Sunday, 18 September 2016

1980: Clive Allen and Arsenal

This article first appeared in issue 260 of The Gooner

It was a transfer that appeared to make sense at the time. After the gruelling and heart breaking 70-match season in 1979/80, it was clear that Arsenal needed reinforcements if they wanted to progress to the next level, and it was essential that the money earned from their cup runs should be invested in the squad. With the impending departure of Liam Brady, Arsenal fans were in need of some positives, so the signing of Clive Allen at least provided a glimmer of hope.

The 19-year-old centre forward was one of the most exciting prospects in the English game. After scoring 28 goals for QPR in the Second Division in 1979/80, Allen was already being hailed as the next Jimmy Greaves - good to see that the press were just as over the top 36 years ago - so when Arsenal signed the teenager to provide competition and assistance to Frank Stapleton and Alan Sunderland, Arsenal's forward line looked promising.

Manager Terry Neill had been after Allen for a long time, and he was gushing in his praise for the new signing: "We don't do things lightly here. Our supporters deserve the best and that is what I believe we have given them by buying Clive." Neill also commented that Allen had signed a contract that would keep him at Arsenal for "a very long time". But just 62 days later, that statement would sound very hollow.

The events that followed were even stranger seeing as Arsenal had smashed their transfer record, spending £1.25 million on Allen, completely blitzing their previous high of £440,000 on Brian Talbot in the process. Indeed, Allen was now the sixth player to have been sold for over a million in the past year - along with Trevor Francis, Andy Gray, Steve Daley, Kevin Reeves, and Steve Archibald - during a period of transfer madness within the domestic game that was hardly thriving.

So the deal looked a good one for Arsenal on paper, yet it would be on grass that the first signs of trouble appeared. Allen made his debut in a 2-0 defeat to Glasgow Rangers, and also started in losses to Aberdeen and Vasco de Gama, although when he was substituted in the last match, little did we know that Clive Allen would never again appear in an Arsenal shirt.

"To all of us it was pretty obvious it wouldn't work," David O'Leary commented in My Story. "Our success had been built on a 4-4-2 system. Suddenly, it was 4-3-3 to accommodate Clive." O'Leary noted that playing all three strikers led to a traffic jam, and that Stapleton and Allen would have been a good partnership, but that would have meant leaving out Sunderland, who had enjoyed such a fine campaign in the previous season.

Neill had created a quandary for himself. Under pressure to find a space in his eleven for the new £1.25 million signing, but reluctant to drop either Sunderland or Stapleton, at first Neill tried to find space for all of them. But three into two just didn't go.

"I was not worried that he (Allen) hadn't scored, but what concerned me more was that the forward combination of Alan Sunderland, Frank Stapleton and Clive Allen did not look right," Neill commented in Revelations of a Football Manager. It was soon becoming apparent to Neill, and his assistant Don Howe, that they had to talk about Clive.

According to Neill, it was a chance phone call from Crystal Palace manager Terry Venables that sealed the fate of Allen. Venables contacted Neill to enquire if the Arsenal manager would be interested in taking want away Kenny Sansom off his hands, and with Sammy Nelson approaching the end of his Arsenal career, the move appealed to Neill and Howe.

However, Neill was reluctant to pay £1 million for a full-back - "only strikers can command, or should command, that kind of money" - and although Venables had mentioned taking Arsenal reserve keeper Paul Barron the other way, Sansom's move had hit the buffers. But then a thought occurred to Neill and Howe: could Allen be used in exchange for Sansom?

"Don and I realised there would be a lot of criticism if we unloaded Allen to Palace before he had played a single League game for Arsenal. But we had to be positive and make a judgement in the best interests of the club." Venables was very open to the idea - he had been after Allen previously but could not afford the fee - so the deal was arranged. Arsenal would get Sansom and £400,000 in exchange for Allen and Barron. Understandably, when news of this filtered through to the press, there were more than a few raised eyebrows.

"What happened to our SAS attack?" one Arsenal supporter asked in the Daily Mirror, as conspiracy theories immediately set root. Rumours began to circulate that the whole deal had been concocted weeks before, that QPR chairman Jim Gregory was reluctant to sell Allen directly to Palace, and that Arsenal had been the go-between all along. "There was not a word of truth in these allegations," Neill stated vehemently in his book, his comments at the time also refuting the accusations: "I didn't buy Allen as a puppet, hoping this arrangement would occur."

Of course, we may never know the truth. But one thing was certain; Clive Allen's Arsenal career was over after just 62 days at the club. "It's been a bit bewildering," Allen said whilst posing in his new Palace top. The rumours just wouldn't go away, though, with Allen adamant that all was above board. "I don't think Arsenal bought me from Rangers as bait to buy Kenny Sansom from Palace. They spent a lot of money and had obviously thought about keeping me for a long time."

Neill certainly agreed with this: "The future of Frank Stapleton was uncertain and it seemed right to plan ahead by buying another striker." So true. Stapleton left after the conclusion of the 1980/81 season, his choice of destination sickening for all Arsenal fans, and in truth Neill never replaced him successfully.

Indeed, the summer of 1980 could be seen as the beginning of the end for Neill, his work in the transfer market laying the shaky foundations for the Dark Ages ahead. Brady and Stapleton gone in 1980 and 1981 respectively, the likes of Hankin, Hawley and Chapman coming in over the next few years. Oh dear.

Neill had obviously tried to address the Stapleton issue in the summer of 1980, and the acquisition of Allen seemed to be with a view to the future. Yet in the days before squad rotation, the thought of splitting the Stapleton-Sunderland partnership, and having a £1.25 million reserve, pushed Allen towards the exit door before he had managed to get his seat warm in the dressing room. The situation was a mess, and things would not improve for Neill over the next few seasons.

Life would continue to be complex for young Clive. Relegated at the end of the season with Palace, Allen was soon back at QPR, seemingly stuck on a merry-go-round involving London clubs. "I don't hold any resentment towards Arsenal," Allen said at the time, although the story the Arsenal supporting Tottenham player Johnnie Jackson told The Gooner in 2010, might suggest that there was some feelings of anger. Sitting on the Tottenham reserve team coach after a match, everyone was watching Arsenal's Champions League semi-final second leg against Villarreal, when Gael Clichy conceded a late penalty.

"This triggered our manager at the time, Clive Allen, to come running down the coach waving his fists in my face with delight," Jackson recalls. "I remained calm...until Jens Lehmann saved the penalty. Then I erupted and duly returned the favour, screaming with joy right in Clive's face!" Poor Clive. When he whined about Arsene Wenger apparently refusing to shake his hand in 2011, you did start to wonder if Allen had really achieved closure on his time at Arsenal.

Allen did try his best to get one over on Arsenal in his Annus Mirabilis of 1986/87. Scoring 49 goals in total, breaking Jimmy Greaves' Tottenham season goal scoring record, Allen proved a right pain for The Arse during the Littlewoods Cup semi-final trilogy, like a wasp that constantly bugs you in a pub garden. Allen scored three times in those buttock clenching encounters, but importantly missed a number of chances to put Arsenal away. When David Rocastle scored late on in the replay, Allen must have had even more reason to despise Arsenal.

"So we lost a good forward, but we gained a great full-back. It was still most odd," O'Leary concluded on the Allen saga. Very odd indeed. A summer of confusion for Arsenal supporters, and probably Allen himself, a deal that is still surrounded in a slight air of mystery. And a transfer exchange that, had it happened in the modern era, may well have sent Twitter into meltdown.

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1 comment:

  1. "Allen was already being hailed as the next Jimmy Greaves - good to see that the press were just as over the top 36 years ago..."

    Reminds me of when a new batting star appears in Australian cricket - they are hailed as the new Don Bradman.

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