Paul Davis: the Arsenal midfielder ahead of his time who remains one of the club’s most under-appreciated legends

Paul Davis: the Arsenal midfielder ahead of his time who remains one of the club’s most under-appreciated legends

From the middle of February to the middle of March 1989, Arsenal’s seemingly inexorable stroll to a first league title in 18 years ground to a gradual halt. When George Graham’s side won away to Millwall on 11 February – the infamous game when the referee David Elleray took to the pitch with a small microphone beneath the collar of his shirt in the name of a World in Action documentary, only to be summarily and verbally abused by a succession of Arsenal players – they were three points clear of second-place Norwich with a game in hand. Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, despite kicking into belated gear, were 14 points astray of the leaders having played the same amount of games.

Four weeks later, Arsenal were still top of the First Division, but they had won only one of their five league games since triumphing at The Den. Norwich were now two points behind and it was they who harboured a game in hand. As for Liverpool, they too had shaved one point from their 14-point deficit, yet they had suddenly accumulated three games in hand and the chase was well and truly on. Arsenal were labouring, and they had thrown away their mathematical advantage. 

The Gunners failed to win their next game too, held to a 2-2 draw at Highbury by Charlton, thus making it only one win in six. Despite the dropping of more points, which gifted Norwich and Liverpool an even more compelling paper trail to follow, there was one subtle difference against Charlton, however: Paul Davis had returned to the midfield in place of Michael Thomas. It was a diving header from Davis that had put Arsenal 2-1 up, and although they eventually yielded to a draw, the calm authority he had brought to the side settled the growing nerves of the club. 

It had been a fragmented season for a gifted footballer who, a few months earlier, had been on the brink of winning a first England cap, a man who had been touted in some quarters as the natural successor in the Three Lions midfield to Bryan Robson.  

Next up for Davis and Arsenal was a potentially incendiary trip to The Dell, to face a Southampton side that was nervously looking over its shoulder at the relegation places. Rather than the intense need for points at each end of the table being the generator of tension down on the south coast, it was the renewing of midfield hostilities between Davis and Glenn Cockerill that a rubber-necking nation was eager to witness. 

On 17 September, three days after being an unused substitute for England at Wembley against Denmark, Davis broke Cockerill’s jaw in an off the ball incident during a 2-2 draw at Highbury. It was both shocking and completely out of character. 

After a protracted fortnight, which included emergency surgery being performed on Cockerill, reported threats of a potential criminal investigation, English football’s first case of trial by television, and a moral crusade being mounted by an outraged white suburbia, demanding the end of Davis’ international career before it had really started, the FA handed out an unprecedented nine-match ban and £3,000 fine to him.

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Available for selection again from late-November, Davis had to wait until the beginning of January to play first team football again. In his absence, Arsenal had climbed to the top of the First Division and Kevin Richardson had worn the number eight shirt with a certain sense of authority. 

Given how emblematic Thomas would become on a dramatic Friday evening at Anfield in late-May, it seems odd to suggest that without his dropping from the Arsenal starting line-up two months earlier, Thomas might not have been blessed with his moment of immortality against Liverpool. 

In late March, Davis offered Arsenal some desperately needed subtlety and quick-wittedness in midfield, as opposed to the energy and remarkable turf coverage of Thomas. In one alteration, Graham slowed the thought processes of a team which was allowing its mind to run away from itself. The footballing brain of Davis recalibrated the internal workings of his teammates. 

Although Davis would pick up an injury in the very next game, on which would rule him out of the run-in and return Thomas to the team, the fact that Arsenal lost only one game beyond Davis’ four-game cameo was arguably no coincidence. He steadied a boat which was rocking violently. 

From the very beginning, Davis was the man to bring calm to pressure cooker situations. He made his Arsenal debut on Easter Monday 1980 at the age of 18 at White Hart Lane in the north London derby. He was on the winning side on a day when neighbourhood tensions on the terraces led to the throwing of three Molotov cocktails. 

Having continued his steady and considered immersion into the Arsenal first-team picture during the 1980/81 season, by 1981/82 Davis was one of the first names on Terry Neill’s team-sheet, at a time when the Arsenal manager was trying to restructure a side that had reached three successive FA Cup finals and a Cup Winners’ Cup final between 1978 and 1980, at a time when they were forced to absorb the loss of both Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton within 12 months of one another. 

Arsenal qualified for Europe in 1981 and 1982, while in 1983 they were beaten in the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup, ironically against a Stapleton-inspired Manchester United on both occasions. Despite their domestic consistency, the lack of trophies proved frustrating to the Highbury faithful, watching on enviously as Tottenham lifted back-to-back FA Cups in 1981 and 1982, before they added the UEFA Cup to that haul in 1984. 

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Through it all, Davis had struck up a wonderful understanding in the Arsenal midfield with the mercurial Stewart Robson. When Neill beat Liverpool and Manchester United to the signing of Celtic’s Charlie Nicholas in the summer of 1983, adding him to the previous summer’s arrival of the England international Tony Woodcock, much was expected of Arsenal for the 1983/84 season.  

By mid-December, weeks after being publicly backed by his chairman, Neill had been sacked, replaced by his assistant Don Howe after impressing during a prolonged spell as caretaker manager, while the club entered an ultimately unrequited pursuit for the services of Terry Venables, who instead opted for Barcelona.  

Whereas Neill had speculated in the upper part of the transfer market in a bid to reinvent the post-Brady and Stapleton Arsenal, apart from the additions of Paul Mariner and Viv Anderson to his side, Howe largely looked to those who were coming through the Highbury youth system. 

Given that this had been Davis’ route into the Arsenal first team, he became the beacon for those who followed him. Along with Tony Adams, who was introduced by Neill shortly before he left the club, a flood of young players made their debuts under Howe via the academy. Niall Quinn, Martin Hayes, Gus Caesar, Martin Keown and David Rocastle all made the breakthrough, as would Thomas beyond Howe’s exit, while a youth contemporary of Davis’, Chris Whyte, departed the club, eventually winning the First Division with Leeds. 

By the time of Graham’s arrival at Highbury in the summer of 1986, Davis was the defined centrepiece of the Arsenal side. He was a veteran in terms of individual deeds done and his importance to the club, yet still only 25 and without a major winners medal to his name. 

In 1987 that all changed as Graham built upon the widely underappreciated foundations that Howe had laid at Arsenal. Davis, blessed with a wonderful left foot, startling on-pitch vision, and unerring pass accuracy, was renowned for his calmness within the heat of a midfield battle. Elegant yet not unwilling to use force when needed, he was the perfect multi-purpose midfielder. 

In many respects, it was Davis’ adaptability that arguably held him back at international level. While he was accomplished in all the midfield facets, others excelled in focused ways. If Bobby Robson wanted an all-action hero he had Bryan Robson; if he required cultured passing he turned to Ray Wilkins; if he opted for artistry it had to be Glenn Hoddle; and if hired-muscle was demanded there would be Peter Reid. You had to be an identikit footballer to prosper in the England squad. A master of all trades would fall beneath the radar. 

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Arsenal won the 1987 League Cup, defeating Liverpool at Wembley. It often goes forgotten that in 1986/87 they also finished fourth in the First Division and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, losing at Highbury against Watford and forfeiting a realistic opportunity of a domestic cup double. Davis linked beautifully in the Arsenal midfield with Steve Williams, while Rocastle began to blossom. 

That partnership with Williams was on borrowed time, however. The emergence of Thomas, combined with a falling out between Williams and Graham, meant that despite being on an upward curve Arsenal embraced a pronounced degree of restructuring during 1987/88. Viv Anderson departed for Manchester United, while Kenny Sansom would leave the club at the end of the season. The arrivals of Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould left Davis as one of Arsenal’s most senior figures and he thrived on the added responsibility. 

Arsenal again reached the League Cup final where, as holders, they lost 3-2 to Luton in the most dramatic of circumstances,to a last-minute winner from Brian Stein. Alongside this, another FA Cup quarter-final was lost at Highbury, this time to Nottingham Forest, while a sixth-place finish in the First Division added more credibility to Graham’s reign. 

Given that the Scot had done the main body of his restructuring throughout the 1987/88 season, it was this concept that provided Arsenal with their impressive launchpad to go on and win the league title in 1989. It was still strange that they achieved this with only a partial input from Davis, however. Within their moment of immense glory, the talented midfielder should have been central to proceedings. 

Davis remained largely on the outside looking in throughout 1989/90, not appearing at all until Boxing Day as a combination of injuries, the drive of Thomas and the consistency of Richardson left him frustrated on the sidelines. 

Within this, Davis’ relationship with Graham became strained. Yet, when the injuries began to mount up, toward the end of an unsuccessful defence of their title, Graham once again turned to Davis, and it was within these last few games of the campaign that the subtleties he could offer attained a renewed value to the Gunners. 

Along with the signings of David Seaman and Anders Limpar, it was the rejuvenation of Davis during the 1990/91 season that led to Arsenal reclaiming the First Division title, absorbing only one defeat along the way. In a dominant campaign, they were only denied a shot at the league and cup double by the genius of Paul Gascoigne in an imperious FA Cup semi-final performance. 

After starting the 1991/92 season in the same form as he ended 1990/91, Davis again succumbed to an injury, which kept him out of the Arsenal side for over a year. With him went Arsenal’s league consistency, as did his renewed claims to a place in the national team, having performed well while on duty for England B. 

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Despite Lawrie McMenemy’s glowing reports, Graham Taylor’s scattergun approach to selection never targeted Davis for what would have been a belatedly deserved call-up. That one evening sat on the bench against Denmark in September 1988 would remain the closest he would ever get to representing his country at senior level.  

When Davis finally returned from injury, he did so just in time to lend a calming hand to Arsenal side for both the 1993 League Cup final and that year’s FA Cup final, defeating Sheffield Wednesday on both occasions. The latter success completed Davis’ full complement of major domestic winners medals. 

A year later, Davis had added a European honour to his impressive list as Arsenal defeated a star-studded Parma side in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup final, at the end of a run which had taken in evocative nights against Torino and Paris Saint-Germain. Davis’ experience in midfield, allied to the relative inexperience of Ian Selley and Steve Morrow, was pivotal in a battle for the centre of the Parken Stadium pitch in Copenhagen against Massimo Crippa, Gabriele Pin and the deeper-lying Tomas Brolin. 

It was here that the game was won and lost, as Davis’ discipline starved a Parma forward line containing Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla of meaningful opportunities. 

It was Davis’s last great night in an Arsenal shirt. The signing of Stefan Schwarz in the summer of 1994 took Arsenal in a new direction, and after a small number of appearances in 1994/95, some 15 years beyond his debut in that north London derby, he was released from the club in the wake of the arrival of Bruce Rioch as manager. 

After a year which took in brief cameos for Stabæk in Norway and back in London at Brentford, Davis returned to Highbury as youth coach, a role he would fulfil for the next seven years, before taking up coaching and educational positions at the PFA and FA. It is with a sense of vague irony, that Davis eventually took up employment at the FA, when he was once so close to playing for England, only to see the chance drift away; when he was once so emphatically sanctioned by his new employers. 

A player who was both ahead of his time and of his time, Paul Davis had to be patient for the riches of his career to arrive. When they did, though, he was the crucial component of every hard-earned success and remains one of Arsenal’s most under-appreciated players in history.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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