We are taking a trip in the time machine back to the late 1980’s for this week’s Highbury Hero. Arsenal have had some brilliant left backs over the years and this man is no exception. Such a consistent player and a member of the famous back four. It is Nigel “Nutty” Winterburn.
Nigel was highly combative with a tremendous will to win and never say die attitude. He was one of the most consistent players Arsenal have ever had. He rarely had a bad game in his thirteen years at The Arsenal. He was a fine crosser of the ball often overlapping down the left wing. Defensively he was very sound. He was pacy and quick into the tackle. Nigel wasn’t the tallest of players, only 5 foot 8 inches, but when Nutty put a tackle in it must have been like being hit by an express train. Nigel didn’t score many goals for Arsenal, but he had a decent shot on him and scored a couple of spectacular long-range efforts.
The famous back four were drilled hour after hour at training by George Graham to make them the finest defensive unit ever seen in English football. Like a well-oiled machine, they operated the offside trap to perfection. They were even mentioned in the film “The Full Monty”. When Winterburn attacked down the left flank, Lee Dixon would stay back tucking in to form a defensive three with Tony Adams and Steve Bould and vice versa, when Dixon attacked down the right flank Nigel would stay back and tuck in to form the defensive three with Adams and Bould.
Nigel was born in Nuneaton on the 11th December 1963. He signed for Birmingham City as an apprentice and was playing in the reserves but when Ron Saunders arrived, to replace Jim Smith, he has a massive clear out of twenty players, Nigel being one of them. Jim Smith went to Oxford United and Nigel gave him a call, which led to Nigel spending a few weeks doing pre-season with Oxford. Jim Smith told Nigel that Wimbledon were looking for a left back and were interested. He told Nigel to go there for a couple of weeks and see how things worked out. If they did not he could go back to Oxford. Nigel went to Wimbledon and didn’t look back.
Nigel was part of Wimbledon’s meteoric rise up the Football League. He joined them just after they had won promotion to Division 3 and ended up playing for them in the top flight. In his four seasons with the “Crazy Gang” Nigel won Wimbledon’s player of the season four times on the trot.
One day Nigel was told to report to Plough Lane where he was informed that the club had agreed a fee for him with Chelsea and he could go and talk terms. Nigel met the Chelsea manager John Hollins but asked for a few days to think it over. While Nigel was deliberating, an impatient Chelsea went out and signed Tony Dorigo! The next thing Nigel knew was Arsenal had come in for him and that he did not need to think over!
Nigel signed for Arsenal for a bargain £350,000 in May 1987 and initially found it difficult as he spent about six months playing in the reserves. George Graham had told him he would be a squad player, but he would get his chance and when it came, it was up to him. Of course the stylish Kenny Sansom was Arsenal’s left back at the time and it wasn’t an easy task to displace such a great player. Also playing in front of just a couple of hundred at best for the reserves was having a demoralising effect on Nigel and he was having a job keeping himself motivated.
George spoke to him a couple of times about it and eventually Nigel’s form picked up and he got his chance in the side when Kenny was injured, making his debut on New Year’s Day 1988, against Portsmouth in a 1-1 draw at Fratton Park. Kenny was back the next game, but Nigel stayed in the side at right back, where he played for most of the rest of the season.
One of the highlights of 1987-88 was when 54,161 packed into Highbury for an FA Cup 5th Round Tie with Manchester United. It was an electric atmosphere, as Arsenal leading 2-1 conceded a late penalty, which Brian McClair blasted into Row Z, to the delight of the North Bank. Nutty wasted no time in berating McClair and that was the start of a bitter feud between Winterburn and McClair. Nigel also scored his first goal for Arsenal getting the winner in a 1-0 victory in the League Cup, against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
Arsenal v Manchester United in the FA Cup 5th Round 1987-88
For somebody as left footed as Nigel it was quite a difficult task to play at right back, but he got away with it until we played Luton Town in the League Cup Final in 1988. There was about 10 minutes to go, Arsenal were 2-1 up, when Rocky Rocastle was brought down, and Nigel stepped up to take the penalty kick. Andy Dibble saved it and Luton came back to win the game 3-2. Gus Caesar had a mare and Nigel only ever played right back again one more time, then Lee Dixon came in to make the right back spot his own.
The painful 3-2 defeat against Luton Town in 1988
The following season Kenny Sansom’s great reign at left back came to an end. Kenny was one of the greatest left backs ever; both for Arsenal and England, but Nigel started the season at left back and made sure that Kenny never got a look in. Kenny’s time at Arsenal was over and he left for Newcastle United at Christmas 1988, without playing another game for the club. What’s more, Nigel had an outstanding season playing in every game for Arsenal in the 1988-89 season. I remember being at White Hart Lane early in the season and Nigel opened the scoring in a fine 3-2 win over the old enemy.
Nigel scores in the North London Derby in a fine 3-2 win at White Hart Lane
Nigel also scored the first goal in one of Arsenal’s best performances of the season, a 5-0 hammering of Norwich City at Highbury in May.
Arsenal smash Norwich 5-0 at Highbury and Nutty is on the scoresheet
However, the best goal Nigel scored for us that season came at the final home game against Wimbledon, when Nutty fired an absolute screamer into the top corner from distance with his right foot! It was disappointing to only draw 2-2, but Nigel’s goal helped us to get a point that kept the title race going right down to the wire.
Stunning strike from Nigel in a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon at Highbury
Obviously, Nigel played in that amazing match up at Anfield when Arsenal clinched the title with a 2-0 victory against all the odds. Nigel took the free kick that Smudger glanced in and after Michael Thomas scored that wonderful second goal, you can see Nutty peeling off to celebrate in a world of his own!
That wonderful magical night at Anfield
Nigel played in every match in the title winning 1990-91 season and was part of the defence, which conceded just 18 goals and lost just one game in the league that season. It was Nutty and his old adversary Brian McClair that sparked the incident up at Old Trafford, which led to Arsenal being deducted two points and Manchester United one point. That decision by the FA just seemed to fire the players up as Arsenal won the title by seven points.
The controversial 1-0 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United
In the previous four seasons, Nigel had missed just five games in all competitions showing remarkable durability. However, in 1992-93 he missed 15 matches. Arsenal won the domestic cup double of the League Cup and FA Cup, after a replay, both finals were against Sheffield Wednesday. Nigel was fit though to play in both finals and the replay.
1993-94 was a memorable one as The Arsenal won the Cup Winners Cup. Nigel played in all nine games in the competition. On the way we beat Odense of Denmark, hammered Belgium outfit Standard Liege 10-0 on aggregate, sticking seven past them away, even Eddie McGoldrick scored! We then we squeezed past the Italians Torino 1-0 on aggregate, with a Tony Adams goal in the quarter-finals, in the semi-final we went through 2-1 on aggregate in a tough tie against Paris St-Germain, Wrighty scoring in the 1-1 away leg, with Kevin Campbell scoring the winner in the second leg in a cracking atmosphere at Highbury. Unfortunately, Ian Wright picked up a yellow card in that game and heartbreakingly missed the final through suspension.
Arsenal won the Cup Winners Cup in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. The final was against the formidable Italian side Parma, who had three top quality players in Zola, Brolin and Asprilla. It has to be said it was like the Alamo at times as Parma piled on the pressure after Smudger gave us the lead with a superb volley after 20 minutes of the game. Parma threw the kitchen sink at us. But it was the famous back four’s finest hour and Nigel of course played his part in it. They withstood everything and were magnificent along with David Seaman in goal. The Cup Winners Cup remains as the last European trophy the club has won to date.
The back fours finest hour Arsenal v Parma Cup Winners Cup Final 1994
The following season was a bad one for The Arsenal as in February 1995 George Graham was sacked for taking bungs and Arsenal finished a lowly 12th in the table. They did reach the Cup Winners Cup Final again in the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris and Nigel was again in the side. It was 1-1 with John Hartson equalising for us, but deep into extra time in the last minute, with a penalty shoot-out beckoning, ex-Tottenham player Nayim of all people, chipped David Seaman from the halfway line to win the game and the cup for Spanish side Real Zaragoza. Just to round off a miserable night and a diabolical season the French police decided to keep the Arsenal fans in and tear gas them! Before marching us in the opposite direction to where we were staying.
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Highbury Nigel like all the back four benefitted from Arsene’s methods prolonging his career. In Wenger’s first full season 1997-98 Arsenal won the Double and Nigel was still a mainstay of the side and this brought Nigel’s winners medal tally to seven, three League Titles, two FA Cups, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup.
Nigel scored probably the best goal of his career when he got the winner against Chelsea in a thrilling 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge in September 1997, when he hit a stunning shot from way out that gave the keeper no chance.
Nigel scores a blinder at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea to win the game in 1997-98
The following season in September 1998, Arsenal were playing Sheffield Wednesday, up at Hillsborough and Nutty was involved in the infamous incident when Paolo Di Canio pushed referee Paul Alcock over onto the ground. It started when Wim Jonk tugged Patrick Vieira, who clashed with Jonk. Players from both sides got involved in the melee and Di Canio clashed with Martin Keown and as Alcock flashed the red card at Di Canio, he lost the plot as he angrily pushed Alcock to the ground. Nutty then gave Di Canio an ear bashing as the Italian was walking off the pitch and it looked for a moment as if he was going to thump Nigel and by Nutty’s reaction it’s obvious that he did as well.
The infamous incident with Di Canio
1998-99 we came so close to winning the Double again, losing an epic FA Cup Semi-Final replay 2-1 to Manchester United at Villa Park and in the penultimate League game against Leeds United up at Elland Road, we lost 1-0 to a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink goal from a Harry Kewell cross. Winterburn was substituted for Nelson Vivas, who let Hasselbaink have a free header and I am convinced that had Nigel, who was so dependable and defensively sound, been on the pitch he would not have let that happen. See what you think in the clip below. That defeat effectively killed off our title hopes. Nigel was part of a defence that season which amazingly conceded just seventeen goals in the Premiership, but we still lost the Title by a single point to Manchester United.
Leeds United end our title hopes at Elland Road 1998-99 season
1999-2000 was Nigel’s last season at Highbury. He played 19 times in the Premiership, with a further nine appearances from the bench. Nevertheless, the Brazilian Silvinho played more games and it was he who played at left back in the UEFA Cup Final, which we cruelly lost on penalties to Galatasaray. Nutty scored his final goal for Arsenal was on the 26th November 1999, against Nantes in the UEFA Cup at Highbury in a 3-0 win. It was also his one and only goal for The Arsenal in Europe. Nigel’s last game for the club was on the 14th May 2000, against Newcastle United at St James’ Park, in a 4-2 defeat. Nigel played in midfield that day and the young kid making his full league debut at left back for Arsenal in that game was Ashley Cole.
Nigel still felt he had a lot to offer and was not content at not being first choice at The Arsenal, so he signed for West Ham United for £250,000 in June 2000 and stayed there until he hung up his boots after his final game, against Liverpool on the 2nd February 2003 at 39 years old.
Like so many other Arsenal players over the years, Nigel did not get the international recognition he deserved. He won just two full England caps. Both times coming on as a substitute, against Italy in 1989 and Germany in 1993. Stuart Pearce was the first choice left back and Tony Dorigo was his back up. Dorigo won fifteen caps, yet in my opinion was not in the same league as Nigel Winterburn.
Nutty had a wonderful career with The Arsenal. The man was so consistent and reliable. His performances for The Arsenal were invariably either a 7 or 8 out of 10, so dependable was he week in and week out. He was rarely injured and ended up playing 584 times for Arsenal and scored 12 goals.
These days Nigel is an excellent pundit appearing regularly on Sky Sports. There was one recent appearance in an Arsenal shirt when he played in the Legends game at The Emirates. Where he re-enacted that controversial incident with Paolo Di Canio.
Nigel and Paolo Di Canio re-enact that controversial incident at the Legends game
As always thanks for reading and there will be another Highbury Hero coming your way soon.