In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it might 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.
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..”.