The legacy of Charlie George, Arsenal’s rambunctious hometown hero

The legacy of Charlie George, Arsenal’s rambunctious hometown hero

When we pack onto the terraces of the grounds we call home and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, singing our hearts out in hope of inspiring to victory the 11 lucky souls clad in the same colours as ours, what we’re really saying is: ‘I’d give anything to be out there; playing.’ That is why, as magical as it is to witness an exotic, bronze-skinned, Michelangelo-sculpted, fortune-fetching import take to the pitch to play for your little old club, there remains nothing quite like the pride of seeing a local lad playing for the team you both adore.

As of the late-60s and into the mid-70s, there was one long-haired cockney in particular who routinely gifted the fans of Arsenal that uniquely prideful stomach flutter, felt only while watching one of their own take to the pitch intent on living out the dream that, not unlike the subject of their unerring devotion, unites each and every one of them. That boy was Charlie George.

Charlie Frederick George could scarcely have been more Arsenal if he’d been born on the Highbury Clock End itself and cradled in a red and white scarf as his infant cries filled the London air for the very first time. Instead, it was to a stoutly Arsenal-supporting family, at their home on a council estate in Holloway, Islington, a ten-minute walk from the stadium, that baby Charlie was born on 10 October 1950. It would be another five years before the famous old ground would come to know his keen voice.

It was Charlie’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, Joe, who first took him to Arsenal, unwittingly sowing the seed that would later bloom into a life’s obsession; and profession. Charlie would stand beside him, holding on to Joe’s shirt or trouser leg for balance, while atop a milk crate for added height, only to be literally swept away by the jubilation any time the home side scored. Not entirely unique to Charlie, children momentarily lost in the celebratory maelstrom would routinely be carried to the front of the stand, passed down overhead, from where they could scout out their significant adult before coalescing back in through the bodies to find them.

Charlie’s young life very quickly came to be defined by his love for football. An inherent objector to the rules and rigours of school, even as a tyke, Charlie would long for the freedom afforded by his two most treasured places; out on the road on which he grew up, using discarded coats for goalposts, jostling with friends for possession and dodging motorcars; or at the Arsenal, jostling with friends for space and dodging stray shots.

Eventually he stopped requiring his brother-in-law’s company in attendance. “As I got older I started walking round to the West Stand and, when I got to 11, I started standing on the North Bank with about 15 or 20 of my friends,” Charlie recalled to the BBC. He began making the short pilgrimage, and the burgeoning tradition, his own.

In May 1966, Charlie’s two worlds collided in vivid technicolour as Arsenal scout George Male approached him, having been impressed by what he had seen of the boy during his time playing for Islington Schoolboys, and asked if he would be interested in training with the club’s young apprentices at London Colney on Monday and Thursday evenings. Needless to say, Charlie bit his hand off. No longer would he need to shout his support for his beloved team from the terraces; he could display it out there, on the pristine grass, just as his heroes had before him.

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Charlie signed professional terms with the club in 1968 and made his debut some months later, on the opening day of the 1969/70 season, in a defeat to Everton. Frustrated though he had been to open his account for the Arsenal with a loss, the perceived impossibility of the occasion, and the joyous reality of it, made quite an impression on the young debutant. “For me to be running out at Highbury, you just don’t forget things like that,” Charlie reminisced. “Being a local lad and playing for my local team and all the boys – my friends – are supporting me on the terraces. That was absolutely amazing.”

For all the talent in his boots, achieving his dream of playing for his boyhood club hadn’t been entirely plain-sailing for the Islington lad. By his own admission, he “needed a bit of discipline … a kick up the backside.” He duly received it from the team’s youth coach, Ernie Walley, who made it clear to him that without putting in the graft throughout the week, no matter how good he may be, he’d would never find his name on the team sheet come the weekend. Charlie worked – and he reaped the rewards.

Lady Luck favoured Charlie and his team in the lead up to his first full season with the seniors. Everton’s third-place league finish from the previous campaign failed to earn them a place in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, as the competition sought to enforce a strict “only one club per city” rule and Liverpool had beaten their Merseyside rivals to the punch in finishing as runners-up to title-winners Leeds.

And so, delivered to them was a silver lining to their shock League Cup final defeat to Third Division’s Swindon Town, as Arsenal were granted fortuitous entry into the competition for the following season. Never a side to let an opportunity like that go wanting, the Gunners went and won it.

The era into which Charlie was thrust was, in so many ways different; not least because he bowled about the pitch rocking a shoulder-length 70s-rocker hairdo that could’ve gained him entry to any Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd tribute act worth its plectrum collection. Shared by Islington Faces, as per a story commonly told by Charlie on his Legends Tours of the Emirates Stadium, “[We would] drink in the local pubs; they always sold jellied eels and cockles outside. After a game, I’d walk up to Finsbury Park and get the bus home. It was OK when we’d had a good game, but not if it was bad. I’d have to hide behind a big newspaper. I’d jump in the bath with a cup of tea, pork pie and cigarette.”

These antiquated routines, habits that today would make even the most lenient of managers fume, never stopped the players of their era making their mark on the game. Charlie first made his mark in 1970. Over the course of the 1969/70 season, Arsenal laboured. Manager Bertie Mee could inspire them only to a 12th-place finish in the league, 24 points off the pace set by champions Everton, while the FA Cup and League Cup went the way of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal limping out in the third round of both competitions. On the continent, however, they exceeded their own expectations.

In the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which just two years later would be replaced by the UEFA Cup, Arsenal began the tournament with a two-legged first round tie against Northern Ireland’s Glentoran. Such was the light work of their 3-0 home victory, earned by goals from Bobby Gould and George Graham, Arsenal fussed little over the 1-0 loss that became of the second leg, a forgettable evening that even saw Charlie sent off and progressed into the second round where they would face Sporting, of Lisbon.

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A potentially hazardous visit to the Estádio José Alvalade navigated to the tune of a goalless draw, Arsenal welcomed Sporting back to Highbury where another two goals from Graham and a John Radford strike ensured their safe passage.

The third round took Arsenal south to take on an unfamiliar French side in Rouen. Without a goal to share in their first encounter, played away in Normandy, much like in the previous round, Arsenal carried a clean sheet back with them and completed the job amidst home comforts, a Jon Sammels goal proving the difference.

Into the quarter-finals, they managed to sully their European opponents’ clean sheet away from home for the first time, with goals from Radford and Sammels securing a 2-0 win away to Dinamo Bacău. If that weren’t impressive enough, Mee’s men put on a show in the home return leg, defeating their Moldovan opponents 7-1, Graham scoring before Radford, Sammels and Charlie George each helped themselves to braces. Fresh off a 9-1 aggregate victory, into the semi-finals they stormed.

In the final four, Arsenal were faced with the proposition of two games in a week against an Ajax team who, armed with the inimitable Johan Cruyff, would not only later complete their second league and cup double in five years, but dominate the continent in the ensuing years, winning three consecutive European Cups.

Remarkably, though, they’d prove no match for Arsenal. Despite defeating the Gunners 1-0 at home, the Dutchmen had, the week previous, been felled 3-0, courtesy of two goals by George and a strike from Sammels, leaving the Amsterdammers to lick their wounds while Arsenal marched on to the final to face Anderlecht.

In the first of the final’s two legs, Charlie and co were left stunned by their Belgian hosts, staring down the barrel of a 3-0 defeat with just 15 minutes remaining. But on came Ray Kennedy, who found the away goal to which Arsenal could cling to as they departed Brussels knowing an immense comeback would be required back in N5.

Final whistle at Highbury: que delirium. An immense comeback is exactly what the Arsenal faithful were granted. First Eddie Kelly struck to send Arsenal in 1-0 up at half-time. Then the ever-reliable Radford grabbed a second, restoring parity to the aggregate score and placing Arsenal in the driving seat on account of their exclusive away goal, before Jon Sammels, the recipient of a raking Charlie George cross-field pass, controlled the ball on his chest and fired the ball low beyond the helpless Anderlecht keeper.

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The comeback completed, 4-3 on aggregate, Pierre Sinibaldi’s purple and whites were conquered and Arsenal had their hands on a first trophy in 17 years; the club’s first European honour, no less. “The experience we gained tonight will be invaluable for winning our next objective,” Bertie Mee told the cluster of journalists, clambering for his thoughts immediately after the game. “The Football League.”

Despite having just secured a continental trophy, many looked to the manager of the 12th best team in England and raised an eyebrow at his talk of endeavouring to win the league championship. Twelve months on, they’d come to realise just how apt an ambition that was, and how prophetic Mee’s words would prove to be.

Coming down from the euphoria of a European title with an almighty crash, Charlie George quickly found himself ruled out of the beginning of the following season, after a collision with Everton goalkeeper Gordon West left him with a broken ankle. Despite being distraught at being forced to miss so much football, one constructive consequence of his injury was that Charlie was able to return to the stands, albeit not on the North Bank with his schoolmates, as he once did, to watch Arsenal play some spectacular football and put themselves in contention for the title.

When Charlie returned to full fitness and weaved his way back into Mee’s first-team plans, he struck five times in 17 league appearances, aiding Arsenal in beating Leeds to the title by virtue of a single point. Best of all, Arsenal secured the points that won them the league away at Tottenham, a Kennedy header powered beyond Pat Jennings and in off the underside of the crossbar just three minutes from time earning Arsenal their first league championship in 18 years.

While there was to be no topping a hard-fought league title for Arsenal that season – there is rarely, for anybody, the opportunity to ascend higher than the very summit of their nation’s pile – for Charlie, there was one more moment to rival the lifting of the league title at White Hart Lane, a moment that would come in the season’s FA Cup final.

Having famously vanquished their London rivals on the Monday, Saturday led Arsenal between the Twin Towers at the grand old stadium on Wembley Park, where the considerable might of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool stood between the Gunners and a first domestic double. 

An enduring picture, treasured for all its glorious simplicity, included a six-figure crowd sat beneath a scorching sun, Liverpool in red and Arsenal in yellow and blue. The game, at least its first 90 minutes, failed to deliver a classic, with each side the match of their adversaries. Into extra-time the game ran, the score still poised at 0-0, with the trophy eager to go home with whichever side could outwit the other in the remaining 30 minutes.

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With barely two gone, Liverpool struck. The Reds’ number nine, Steve Heighway, beat Bob Wilson at his near post with a low drive as the travelling Liverpudlians roared en masse, believing this to be the goal that may earn them another cherished FA Cup. George Graham had other ideas, though. With the Liverpool defence at sixes and sevens, failing to deal with a missed header now sat mischievously close to their goal, Arsenal substitute Eddie Kelly nudged the ball ahead for Graham to poke home for the equaliser.

A little over eight minutes remained, with the tied game slowly edging closer to a penalty shootout, as Liverpool goalkeeper Ray Clemence hoofed the ball upfield from a goal kick. Headed back to whence it came by Graham, the ball fell to Radford who exchanged a quick one-two with George. Having shaken off his nearest marker, who sensed the opportunity to hound the possession-holding Radford, the ball was shifted back to Charlie, 20 yards from goal, who took a single touch to steady himself before lashing an arrowed effort beyond the desperate dive of Clemence and into the Liverpool net. “Charlie George, who can hit them. Oh what a goal! Charlie George!”

Collapsing under the weight of his emotion, he fell to the turf and stretched his arms out in overwhelmed celebration, before being lifted back to his feet and mobbed by his teammates. Tufnell Park Road in Holloway had witnessed many a Charlie George celebration, following many a Charlie George goal, but it had never seen anything quite like this. Arsenal held Liverpool at bay until the sweet release of the final whistle finally arrived. Charlie and the Gunners of 1971 were double-winners. They were history makers.

That FA Cup-winning goal proved to be the peak of Charlie’s football career, as it likely would have most players. Though the team found themselves back at Wembley once again, just a year later, the FA Cup would on that occasion go home with the Leeds boys. In the years that followed, Arsenal’s double-winning side were slowly sold off.

Though his eventual sale in 1975 displeased much of the Highbury faithful, who so adored watching one of their own flourish in red and white, it came as little surprise. Charlie and manager Bertie Mee rarely saw eye to eye, never made more apparent than during the 1971/72 season when the forward required frequently disciplinaries, not least for headbutting Kevin Keegan during a game against Liverpool and, later, responding to jeers from Derby by celebrating a goal with the v-sign flicked at a section of the home support.

Charlie played on for almost another decade beyond his halcyon days at Arsenal, representing Derby with distinction, featuring for a succession of diverse sides including Southampton, Bournemouth, Dundee United, Coventry, the unlikely Minnesota Kicks in the United States, and Hong Kong’s Bulova, as well as capping his brief spell at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest by scoring a vital goal in a two-legged UEFA Super Cup victory over Barcelona.

Yet, wherever he went, plying his humble trade in countries near or far, no spell at any other club brought him, or his fans, quite the same fulfilment he experienced during the many games he played at home, at Highbury, reliving those days he first practised as a boy in Holloway, thriving with the weight of the cannon on his chest, serenaded by, as Charlie put it, “15,000 to 20,000 fans on the North Bank, chanting my name … the biggest thrill you will ever get in your life.”

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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