All at the Gooner Fanzine are sad to learn of the passing of Theo Foley who was a lovely man, full of warmth, wit and wonderful Arsenal anecdotes. His passion for the club shone through.
In tribute we are running Layth's interview with him in full printed in our fanzine back in 2015.
'I loved every minute of my time at The Arsenal - it was a fairytale'
Every Gooner knows you can date the resurgence of Arsenal Football Club – and the first steps on the long road to becoming a global sporting superpower it has become – to the summer of 1986. George Graham and his number two Theo Foley took over a listing, moribund club and turned it into a team of young, hungry winners.
Donegal-born Theo was an integral part of the club from 1986 to 1990. He is bringing a book out soon written by his son Paul, called Theo: Give us a ball. A life in football, with a foreword from George Graham.
The Gooner’s Layth Yousif interviews the genial, much-loved Irishman and his equally likeable son Paul...
LY: As someone who grew up watching Arsenal under George Graham and yourself I’ve been looking forward to talking to you – but what made you and your son Paul do the book?
TF: It was all down to my son Paul, he thought it would be a really good idea. It has actually been great putting it together and recalling many happy memories.
LY: Did you and George think you’d achieve what you did when you left Millwall?
TF: I’m not sure many people had heard of us as a pair before we went to Arsenal. George was obviously a very well known player at Arsenal but I don’t know how many people were aware of our work at Millwall. It was all a mystery at the time. I just didn’t think for one minute he’d get the job. Yet he was an outstanding player at The Arsenal and that counted for something too. But I genuinely didn’t think I’d get the job. On the day in was announced George told me to stay by the phone. There were other people in the frame as George’s number two such as Frank McLintock. It was a fairytale when George phoned me to tell me. Number two at The Arsenal! It was simply wonderful. Imagine a club of Arsenal’s stature taking on a manager and number two from the championship now – it just wouldn’t happen.
LY: The club had fallen away since the three successive FA Cup Finals of the late 70s/early 80s and it was fair to say there were a few cliques and underachievers there in 1986. The cornerstone of your future success was to remove them first and foremost?
TF: Without naming names there were a few players who weren’t pulling their weight before we arrived and we immediately identified them. It wasn’t hard for George to remove them. He didn’t have a problem in that respect with get getting them out of the club if they weren’t going to buy in to what we wanted to achieve. But I have to say as well there were players who we wanted to keep who wanted to move on. Viv Anderson was a great player and a lovely lad but Manchester United wanted him. We wanted Rixy [Graham Rix] to stay, and Charlie [Nicholas] and Kenny [Sansom], but they wanted to go. There were no hard feelings. But then George through his knowledge of lower league football acquired at Millwall just went out and bought Nigel WInterburn to replace Kenny, and he bought players of the calibre of Stevie Bould and Lee Dixon a short while later. Again, you just couldn’t see that happening nowadays.
LY: I was in the Junior Gunners enclosure as a young kid for the first game of the 1986/87 season against Manchester United when Charlie got that late winner. There was certainly a sense of a new era – what were you guys thinking?
TF: We worked hard defensively all summer. All the time we worked on defensive drills. To make us more solid. But then we were lucky as we had Tony Adams. What a player. What a leader. He was only young but he was quick, strong, good in the air, good at tackling. And importantly he was a great organiser and wasn’t scared of telling people what needed to be done. We were just glad we got our first win that day. But we were looking forward to the season no doubt.
LY: Spurs away, Littlewoods cup semi final replay, March 4 1987. I queued up to get a ticket from the Clock End turnstiles the day before, and for me it beats Anfield 89 as my favourite ever Arsenal game – because if it hadn’t laid the foundations for the success in the Littlewoods Cup that season I don’t think Anfield 89 would have happened. Tell me your memories of the day…
TF: We knew we had to do something we hadn’t done before in that tie. The players were so determined to win. They had such great character. They never knew when they were beaten. We completely confused Spurs by our performance that night. David Rocastle scored a wonderful goal in front of thousands of our brilliant fans in the away end and we ended up winning 2-1.
LY: Whatever Spurs fans say now I know their PA was telling them at half-time how to get tickets for Wembley – as I heard it with my own ears - it must have fired you and the team up…
TF: Exactly. They were very silly in doing that. Very silly. Someone had turned on the radio in the changing room at half time and we heard them say that. Well, we were completely focused and committed anyway – but to hear them tell their fans how to get tickets for Wembley when the game was far from won! Let’s just say it helped us win the game. No doubt. It was silly of them.
LY: And Liverpool in the Final? A glorious sunny spring day, and of course they’d never lost when Ian Rush scored?
TF: The thing with George and I was that we had a great set of players. All the young lads coming through such as David Rocastle, Tony of course was already there, Mickey Thomas and many others. But I think we gave them the confidence they could get it right on the pitch. We worked so hard. So hard. It was a great day. Perry Groves – who was George’s first signing as everyone knows played well, and Charlie scored two great goals – ok, one with the help of a slight deflection. The celebrations were brilliant. To lift a trophy in your first season was a fairytale – but then being at The Arsenal for me was a fairytale the whole time.
LY: How about the 1988 League Cup final defeat by Luton Town?
TF: We didn’t think we would get beaten. We didn’t think Luton Town would beat us. We had complete confidence in ourselves. Of course Stevie Williams didn’t play. I think that made a difference. I wanted him to play but George didn’t. So he didn’t play. After the game there were no inquests. Nothing much was said. We just closed the door got on the coach and moved on.
LY: Tell me your memories of David Rocastle?
David Rocastle. What a man. What a player. It was a tragedy when he died. I loved all the players but I was particularly close to players like Mickey Thomas and David. They were lovely people. David was an excellent player. He may not have looked too big from the terrace but he was a strong man. A big man. They were all brilliant lads, but he always had a smile. He worked hard and wanted to learn. He was absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t believe it when he died. Like so many people I was devastated. I was actually going to see him in the hospital. But Mickey [Thomas] told me not to. He was down to six stone by then. It was awful. What a man. What a player.
LY: I remember being at a game at Anfield in the League Cup third round in October 1988 when he scored a cracker in front of 6,000 travelling Arsenal fans…
TF: Yes. That was a great goal. I can think of lots of good goals that he scored. The thing was by 88/89 we knew we had a good team with a great set of lads. They never gave up. They never knew when they were beaten. We seemed to score a lot of late goals around then because we never gave up. It was in our mindset that we would fight for each other and fight until the end. I remember the Everton League cup semi final in February 1988. Mickey and Rocky played really well to send us to Wembley. That was another great night. We had ‘big time’ players – and David was certainly one of them. He was outstanding at Anfield in that game as you say and in so many other big matches including Anfield 89.
LY: Tell me your memories of that never-to-be-forgotten night at Anfield?
TF: Hillsborough had just happened. We came out with the wreaths which I think was appreciated. I have to say the Liverpool fans were outstanding. After we won they all stayed. Not one person left Anfield. They all stayed to applaud and to support their team. They were different class after what had happened weeks earlier at Hillsborough. They were unbelievable. I’ll never forget that. George said to everyone beforehand be strong. Be fair. Don’t worry if it’s 0-0 at half time just keep doing what you’re doing. The goal will come and then it will put pressure on them. Well, Smudger [Alan Smith] got the goal – he was another great lad – and we kept going. John Barnes lost the ball down the flank right at the end. I was screaming for Jonn [Lukic] to launch it up but he played it along the ground to Dicko [Lee Dixon] who played it up to… who then played the ball through to Mickey [Thomas] who did the rest. It was a fairytale. During the game I actually kept jumping up and banging my head on the dugout while everyone laughed including Steve Bould! It was a wonderful night. I can’t tell you too much about the celebrations mind! But to go there and win the league on the last kick of the last match of the season. Well, they say City beating QPR to win the league with the last kick was memorable but you’ll never equal Anfield 89 in a hundred years of league football. Never.
LY: I remember standing outside the Marble Halls as a kid after bunking off school for the afternoon and getting the tube up to Highbury to buy away tickets for a game – and you came bounding down the steps, boomed ‘hello’ to me before heading off whistling a happy tune – you obviously loved being at Arsenal didn’t you?
TF: I keep saying it but it was a fairytale. I loved every minute. I was being at The Arsenal. Loved it. Everything about that club was unbelievable. Everything about it was first class. It was a class club with class people from top to bottom. When I left I got a letter from Mr Peter Hill-Wood wishing me all the best. How many clubs would do that? Everything Arsenal did was first class. From Peter Hill-Wood to Ken Friar to everyone – from the first minute to the last it was a fairytale to be there. You simply couldn’t find anything that wasn’t spot on. A brilliant club.
LY: Once an Arsenal man always an Arsenal man…
TF: They say that don’t they!
LY: It must have been a sad day when you left…
TF: Yes. I knew George wanted to bring in Stewart Houston. Maybe he thought I was getting older. Maybe he thought I was getting too close to the players I don’t know. But it never affected me and my work with them. And it didn’t make any difference to the way they worked with me. I loved all those players. It didn’t matter to me who they were – whether it was Smudge, Micky, David, Gus Caesar – they were all wonderful lads and we achieved good things together. It was a very sad day for me when I walked out of those Marble Halls for the last time…
I wanted to keep Johnny Lukic. I thought he was a very consistent goalkeeper. He very rarely made mistakes. If he made a mistake you knew about it. George wanted David Seaman – who to be fair turned out to be a great keeper. But I wanted to keep Lukic. Years later I talked to George about that. He said: ‘Well, you were never a good judge of goalkeepers!’
LY: Sum up your time at Arsenal?
TF: The new ground is wonderful. But it’s not Highbury. For me Highbury was a real ground. I just loved Highbury. That was where all my memories are. It was fantastic. It was a brilliant club with brilliant people and great fans.
LY: What do you think of Arsene Wenger?
TF: It may not be popular but I think what he’s done for Arsenal has been brilliant. The new ground, the new training pitches, the great teams of his reign. When people look back they will say he was absolutely marvellous for the club – certainly in the first part of his time. But I also have to say that I don’t think he listens to anyone. I think he does it his own way for right or wrong. I do think he also misses having David Dein there. But whatever you think of him I don’t think the personal abuse is right.
LY: Paul [Theo’s son and the author of the book] – tell me your memories of Anfield 89?
PF: My dad promised me £500 to buy a Beetle if we won! I obviously wanted Arsenal to win anyway because of dad and George and all the team, But there was an extra incentive in that I could buy the car of my dreams as a teenager if we won at Anfield! I was as delighted as anyone – and got a new car out of it!
I think it’s a good time to release something like this. And it’s also nice to share dad’s love of Arsenal and all the memories. We are looking forward to it coming out, and hope a few Gooners will buy it.
© The Gooner Fanzine
In memory of Paul and Theo Foley