Strong, intimidating centre-backs rarely make the switch from arch-rivals Tottenham to Arsenal.
Willie Young did just that, in March of 1977 and flourished following a troublesome end to life at White Hart Lane as he recalls in a feature for a recent issue of Arsenal’s matchday programme.
The defender cited a hotly-contested North London derby as one of the first signs that he’d be departing Spurs, but not many imagined he would be joining their local neighbours for a cut-price fee.
He vividly recalls the fierce affair, one in which he scored and got sent off for his part in what he described as a “big melee” between players on both sides.
“It was the beginning of the end of my time as a Spurs player,” Young explains. “Keith Burkenshaw, their manager, and I did not get on at all. That was plain for all to see. So this was a great excuse not to play me. He actually told me he didn’t want Scottish players in the team – I was born in Edinburgh!”
“Terry Neill had been my manager at Spurs but was now down the road at Arsenal. We had got on. Spurs had paid something like £176,000 for me [from Aberdeen] and Terry came in for a cheeky £80,000 offer which Spurs accepted. That was in March. Two months later Spurs were relegated.
“Terry and I always got on really well so I was just happy to be at a club where I knew I stood a chance of getting a game.”
The then 26-year-old made his debut in a surprise defeat at the hands of Ipswich Town, and it was a forgettable start to life as a Gunner for the Scotsman.
“We lost to Ipswich – quite badly, as it happens – and I gave away a penalty. Not good for a guy the Arsenal crowd still associated with Spurs. I should add the guy went down far too easily, I hadn’t touched him.”
Post-match came a moment that Young said he would never forget, after a disappointing individual display.
“Afterwards, I was with my parents when three Arsenal fans came up and gave me some really bad abuse. I lost it and told them that they may want to leave me alone otherwise there would be consequences. They left, I will never forget that.”
A brave turning point
In a match against his former employers Tottenham, Young attempted to head the ball to safety. Instead, he was greeted by an accidental punch between the eyes by his goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer, which drew blood and consequently split the defender’s forehead. He had to receive treatment from the physios off the pitch and once the bandages were applied, he went straight back into the fray and despite his injury flew into a header.
“The Highbury fans loved it. I wasn’t an ex-Spurs player anymore, well not in their eyes. I was now firmly an Arsenal man.
“He’s one of us, I could almost hear them saying,” Young continued. “It was a big moment for me at the club. Arsenal turned out to be the best move of my career – but until that point it was touch and go. Now I was accepted and it all changed.”
By his own admission…
In the 1979 FA Cup final, Manchester United were two goals behind and seemingly defeated against a dominant Arsenal side, one that looked destined for victory. Young revealed something he had kept to himself for a number of years after the game itself.
“Manchester United’s equaliser in the ’79 cup final – scored by Sammy Mcillroy – actually came off my foot. I am still not entirely sure that if I had stayed out of the way it would have gone wide,” the now 65-year-old explains.
“We had dominated most of the game: we had been the better team and frankly, United should not have been near us. But there were a crazy few minutes and they got it back from 2-0 to 2-2 in a blink of an eye.”
Despite a dramatic turnaround, Arsenal refused to be beaten.
“Straight from kick off, Liam Brady drove through the centre, knocked the ball wide to Graham Rix, and he crossed for Alan Sunderland. I remember that bit particularly well. Oh, the relief. I can still see it now. It was the greatest day of my career. I had left for Arsenal and become an FA Cup winner. It is fair to say, I had a few beers that night.”
The following year, Arsenal found themselves runners-up in the FA Cup final against West Ham United. By his own admission, Young said that this particular moment is what a lot of people remember him for:
“Sixteen-year-old Paul Allen is running through the centre, clear on goal, with only Pat Jennings to beat. I step in, trip him up – and expect to be sent off for it,” Young begins.
“The referee George Courtney came over and I was preparing for a red card, but he booked me instead. ‘There was no malice there, it wasn’t dangerous,’ phew.”
Looking back reflectively at a year that promised plenty but they ultimately fell short Young said, “I just want to also say how well we did that year and how unlucky we were. We played 70 games, in-fact the semi-final against Liverpool was incredible as we played them four times before we finally overcame them. We lost the Cup Winners’ Cup final a few days later too – and ended up with nothing for all our hard work.
“Some people ask why that Arsenal team did not win a title or more cups. The answer is simple: there was a very good team who played in red on Merseyside. As for the Paul Allen incident, yes people still ask me about it – and that is fine with me.”
All in all, it was a memorable few years at Highbury for the defender. Making 237 appearances with 170 of those coming in England’s top flight, he asserted himself as a mainstay in Arsenal’s defence before departing for Nottingham Forest in December 1981 with a fee of £50,000 agreed.