Friday, 30 August 2013

1980s: Arsenal and the transfer deadline day

I'm sure most of us Arsenal fans would agree that this is Arsene Wenger's most important transfer window since, well, the last one. Failure to invest wisely could spell trouble for both manager and club, and leave plenty of us gnashing our teeth and banging our heads against the nearest brick wall come deadline day. Am I prepared to put myself through another torturous deadline day ordeal on Monday September 2? Of course I am, yet I'm not holding my breath that anything exciting will happen (if you read this after we have signed Di Maria, Ozil and Benzema, then I am happy to be proved wrong).

Transfer deadline day was a lot different in the 1980s. For a start, the deadline arrived at 5pm on a Thursday in March, and it was very low key in comparison to what we see today (hard to believe I know). No Sky Sports for us all back then, Jim White, "Sky Sports understands...", shouty men stood in the dark surrounded by bored teenagers, sources, young men acting the fools behind attractive young women, or clubs announcing derisory offers to us fans. Just Ceefax, page 302 to find the headlines, and a page or so in the papers the next day to summarise the main deals. Yes, deadline day seemed so much more laid back during my childhood. In a strange way, I think I might have actually preferred the pre-satellite TV and internet transfer days.

So this week I am going to take a look back at some of the signings and near-misses involving Arsenal around transfer deadline day in the 1980s. Some bad signings, others great, and a couple of near things. I'd settle for that in 2013.

March 1981: Peter Nicholas

Liam Brady was a football genius. A left foot like a wand, his mazy dribbles and pinpoint passes could open up defences for fun, and one of my biggest regrets is that I was just too young to have seen Brady in an Arsenal shirt. Having said that, his sale to Juventus was a heart breaker for Arsenal fans, the absence of Brady throughout the 1980/81 season leaving a gaping hole that realistically could not be filled.

One midfielder purchased post-Brady was the Welsh international Peter Nicholas. Bought for £500,000 on the 1981 transfer deadline day - £400,000 plus David Price going to Crystal Palace in exchange - the Welsh international was your typical British midfielder of the time; industrious, hard-tackling, robust, energetic. And although his arrival coincided with an unbeaten Arsenal run of nine matches until the end of the season, Nicholas' time at Arsenal was hardly a success. The fact that five-sixths of the Brady money was spent on Nicholas hardly helped matters - a bit like selling Fabregas for £30 million and spending £25 million on Lee Cattermole (no disrespect to Lee Cattermole; funny how you can say no disrespect and then promptly say what you want) - but in fairness to Nicholas, this was hardly his doing.

Most reviews of Nicholas were damning. Jon Spurling, writing in his excellent All Guns Blazing account of Arsenal in the 1980s, was certainly not a fan: "Palace, who had been dubbed 'the team of the eighties' were about to be relegated and this should have been warning enough to Terry Neill that we could do without this particular 'talisman'." And the praise just kept on coming: "Immediately we saw that he could dig in and boot the ball a bloody long way but we had these qualities in abundance anyway". Not a ringing endorsement.

Strangely enough, the Arsenal website describes Nicholas as "an instant hit with the Arsenal fans". It would be interesting to hear the opinions of any Arsenal fans old enough to have been lucky or unlucky enough to have seen the man maraud around Highbury. I only recall the tail end of his career, and the fact that we had an international player in our team excited me a lot. I was only seven though and had a lot to learn.

March 1982: Garry Thompson

Such was Nicholas' impact, or lack of it, that within a year he was offered in part-exchange in a deadline deal to bring Coventry's Garry Thompson to Arsenal. The bustling England under-21 centre-forward was an exciting prospect at the time, and Arsenal were certainly in need of some striking options, after the bitter departure of Frank Stapleton in the summer of 1981. The Thompson deal broke down though, as Coventry demanded £500,000 plus Peter Nicholas. After experimenting with the delights Hankin and Hawley, Terry Neill's prolonged search eventually led him to the horrors of Lee Chapman. Oh dear.

Nicholas was most put out at being offered as a makeweight, originally hearing about a possible deal when his wife spoke to him in Spain as he prepared to play for Wales: "Being told you are set for a move a couple of hours prior to a big international is not the way to do things in my opinion." Neill was also frustrated, but for different reasons, stating that "Somewhere along the line people in the game have to realise that the transfer market is dead." At the time he had a point, as dropping attendances and the previous wasteful spending of clubs meant that the usual deadline day rush seemed a thing of the past.

This didn't help the mood of any Arsenal supporters however. In the space of a year, Arsenal had lost both their best player abroad and their star striker to Manchester United. I can't imagine that happening in this modern era though, can you? Oh.

March 1987: Alan Smith

Now for a happier foray into the transfer market. During his first season, George Graham had been very quiet in the transfer market even though certain aspects of the team needed addressing (sounds familiar), but he finally dusted off the cheque book on deadline day to bring in a centre forward that he had admired for some time: "He is a team player and an all-rounder, not just a penalty box performer. I hope he will give the side dimension." Alan Smith would not immediately join Arsenal - he was loaned back to Leicester for the remaining part of the season, much to the annoyance of Leicester's fellow relegation strugglers - but from the start of the 87/88 season Charlie Nicholas' days were numbered.

Despite a hat-trick against Portsmouth, Smith endured a hard start to his Arsenal career, at one point going a full two months without scoring, leading to much criticism on and off the terraces. But Smith would prove his worth in the long-term, two golden boots in Arsenal's title wins, the first goal at Anfield in that match, and a winner in the Cup Winners Cup final undoubted highlights in his Arsenal career. George did know at the time, Smith's contribution to his pre-Wright sides playing a key role in the success of the club.

The catalyst for Smith's improved form from the summer of 1988 onwards had arrived from Sheffield in March 1988. Which brings us nicely on to....

March 1988: Brian Marwood

Admittedly this wasn't strictly a deadline deal, as Marwood was purchased a couple of days before the final day, but this signing has to be included, due to the relatively short-term impact it had on the team. Bought by Graham for £600,000, the manager was naturally delighted at his latest acquisition: "He has two good feet and can play on the left or right hand side. He is ideal for my squad." Towards the end of the 87/88 season, winger Marwood scored on his home debut against Coventry, and began to ping in the deadly accurate crosses upon which Smith would thrive in the title winning campaign to follow.

The start of the 88/89 season saw Marwood at his best. Goals and assists flowed, one performance in a live match at Forest particularly impressive, complete with a skinning of Des Walker for Arsenal's final goal in a 4-1 win. Nine goals in 31 league games and countless assists from the wing, would have made him a dream Fantasy Football purchase had the game existed back then. More importantly though, his part in the 1988/89 title win was priceless.

Injury saw him miss Anfield, although he was at the ground in a club blazer to celebrate the against the odds victory. He fully deserved to be. We may have only had "Brian, Brian Marwood on the wing" for a relatively short space of time, but what a signing.

March 1989: Frank McAvennie

One that got away, and in hindsight perhaps we were lucky. When Frank McAvennie decided to leave Celtic and return to West Ham in preference over Arsenal, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The Hammers were in the middle of a relegation fight, one that they would lose come the end of the season, and with Arsenal top of the table, surely there was only one choice for McAvennie to make?

Graham's last-minute bid for the player highlighted the fact that in recent weeks Arsenal's title bid had begun to hit the buffers, and that maybe some fresh blood was needed. Yet McAvennie opted for a doomed spell back at Upton Park, stating loyalty as a major reason behind his decision, although the fact that Arsenal would not break their wage structure for him, and he would be under the close eye of disciplinarian Graham, may have had something to do with it.

It is a pretty frightening parallel universe which would see the result of McAvennie's transfer to Arsenal. Would Arsenal have won the league? What would have happened in subsequent seasons? Would Graham have been able to control McAvennie's off-field excesses (doubtful) and got the best out of him? In reality, the signing would probably have been a complete disaster, and McAvennie may well have been lumped in with the likes of Rodney Marsh or Faustino Asprilla as scapegoats (fairly or unfairly) for failed championship run-ins. We will never know of course, but a penny for McAvennie's thoughts on the evening of May 26, 1989.


  1. Ive seen peter Nicholas play he was all go great energy and the best thing he ever did was get remmi Moses sent off on purpose so he'd miss the cup final Moses had taken out David O'leary and Stewart Robson in the semis

  2. "...the absence of Brady throughout the 1980/81 season leaving a gaping hole that realistically could not be filled."

    Arsenal's highest league position with Brady in the team - 4th.

    Arsenal's league position in the season before he made his debut & the season after he left -3rd.

    Just saying ;-)

    I've noticed that Spurling tends to unfairly vilify players and officials in his books. Nicholas was like a harder version of Brian Talbot, no one could fault his commitment.

  3. As a Scot and a Aberdeen supporter I'd be interested to find out the gooner fan's point of view on Charlie Nic. I was a massive fan of his as a player (although not as an annoyingly smug and slightly vacuous pundit). Despite the nagging feeling that he never displayed anything more than a fragment of his potential after his 50 goal season for Celtic in 82-83, I was delighted to see him at Pittodrie after his stint at Highbury came to an end in 1987.