Arsenal’s original ‘Fox-in-the-box” – Highbury Hero Tony Woodcock

Tony Woodcock

I’m setting the dial on the time machine back to the early 1980’s. When The Arsenal swooped to bring an England striker back to good old Blighty after three years plying his trade in Cologne, Germany. He went on to be our top league goalscorer for the four seasons he spent with us. This week’s Highbury Hero is Tony Woodcock.

The curly haired attacker arrived at Highbury as a polished performer. He had slick control with superb reflexes which made him so sharp in the box. He had great anticipation as well. He was cool and clinical in front of goal an excellent finisher.

Woodcock takes on a couple of Man Utd players wearing the green and blue Arsenal kit

Woodcock takes on a couple of Man Utd players wearing the green and blue Arsenal kit

Woodcock’s greatest asset was his pace. He was rapid over 10 or 15 metres with great acceleration. This allied with his anticipation and speed of thought would often give him the edge over defenders to get away from them. He was also a good team player who linked up well with the other players.

Nice action shot of Woodcock bringing the ball down

Nice action shot of Woodcock bringing the ball down

Tony Woodcock was born on the 6th December 1955 at Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. He didn’t start to play football until he was twelve years old, but made up for lost time and signed as an apprentice at sixteen, for his local club Nottingham Forest.

Tony Woodcock in his Forest days

Tony Woodcock in his Forest days

He was in and around the first team but couldn’t cement a place in the team. Forest’s legendary manager Brian Clough demanded very high standards from his players and as a centre forward himself was particularly hard on the forwards. Tony said “He never tired of telling us his outstanding goals to games ratio!”

Tony spent months playing in the stiffs at Forest. One day Tony went to see Brian Clough in his office. “What’s the problem son” said Cloughie. “I’m fed with playing wide on the wing I hate it” replied Woodcock. “Where do you want to play?” asked Clough. “Just behind the main striker. I think this would be best for me and the team” Tony cheekily replied. “So your too bloody lazy to play midfield and not brave enough to play centre forward! Get out my office now” was Cloughie’s typical response!

Cloughie made Woodcock’s life a misery. He was going nowhere in the reserves. Playing in front of just a couple of hundred people. He could hear Clough’s voice from the stand booming out “Get your foot on the ball Woodcock” followed by “That’s rubbish Woodcock get up that bloody line”. Tony could hear every word and it was knocking his confidence for six. Tony tackled Cloughie about it. “I would have thought it would motivate you” said Clough. When Tony pointed out it had the opposite effect Cloughie just shrugged and said “Oh well I suppose you can’t win them all!”

The one and only Brian Clough

The one and only Brian Clough

Woodcock went on loan to Lincoln City and their manager Graham Taylor really appreciated Tony and the season he was on loan there they ended up winning promotion from the Fourth Division and Taylor also wanted to sign Woodcock permanently. But he returned to Forest with his confidence restored and following a further loan spell with Doncaster Rovers Tony forced his way into the Forest team and became a big part of that tremendous Forest side that won promotion to the top flight in 1976-77 and Tony was named Forest’s Player of the Year. Then they went on to win the Title in 1977-78 and Tony was named the PFA Young Player of the Year, Forest also won the League Cup as well. The following season 1978-79 Forest retained the League Cup, with Tony scoring in the final against Southampton and he was also part of Forest’s European Cup winning team and played his part in Forest’s record 42 game unbeaten run, which The Arsenal eventually beat when they set the bar at 49 games.

Woodcock celebrates winning the European Cup with his team mates

Woodcock celebrates winning the European Cup with his team mates

Cloughie did have the decency to admit he was wrong about Tony saying “In those days I couldn’t spot a footballer from five yards!” Woodcock’s contract was coming to an end and Clough asked Woodcock how much money he wanted to extend his contract. Cloughie said it was too much but Tony had interest from a couple of Spanish and Italian clubs and Cologne in Germany had offered four or five times what the top players in England were on. Clough eventually had a change of heart and offered to make Tony the highest paid player in the country. But Germany was calling and Woodcock had already agreed to join Cologne by then.

Tony Woodcock wearing the colours of Cologne

Tony Woodcock wearing the colours of Cologne

He joined Cologne in the summer of 1979 for £600,000. He’d been advised by Kevin Keegan what a great League the Bundesliga was and Tony enjoyed his three seasons in Germany, fully immersing himself in the German culture and language. All the while honing his skill and technique.

Tony wanted to come home to England and Leeds United, Manchester United and Liverpool were all keen to sign him. But it was The Arsenal and Terry Neill that won the battle for his signature and Tony signed for us in June 1982 for £500,000.

Tony with Ken Friar and Don Howe

Tony with Ken Friar and Don Howe

Two months later another forward Lee Chapman arrived at Highbury from Stoke City for the same £500,000 fee as Woodcock had cost, but the two forwards couldn’t have had a more contrasting time with Arsenal. Tony Woodcock was an England International and the finished article when he came to Arsenal and hit the ground running. While Lee Chapman was an absolute disaster. He was very raw and clumsy and couldn’t hit a cows arse with a banjo! What made it worse was Woodcock was so good! Chapman ended up starting just 15 League games and scoring 4 times in a season and a half before being shipped out to Sunderland in December 1983 for a loss making £200,000. The only illustrious thing about Chapman was his surname! Though to be fair to him he went on to blossom and scored plenty of goals for Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United.

Anyway I digress. Woodcock went on to have a fine first season with Arsenal. He scored in his first game at Highbury against Norwich City and though Arsenal finished 10th that season, we did quite well in the domestic cups reaching the Semi-Finals of both the League and FA Cups. Woodcock scored four times in the FA Cup, including the Quarter and Semi-Final. But we lost both those Semi-Finals to Manchester United. Tony was also voted Arsenal Supporters Player of the Year in 1983.  I think it was that season Tony scored my favourite goal of his, a spectacular strike against West Bromwich Albion at Highbury. He seemed to be about three feet in the air as he volleyed an unstoppable shot into the back of the net.

Charlie Nicholas “the Cannonball Kid” arrived at Highbury in June 1983, with a big reputation after scoring 50 goals for Celtic in Scotland. But it was Tony Woodcock scoring all the goals in his best season at the club netting 22 times in 38 games in all competitions.

Tony with his strike partner Charlie Nicholas

Tony with his strike partner Charlie Nicholas

I remember listening to the match bulletins from Villa Park on the radio. Tony had scored 5 goals for The Arsenal! I honestly thought that he may repeat Ted Drake’s fest of scoring Seven, as it turned it was only the five in a 6-2 win. This is what Tony said about it. “Ted Drake had scored seven on the same ground nearly 50 years before. At the time, I was just happy we had won and it was obviously great to score five. But looking back it is only more than 30 years later that I really wish I had scored more” There was also a memorable 3-2 victory over Spurs at Highbury that season in which Robson, Nicholas and Woodcock all scored.

Arsenal best Spurs 3-2 in a thrilling North London Derby at Highbury

Tony and Charlie both scored as Arsenal knocked Spurs out the League Cup at White Hart Lane and I remember Eamonn Andrews came on the pitch with his big red book to say “Tonight Pat Jennings this is your life” to round off a great evening. But the wheels came off not long after as Arsenal lost at home in the next round to Walsall! Followed by defeats at home to West Bromwich Albion and away to West Ham United. Terry Neill got his marching orders. The fans had turned against him and he had to go. Don Howe then took over.

In 1984-85 Don Howe added Viv Anderson, Paul Mariner and Steve Williams to the squad. The team was full of stars but still silverware eluded Arsenal. We were a team of very talented individuals who didn’t gel together as a team. In March 1985 Tony suffered a bad injury after which he struggled to get his form and fitness back. One bright spot was a 3-1 win over the Champions Liverpool at Highbury, when Woodcock got one of the goals and Brian Talbot scoring a brace.

Arsenal are victorious 3-1 against the Champions Liverpool at Highbury

1985-86 was Tony Woodcock’s last season with the club. He was still Arsenal’s leading league goalscorer, but after a 3-0 win and a Woodcock goal  at home to Coventry City in March 1986, Don Howe quit due to the Arsenal Board going behind his back to try and tap up Terry Venables to replace Don.

The following season George Graham became Arsenal manager and Tony became one of the first of many big names to be culled from the squad. Tony returned to Cologne in July 1986 for around £200,000. After two seasons there he had a season at Fortuna Koln before hanging up his boots aged 34 in 1990.

Tony Woodcock on England duty

Tony Woodcock on England duty

Tony also had a good career as an England International scoring 16 goals and winning 42 caps for his country. Tony made his debut against Northern Ireland at Wembley in 1978. He also played at the 1980 European Championships in Italy and the 1982 World Cup in Spain and scored the last ever goal in the British Home International Championship against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1984. Tony’s Final game for England was against Israel in Tel-Aviv in 1986.

Woodcock leaves a couple of Argentinians in his wake for England

Woodcock leaves a couple of Argentinians in his wake for England

These days the last I heard Tony worked for a finance company and is an agent for his son-in-law England rugby international Mike Brown.

A recent photo of Tony

A recent photo of Tony

In the four seasons he was with The Arsenal Tony Woodcock scored 68 goals and made 167 appearances. He scored some great goals for us and there were memorable moments. But he didn’t win any trophies with us. Playing in a side of many talents that didn’t fit together well as a team. But I’ll always look back at Tony Woodcock’s time at Highbury fondly.

A good compilation of Tony Woodcock’s goals for The Arsenal

As always thanks for reading. There’ll be another Highbury Hero coming along shortly.

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