So it is back to the 1980’s for this week’s trip down memory lane to revisit a player whose time with The Arsenal was all too brief. It was said at the time that when he played well Arsenal played well. It is our highly combative midfield playmaker Steve Williams.
Willow could control the ball in an instant. A brilliant passer with great vision who would sweep the ball with precision to either wing or float the ball over defenders heads with unerring accuracy to execute the perfect pass for our strikers to run onto. He had a good shot on him as well, though he did not score that many goals.
Stevie also possessed great awareness of space, always seeming to create time for himself on the ball. He always wanted the ball in order to set the tempo and pace of the game. Highly competitive with a tremendous will to win, he also tackled ferociously and although highly skilled Willow loved the physical side of the game. If the opposition wanted to mix it, he would handle that aspect of the game with great relish.
Willow also had a short fuse frequently arguing with the opposition, the referees, even his own teammates! Kenny Sansom his skipper once observed “He hates losing and can’t tolerate people who don’t try or attempt to cheat him”. He often did not know when to stop complaining to the referees and they would sometimes say to Kenny “Have a word with your number four”. The Highbury faithful took him to their hearts and loved his battling qualities. In the heat of battle the cry would drift down from the terraces of “Stevie’s gonna get ya, Stevie’s gonna get ya”
Stevie telling Ossie Ardiles to go forth and multiply!
This is what Perry Groves said about his teammate Willow. “He was one of the only players I’d seen who could walk through games, it was unbelievable. He would get it off the back four; do little pirouettes, beat people. He was the playmaker. He wasn’t particularly interested in getting forward around the box, but he always passed the ball forward – he had great vision – he wanted to get the ball off the back four and be the playmaker.”
“He was a moaner, he’s one of my good friends actually, but a pain in the ass to play with because he’d moan at his own players, moan at the opposition, wind people up, but ability wise I think he was a wasted talent – he should have won more England caps“.
Steve Williams was born on the 12th July 1958, in Hammersmith, London, but brought up in and around Romford, Essex. Stevie made his name with Southampton, signing straight from school, as an apprentice in 1974, turning professional in 1975. Lawrie McMenemy gave him his debut against fierce local rivals Portsmouth away at Fratton Park in a 1-0 victory, aged just 17 on the 6th April 1976.
He quickly established himself in the 1976-77 season learning his trade from Saints captain and former Arsenal star Alan Ball. He was named Southampton player of the year in that first full season. In 1978-79, he played for Southampton in the League Cup Final, losing 3-2 to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
He later took over the captaincy from his mentor Alan Ball and led the Saints to an FA Cup Semi-Final and Runner-up in the First Division in 1883-84, which remains their highest ever position.
Get your replica wall clock here
Don Howe swooped for Williams in December 1984, when Arsenal splashed out £550,000 for his services. This is what Steve said about his move to Highbury.
“My parents used to watch Arsenal from the North Bank. I had family around the Holloway Road – as a young lad. I can remember my granddad drying out his hankie on the fire in his front room! Arsenal was everything to me, despite being born in Hammersmith and being brought up in and around Romford”.
“I didn’t have to leave Southampton for Arsenal but I did because it was my club. Still is. Always will be. But after a few days I realised there was problems here. I didn’t get in the team much even though I knew I was good and should be in that midfield”.
Stevie soon realised that he had left Southampton who were a team in every sense of the word to join Arsenal, at that time a bunch of very talented individuals but not pulling together as a team.
Willow made his debut for the Gunners on New Year’s Day 1985 at Highbury, coming on as a late substitute for Charlie Nicholas in a 2-1 defeat. He went on to play eighteen games that season, including the FA Cup upset against York City away, when Willow tripped Keith Houchen on a treacherous iced up pitch to give away the penalty that Houchen put away for a 1-0 giant killing. As Willow himself said, “It was a defining moment because it summed it all up for me. I am a midfielder marking the opposition’s centre forward in my own box. Well, I had to. And I’d do it again – although I’d wish the outcome was better, of course. But where were the centre halves?”
1985-86 was not a great season for Stevie as he suffered hamstring and toe injuries which restricted his appearances to just 23 games.
However, the following season 1986-87 George Graham took over the manager’s hot seat, he brought back organisation and discipline to the club, and Stevie bought into it immediately. Stewart Robson was an early casualty when George sold him to West Ham United. Willow got back in the side and stayed there for most of the season, forming a great midfield partnership with Paul Davis, as well as linking superbly on the right with Viv Anderson and Rocky Rocastle. Willow played a big part in Arsenal’s brilliant run to the top of the table that season.
It was undoubtedly Stevie’s best season for The Arsenal and we eventually ended up finishing fourth in the League. Nevertheless, the highlight of the season was Arsenal winning the Littlewoods Cup against Liverpool at Wembley in a 2-1 victory. Arsenal also ended the run that when Ian Rush scores the first goal Liverpool always win. Willow played his full part in winning his first and only trophy for The Arsenal at the heart of the midfield alongside Paul Davis. Winning that trophy was really the start of modern Arsenal. I remember us Arsenal fans singing, “Arsenal are back Arsenal are back” repeatedly as the team did their lap of honour showing off the trophy.
Willow’s last season with Arsenal was 1987-88 and he played 36 games for the club. Michael Thomas took his place in late January 1988 and he only played another three more games for Arsenal, the last of which was on the 4th April 1988, a 4-2 defeat against his old club Southampton at the Dell. Stevie then went the same way as Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas when George sold him off to Luton Town in July 1988.
Willow scores a scorcher against Oxford United
He joined Exeter City in 1991 teaming up again with Alan Ball, as assistant manager to Bally. After a couple of years there, he then played twice for Derry City, before calling it a day and hanging up his boots in 1993.
Stevie is now involved in a successful property development company in Devon.
Perry Groves was right when he said that Willow should have won more England caps. He won just six, which is nowhere near enough for a player of Steve Williams’s ability. Stevie also made 14 appearances for the England Under 21’s.
Another nice goal catching out the Doncaster keeper from a free kick
Steve Williams is not mentioned much these days but ask most Arsenal fans who saw him play for us and I am sure they would agree with me that he was a classy pass master with a real touch of steel about him. A man with a burning desire to win for his club The Arsenal.
Personally, I was gutted when George Graham sold him to Luton Town. Although he only played 121 times for Arsenal scoring five goals, I for one and I am sure there are many others, would have loved to have seen his stay at Highbury be a lot longer. One major trophy and six England caps is not a lot to show for a player of such outstanding ability. It could have been and should have been a lot more.
He is exactly the type of player Arsenal are crying our for in 2017.
As always thanks for reading Highbury Hero. There will be another blast from the past next week