I’m sure it won’t have escaped the attention of all reading this that today is St. Patrick’s Day, and as such is a date associated with all things Irish.
While for most people under a certain age this seems to manifest itself in donning comedy headwear and imbibing dangerous quantities of Guinness, for the rest of us it has other connections.
My own relationship is defined largely by my possession of a surname oft associated with the southern end of Ireland and my mother’s transportation from Trinidad to Dublin before the age of 10. Quite a shock for her, but at least it gave Phil Lynott some competition…
Of course, the fact you are reading this here, means you are rather more interested in Arsenal Football Club than my personal lineage, and you will be rewarded accordingly for enduring my wittering. Any fan of certain vintage will have some awareness of the relationship between The Arsenal and the Emerald Isle, but there will be a generation or two for whom this is a mystery.
Everyone knows about the obvious Irish connection with Glasgow Celtic, and Manchester United and Liverpool have done a great job of selling their ‘Irish-ness’, aided by both their proximity to Ireland and their recent success. But most corners of Ireland have long maintained a loyal core of Arsenal support, and it would be fair to say that Irishmen have played a significant part in many key parts of Arsenal’s history.
Today, the club’s playing staff has no Irishmen, and on the coaching staff there is only Gerry Payton, working with the club’s goalkeepers, and former youth product Kwame Ampadu, working as an Academy Coach, both of whom are very much behind the scenes. Those supporters with a more encyclopaedic knowledge may recall League cup appearances for Graham Barrett and Anthony Stokes in the last 15 years, as well as the much maligned Islington born Eddie McGoldrick in the dying days of the George Graham era.
But in the days before the birth of the Premier League, the Arsenal first team squad had always had a smattering of Irishmen. As many as 40 have troubled the club statisticians over the years. From goal scoring debutant, Belfast-born Patrick Farrell, who joined in 1897 and the nomadic Tommy Shanks, who scored 24 goals in 1903-04, taking Arsenal to the top flight for the first time, all the way through to David O’Leary, who retired in 1993, and is, lest we forget, still the club’s record appearance holder.
Before the rules regarding youth player recruitment for English clubs changed in relatively recent years, Arsenal had for decades made a point of scouring Ireland for the best young talent it could find as a key part of its youth recruitment. Not entirely dissimilar to Arsene Wenger’s approach with the Barcelona youth team.
In Belfast, Arsenal had John Dillon keeping an eye on young talent but often had his best finds snatched away by Manchester United, with only Steve Morrow and his League Cup winning goal to trouble the statisticians. Morrow, captain of the Pat Rice-managed 1988 FA Youth Cup winning side, has continued the tradition and now scouts and coaches for the club in turn.
In Dublin, however, second-generation Arsenal fan and legendary scout Bill Darby provided four very notable first team players from his home city in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s alone.
Of course, when thinking of Arsenal’s Irishmen, it is these ‘nearly men’ of the late 1970’s who first spring to mind. Despite one Fa-Cup win in the ‘five minute final‘ in 1979, that Arsenal team probably under-achieved. So often so close to greatness, the team was broken up before it fully reached its peak, its heart ripped out by the departure of Dublin’s own Liam Brady to Juventus . Arguably the Republic of Ireland’s finest ever player, he was ably supported in North London by countrymen O’Leary, Frank Stapleton (the RvP turncoat of his day) and John Devine.
They had joined already present Northern Irish team-mates, stalwart left-back Sammy Nelson, club captain (and eventual long term coach) Pat Rice and one of the top goal-keepers in the world, Pat Jennings. Even the manager at the time, Terry Neill was a Belfast boy, who had previously distinguished himself in service as a player at the club, with over 300 appearances in the 1960s.
All represented Arsenal in the ill-fated 1980 FA Cup final, where the 60-odd games played by the first team that season (and the heartache of the Cup Winners Cup final penalty shoot-out defeat only days before) caught up with the team at the worst time. West Ham’s 1-0 victory remains one of the greatest cup shocks of the last 40 years.
Of course, Brady remains Arsenal’s most iconic Irishman. Despite leaving to play at the higher level that was Serie A in the 1980’s at the tender age of 24, he racked up 307 first team appearances for Arsenal, scoring 59 goals; the most memorable of which was in the 5-0 victory at White Hart Lane on 23 December 1978. I’m sure there are millions of Arsenal fans who still get shivers at the commentary “…look at that. Oh, look at that!”, as those of my age do at “..its up for grabs now….” or “...its Tony Adams, put through by Steve Bould..”.
England’s ‘Player of the Year’ in 1979, he still gets voted into every Arsenal all-time eleven, and older fans inform me that he was never really replaced until the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp. What most people don’t know, however, is that despite the London professional careers of his elder brothers Pat and Ray (both played for Milwall and QPR), the young Liam initially hated his time as an Arsenal junior, leaving after a few months, and it took weeks of persuasion by the Arsenal back-room staff and Irish scouts to convince him to give it another try.
Homesickness was not uncommon among Arsenal’s Irish youngsters, as recently highlighted by John Devine when interviewed by famous Irish Gooner, Andrew Mangan, AKA Arseblog. It was only really through the club’s well established network of families and landladies for young players that Arsenal were so able to rely on a healthy youth production line, which the ultimately unsuccessful Billy Wright had done so much to champion whilst at the helm in the 1960s.
Although later a source of irritation after forcing a move to Manchester United (remind you of anyone?!), Brady’s fellow Dubliner, Frank Stapleton, was almost as important to the club at the time, and the two had the archetypal telepathic on-field relationship.
Stapleton was widely regarded as one of the best headers of the ball in the game at the time, and showed a deftness of touch later echoed by Alan Smith, and had a formidable goal scoring record in the cup competitions that the club excelled in at the time. A fans favourite and club player of the year in 1977 and 1980, he refused to sign a new contract in 1981 (perhaps seeing the subsequent seasons of mediocrity on the horizon), and for the second time in two years the club lost one of its stars far a vastly reduced price set by a dubious transfer tribunal, only this time to a domestic rival.
He never quite hit the same heights at Man Utd, despite moving there in his prime, but did win the FA Cup twice before his career slightly petered out. Given that he had supported them as a child, it’s no surprise he went to Manchester United, and self-identified as Man United man. He was never forgiven by Arsenal fans, as he had negotiated with Ron Atkinson behind Arsenal’s back, and he later admitted it was ultimately about money, which was much more taboo in those days. He is currently Assistant Manager of Jordan, working for his old Utd teammate, Ray Wilkins.
The third of the golden Eire trinity was elegant defender David O’Leary. Coming over for a trial on the same trip as the later injury hit John Devine, he had actually been born in Stoke Newington before moving back to Dublin as a three-year-old.
A first team debut at 17 served notice of his talent, but no-one could have anticipated him clocking up 722 appearances and a stint as captain for the club over an 18-year career. After finally winning the League title in 1989 to go with his League cup victory in 1987 and FA Cup win with the rest of the Dubliners in 1979, O’Leary was one of many to fall foul of George Graham’s draconian style, training with the reserves for a time. But his professionalism and commitment saw him return to the first team squad to win another title winners medal in 1991 as his career was winding down, and ultimately become George Graham’s assistant at Leeds United, before an exciting period at the helm of the club. He has also started to return to the stands at Arsenal as a fan in recent years.
By now an elder statesman in the team, Pat Rice had matured from apprentice to club captain. Born in Belfast on St. Patrick’s Day, he was the one player to win both the 1970-71 double and 1979 FA Cup Final with the club. Born a fortnight before his eventual full-back partner and fellow Belfastian, Sammy Nelson (who played nearly 400 times for the club himself), his family had moved to within spitting distance of Highbury when he was 10-yearsold, and he had grown up idolising the club.
This gave him a single-minded determination to play for the team that more than made up for his limited skill levels, confounding many at the club who thought he would never make the grade. Famously dedicated and often sneaking in to undertake extra training, Rice went from a prospect with an outside chance to lifting the FA Cup as captain and playing 528 times for his boyhood club, before a brief stint at Watford, captaining them to promotion to the top flight for the first time and scoring in their first game at the highest level. A true Arsenal man, he then went on become a very successful youth team coach and subsequently Assistant Manager, following 16 years at the club as a player, with 28 more on the coaching and management staff.
Pat Jennings was a different story. Originally form Newry in Northern Ireland, he was the only one of the 1970’s Irish contingent at the club not to have come through the youth system after being spotted by one of the network of Arsenal scouts. By the time Jennings moved to Arsenal, he had 14 seasons in England, and had racked up over 500 appearances for Watford and Spurs, as well as a vast amount of international experience.
The upstarts down the road thought he was in decline at 32, and let him go for just £45,000, but with a point to prove and legendary professionalism (to go with his huge hands), he played another 320 games for Arsenal, playing in three domestic and one European final. A year after retiring from club football with Arsenal, he collected his then record 119th cap in defeat to Brazil in the 1986 World Cup (I remember watching the game). He returned to Spurs after retirement and until recently still worked there in a coaching capacity.
Of course for every Brady, Stapleton or O’Leary, there was a Jim Harvey (1977 Irish young player of the year who eventually enjoyed a strong lower league career), Joshua Sloan (15 clubs in 10 seasons), or Peter Tilley (turned out to be a better bowls player than footballer).
The step up from the Irish League’s to the English top flight was not an easy one, and many Irish players down the years found it harder to adjust to London life than other parts of the country, particularly those hailing from smaller communities than Dublin or Belfast. It seemed easier for those used to the urban life to settle, as perfectly illustrated to diminutive 1950’s ‘wing wizard’ Joe Haverty, who after a real impact eventually lost his place due to injury troubles, and requested a move.
A native Dubliner, he never settled professionally outside of London, and only ever really found his form again during a spell at Milwall. He then went on to scout for Arsenal in Dublin in the 70’s and 80’s before passing away in 2009.
Indeed even as far back as the 1920’s, when Arsenal were still searching for the ‘THE‘ status, players from Dublin and Belfast, such as full-back pairing Andy Kennedy and Alex Mackie, settled better than their fellow countrymen, and helped the club establish itself as a challenger for honours.
There were, of course, exceptions – such as 1960s full-backs Eddie Magill and Billy McCullough (from Lurgan and Carrickfergus, both still with populations of just over 20,000).
Yet another Dubliner discovered by Bill Darby, beanpole striker Niall Quinn’s background as a Gaelic footballer echoed that of 1930’s Irish great Jimmy Dunne, as did the fact that his best years where not as an Arsenal player.
Both had early promise snuffed out by the arrival of better players who wrote themselves deeply into club folklore; Ted Drake in 1934 and Alan Smith in 1987. It took Quinn new pastures and extended runs as a first choice striker to mature to a standard that would have suited Arsenal, but he remains the last Irishman to come through the youth team at Arsenal and become more than just a small footnote in the club’s history.
Although minor, without his contributions, Arsenal would not have won either of their trophies in the 1980’s, and he was invariably looked on fondly following his departure.
Of course, there have been attempts to re-kindle the Irish presence in the Arsenal team, initially via the tried and tested method of youth recruitment, particularly under Liam Brady’s watch, when old scout Bill Darby was one of his first appointments. There have also been attempts to recruit from outside, noteably when Roy Keane turned us down in favour of Manchester United, and an early attempt to pick up later Spurs stalwart Robbie Keane.
Ultimately though the game has changed, with declining standards in Irish coaching aping the Jack Charlton model, and the fact that Arsenal are now a global club with global stars, who have restricted access to the Irish pool due to changes in youth recruitment rules. The biggest factor is a simple one: there are no longer more than a handful of Irish players of the standard required to play for a top English club.
There has been more joy on the Irish representation front in the Arsenal Ladies team, with Ciara Grant, Emma Byrne (GK), Niamh Fahey and Yvonne Tracy winning the quadruple in 2007, and a continual Gaelic presence in the side for almost two decades.
One of my favourite Irish Gunner stories is that of one of the last of the top-flight amateur footballers, Dublin born practicing doctor and inside forward Kevin O’Flanagan. He played 14 times for Arsenal in the 1946-47 season, before his burgeoning medical career and an ankle injury forced him to end his playing days. In those days, a man with a profession could earn a lot more NOT playing football.
Of course, it isn’t all about the players and management staff. A football club is, after all, most important to its supporters, and despite the traditional domination by Celtic, Liverpool and Manchester United, Arsenal still have strong fan-base across Ireland and are the fourth most popular club. Indeed, according to research by Forza Football out of the teams left in the Champion’s League after the group stages this season, it is Arsenal who most Irish people surveyed wanted to win.
One thing that is particularly interesting is that the club’s supporters seem spread fairly equally over all parts of Ireland, North and South. For Instance, despite the proliferation of Arsenal players mostly being from Dublin or Belfast, it seems Derry, almost on the western border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, has a particularly committed and long standing Arsenal fan base. There are supporters clubs in almost every large town, with 24 in Eire and nine in Northern Ireland officially listed on the Arsenal website.
To put that into context, there are only 37 across the whole of mainland Europe. Which begs the question: Why ARE Arsenal so popular across the Irish Sea?
Of course, many people in Ireland became Arsenal supporters as a direct result of the aforementioned side of the late 1970s, with the Gunners Irishmen being key players for Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As Arseblog put it in 2011
“Brady, O’Leary, Stapleton, Devine, Rice, Nelson, Jennings. All just Irish to a small boy. There are a generation of Arsenal fans here whose first real trauma in life was the departure of Liam Brady to Juventus. A player that many of us never saw play except on TV moving to a club in Italy, played out in tiny snippets in the newspaper, and it was enough to cause heartbreak”
However, the support for The Arsenal was well established within Ireland even before the significant presence of Irishmen in the team. Much like Bill Darby’s father, many fell in love with the all conquering Arsenal team of the 1930s, with both its incredible success and its sense of style, and willingness to embrace all in the pursuit of excellence. With players from across the British Isles (and only the backward home office stopped the club taking on some of the European greats of the age, despite the club’s efforts), the club lacked the same parochial view of many of its contemporaries, and as such gained a following all around the world, particularly in those countries with ties to England.
This was built upon by what became a large Irish presence in the stands at Highbury, particularly either side of World War II. There were well established and growing Irish communities all over North London. Holloway, Highbury, Finsbury Park, Camden and Kentish Town were about as Irish as you could get without being in Glasgow or Ireland until the 1980s, not to mention the affectionately known ‘County Kilburn’, all of which fell within the club’s catchment area. And of course, many of those in London at the time were economic migrants who returned home and took their love of all things Arsenal with them, a love that has endured and grown and been joined by future generations.
Of course, it could mostly be down to the fact that ‘We’re by FAR the greatest team, the world has ever seen…’