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The Greatest English Player Never to play for England – Highbury Hero Geordie Armstrong

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Quite a long back trip in the time machine to revisit this week’s Highbury Hero, it’s back to 1961, when Arsenal signed a talented young kid from the North East of England, who went on to become a huge Arsenal Legend. Though small in stature he was a massive part of Arsenal’s 1971 Double side and was the supply line for the twin juggernauts of John Radford and Ray Kennedy. It’s The Gunners wonderful winger George “Geordie” Armstrong.

George was happy to play on either wing; he was pacy, skillful and had great close control. But his 2 main attributes was his incredible ability to cross a football and his stamina. In my opinion he’s the best crosser I’ve ever seen at Arsenal. Nobody in the whole of the Football League in Geordie’s time could cross a ball quite like Geordie.

He was the main reason John Radford and Ray Kennedy scored so many headers for Arsenal, particularly in the Double season of 1970-71. This is what John Radford said about Geordie in Dave Seager’s brilliant book Geordie Armstrong on the Wing “We first played together in the Arsenal reserves in the Metropolitan League – the balls were still the old leather ones with the laces tied and then tucked in. George was such a good crosser that I used to joke with him and say ‘George when you cross the ball make sure the laces are on the other side of my head!’ George’s reply was always the same… ‘I’ll see what can do John!” He goes on to say “Whenever Ray or I made our runs… near-post, penalty spot or far-post, George could put the cross within a square yard from either flank and with either foot.”

Geordie about to deliver another pinpoint cross

Geordie about to deliver another pinpoint cross

Another thing Geordie would do is swap wings to great effect; he sometimes did that with Alan Skirton and later with Jimmy Robertson as well.

Geordie’s other outstanding attribute was his amazing stamina and work rate. He was perpetual motion, a workaholic and covered every blade of grass on the pitch, although it has to be said sometimes there was no grass, just thick mud that sapped a player’s energy, but not Geordie he’d run all day long no matter what the conditions.

It has to be also be remembered that when Geordie started playing wingers rarely came back to help the full backs. They’d be hugging the touch line and making sure they got some chalk on their boots. But Geordie must have been a dream to play with for both Billy McCullough and later Bob McNab, as he was always back to help out when they were under the cosh. If ever there was a player ideally suited to the modern game it was Geordie. He was tucking in and coming back to help his defence much as they do in the modern game now.

 

While other players detested pre-season training, Geordie absolutely loved it. Frank McLintock tells a great anecdote about Geordie in his book True Grit. “Before the start of the 1970-71 season Don Howe was really putting the players through it. The players would work for two hours solid in the morning in the baking sun on a bone hard pitch, then had a 90 minute break before doing another two hours work in the afternoon. It was so difficult to start up again for the second session, as we put so much effort in that our limbs would ache and our bones would be literally creaking. By the time   I got home at half past four I felt like a cardboard dummy and could hardly get out of the car.”

“Geordie used to live on the road behind me and I’d sometimes telephone his house in the evenings to find out if he wanted a lift the next day only to be told by his wife Marj, that he’d gone out for a run. I would need a late afternoon siesta after the day’s punishment but he would have gone out and done another five miles!”

Geordie leading the way as ever in training 

Geordie leading the way as ever in training

I could imagine Geordie doing an SAS endurance test, coming through with flying colours and then saying right what shall I do now!

All the players adored Geordie even though he was always moaning in his strong north eastern accent, but when the other players took the mick out of him about it he’d have a broad grin on his face. The other players used to plead with Geordie not to bomb to the front and set too fast a pace on the cross country runs, but Geordie couldn’t help himself!

Geordie wasn’t only the fittest of the Double squad, he was also the fastest. Frank McLintock once organised a race at London Colney between Geordie and Peter Marinello. Peter was a bit of a greyhound. The two were neck and neck over the first 85 yards, but Geordie’s strength and stamina told and he pulled away in the closing stages to win by five yards.

Geordie was very durable as well, rarely missing games through injury, even in the era of the hatchet men, who couldn’t intimidate Geordie; if they fouled him he just got up, rolled his sleeves up and got on with it. As Pat Rice said “The tougher the tackles the better he played.”

A rare injury for Geordie

A rare injury for Geordie

George was as giving off the pitch as he was on it. All the Double squad will tell you how Geordie was generous to a fault and always insisted on buying the first round of drinks, although he wasn’t a big drinker. Also if anybody’s car broke down Geordie would be the first one the other players would turn to for his help, no matter what time it was.

George was born in Hebburn, County Durham on the 9th August 1944. He was working as an apprentice electrician in the shipyard, when Newcastle United signed him on amateur forms. But due to a misunderstanding, over Geordie playing for his shipyard side in an important semi-final, Newcastle and Geordie fell out and there was a parting of the ways, which eventually led to Geordie swapping one great historic club in the north Newcastle United for another great historic club in the south The Arsenal.

An early team photo with Geordie and some other familiar faces

An early team photo with Geordie and some other familiar faces

When he arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 1961, Arsenal captain Vic Groves took Geordie under his wing and looked after him when Geordie lodged with Vic and his wife. It wasn’t long before Geordie made his debut aged 17, on the 24th February 1962, against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road in a 1-0 win and he scored his first goal for the club in the last game of the season, against Everton, at Highbury, in a 3-2 defeat, which incidentally was Jack Kelsey’s last appearance in goal for The Arsenal.

The following season 1962-63 Gorge Swindon was replaced by Billy Wright and Geordie made 16 appearances and scored two goals, as understudy for both Johnny MacLeod and Alan Skirton.

By 1964-65 Geordie was a regular and missed only two League games as Johnny MacLeod was sold to Aston Villa, who was the first of quite a few wingers that Geordie saw off. Joe Baker scored 25 goals that season and Geordie played a big part in that.

Though 1965-66 was another good season personally for Geordie making 39 League appearances and scoring 6 times, the team finished 14th, the fans protested and Billy Wright was sacked.

Bertie Mee replaced Billy Wright and appointed Dave Sexton as head coach and Geordie remained a mainstay of the side. Don Howe took over as head coach for 1967-68 and Geordie played in all 42 League games. Geordie also played in both of Arsenal’s losing League Cup Final defeats against Leeds United and Swindon Town.

In January 1970 Peter Marinello arrived from Hibernian for a club record £100,000 fee in a blaze of publicity and he was meant to be the Scottish George Best. He took Geordie’s first team place for three months, but by April 1970 he was back in the side and Marinello became another winger he saw off.

Geordie in a classic Arsenal away kit

Geordie in a classic Arsenal away kit

George played a big part in Arsenal winning their first trophy in 17 years, when in 1970 it was Geordie who put in the cross for Ray Kennedy to head home five minutes from time, against Anderlecht in the first leg of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup Final, to give us a lifeline in the second leg.

Geordie had probably his finest game in an Arsenal shirt in what was undoubtedly the greatest ever night at Highbury, against Anderlecht in the second leg. Geordie was everywhere and Anderlecht couldn’t cope with him as Arsenal blew them away 3-0, with Geordie Man of the match. He was also the Arsenal supporter’s player of the year in 1970.

Geordie going past yet another defender

Geordie going past yet another defender

George was 26 and at the top of his game in 1970-71 and was again outstanding that season playing in every game. I remember him scoring a brace against Spurs at Highbury in September.

Geordie gets a brace against Spurs

 

In October he was again superb against Derby County in a 2-0 win at Highbury and you can see the Big Match highlights and a rare Geordie Armstrong interview with Brian Moore below.

Geordie being interviewed by Brian Moore

I was at White Hart Lane in May 1971 to see us clinch the Title and it was Geordie who crossed it to Ray Kennedy to head home the winner over Pat Jennings and in off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net. I was lucky enough to be there again to see Geordie and all the rest of the great 1970-71 side clinch the Double, five days later at Wembley, in the 2-1 extra-time victory over Liverpool, when Charlie George scored that glorious winner.

That glorious night at White Hart Lane in 1971

I remember being at Villa Park and seeing George Armstrong open the scoring in that dramatic FA Cup semi-final, only for Stoke City to equalise, then having to hang on as Bob Wilson went off badly injured and John Radford had to go in goal for the last 10 minutes, before going on to win the replay, only to then lose 1-0 to Leeds United in the final.

Geordie puts us ahead against Stoke City

Geordie also was part of that fine Arsenal side that came close to winning the Title in 1972-73 and in March 1974, 36,099 of us turned up at Highbury, when George was granted a well-deserved testimonial against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

Geordie with the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff

Geordie with the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff

Geordie was still going strong in 1976-77, missing just five League games in Terry Neill’s first season as manager. Unfortunately this was to be Geordie’s last season as an Arsenal player. He scored his last goal for Arsenal in a 3-0 win against Aston Villa at Highbury, on the 25th April 1977 and played his last game in an Arsenal shirt on the 14th May 1977, against Manchester United, at Old Trafford in a 3-2 defeat, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton were our scorers.

Geordie still going strong lapping the Highbury pitch with Alan Hudson

Geordie still going strong lapping the Highbury pitch with Alan Hudson

Geordie’s old friend and Captain Frank McLintock signed him for Leicester City, where he also teamed up with two other ex-Gunners Jon Sammels and Eddie Kelly. But he only stayed one season playing just 15 games, before finishing his career with a season at Stockport County, hanging up his boots at the end of the 1978-79 season.

Geordie in unfamiliar Leicester City colours

Geordie in unfamiliar Leicester City colours

Geordie then went on to have a very successful coaching career working at Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and QPR, as well as managing Enderby Town, Norwegian outfit FK Mjølner and the Kuwait national side, before George Graham brought him home to Highbury in 1990 to coach the Arsenal reserves, where he helped so many young Arsenal players in their careers.

Geordie with the rest of the back room team

Geordie with the rest of the back room team

There was still one more appearance in the famous red and white Arsenal shirt for Geordie. He played in Ray Kennedy’s benefit match on the 27th April 1991. His once dark hair was now white and although he was a little slower, he was still bombing up and down the wing at Highbury as if he’d never been away.

Geordie with Tony Adams playing in the Ray Kennedy Benefit Match

Geordie with Tony Adams playing in the Ray Kennedy Benefit Match

George Armstrong had a remarkable career with Arsenal both as a player and coach. He played for us for 16 seasons, starting his career playing with Jack Kelsey, George Eastham and Joe Baker, ending it playing with Liam Brady and David O’Leary. Making a then record 621 appearances and scoring 68 goals. The Arsenal managers he played under were George Swindin, Billy Wright, Bertie Mee and Terry Neill, as well as working under George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Arsene Wenger as a coach. In short every Arsenal manager of the last half a century.

The Great Arsenal Stadium Mystery was how Geordie never got a single full England cap. It’s said that wingers were out of fashion with Alf Ramsey. I don’t buy that as Geordie wasn’t a conventional winger. He worked his socks off and would have fitted perfectly into Ramsey’s England side. Ramsey did select John Connolly, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan in the 1966 World Cup, who were all wingers and Geordie was superior to all of those three in my opinion. Geordie was at his peak in 1970. Could there have been a fitter player to take to Mexico with its high altitude. Where other players would be wilting in the heat and gasping for air, Geordie would still be flying up and down the pitch, it was a travesty that he never got selected. Even Alan Ball a great England international, who was known for having a tremendous work rate himself, couldn’t believe it when after a grueling training session at Arsenal he spotted Geordie outside his house building a wall!

Geordie playing cards with Alan Ball

Geordie playing cards with Alan Ball

He was one of the most popular and loved of all Arsenal players by fans and his many team mates alike over the years. The two things Geordie loved most were his family and Arsenal Football Club.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Geordie. It was in the 1990’s on a midweek non-match day outside Highbury in Avenell Road. I was with my son Neil and Geordie was so unassuming and friendly as he signed his autograph. His face lit up when he started talking about how well the Arsenal had played the previous Saturday. It was just like talking to another Arsenal fan, he was so down to earth and what shone through for me was his deep love and affection for Arsenal Football Club.

I was driving when I heard the news on my car radio that Geordie had passed away at just 56 years of age on the 31st October 2000. I was so shocked I pulled over to the kerb. I couldn’t believe it as he was so super fit. I thought he’d live to a 100 years old and still giving interviews about what it was like to win the Double in 1971. They’ll never be another Arsenal player like Geordie, God bless him.

As always thanks for reading and they’ll be another Highbury Hero along next week. I’ll leave you with this brilliant emotional compilation by Arsenal Editor for Dave’s superb book Geordie Armstrong on the Wing.

A brilliant compilation of Geordie

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