Wednesday, 8 October 2014

1980s: Football debuts

Throughout the years, football debuts have come in many shapes and sizes. From the sublime (Wayne Rooney against Fenerbahce) to the ridiculous (Jonathan Woodgate for Real Madrid), a footballer is often remembered by their first appearance for club or country. This week I'm taking a look back on some footballing debuts of the 1980s. Some memorable for all the wrong reasons, others the stuff of dreams.

As ever, this is not a definitive list. So please feel free to contribute your own ideas in the comments section.

Glenn Keeley: Everton v Liverpool, 1982

On the face of it the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park on November 6 1982 should have been a keenly fought contest. Liverpool may have been top of the table (obviously) and had not lost a league match at Goodison Park since 1978, but Everton were unbeaten at home during the 1982/83 season, and as we all know, the form book goes right out of the window on derby day. Doesn't it?

Faced with a defensive injury crisis before the match, Howard Kendall raided his old club Blackburn to draft in centre back Glenn Keeley on loan. There were just two problems facing Keeley; firstly, he had not played all season, and secondly, his first match would be against a Liverpool side that would provide the sternest examination of a team's defensive capabilities. It didn't go well for the player or club.

Inevitably Ian Rush gave the visitors the lead after 11 minutes, before Keeley truly made his mark. Allowing Kenny Dalglish to get the wrong side of him, Keeley pulled the Liverpool forward back by his shirt, and with the professional foul rule recently introduced, referee Derek Civil had no option but to send off the debutant. After just 37 minutes, Glenn Keeley's Everton career was already over.

Down to ten men, Everton didn't stand a chance. Liverpool poured into the gaps opened up by Keeley's dismissal, Rush scoring four as Liverpool crushed their rivals 5-0. In the immediate aftermath, Keeley was told unceremoniously that his loan period was already over, Neville Southall was dropped and subsequently loaned out to Port Vale, and, like Keeley, Brian Borrows never played for Everton again. A debut to forget for Keeley, although it did last a lot longer than the 33 seconds experienced by Arsenal's Jason Crowe in 1997.

Tony Adams: Arsenal v Sunderland, 1983

On to another centre back who made an error on his debut, although this young man would go on to make 668 more appearances for his club than Keeley. When David O'Leary was forced out of Arsenal's home match against Sunderland in November 1983, a 17-year-old Tony Adams stepped into the breach, Arsenal's youngest debutant since Gerry Ward in 1953. "Tony might be young, but he's more than ready," stated Arsenal coach Don Howe. "We've no worries whatsoever. He's a great prospect, a big tall athlete and a very mature young man".

Understandably, Adams was less confident as the kick-off approached, revealing in Addicted that he took to the field with his shorts on back to front, and that he was still shaking an hour after the game. Adams also detailed that Kenny Sansom had tried his best to calm his pre-match nerves: "You nervous son?" Sansom enquired. "Don't worry. If the ball comes to you, you know what to do, don't you? Yes, that's right. Panic...and for eff's sake don't give it to me".

Adams' career at Arsenal did not get off to the most auspicious of beginnings, as after just three minutes he miscontrolled a pass which was seized upon by Sunderland's Colin West, who went on to beat Pat Jennings from distance. In the years to follow we would discover that Adams was made of strong stuff, however, and true to his character he did not let this error get to him, the Daily Express reporting that Adams had made a commendable debut.

It would take a couple of seasons for Adams to establish himself as a first-team regular, but even after the shaky start in his debut match it was clear that Adams was destined for big things at Arsenal. Four titles (in three different decades), three FA Cups, two League Cups, and a Cup Winners' Cup for Mr Arsenal, a man who became such a legend at the club that he now has his own statue outside the stadium. That sums it all up.

Willie Garner: Celtic v St Mirren, 1981

Talk about making an impression. Garner arrived from Aberdeen in the summer of 1981, a dream move for the defender to his boyhood club. But his time at Celtic would be short lived, as an unfortunate debut pointed the way to a less than happy time at Parkhead.

A 3-1 home loss to St Mirren in the group stage of the Scottish League Cup was bad enough, but the fact that Garner scored two own goals made the occasion even more difficult to swallow for the debutant. Garner would play just two more games for Celtic - a 2-0 defeat at St Johnstone and a 1-0 loss against Hibernian - and by November 1982 he was shown the door on his way to Alloa.

His debut may have given him nightmares, but very few of us can ever say that we got the chance to play for our team, in our home stadium. Obviously it did not go as well as intended, or as he would have played it out in his head, yet Garner can at least say that for a short period of time he realised his footballing ambition, even if his debut has entered Celtic folklore.

Tony Coton: Birmingham v Sunderland, 1980

On to a much more positive debut now, as Birmingham's goalkeeper Tony Coton made an impact with his very first touch in league football. The 19-year-old was only made aware that he would be replacing Jeff Wealands for the Sunderland home match just thirty minutes before the kick off. Maybe this helped Coton, not giving him as much time to think about the enormity of what was about to happen. But if he wanted a gentle introduction he was out of luck.

Immediately Sunderland attacked, and when Joe Gallagher conceded a penalty, John Hawley had the chance to give the visitors an early lead from the spot. Coton had not even touched the ball before he was faced with the very real prospect of picking the ball out of the net, but in a moment that might not have been out of place in a naff football film, Coton saved Hawley's attempt.

Coton had made a name for himself just 54 seconds into his career, as Birmingham eventually won 3-2 in a match which Coton still views as his favourite game in league football. Hardly surprising given the heroic start he made to his career.

John O'Neill: Norwich v Wimbledon, 1987

The saddest tale amongst this list of footballing debuts, John O'Neill's first game for Norwich was short and not so sweet. Purchased to replace the departed Steve Bruce, O'Neill faced a baptism of fire against the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon at Plough Lane. It would turn out to be the last game of his career.

John Fashanu's late tackle left the Northern Ireland international with snapped knee ligaments and a severed nerve, an injury so bad that surgeon Hugh Phillips, speaking after performing an operation on O'Neill, indicated the extent of the injury: "The injury is the worst of its type I have seen. I can not be sure of a full recovery". O'Neill never recovered from the injury and had played his last professional game by the age of 29.

O'Neill attempted to sue Fashanu and eventually settled out of court for £70,000. That O'Neill had to pay £150,000 in legal bills must have left him feeling as if the whole world was against him though. Norwich showed some class, however, giving O'Neill a Testimonial in 1989 - Norwich v John O'Neill Select XI, for which Gary Lineker scored four goals - but O'Neill's story is a stark reminder of just how precarious a career football could be, especially in the rough and tumble world of British football in the 1980s.

Robbie Wakenshaw: Everton v Manchester United, 1984

Manchester United were still hunting for their first league title since 1967 when they arrived at Goodison Park on May 5 1984. Just two points behind league leaders Liverpool, United welcomed back Bryan Robson after a six week hamstring injury, but FA Cup finalists Everton were not so lucky. Without the injured Andy Gray and Terry Curran, along with the suspended Adrian Heath, Everton's forward crisis led to a debut for 18-year-old Robbie Wakenshaw.

It would be a day to remember for Wakenshaw, and a crucial moment in the race for the title. After 59 minutes Everton's newest striker bundled in the opener after Gary Bailey parried the ball into his path, and although Frank Stapleton would later equalise, United failed to take advantage of Liverpool's draw away at Birmingham. A home defeat two days later to Ipswich proved the final nail in the coffin for Big Ron's side.

And what of the young debutant? Cramp forced him off towards the end of the match and he only ever played four more times for Everton before being sold to Carlisle in 1985. Another example of a young star shining for the briefest moment, although you can tell from his post match interview how pleased he was after his dream debut. A hero, if only for one day, and probably a very popular figure on the red side of Merseyside too.

Goal scoring debuts

There are so many examples of goal scoring debuts that I've decided to list a few in this section. Tony Cottee, described by David Emery in the Daily Express as "A tiny Cockney cherub with fair hair", scoring on his West Ham debut against Tottenham, and then repeating the feat after his £2.2 million move to Everton in 1988 (scoring his first goal against Newcastle after just 34 seconds). Niall Quinn marking his first appearance with a goal in a rare Arsenal win over Liverpool in 1985 (Stuart Jones, The Times: "At 6ft 4in he moves around on painfully thin and elongated legs like a frightened giraffe").

Alan Shearer's full debut for Southampton in 1988 which saw him unsurprisingly rip apart Arsenal's temporary centre back pairing of Michael Thomas and Gus Caesar, and score a hat-trick which suggested that the 17-year-old might have a future in the game. Steve Bull scoring for England in the cauldron of Hampden Park against Scotland whilst still technically a third division player. Just to redress the balance, Steve Archibald coming on as sub for Kenny Dalglish, and scoring for Scotland against Portugal.

Staying in Scotland, there is the goal scoring start to the career of Aberdeen's Marc De Clerck, who scored his team's third in a 4-0 League Cup win over Berwick, which gave The Dons an aggregate 12-1 victory. Nothing too remarkable in that perhaps, except that De Clerck - listed in the Sunday Express results section as Clarke D - was a goalkeeper. He only played one more game for the club, yet with two clean sheets and a goal to his name, the Belgian can rightly look back on his stay in Scotland with pride.


  1. Glen Keeley had an equally disastrous debut for Newcastle according to Malcolm MacDonald's autobiography. Sounds like he was a bit of a nervy person for the big occasion...

  2. England's two goodwill tours of Australia in 1980 and I think 1985 provided a slew of debuts for lots of players who would have never got near the team. Alan Sunderland was one such one cap wonder.