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Arsenal & the Irish

Arsenal & the Irish

Okay so as everyone reading this website knows I am an Irishman, born and bred, and of course everyone reading also knows I am an Arsenal fan, I also have a page as to why I am an Arsenal fan, but I thought I should add a page on Arsenal and the Irish.

Growing up in Dublin Arsenal were not the easy choice, it would be fair to say that even at the time of most irishness Arsenal were still not one of the top 5 teams in the city or the country. That list included Celtic, Liverpool, United, but surprisingly teams like Leeds, Spurs, and Everton, even Wolves were more popular in the days I was growing up. In my own home my dad supported Crystal Palace, my mum Aston Villa and my brother Leeds Utd. So for me picking the Arsenal was like so many other aspects of my life, I just had to be different.

But Arsenal have had some real Irish legends, Brady, Rice, O’Leary, Nelson, Jennings, Stapleton to name but a few. And these were the Arsenal Irish that made supporting the gunners that much easier. Today Arsenal has a certain French flair and influence, but back in the day throughout the 1970’s Arsenal had a real Irish backbone. But of course in those days the thought of having an African player, or even someone from somewhere like France was virtually unheard of. Most teams in those days were made up of locals, English, Scots, Welsh and of course Irish, that was an international as it got. And so in some ways Arsenal were possible one of the most international teams of the day.

Another aspect of the Irish at the Arsenal was of course our Irish manager, Terry Neill. It is funny looking back on him all these years later. Terry had mixed fortunes at the Arsenal, yes he got us to a series of Cup Finals, and yes at the time he was giving us more success that we had had for some considerable time, but for me my memory was always that he was not a favourite of the North Bank, he was never really accepted as one of us.

The six main Irish/Arsenal players were:

Frank Stapleton was a tough tackling forward who was an especially good header of the ball. He started his career with Arsenal, joining them in 1972 as an apprentice, after being turned down by Manchester United. He made his first-team debut in 1975 against Stoke City, and would go on to form a potent striking partnership with Malcolm Macdonald; the two scored 46 goals between them in 1976-77. He was Arsenal's top scorer for the three following seasons, and helped the Gunners reach a trio of FA Cup finals; Stapleton scored one of the goals in Arsenal's 1979 3-2 win over United, and scored 108 goals in 300 appearances in total for the Gunners.    

Liam Brady started his career at Arsenal, moving to London to join the side on schoolboy forms in 1970, at the age of 15. He turned professional on his 17th birthday in 1973, and made his debut on 6 October 1973 against Birmingham City as a substitute for Jeff Blockley, and put in an assured performance. However his next match, in a North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur, Brady had a poor match, and Arsenal manager Bertie Mee decided from then on to use the young Irishman sparingly for the time being. Brady ended the 1973-74 season with 13 appearances (four of them as substitute) to his name.

In 1974-75 Brady was a first-team regular at Arsenal, and shone as a rare light in a side that hovered close to relegation for a couple of seasons in the mid-1970s. With the appointment of Terry Neill as manager and the return of Don Howe as coach, Brady found his best form. His passing provided the ammunition for Arsenal's front men such as Malcolm Macdonald and Frank Stapleton, and Arsenal reached three FA Cup finals in a row between 1978 and 1980. Arsenal won only the middle of the three, against United in 1979, with Brady starting the move that ended in Alan Sunderland's famous last-minute winner.

Brady was at the peak of his Arsenal form by now, as shown by one of his best goals for Arsenal; having dispossessed Peter Taylor he flighted a looped curled shot from the edge of the penalty area into the top corner, in a 5-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur on 23 December 1978. During this time he was voted the club's player of the year three times, and chosen as the PFA Player of the Year in 1979. He was the most talented player in what was then a distinctly average Arsenal side, which was unable to challenge for serious honours like the Division One title, and by the 1979-80 season rumour was rife that Liam Brady would be leaving the club in search of a fresh challenge.

David O'Leary signed for Arsenal as an apprentice in 1973. He soon progressed through the ranks at Highbury, playing in the reserves at the age of 16. He made his debut for Arsenal on August 16, 1975, and despite being only 17, went on to make 30 appearances that season. For the next ten years he was ever-present in the Arsenal side, playing more than 40 matches a season (except for 1980-81, where he was injured and only played 27).

A calm and collected centre half, O'Leary was noted for his good positioning and elegant style of play. He was nicknamed by Arsenal fans "Spider" because of his long legs intercepting passes from the opposition. He won his first major honour with Arsenal when he played in their 3-2 win over United in the 1979 FA Cup final. He also played in the 1978 and 1980 Cup finals, and the 1980 Cup Winners' Cup final, all of which Arsenal lost. In 1982 O'Leary became club captain, but relinquished it to Graham Rix eighteen months later.

O'Leary broke numerous appearance records at Arsenal; he was the youngest person to reach the 100 and 200 match milestones, and he made his 400th appearance while still only 26. He passed George Armstrong's all-time record of 621 first-team games in November 1989. By this time, O'Leary was no longer automatic first choice (with the partnership of Tony Adams and Steve Bould at the centre of George Graham's defense), but he still turned in over 20 appearances as Arsenal won the 1988-89 First Division title.

O'Leary won another League title in 1991 and an FA Cup and League Cup double in 1993, though by this time he was mainly used as a sub. He holds Arsenal's all-time record for appearances, with 722 first-team games, and over 1000 games at all levels, in a twenty-year long association with the club.

Pat Jennings: In August 1977, he was transferred to Tottenham's arch-rivals, Arsenal, with Tottenham thinking he was nearing the end of his career. However, Jennings saw off rivals for the goalkeeper's jersey to play for Arsenal for another eight years. Whilst at Highbury, he helped Arsenal to three successive FA Cup finals, in 1978, 1979, and 1980. However, Arsenal only managed to win the second of these finals, a 3-2 victory against United. In total, Jennings made 327 appearances for Arsenal, 237 of them in the League, between 1977 and his eventual retirement from first-team club football in 1985.

Pat Rice: Though born in Belfast, Rice grew up in London, and after working at a greengrocers on Gillespie Road he joined the Gunners as an apprentice in 1964. He turned professional in 1966 and worked his way up through the club's youth and reserve teams. He made his first-team debut in the League Cup on 5 December 1967, a match Arsenal won 2-1.

Playing at right back, Rice was initially a bit-part player, making only 16 appearances in his first three seasons at Arsenal, and missed out on Arsenal's 1969-70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup win over RSC Anderlecht. However, during this time he won his first cap for Northern Ireland, against Israel on September 10, 1968, while still largely a reserve player. Peter Storey was Arsenal's first choice right back, but after he was moved into central midfield at the start of the 1970-71, Rice took his place and was a near-ever present in the side that season, as Arsenal won the League and FA Cup Double.

Rice remained first-choice right back for the rest of the 1970s, playing in the 1972 FA Cup Final as well; he was an ever-present for three seasons — 1971-72, 1975-76, 1976-77. Out of the Double-winning side, he was the one who remained at the club the longest, and became club captain in 1977. As captain, Rice had the honour of lifting the FA Cup after Arsenal beat United in 1979, as well as losing two finals in 1978 and 1980. He was the only Arsenal player to play in all five of the club's FA Cup Finals between 1971 and 1980, a club record shared with David Seaman and Ray Parlour. He also led Arsenal to the 1980 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup Final, which Arsenal lost on penalties to Valencia.

Rice continued to play for Northern Ireland in this time, ammassing 49 caps in an eleven-year career, which ended with his final international game against England on October 17, 1979, which ended in a 5-1 defeat. Rice finally left Arsenal in 1980 at the age of 31, by which time he had played 528 games in total for the club. He moved to Graham Taylor's Watford; he played 137 times for the Hornets, helping the club gain promotion to the First Division in 1981-82, and becoming captain, before retiring from playing in 1984.

Sammy Nelson: Originally a left-winger, Nelson was later moved back into defence to become a left back. He was a regular in Arsenal's reserve side for several seasons, before making his first-team debut against Ipswich Town on October 25, 1969. However, he was understudy to the Gunners' established left back, Bob McNab, and it wasn't until McNab was injured in the 1971-72 season did he become a regular in the side. Even then, whenever McNab returned from injury, Nelson was forced to step down to being reserve.

In the meantime, Nelson had made his debut for Northern Ireland, as a sub against England on April 21, 1970. Nelson went on to win 51 international caps, including two of Northern Ireland's matches in the 1982 FIFA World Cup.

McNab left Arsenal in the summer of 1975, and Nelson finally became Arsenal's first-choice left back. For the next five seasons he was a near ever-present in the Arsenal side, and he played in all three of the Gunners' successive FA Cup finals (1978, 1979 and 1980 – but only winning the middle of the three) as well the Gunners' 1980 Cup Winners' Cup loss on penalties to Valencia.

An aggressive, hard-tackling full back, Nelson was a crowd favourite and known for his cheeky sense of humour. He was famously suspended by the club for a fortnight after an incident in a match against Coventry City at Highbury on April 3, 1979 – having already scored an own goal, Nelson then scored Arsenal's equaliser to make the score 1-1, and jubilantly celebrated by dropping his shorts and flashing his backside at his own supporters in the North Bank.

With the arrival of England international Kenny Sansom at the club in 1980, Nelson once again found himself in the reserves. He left Arsenal in 1981 to join Brighton & Hove Albion. He played 339 first-class matches for the Gunners in total, and scored 12 goals.


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