand the rough house treatment which was part and parcel of the domestic English game, nor the demands of 60 games a season. Petrovi? himself conceded he did not tackle back, he was there to create but he couldn’t create without first finding space and time to think, and in English football there was neither space nor time. After one brilliant display, when he ran the show, against Villa in the FA Cup quarter-final which saw the Gunners win 2-0 with a goal from the maestro himself, his and Arsenal’s season drifted away into obscurity. Arsenal politely refused to take up the option and for a second time Petrovi? returned home to Belgrade this time with an air of permanence about it. He later said that he was made tearful by some of the letters he received from supporters after he left, offering their thanks and support to him. Stewart Robson then still a relatively young man claimed Petrovi? was the most technically gifted player he had ever played alongside, going further to suggest that in today’s climate he would have flourished: for as a footballer he has, and I say it quietly, been likened in technique and intelligence, to Dennis Bergkamp on more than one occasion.

And perhaps there, in Robson’s assessment resides a truth, both poignant and frustrating. Cropley, Hudson, and Petrovi? represent a trinity of varying disappointments. It is so easy to think of Petrovi? fitting into an Arsenal midfield under Wenger, or any modern day super-club; likewise Cropley whose ability was ultimately literally cut down by the raw physicality of seventies football which for good or bad is no longer a part of the game; he too would have shone. Hudson though offers a compelling dilemma: is it that there remains a sense of contribution from the man himself to his ultimately not fulfilling the promise of which his career always suggested; an element of self-inflicted harm not present with Cropley or Petrovi?? Unquestionably all three would have suited modern football, indeed suited modern Arsenal. My face lit up the day we signed Hudson, Cropley was a talent, and Petrovi? gave us a taste of what would be regularly served up at Highbury 20 years later: so my gratitude at seeing them in Arsenal’s red and white is always one counter-balanced with regret born of football’s greatest component: what if?


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  1. !No Pasaran!

    Jul 5, 2019, 17:49 #114327

    Alex Cropley.... far too brave for his own good from what I remember. Now if Ozil had half of Cropley’s commitment we’d have a decent player.

  2. Don Howe

    Jul 3, 2019, 16:50 #114318

    I have to say that I greatly enjoyed the ladies team in the World Cup and especially last night when they were on the very edge of their ability. The Americans are hugely fit, but the did not like being scored against or being confronted physically. When Ellen White's second brilliant goal went in their keeper 's face was a picture. I'm afraid that I have no respect for any team that beats another side 13 nil. A total lack of sportsmanship and thoroughly bad manners. For them winning is all and they have no capacity to understand that what goes around comes around - Newton's Third Law. Be that as it may the monkey is off our backs and everyone else's as far as the US are concerned. Good luck to Sweden or the Netherlands in the final. The Swedes deserve it for beating the old enemy, but Holland have Arsenal's striker and that may be decisive. They are also ruthless physically and the US have to be confronted hard in that area.

  3. TonyEvans

    Jul 3, 2019, 11:20 #114317

    Exiled - right with you on that. Wenger and Gazidis have left an unholy mess, and from the Yank downwards I see nothing in the current setup to give me much hope for the future. Our transfer policy looks as chaotic and embarrassing as it did under Wenger, and I see no quick route out of the massive hole we are now in. Dick certainly gives cause for concern, and I think a more pragmatic coach like Benitez would be better, but realistically we are going to hell in a hand-cart as long as Kronke has his sticky mitts all over the club - no matter who is in charge of the playing side of things.


    Jul 3, 2019, 10:27 #114316

    I agree with Nick - sorry, Ron! Have long thought that there would be nothing but mediocrity facing us as long as that mediocrity of a Yank was the owner. I do realise that most owners these days are a pretty disreputable bunch but the successful ones do show both an interest & a ruthlessness in driving their clubs forward. There is absolutely zero point in criticising either Dick or the new management regime if there is no plan or drive from the very top. Am feeling very anti USA these days but, despite last night's disappointment agree that the better team won. Some of England's defensive work in the second half was chaotic at times & worthy of today's AFC's current performances. That very fortuitous penalty was taken in a truly Aubaesque manner! A great shame as it might have thrown us a lifeline against those very cocky ( is that an OK word to use?!) Americans. I think the whole of Europe would have been delighted for us to have sent them packing but, unfortunately they are outstandingly good, have invested heavily & are going to take a lot of catching in future tournaments.

  5. itsRonagain2

    Jul 3, 2019, 08:43 #114315

    Arsenal only have one major problem really. Its ownership. Until it changes this is it. Everything underneath stems from the top.

  6. Exiled in Pt

    Jul 3, 2019, 08:17 #114314

    You got to laugh if the gutter press are to be believed , we have made an offer of 50 mill for Maguire !! Would make total sense to offer 20 mill less than all the others who are after him . Truly laughable probably total bollox but the way this club is run you wouldn't be surprised if it was true. As for the Brazilian boy we have signed , i put money on him never playing a full season for us , what a waste of money after all we don't have any prolific goal scoring youngsters coming through our own youth system !

  7. Exiled in Pt

    Jul 3, 2019, 08:02 #114313

    Tony - your probably right about Dick but to be honest i am more concerned about the dream team above him , if this Sanllehi is such a great bloke at his job , why did Barcelona let him go ? As far as i can see he is the man in charge of transfers at the moment , the new dawn of management at Arsenal yet the same old shit as when Gazidis and Wenger were there .

  8. TonyEvans

    Jul 3, 2019, 06:15 #114312

    Interesting article - I had completely forgotten about Alex Cropley. I think immersing ourselves in fond memories is the only way to go now when you consider the club’s current state of affairs. I agree with Bard - I just don’t see anything ahead for us Gooners but more mediocrity and kamikaze defending. Sorry to sound so gloomy but I don’t think Dick is the saviour we are looking for.

  9. markymark

    Jul 3, 2019, 05:44 #114311

    Great article , I’m sure I had that Cropley picture in a sticker album. But to young I think to remember seeing him. I do just about remember Hudson. I’ve got an image of a boozing Ozil type. Same level of disinterest . I remember being fearful when he and Supermac were heavily fined by the club when they went on the piss on a Far East tour. Surely they wouldn’t sell Supermac? I think Hudson went instead . Phew! Hudson used to own a bar near my work he always seemed to have a drink in his hand. Then again so did I! Takes one to know one I suppose lol

  10. Exiled in Pt

    Jul 2, 2019, 19:53 #114310

    Bard-my grandad use to wax lyrical about little Alex James, his dribbling skills and all round ability, also the likes Bastin and Drake and many others, which fits perfectly with what Ron says. They were all great players in there era. Didn't Alex James end up running a newsagents or something like that no millionaires in those days..

  11. Bard

    Jul 2, 2019, 17:40 #114309

    Havent posted for a while as too depressed to write anything remotely positive. Some great posts over the past days. Slightly off piste but my Dad told me stories of the great Alex James and how the fans would wait outside the ground to hear whether he would be playing before paying to go in. Played in the only era when we were a properly great club. The club are in a terrible mess and this coming season could be a proper disaster. I wont repeat all the stuff written by others. That we are currently doing another Louis Suarez only this time for Zaha a player of much less ability says it all. We need some f****** defenders for goodness sake. I dont see Dick being remotely capable of turning things around. The silver lining might be that we will see serious fan protest if we get off to a bad start. At least now we know why Gazidis jumped ship. He was smart enough to see what a f*** up he created. A top 10 finish is on the cards. Dark days for us gooners

  12. itsRonagain2

    Jul 2, 2019, 16:33 #114308

    Yr Ref to the mid 70s to mid 80s - Its dead easy to fall into the trap of thinking that that ball players back in the mid 70s to mid 80s were all booted to hel and thus didn't flourish. Its the most idle Iil informed assumption usually peddled by people whove only known todays circus of the PL era, largely a game for flimsy weaklings and who are encouraged to fall over if a player as much as farts at them. Fact is that Huddy didnt flourish because he was a boozer and gambler and womaniser first and foremost yet a really good player, who shone mainly for Chelsea in the early 70s along with a few other fabulous players there at the time. The fact is that there were many greta ball players in the period who thrived because they could play and play brillianly. Hoddle, Hudson, Worthington, Currie, Best, Marsh stacks of them, not to mention our own chippy Brady. Every club in the old first division had f;lair players, all capable of tormenting ant defence.Truth is that the vst majority of todays players would barely get a game in the teams back then, particularly the 70s but hey ho, carry on thinking that the game was just a kicking fest with no skilled players doing anything. Its a total load of bollox mate that those in the PL trough want you to believe.Good players thrived, same as they did in the eras from when football started. A player ' at odds with the game' in the era he played simply wouldn't play. Wasters like yr Ozils and Co simply wouldnt have been footballers back then. Hes an eg - Liverpool - now hailed as a so called great PL team. Theres not a decent ball player in that teams midfield. Just journeymen and physical players like Henderson who, take it from me, wouldnt have featured in the top sides of the period your suggesting was barren in skill sets. Sorry for ranting at you, but the myths now peddled about football pre 1992 are in the main utter shite and swallowed greedily by todays TV football generation.

  13. John F

    Jul 2, 2019, 16:21 #114307

    Good post David I remember clearly that Petrovic free-kick as I had a great view of it.My one memory of Hudson was him and SuperMac getting sent home early by Terry Neill from a pre Season friendly after a drinking session.

  14. itsRonagain2

    Jul 2, 2019, 14:58 #114306

    We could nit pick all of them if we wanted to about various aspects of them. Fact is i d have all of them at their age now rather than what we have.

  15. Colonel Blimp

    Jul 2, 2019, 14:20 #114304

    Hmmm Petrovic. There were a few Yugoslav players around in England at the time, Antic at Luton, Hadziabdic at Swansea, Jovanovic at Man Utd. I think their hard men were well suited to England but not the more creative players. I always used to like watching Yugoslavia, very technically good players. I was there v Villa in '83 when he absolutely ran the show that afternoon, a classic "Arsenal performance" all round.......when times are a bit harsher, we tend to remember the better days.

  16. Kipmonster

    Jul 2, 2019, 14:11 #114303

    Regarding Petrovic who I remember fondly particularly for that Villa cup game, i m sure if I remember rightly the issue was his wife was unsettled in England so he moved on to Antwerp. ........ It was a shame.

  17. Don Howe

    Jul 2, 2019, 11:37 #114300

    2 things about Petrovic. 1. The programme on the day of his debut reported that he was NOT coming to the club. 2. He was a dangerous free kick taker and even taught Brian Talbot how to do it. Good player in a very average team, but folks, because Don Howe was coaching, we could DEFEND. Can we please get rid of any Arsenal employee big or small who doesn't understand that ITS THE DEFENCE (STUPID) that matters first and foremost.