Best teams; all-time best XI’s; greatest seasons and matches; and most stylish kits have all been entertaining topics of discussion and debate both in these pages, and on wider social media these past few weeks, and I have had my say along with everyone else. One thought struck me over and over again: when I come to consider Arsenal players of the PL era, then only Dennis Bergkamp gets in to my own personal all-time Arsenal XI. “Bloody old romantic”, I can hear you cry, “He probably thinks we still play at Highbury”. Well, on examination, I realised there was an explanation; what I had picked was a team of my Arsenal heroes, the men who inspired me, largely as a child, to link my emotional wellbeing to the events of London N5. Ashley Cole might have been a very classy left-back but he will never be a hero. I’ve never run around the park pretending to be him but I did used to fancy myself as budding Bob McNab; thus Nabbers is a hero, and although he doesn’t make my team he ably illustrates the criteria used for my selection: McNab – up for consideration; Cole – on the transfer list.
The idea of a hero is very different to a 10 or a 15 year old, than it is to someone of my more advanced vintage. I don’t really have heroes any more, I admired and respected Bergkamp and that is perhaps as close to hero worship as I can now get; so consequently the bulk of my own personal best Arsenal XI come from the rather drab decade of the 70’s; my own formative football decade. My selections reflect also my being raised on Arsenal teams of a different kind to the sexy, smooshiness of Wenger-ball; my Arsenal are hard to beat, grudging, and bloody-minded; teams whose passing movements rarely exceeded 4 or perhaps 5 passes strung together, “get it forward” is more the thing. So now I have caught your attention, what are my choices?
In my time we have seen many high-quality ‘keepers at the Arsenal: Seaman, Jennings, Lukic, and Lehmann, a plethora of brave and intelligent goalies. My own favourite, though it was a close battle with Bob Wilson, was the man signed to replace him: Jimmy Rimmer. A string of superlative displays almost single handed saved us from relegation in those two hard fought rearguard actions in the mid-seventies. I idolised Jim and loved when he had made a diving save, that he calmly got to his feet, all toothless and floppy of hair, and wiped his gloves down the front of his jersey. He so richly deserved his one England cap won while at Highbury, and also his league title and European Cup successes with Villa.
Pat Rice and Kenny Sansom are my full-backs, heroes both. You can’t follow Arsenal for five minutes without becoming aware of the awesome debt of gratitude owed to Pat Rice, still a great ambassador for the club and a man worthy of filling his own plinth outside the Emirates one day. I recall Sansom’s debut, a 1-0 win away at WBA, and the following day a newspaper made the following observation which has stayed with me all these years: ‘Sansom adds another layer of cladding to Arsenal’s already impregnable defence’. Sammy Nelson had been a hero, but Sansom was one too and, I think you’d agree, the better left-back.
Centre-backs are going to be controversial! We’ve had some crackers: if I’d been born in the year 1980 my best XI would be Tony Adams from 1 to 11 but he misses out. My number 6 is nailed on, and the first name on the team sheet: big Willie Young: loved him, my all-time Arsenal hero. I was at Derby County when we lost 2-0 in late spring ’79, Young was sent off and I cried all the way home thinking he would be suspended for the cup final, but the big man played and we won cup. I remember his deftly chipped goal against Hajduk Split to win a feisty UEFA Cup tie too. He never shied from a battle, made every last bit of talent count: I cannot speak highly enough of big Willie. His partner ought to be Frank McLintock really by any normal reckoning but edging him out is the guy Frank played with at another club, and who came to Arsenal as a stop gap, if ultimately forlorn, attempt to fill Frank’s boots: my most controversial hero: Terry Mancini! Frank was so much the better player, but Mancini was a trier and seemed to love every minute of his unexpected career with the Gunners. I was only 10 years old when he signed but I still recognised as a kid that Mancini was an acquired taste. He was signed on the suggestion of Bobby Campbell who had previously worked with him and was available for next to nothing. For 18 months he steadied the ship, weighed in with a relegation escaping goal against Wolves in a dog-fight of a match and brought the great gift of laughter, sometimes unintentionally I’ll admit. I remember seeing him at Filbert Street, we lost 2-1 to two very late City goals, and he carried a hanky to wipe his bolding head with so muddy was the pitch and ball, my brother crucified him for that, I thought it quite sensible though: Big Terry was a proper old school hero and stays in my team.
The one man to make the side, whom I didn’t ever see play live, would also be my skipper: Joe Mercer. I’d slot him in as a defensive holding midfielder: an accomplished footballer and decent gent. His famous rallying call delivered to a battered and beleaguered Arsenal team prior to the 1952 FA Cup final that “no one starts favourites against the Arsenal”, still makes the hairs stand up on my neck. There was a quiet efficiency and lack of any ostentation to him which belied the fire in his belly: a great man Joe Mercer.
A three man midfield would consist of Liam Brady, sat in the middle, running the game; scheming and orchestrating with passes short and long, dribbling and tackling back, a proper box-to-box midfielder who got through more work than his silky skills might suggest he would. Is there an Arsenal supporter of my age who doesn’t idolise Chippy? Peter Storey would be alongside him, the enforcer and a much better footballer than his reputation suggests, ready to slot back in to right-back as Pat Rice bombs ahead: how fitting that he is eternally remembered for his nerve in beating the best ‘keeper in the world with a last minute cup semi-final equaliser and thus keeping alive the dreams of a double. A man of the same vintage patrols my left wing – the incomparable Geordie Armstrong; the little wizard, the maestro: how many times did he deliver? My brother-in-law, Peter Welsh, played with George at Leicester City for a season, 1977/78, and had also played against him before that, as a right-back directly up against him: Peter said this of Geordie: “his pin-point crossing was a centre forward’s dream; and he was blessed with a terrific engine which allowed him to protect his full-back; this ability to attack and defend would have made him a brilliant modern day wing-back. He was also a true gentleman both on and off the pitch, no one; team-mate or opponent had anything but kind words to say of him”.
While I am not sure exactly what DB10 would have made of Peter Storey, it is the king of ‘Bergkamp Wonderland’ who gets the nod as second striker; just imagine him and Brady in the same team – just let that thought sink in. He was quite simply the greatest footballer I have ever seen, and believe will ever see. He was intelligent, incisive, ruthless, silky, cunning, and fiercely competitive. Asked why he got booked so often when he first came to England, he replied that, “while referees don’t protect me, I must protect myself”. Interviewed after a game when he had been accused of stamping, he merely smiled enigmatically and said, “I think I made contact with something”. I was lucky enough to see his famous hat-trick at Leicester City; his third goal is only beaten for imperious technique and impish improvisation by the poetry-in-motion which was his spin and twizzle wonder goal at Newcastle United.
This team is all about heroes. If it was based on any other attributes then surely Henry or Ian Wright would be my centre-forward. Both would have been heroes to a younger me, Wrighty I suppose is to a certain extent, but to a kid there is only one Arsenal number 9 hero in the true sense of the word and that is Supermac, Malcolm Macdonald! I was just turned 11 when he signed for us in that long hot summer of ‘76, surely the greatest bit of PR ever by our new boss Terry Neill? There is not much left to say about Macdonald: the swagger of the barrel-chested, bandy legged goal machine preceded him everywhere and I just worshipped him. I remember his two wildly mishit and misdirected efforts still flying in against Orient in the ’78 cup semi-final after ricocheting of Orient defenders like a pin-ball machine to put us quickly 2-0 up and thus able to enjoy a big day out with an hour left to play. His five goals for England, a brilliant riposte to new England boss Don Revie who had told him he didn’t rate him remains the best example of a man who knows his own worth. His perfect hat-trick against WBA in 4-0 demolition a couple of weeks before the Orient game lives long in the memory: right foot, left foot, and header!
12th man in my Heroes XI goes to, ironically, the greatest unsung hero of my time as a gooner, David Price. Never saw him have a bad game, never saw him give in, and saw him chip in important goals, usually scruffy affairs that won us important matches.
Not perhaps the most glamourous of sides but each name is etched in my heart: they are Arsenal to me as much as Highbury ever was. Thank you to all of them for they inspired a child once to believe in the wonderful institution which is Arsenal Football Club, and have given me as much pleasure as an adult looking back on the days they moved a kid to become a gooner for life! And that includes Terry Mancini!
(Ed’s note – no question David’s selection is largely determined by the era in which he began attending Arsenal matches on a regular basis. It would be interesting to see the chosen sides (with one sub) of anyone reading this – you can either leave them in the comments or if you feel like explaining your selections, submit an article yourself – just email it over to firstname.lastname@example.org)
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