We’re going all the way back to the swinging sixties for our next trip down memory lane, when The Arsenal bought one of the shrewdest full backs ever to have graced the game. It’s our 1971 Double winning left back Bob McNab.
Bob was a superb left back for Arsenal. Maybe not lightning quick but not many wingers got past him as he was such a great tactician, his positional play was immaculate and he read the game so beautifully. He was quick in the tackle as well with excellent timing. He loved to overlap and with George Armstrong in front of him he had plenty of opportunities to bomb forward knowing the ever dependable Geordie would be covering for him.
His crossing and distribution was a little bit erratic when he first arrived, but rapidly improved as Bob had the dedication and work ethic needed to apply himself to improving his technique and all round game.
Bob’s greatest asset though was that he was such a shrewd tactician. It was Bob who controlled the back four. Always talking and barking out orders of when to push up. It was Bob that made sure the defence kept its shape and wouldn’t get pulled out of position. Bob was also the one who Don Howe trusted to implement the zonal marking system that was to prove so successful in the Double season.
This is what Bob Wilson says about Bob McNab is his book “Behind the Network”. “All his defensive team-mates appreciated Nabbers for the way he provided an extra pair of eyes for them when danger occurred. Four England caps were a meagre return for his brilliance in the art of defending. He could certainly talk for England and hardly a week goes by even now without Bob calling from Los Angeles to keep up with events and news of his colleagues”.
Bob McNab was born on 20th July 1943 in Huddersfield and lived so close to Huddersfield’s Leeds Road ground that he could see it from his house. After being rejected by Blackpool, he signed for Huddersfield as a part time player. His father wouldn’t let him sign for them as a full-time professional until he’d finished his apprenticeship as a joiner. Bob worked a 46 and half hour week as an apprentice joiner. On top of that he did two night’s training with Huddersfield Juniors and another three nights at technical college studying for his City and Guilds. The young players of today couldn’t imagine what players like Bob went through to carve out a career in football. But it paid off and Bob eventually made his debut for Huddersfield Town against Leeds United in 1963.
Bob never owed a car till he was 23 and used to walk to games or go by bus when the fans would say to him “Hey up Bob, have a good un”. Bob had the perfect mentor at Huddersfield in 1966 World Cup hero Ray Wilson. Unfortunately Bob had to have two cartilage operations and was out for 15 months. The second cartilage operation had gone well but Huddersfield messed up the rehabilitation. Bob’s knee would be swollen and the bloke who cleaned the boots would say “Right” and tell Bob to put his leg under the heat lamp for hours which is the worst possible thing you can do with fluid on the knee. But When Ian Greaves arrived at the club as manager he took Bob under his wing and said to him “I hear you are a good player” to which Bob replied “Well, you must have a good memory!” He told Bob to come in at nine o’clock every morning and he would give him some exercises to do and within three weeks Bob was back in the first team.
Bob played 62 consecutive games for Huddersfield and they only missed out on promotion in the last game of the 1965-66 season. The other first team regulars were on £35 a week basic, while Bob was on only £25 plus £10 appearance money. So when they offered Bob a new contract he thought he’d be given parity with the other players. But they only offered him the same terms he was already on, this despite Bob being the most valuable player at the club. Bob felt insulted and wrote out a transfer request, but before he could hand it in, it was in all the newspapers. Huddersfield said “We can’t keep an unhappy player, his demands are too much”. The Huddersfield board knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to cash in on Bob but didn’t want the fans to think it was their idea to sell him.
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About two days later Ian Greaves called Bob in and said “I’ve sold you. You are seeing Bill Shankly at Liverpool this morning and in the afternoon you are going to see Bertie Mee. They have both agreed a fee and it is up to you”.
The meeting with Bill Shankly didn’t go too well. Bob found Shanks a totally overbearing man. They were in a tiny room and Bob was stark naked. Shanks stood next to Bob and he was so close he was almost touching him. He started prodding Bob. Nabbers had been a joiner and builder for almost five years before he signed for Huddersfield full-time as a nineteen year old and had a powerful upper body and big arms for someone his size. Shanks said “I never realised you were such a strong wee man. You’re the best left back in Britain”. Bob replied “I don’t know about that what about Ray Wilson at Everton”. Shanks replied “Aye but you’re better in the air. Did you see that goal against the Germans” talking about the World Cup Final when Ray Wilson headed it down and West Germany scored their first goal.
Shankly also introduced Bob to the man Shanks wanted Nabbers to replace Gerry Byrne, who was on the treatment table at Anfield. “Aye Gerry, meet Bob McNab. Aye, a great little full back”. Gerry’s face said it all! That went down like a turd in a swimming pool! Afterwards, in the boardroom, Bill wanted to show Nabbers Gerry Byrne’s contract, so he could understand why the deal he was offering Bob was so good. Bob didn’t like that and wouldn’t look at it. Bob thought it very insensitive. So off McNab went to Highbury to speak to Bertie Mee who was ultra-polite. Bob also wanted to live in London and Nabbers signed for The Arsenal for a British record fee for a full back of £50,000. It would be four years before Shankly spoke to Bob again. He just used to glare at Nabbers whenever he saw him and eff and blind at him during the games against Liverpool!
Bob arrived at Highbury carrying a thigh strain that an x-ray revealed had calcified through playing with injuries at Huddersfield. This could have become extremely serious if not dealt with. It was decided that the injury would be treated rather than operated on, which worked well. Bertie Mee worked on Bob personally twice a day for ten days. Bob thought that Bertie was from the Gestapo torture section!
The first six months at Arsenal didn’t go smoothly, as Nabbers suffered pleurisy and a serious ankle strain which required an operation to manipulate the ankle and regain complete movement. Bob thought the only reason he was in the team back then was because he’d cost £50,000. He’d lost confidence and he felt intimidated. He said “Coming from Huddersfield in 1966 was like coming from Costa Rica nowadays. Everybody was laughing at my clothes because we were two years behind up there and they were taking the piss out of me. Where I had come from if somebody had taken the piss out of me in the dressing room I would have chinned them. It got to the point where I’d had enough. I ate it for a while and I am not proud of the way I turned it around. I sorted a few of them out on the training ground. I had done five years on a building site so I was strong. I even got sent home two or three times. I started to get a reputation for being a bit crazy, and I deliberately picked on those who were supposed to be the tough ones. Everyone is always scared of someone they think is a bit doolally. All of a sudden I got a bit of respect”.
Although Bob loved Dave Sexton as a coach he detested the man-to-man marking system adopted by Sexton as the easiest way to cut down on the amount of goals Arsenal were shipping. It was a sort of quick fix to alleviate the problems of a defence in disarray.
Bob was always very forthright and and called man-to-man marking mindless”. Frank McLintock says in his book “True Grit”. “That Bob should detest it was typical, as he had the most sophisticated tactical intelligence of any player I’ve ever met. But he was also extremely single-minded and dismissively abrupt”.
After Dave Sexton left and Don Howe took over as Head Coach Bob was constantly trying to convince the other players and Don to switch to zonal marking. This was no mean feat as Arsenal with Bob in the side reached the League Cup Final in 1968, narrowly losing against Leeds United 1-0 to a controversial goal, which was the nearest the Gunners had come to winning silverware since 1953. So it was understandable that the players and Don Howe were loath to change from Man-to-man marking. Pat Rice says he remembers Bob and Don debating zonal marking in a bar for hours and hours. In the end Don Howe did implement zonal marking but only because he had Nabbers on the field to manage it for him.
In the 1968-69 season Bob played in every game, but incredibly Arsenal lost in the final of the League Cup again. This time against giant killers Swindon Town 3-1 after extra time. Towards the end of that season Frank McLintock was switched to play centre back, which proved a masterstroke by Don Howe. But Frank had a few teething problems at first adapting to his new position. Frank McLintock explains “Don and Bob McNab helped me a lot. Especially with holding the line and not running into corner flags, although I would get dragged in sometimes. You go with someone and you know they are taking you into a false position, so I learned to just back off two or three yards because you don’t want centre-halves getting in positions where there are holes up the side of you. If I drifted a bit too far one way Nabbers would shout ‘Oi you cunt. Get fucking back here and stop dragging me across’ It wasn’t just ‘Frank don’t go as much as that’. He would let you have it and it made me pick it up much more quickly”.
In 1969-70 Arsenal finally broke their hoodoo and won silverware. Lifting the Inter Cities Cup. Overturning a 3-1 first leg defeat away to Anderlecht by winning the second leg of the Final 3-0 on an electric night at Highbury. Nabbers set up our second goal with a lovely cross to Raddy who rose to power it home with his head.Bob sets up the second goal for Raddy in the Fairs Cup Final Second Leg
Although off the pitch Bob wasn’t happy with the money he was getting from Arsenal. The problem being that due to the loyalty bonus that Arsenal had players like David Court and Terry Neill who weren’t first choice players were being paid £2,000 more per season than Bob was getting who’d missed just three league games. It was a matter of principle for Bob. He didn’t want to leave the club, but there was firm interest from another big club. So Bob requested a meeting to see Arsenal chairman Dennis Hill-Wood, who summoned Bob to his office, at the Ambro Bank, next to the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street. Bob said it was a huge office and reminded me of the Arsenal boardroom. It was beautiful, walnut everywhere, pictures of tea clippers on the walls. Dennis Hill-Wood said to Bob “You know you are one of my favourite players, Bob, and I don’t want to let you go. If I have to I will sit you in the stand next to me for two years” Bob replied “But you could get £200,000 for me” a fortune in those days. Hill-wood just said “I don’t know if you noticed where you are as you came in. That’s not really a lot of money – not when you are sat next to the Bank of England”.
As Bob says “Basically he smacked me on the bum and sent me on my way and I didn’t ask for a transfer. If I had not liked the chairman it might have been different. But he was always nice to me and I loved him. In the end they scrapped the loyalty system when Alan Ball joined the club”.
Things were going really well for Bob on the pitch. He’d won his first trophy with The Arsenal and had broken into the England squad, making his debut on 6th November 1968 against Rumania. He went on to win four caps in all. He was part of the provisional 28 man squad for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. But didn’t make the cut for the final 22, along with Peter Shilton, Ralph Coates, Brian Kidd, David Sadler and Peter Thompson. Terry Cooper was Alf Ramsey’s first choice left back and he preferred to take Emlyn Hughes as his back up, probably due to Hughes versatility to play in midfield as well.
However Bob was selected to be a pundit on ITV’s highly successful, groundbreaking World Cup Panel. Brian Moore hosted it and Bob who usually had plenty to say for himself struggled to get a word in edgeways alongside Jimmy Hill, Malcolm Alllison, Derek Dougan and Pat Crerand who were also on the panel!Bob with the rest of ITV’s World Cup Panel
In the Double season of 1970-71 Nabbers was an essential component of a defence that conceded just 29 goals in the league, with just six of those conceded at fortress Highbury. Could you imagine today’s team doing that. No neither can I, they’ve already let in three goals in the opening game. Bob missed only two games in all competitions and played in both the title decider at White Hart Lane and the 2-1 FA Cup victory over Liverpool at Wembley.
The following season Nabbers only managed 20 league games due to injury but was in the FA Cup Final side that lost to Leeds United 1-0.
In 1972-73 Bob was again a mainstay of the side and played all 42 league games that season. We came so close again to silverware, finishing second in the league just three points behind Liverpool and fell just one step short of reaching the FA Cup Final for a third successive season, when we got beat by Sunderland in the Semi-Final at Hillsborough 2-1. What a miserable journey back home that was.
Frank McLintock had fallen out with Bertie Mee that season and Bertie dropped him and gave the captaincy to Nabbers. Bob pleaded with Bertie to reinstate Frank both in the team and as captain but Bertie was was having none of it. Frank left in the summer and Bob was named captain for the 1973-74 season. Bob didn’t hold back and could be quite brutal in some of the things he said to the younger players, but it was for their own good. Bertie called Bob into his office and told him not to say anything to the players on the field because they were so upset with the things he was saying to them. Bob agreed not to say a word and didn’t say anything for about three games. Then Bertie said to Bob “You can say what the hell you like to them” Bob said can you tell the players that in front of me. So Bertie called them over and said “I have just unleashed Bob on you again”.
When Bertie Mee replaced Steve Burtenshaw as coach with Bobby Campbell. On his very first day he called all the players together and started to tear into them. First he had a pop at Bob Wilson then Pat Rice, Peter Simpson and Peter Storey. Then turning to Bob McNab, Bobby Campbell was stopped in his tracks. Nabbers had had enough. “You can stop right there” Bob told the new coach “The majority of these lads have worked together and fought for each other for the last six seasons. We’ve been to four Wembley finals, one European final, won the championship and been runners-up in the League again last season. We’ve been first or second in a major competition for the last six seasons and you’re telling us we’ve gone soft. Fuck off”. With that Bob stormed out of the dressing room.
In those last two seasons at Arsenal Bob featured less due to injury playing just 23 games in 1973-74 and only 18 games in his final season at the club in 1974-75. Sammy Nelson was also staking a claim for a first team place and did well in Nabbers absence playing nearly as many games as Bob in those last two seasons.
Around that time that Bob was injured I went to watch my brother Tony play in a football tournament at Chigwell. As we were watching one of the games a beautiful maroon coloured Jaguar pulled up on the grass and out stepped none other than Bob McNab! Who’d come to present the trophy and the medals. My brothers team beat a Belgium team in the final after an exciting penalty shoot out and when Bob went to present my brother with his medal our mates dad said to Bob “This is young Tony he loves watching you play and goes to Arsenal for every game” Bob smiled broadly and in his Yorkshire accent said “Well he hasn’t seen me for a while then!” as he burst out laughing.
Bob McNab left in July 1975 on a free transfer to Wolves. Bertie Mee wanted him to stay and promised Bob a coaching role but Bob decided to leave after nine seasons at Highbury.
In Bob’s unlucky 13th league game for Wolves he got injured against Tottenham at White Hart Lane of all places! He then went to play in the United States for San Antonio Thunder where he played with Bobby Moore. He then returned to play for Barnet. He a couple of betting shops and also had a pub The Bull in Tottenham! He went to Canada in 1979 to play a couple of games for Vancouver Whitecaps then became their coach. He also had a spell as coach to Tacoma Stars in the US Major Indoor Soccer League from 1983 to 1986.
Bob then retired completely from the game. He became a successful property developer in Los Angeles, where his skills as a joiner stood him in good stead. But in 1999 he was part of a consortium led by Milan Mandaric, that took over Portsmouth and was caretaker manager briefly in between the sacking of Alan Ball and the appointment of Tony Pullis. These days as far as I know Bob still lives in California.
Bob McNab played 343 times for The Arsenal and scored six goals. Nabbers last match in the famous red and white shirt for the Gunners was on 29th March 1975, in a 1-1 draw with Stoke City at Highbury. He was a tremendous left back for us. Perhaps a notch below the very finest Arsenal left backs of all. Maybe not as lightning quick as Ashley Cole or as stylish and silky as Kenny Sansom. But Bob was without doubt tactically the shrewdest and most cunning left back we’ve ever had. Thanks for the memories Bob.
As always thanks for reading and they’ll be another Highbury Hero coming your way shortly.