Highbury Hero George Eastham – the Playmaker with the Midas Touch

George Eastham

George Eastham

It’s been quite a while but who fancies another trip down memory lane in the time machine. Today we’re going all the way back to November 1960. When Arsenal signed a man who every player plying their trade in England today owes a small debt of gratitude. It’s playmaker supreme George Eastham.

George was the last of his kind at The Arsenal. The classic inside forward. A wonderful schemer, blessed with a wonderful left foot, who would invariably find the way to unlocking the most stubborn of defences with his exquisite passing. He was the master of the through-ball and the perfect supply chain for strikers Joe Baker and Geoff Strong. He was also known for playing perfectly weighted balls inside the opposition full backs for wingers like Alan Skirton or Geordie Armstrong to run onto. George had an excellent touch with beautiful control. Though he appeared at first sight very slight, one could say even frail, he was tougher than he looked and more than made up for that with his artistry on the ball. He also knew how to slip and evade the tackles.

A fine action shot of George

A fine action shot of George

Frank McLintock said this of George Eastham. “His apparent physical frailty was an illusion as he had stamina in abundance. I’ve said before that the best players are bright-minded and George was a perfect example of a player with Teddy Sheringham-esque shrewdness and a very cunning intelligence. A great judge of a pass, he had nice, delicate control and was a good athlete – despite his funny, loping shuffle when he ran at full tilt”.

This is what fellow World Cup squad member Alan Ball said about George when they were paired in midfield for Ballies England debut “Eastham played with me in the middle of the park and it was like taking a lesson from a professor. I played my part alright but I learned more about passing and movement at international level than I had ever imagined before. Pat Quinn at Blackpool had taught me about passing and making angles, but George took me to another platform as we beat the Germans 1-0 with a goal from Terry Paine. Just watching George was an education in itself. He talked to me throughout the game and I watched his body shape and the way he approached the ball or the way he stood as the ball came to him. He was never square; always half cock so he could get his passes off. It was something I gratefully picked up from him and that became a feature of my game. He was terrific that day and I have often wondered since why he never won more than his nineteen caps”.

George Eastham was born at Blackpool on the 23rd September 1936. He came from a footballing family. His father George Eastham senior was another fine inside forward, who played for Bolton Wanderers, Brentford, Blackpool, Swansea Town, Rochdale, Lincoln City and England. Harry Eastham his uncle also played as an inside forward for Liverpool and Accrington Stanley. It was something that happened to Uncle Harry that George admits had put the seed of rebellion into him. I’ll allow George to take up the story.

“I shall never forget the day he came to our house with his wife, her face clouded with tears. Harry who had given so much to football that he had never thought of a career outside it, was facing the grim moment of truth. Accrington had told him he was no longer wanted and he knew he was too old to find another club”.

“Dad tried to help. ‘Don’t worry Something will turn up.’ ‘But that’s not the worst of it,’ cried Harry’s wife. ‘We’re in a club house. Now they want it for someone else. We’ve got to go’.

“So Harry had no job and nowhere to live. How easy it is for us to say he could have seen that day coming! How easy to condemn him for never thinking about an alternative career. But how many of us would end in the same boat in a profession which virtually closes its doors to the over 35’s? Isn’t it human, when you have a particular skill, to go on hoping it will last for ever? If you have ever felt pity for an ageing film star, you will understand about Harry and all the rest. Every footballer thinks he might be the one to last as long as Stanley Matthews”.

“When the money is coming in and each Saturday brings a rich reminder of success, any player can be forgiven for postponing a decision on his future. Even when the cheers turn to groans and the inevitable spell in the reserve team follows, only the ultimate defeatist will be prepared to admit he is finished. ‘I’ll snap out of it boss,’ he tells the manager. ‘Just give me time!’ So he gets his time, but the slump continues. Eventually the club and player decide a transfer could be the answer. Even if it means dropping a division, he cherishes the hope that the spark will be rekindled. Can he lead his new friends to promotion? But somewhere along the way, that bright shining gift has tarnished and no amount of rubbing will bring it back”.

“I knew nothing of this when I was a child, but even a three year old can recognise an injustice – and I was quite a bit older than that, if ever I became a footballer, no one would have a chance to throw me on the scrapheap”.

George’s dad was looked up to by George and is rated by George as one of the greatest inside forwards ever. George said “He was the best I ever knew. Dad could make the ball talk”. He was George’s mentor and role model. He was hard but fair in his determination to put young George on the road to football stardom.

George got offers from Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers to sign for them. But George’s dad turned them down as he’d patiently been waiting for George to finish school before taking the whole family to Northern Ireland to take up the position of player-manager of Ards where George would end up playing alongside his dad.

George lining up alongside his dad for Ards

George lining up alongside his dad for Ards

George was making great strides playing for Ards and had been selected several times for the Irish League and both Doncaster Rovers and West Bromwich Albion tried to sign George but to no avail. Then The Arsenal came calling! Tom Whittaker Arsenal’s manager was told by George’s dad that George could join Arsenal for a fee in the region of £7,000. George’s dad wanted his son to sign for them. “That’s the club to which any father would entrust his son” he said. But the fee was a bit steep for a seventeen year old prospect and Arsenal promptly lost interest. Little did they know then that less than six years later they’d have to cough up £47,500 to obtain George’s signature!

George continued to do well for Ards and was selected for the Irish League against the star-studded English League which included Jimmy Armfield (Blackpool), Roger Byrne (Manchester United), Ronnie Clayton (Blackburn Rovers), Jim Iley (Sheffield United), Albert Quixall (Sheffield Wednesday), Tommy Taylor (Manchester United) and Johnny Haynes (Fulham). Remarkably the Irish League won the game 5-2! Not long after that George’s dad called his son into his office and said “George. How would you like to go and play for Newcastle United?”

On 19th May 1956 George signed for Newcastle United for £9,000. It was a bit odd as George first had to first sign the forms as a professional for Ards, then immediately sign for Newcastle so Ards could get the fee. George made his debut a few months later for Newcastle at St James’s Park in a 2-2 draw with Luton Town on 6th October 1956.

George in his Newcastle days evading a tackle from Spurs Maurice Norman

George in his Newcastle days evading a tackle from Spurs Maurice Norman

George was selected to go on tour to Rumania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia with the England under-23’s at the end of the 1956-57 season. But fate played a cruel hand as Billy Wright of all people, George’s future manager at Arsenal, went in hard and broke George’s leg in a match at Molineux, ruling him out of the tour.

When George and his bride to be Wendy made plans to get married, this was the start of George’s problems with Newcastle United. All the married players had club houses. But when George asked for one they fobbed him umpteen times and they ended up starting married life living with Wendy’s parents. The need for their own home became more urgent when Wendy became pregnant.

When Newcastle appointed Charlie Mitten as manager he refused the three-bedroom terraced house he was offered and the Eastham’s finally got their house. But things then went from bad to worse. The house and garden were a right state and George asked the club to fix it. Despite several times saying they would, they never did fix it. George also asked for the club to try and find him a part-time job which never materialised either. George put in a verbal transfer request, which eventually led to George listing all his grievances and putting in a formal written transfer request. Despite the club doing some of the repairs they still didn’t do most of them and the garden remained untouched, so George put in a further written transfer request.

Charlie Mitten told George if he withdrew his transfer request he’d get the repairs done, decorate the house and fix the garden. As well as find George a part-time job. But George had heard it all before “Its gone too far now” George replied. There followed an almighty slanging match between the two of them, which ended with Mitten saying he and the club would refuse to let him leave.

George ended the 1959-60 season, his last at St James’s Park playing every game and scoring 18 goals and Newcastle finished eighth in the table. George refused to go on the club tour to Spain and Yugoslavia. He instead went on tour with the England under-23’s to East Germany, Poland and Israel. When he returned in June the Board refused George’s transfer request. George refused to sign a new contract and under the retain-and-transfer rules which enabled Newcastle to keep Eastham’s registration (preventing him from moving clubs) whilst refusing to pay him as he’d requested a transfer. Newcastle could retain control of his services for as long as they wished without having to pay George a penny. Like so many players before him George would have had to submit. But like some fairy godfather, an old family friend stepped in with an offer of assistance which changed the whole situation and eventually led to changing the whole course of football history in this country.

Ernie Clay who later became chairman of Fulham was that old family friend and a very wealthy man, who gave George a job down south as a cork salesman. His wages were better than the £20 a week that he’d have got as a player at that time and it allowed George to hold out against Newcastle. Surprisingly even some of his fellow players spoke out against George. Tom Finney, who himself was denied a lucrative move to Italy by his club Preston North End, wrote a hard-hitting newspaper article advising George to “Lay that pistol down”. Wilf Mannion whose one-man strike against Middlesbrough had ended in failure, instructed George “Give it up! You can’t win!”.

On 13th October 1960 George and his advisors issued a writ against Newcastle United, the Football Association, the Football League and the Directors and Manager of Newcastle United for restraint of trade and also that the retain-and-transfer system was not legally binding.

Arsenal made a bid for George of £45,000, which Newcastle rejected. They were insisting on £50,000 and Arsenal Chairman Sir Bracewell-Smith wasn’t prepared to pay it. Arsenal then made a second bid which included a player exchange with Jimmy Bloomfield, but Newcastle told the newspapers before Arsenal even had to chance to talk to Jimmy, who was understandably furious that the whole world knew about Arsenal being prepared to let him go before he even knew himself! He vowed he would never wear Arsenal’s colours again and he was immediately transferred to Birmingham City. He later told George a couple of years later he regretted his impetuous decision to leave The Arsenal.

Christmas 1960 was approaching with no end to the Newcastle versus Eastham saga. George had almost resigned himself to never playing again. George knuckled down to his job as a cork salesman, when one day he heard on the radio in his car “The Newcastle United inside forward, George Eastham, now seems certain to join Arsenal. A statement by the Newcastle Board today announced that the club’s had agreed terms”. Braking to a halt and scattering loose change everywhere. George sprinted to the nearest phone box and frantically rung Arsenal and was put through to Bob Wall. “Is it true?” he shouted “Is it true?”. “Yes George” said the Arsenal Secretary “Newcastle have accepted our offer. You are free to join us if you wish”. Negotiations had been going on for weeks and Arsenal manager George Swindin had persuaded his Chairman to meet Newcastle halfway and pay them £47,500, which Newcastle accepted. George signed the next day, the 18th November 1960, after spending 139 days in the wilderness.

George shakes hands with Bob Wall

George shakes hands with Bob Wall

Arsenal arranged for George and his wife to move into a newly decorated house with a garden in perfect trim. A far cry from his experience at Newcastle! George had been out of football for five months and George Swindin was going to play George in every game he possibly could. Reserves, Metropolitan League and any friendly matches to get George match fit again.

George takes in the splendour of the marble Halls

George takes in the splendour of the marble Halls

9,000 fans turned up to watch George make his debut for the reserves at Highbury against Leicester City, almost twice the normal gate. Both Jimmy Greaves and Brian Clough sent George good luck telegrams for his long awaited comeback to football. Another three matches and George was ready to make his first team debut at Highbury, on 10th December 1960, against Bolton Wanderers and George got off to a flyer scoring twice in a 5-1 victory. George ended up playing 19 league games and scoring 5 goals that season as Arsenal finished 11th in the table. But Tottenham were firmly in the ascendancy as they did the elusive Double. When George returned to St James’s Park for the first time with Arsenal that season it was quite an eventful occasion. Not only did George score against his old club. He also took the corner which led to Arsenal’s equaliser in a 3-3 draw and deprived Newcastle of a precious point. The Geordie fans were irate and pelted George with apples! Ultimately that point would have been enough to save Newcastle from relegation at the end of that season. Also following a number of meetings between the clubs and the PFA the maximum wage was abolished, starting from the beginning of the next season. 1961-62 was no better for the Gunners. George wanted a new deal in light of the abolition of the maximum wage and Arsenal refused to meet his demands so George put in a transfer request. Eventually the club and George reached an agreement and George came off the transfer list. But Arsenal could only finish 10th in the league.

Arsenal replaced George Swindin with Billy Wright as manager for the 1962-63 season and he immediately made a big money signing bringing Joe Baker back from Torino in Italy for a club record fee of £70,000. But the season didn’t start well for George. He was left out the team by Billy Wright and played just one League game out of the first 11 matches and ended up asking to be put on the transfer list for a second time. But George was recalled for the North London Derby at White Hart Lane. Tottenham had smashed Nottingham Forest 9-2 the previous week, with Jimmy Greaves scoring four times. Joe Baker was also injured and not many people gave The Arsenal a chance. Despite the Gunners being 4-2 down at half time, George had a great game and Arsenal ended up getting a 4-4 draw, with a young 18 year old David Court getting a brace. This was the start of an incredible sequence of games where following the 4-4 draw at Tottenham, we then drew 1-1 at home to West Ham, followed by a thrilling 5-4 victory at Highbury against Wolves, with Joe Baker getting his first hat-trick for the club and a brace from George. Then next up unbelievably a 5-5 draw at Blackburn! Joe Baker and Alan Skirton got two apiece and George scored again as well The crowds were definitely getting there monies worth! George started every match the rest of the season after that Tottenham game and he happily came off the transfer list. The team ended up scoring 86 goals in the League that season with Joe Baker and Geoff Strong scoring 47 of them between them, ably assisted by George. But the problem was we conceded 77 goals as well! Despite this we did manage to finish 7th in the League. Our highest position since 1958-59.

Also in 1963 George’s case against Newcastle United, their Board of Directors, the Football League and the Football Association over the retain and transfer system, commonly known as the “Slavery Contract” finally went to Court and the PFA had asked George to take it all the way and provided George with £15,000 to help fight the case. Had the case been lost the PFA would probably have gone bust. George didn’t get loss of wages, but won what he really wanted, the most important part and the hated “Slavery Contract” was judged as restraint of trade, ironically the judge Richard Wilberforce was the was a direct descendant of William Wilberforce the famous abolitionist of slavery.

George at the High Court with PFA Secretary Cliff Lloyd

George at the High Court with PFA Secretary Cliff Lloyd

George talking about his court case

Back to the football it was a similar story in 1963-64. Arsenal scored 90 League goals, with Joe Baker and Geoff Strong scoring 52 times between them and George chipped in with 10 goals as well. But once again we let in a massive 86 at the other end and finished up 8th. George was also made captain that season and remained as captain for the rest of his time at Arsenal. One of the most thrilling games that season saw George scoring twice in another thrilling 4-4 draw with Tottenham, this time at Highbury, in front of a crowd of 67,986, once again The Arsenal having to come from 4-2 down at half time.

Captain Eastham leads out The Arsenal

Captain Eastham leads out The Arsenal

In 1964-65 Arsenal finished a disappointing 13th in the table. But Eastham and Baker the two marquee names were still doing the business. Both were ever present that season, with George scoring 10 goals and Joe notching 25 times. 1965-66 Arsenal finished 14th in the league.

Star Striker Joe Baker was sold in February 1966. The fans turned on Billy Wright and voted with their feet. Only 13,979 turned up to see Arsenal play Newcastle at home in March 1966, which was the first ever Arsenal match I attended and the only time I saw George Eastham play for us. Worse was to follow as only 4,554 fans turned up to watch Arsenal play Leeds United in May. Admittedly there was a rare live game on television that night as Liverpool played Borussia Dortmund in the Cup-Winners-Cup Final and that undoubtedly affected the crowd at Highbury, but nevertheless it was a pitiful attendance. It signalled the end of Billy Wright’s reign and also the end for George Eastham at Highbury as well. He played the last game of the season a 1-0 win against Leicester City at Highbury on 7th May 1966 and never wore Arsenal colours again. Bertie Mee was appointed manager and decided to put his faith in the young players who’d come through the ranks, with Jon Sammels ready to take over the mantle as the teams playmaker and George was sold to Stoke City in August 1966.

Team photo from George Eastham's and Joe Baker's last season

Team photo from George Eastham’s and Joe Baker’s last season

George played for Stoke till 1973 and he will always be a legend in the Potteries for scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the League Cup Final at Wembley in 1972, at 35 years 161 days old, he was the oldest player at the time to win a League Cup winners medal. It remains Stoke’s only major trophy.

George glides away from Alan Hudson in the 1972 League Cup Final

George glides away from Alan Hudson in the 1972 League Cup Final

George wins the League Cup for Stoke City in 1972

He later became Assistant Manager to Tony Waddington, before taking over as Manager in March 1977, after Waddington resigned. George took over a side that had sold its best players to pay for repairs to Stoke’s ground. Stoke got relegated and George was struggling to get them back in contention for promotion and Stoke sacked him after only 10 months in the job. In 1978 George retired from football and immigrated to South Africa, where he’d had a couple of spells on loan when he was at Stoke

George was capped 19 times for England and scored two goals. He was part of the 1962 and 1966 World Cup Squads. But he never played a minute in any of the matches at either tournament. All his caps came between those two tournaments. He made his debut in a 1-1 draw against the World Champions Brazil at Wembley on 8th May 1963. That was the first time a father and son had both played a full international for England. It was also the first time an Arsenal player had been capped for England since Danny Clapton in 1959. He also played in the prestigious match for England against the Rest of the World at Wembley on 23rd October 1963, which England won 3-1, against a galaxy of stars playing for the Rest of the World including Yashin (Russia), Schnellinger (West Germany), Law (Scotland), Di Stefano (Spain), Eusebio (Portugal), Gento (Spain), Baxter ((Scotland), Seeler (West Germany) and Puskas (Hungary).

George wearing the three lions against the Rest of the World

George wearing the three lions against the Rest of the World

George’s last England cap was against Denmark in Copenhagen just before the 1966 World Cup started on 3rd July 1966. He scored one of the goals in a 2-0 win. Although only the eleven who played in the 1966 World Cup Final received a winners medal. The other eleven members of the squad, including George, did eventually get presented with a medal on 10th June 2009.

George sitting next to Jack Charlton after training during the 1966 World Cup Finals

George sitting next to Jack Charlton after training during the 1966 World Cup Finals

Once the Maximum wage was abolished the game changed. The stakes were higher and teams become more cynical and a win at all costs mentality gradually crept into the game. No team typified this more than Don Revie’s Leeds United who came to prominence in the mid 1960’s. There was a match at Highbury around this time near the end of George’s time at Arsenal, where Billy Bremner and Bobby Collins knowing that George Eastham was the fulcrum of the Arsenal side cynically systematically kicked George out the game. Although George did so much to usher in a new dawn in football he was never really a part of it. George was old school both in his appearance and in the way he played the game. George Eastham the old fashioned inside forward really belonged to a bygone era, the era of Brylcreem, football rattles and Tom Finney, far removed from George Best, Charlie George and all the other long haired mavericks of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

George Eastham played 223 games for Arsenal and scored 41 goals. Now aged 81 George still lives in South Africa and I believe he’s the President of the South African Arsenal Supporters Club. I wonder what George thinks about Alexis Sanchez earning £500,000 a week. I’d also very much doubt if many, in fact if any of today’s players know anything about George Eastham and what he did for every footballer. Bob Wilson once said that the players that made up the 1971 Double side were like pieces of a jigsaw that all fitted together perfectly. George was never going to be a piece that would fit that particular jigsaw. George didn’t win a thing with Arsenal. But he did galvanise the Arsenal fans and gave them hope at a low point in the club’s history. Especially at a time when that lot down the road were at their absolute peak.

As always thanks for reading. Hopefully there won’t be such a long wait for the next one! I’d like to thank @vidfish and @gooner1947 for their input in describing George as a player.

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3 Responses to Highbury Hero George Eastham – the Playmaker with the Midas Touch

  1. Big Al, Koh Samui, Thailand February 18, 2018 at 12:24 pm #

    GEOFF Strong, not Les.

    Excellent work otherwise.

  2. Geoff February 18, 2018 at 7:06 pm #

    I was at the 5-4 Wolves match great game,George was my favourite player.Have still got the programme it was my 2nd match at Highbury,my 1st was a 4-5 defeat by Villa!

  3. Victor Thompson February 20, 2018 at 5:17 pm #

    Thanks Gary for a wonderful walk down memory lane.

    In one of my first articles for Gunners Town I described how I spent 1965 in Islington and I went to watch Arsenal regularly. I was mesmerised by George then and I said that “We had our own Mezut Ozil in those days” The description of George in your second paragraph could be rightfully applied to Ozil. My description was that George was a `will o the wisp` inside forward who was slight in build but a master on the ball.

    As I was born in N. Ireland, there was even more of an interest for me because I remember him playing for Ards. Ards is a small town but their pitch was built on the same ground as the nearby aerodrome and it had the best playing surface in the Country. George was ideally suited to it for it and he probably honed his passing skills there.

    It is ironic to read of his troubles with Newcastle especially with his house because around that time ( 1961 I think ) Newcastle let their hero Jackie ( “Wor Jackie” ) go to Linfield who were the biggest club in N. Ireland as their manager. He was supplied with a semi detached villa in middle class Holywood County Down which had a very nice garden surrounding it. I find it strange that having seen how a semi professional club like Linfield were so generous with him, that Newcastle did not do the same for George who was quite a catch in those days.

    Your remark about the wages players earned in those days was very true. Linfield had an inside forward then called Tommy Dickson who was very similar in build to George but scored much more goals than him. In the match in which The Irish league beat the English league 5-3 and also the Scottish league Tommy Dickson played for the Irish League. Also around that time Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player and Dickson received an invitation from Wolves and Rangers to come over for a trial with a view to signing.

    George Young, the great Rangers and Scotland Centre half told Rangers to get him before Wolves did and he famously told them that he was twice the player Haynes was.

    Remarkably, most players had jobs outside the game and Dickson was no exception. He was employed at Harland and Wolf shipyard and had a well paid job there. Although Rangers offered him more than Wolves, when he added his salary at Linfield to his wages at H&W, he declined to go. Changed times Eh?

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