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Arsenal for life: local lad and Highbury Legend – the one and only Pat Rice

Pat Rice

It’s back once again to the swinging sixties in the time machine for the latest Highbury Hero. In December 1964 a young local lad signed Schoolboy forms to join The Arsenal. Never has a player been so determined, so driven and worked so hard at his game to reach the standard to be an Arsenal player. He went on to eventually become an Arsenal legend. A member of the 1971 Double team and captain of the 1979 FA Cup winning side. Younger fans will remember him as Arsene Wenger’s right hand man. A man who spent 44 years at Arsenal it’s the one and only Pat Rice.

Of all the Double squad Pat was the least naturally gifted footballer. But he worked like a Trojan to iron out the deficiencies in his game and to work on his strengths until he improved beyond all recognition. Pat became a tenacious and dependable right back. A steady consistent fixture in Arsenal’s side for a decade. His teammates admired and respected his professionalism and the hours of graft he put in to become an excellent full back.

Bob Wilson says this about him in Pat’s testimonial programme. “You could lay the credit for achieving what Pat has achieved at the door of family, friends, coaches or managers, but the real truth is that Pat Rice himself is mainly responsible for such a glittering career”.  “Let me take you back to 1963. I was just out of Loughborough College, an amateur and a schoolteacher. In that first year at Highbury, before signing professional forms, I trained on Monday and Thursday evenings alongside many aspiring youngsters one of whom was a 13-year-old Charlie George, another 14-year-old was Pat Rice”. “The future of the talented young George was assured, but no one gave much hope for Pat Rice. He was strong, fast and packed quite a wallop of a shot, but there weren’t too many subtitles to his play”. Even Pat recalls that time with humour. “I couldn’t get into the Islington Boys team, but was asked to join in the evening training at Highbury. I was keen enough but the real incentive was the two shillings expenses for turning up!” Bob continues “As I mentioned its nearly all down to Pat. As a spectator you see what I see, a great defender who possesses pace, power, courage and leadership. He reads the game well and he’ll challenge the best header of a ball any day. What you won’t have seen are the hours and hours of extra training in the early years, done day after day, often alone. Pat realised very early, his strengths and deficiencies. The strengths he polished and the deficiencies he hammered away at until they were hardly noticeable”.“Whenever I talk to youngsters who get despondent about their play, I hold up Pat Rice as the example of what attitude and application can achieve. I can think of no better way to pay tribute to a marvellous player and good friend than ending with Pat Rice’s own words” which were “I just decided in my own mind that having been given the chance to join the Arsenal, if ever I was chucked out I would know for sure that I had done the best I possibly could”.

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Pat Rice was born in Belfast on 17th March 1949. The family moved to within a stones throw of Highbury in the late 1950’s and Pat became a big Arsenal fan going to the games at Highbury including the last ever game the Busby Babes played in this country before the tragic Munich Air Disaster. As Bob Wilson said Pat had a trial for the Islington District team and got rejected and in Pat’s words rightly so as he was nowhere near good enough. However Pat was allowed if he really wanted, to come along to train at Highbury on Monday and Thursday nights. Pat attended Gifford Street School in Caledonian Road and the competition standard of football was very high. Pat said “There were kids far better than me: faster, technically better, stronger. So I practised and practised”. Pat used to arrive at training 45 minutes early to do some laps of the circuit. Kick a ball against a wall to improve his touch and technique and gradually got himself fitter.

Jon Sammels remembers Pat as a schoolboy and asking Jon for his autograph once! Jon said “He used to live down the road and his brother, Alf, used to have a hairdresser’s at the bottom of Avenell Road where a lot of the lads used to get their hair cut. Pat was always outside the ground kicking a ball around”.

The coaches at Arsenal didn’t spare Pat his feelings. They told him straight up his many faults and weaknesses. He appreciated that the coaches had been upfront with him and told him the truth. Pat said he needed to hear it and use it as motivation. All the while dreaming of running out at Highbury in the famous red and white shirt.

Pat was working in a grocers shop in Gillespie Road when eventually he got the news that all his hard work and persistence paid off and he signed as an apprentice for the club on 22nd December 1964

Peter Simpson said “He didn’t have much ability when he first came to the club and we didn’t think he’d come through because he didn’t have enough confidence. But he has the greatest respect from me for what he has done because it takes a lot of nerve and he has bundles of it”.

Eddie Kelly said “Pat was the hardest working pro I have ever seen. I never thought he was good enough when he was young. I used to live in a flat at the stadium overlooking the pitch. About four afternoons a week Pat would come back alone and do sprints around the red ash track, backward sprints and forward sprints. He got himself to such a great level of fitness”.

Steve Burtenshaw devised special training sessions designed to to address the weaknesses in Rice’s game. “Pat sometimes found it difficult to split his legs and slide tackle, he needed to be able to slide in on the odd occasion, so many, many afternoons I would be running up with the ball and working on that with him, making sure those things could be put into practice when needed. Many times it would just be shadow play, how to bend your runs. That’s not natural to kids so you put on sessions so they can understand it. You have to give them as much time as they need to be able to understand things like that”. “I was also concerned about his long passing. I remember standing on the centre spot and he was on the penalty spot. We would take ten balls and I would tell him that if I had to take one stride from the kick-off spot that was okay, but not two strides. He had to kick eight out of ten balls to me accurately with his right foot and seven out of ten with his left. There are very few people who can do that, but Pat managed it and it is indicative of the amount of work he put in”.

Sammy Nelson his roommate with Arsenal and Northern Ireland said “He was very, very enthusiastic and that was what took him to the top. He wanted to succeed so much that he was prepared to give up all of his afternoons to do extra training sessions to improve his left side, right side, heading, speed or whatever”.

Pat was rewarded with his first professional contract on 25th March 1966 and he won his first piece of silverware with Arsenal, along with Sammy Nelson when they won the FA Youth Cup in 1966.

A young fresh faced Pat Rice

A young fresh faced Pat Rice

Pat had to bide his time for his chance in the first team as Peter Storey was firmly established as  Arsenal’s right-back. Pat made his debut on 2nd December 1967 coming on as a substitute for George Graham in a 1-0 defeat at Turf Moor. Three days later Pat made his first start for the Gunners at left-back in a thrilling League Cup Quarter-Final replay against Burnley with Arsenal gaining swift revenge for the league defeat. I was there at Highbury that night in the Clock End and remember John Radford scoring a stunning header up that end in a 2-1 victory for the Gunners. This was one of three games that Pat started that season plus another four appearances as a substitute.

However Pat had to bide his time to stake a place in the team. Peter Storey was so firmly entrenched in the team at right back and was ever present in the 1968-69 season and Pat didn’t play a single game. The young Northern Ireland right-back’s prospects didn’t really improve that much in 1969-70 either. Although he did start the first five matches and scored his first goal for the club in a 1-1 draw at Highbury against Leeds United. Pat ended up playing nine times that season but still couldn’t shift Peter Storey from the right-back slot. Peter featured in most of the games at right-back including the Final of the Fairs Cup against Anderlecht when Arsenal won their first trophy for 17 years.

Pat in action in the red and Arsenal kit

Pat in action in the red and Arsenal kit

Pat was chosen at right-back for the opening game of the 1970-71 season a 2-2 draw against the Champions Everton at Goodison Park, as Peter Storey was deployed in in a new midfield role to specifically man-mark Alan Ball and although Peter was back at right-back for the next game a 0-0 draw away to West Ham United He’d done so well as Arsenal’s midfield enforcer at Everton that he got the job on a permanent basis and Pat Rice became Arsenal’s right back and a key component of an Arsenal defence which conceded a miserly six goals at home in the league all season, with young Pat playing every single game as right-back for the rest of that glorious Double winning season. Pat had finally cemented his place in the team at right-back and stayed there for the whole decade.

Pat and the boys in that classic tracksuit before the 1971 FA Cup Final

Pat and the boys in that classic tracksuit before the 1971 FA Cup Final

Arsenal and Pat were back at Wembley again in 1972 when they lost 1-0 to Leeds United in the FA Cup Centenary Final. Pat scored the winner on the way to that final in the 4th Round at Reading and in a TV interview after the game Pat described his winning goal as “A bit tasty”. After that us Arsenal fans used to chant “Pat Rice tasty goal”. In the 1972-73 season Pat was a mainstay of the side as the Gunners ran Liverpool close in the title race finishing runners-up just three points behind the Champions.

However by the mid 1970’s the Double squad had been broken up by Bertie Mee and the club was in the doldrums twice flirting with relegation. By then Pat was maturing becoming more assertive and his experience helped the younger players like Liam Brady and David O’Leary which made it easier for the team to avoid relegation.

After two disastrous seasons. Terry Neill was appointed as Bertie Mee’s  successor for the 1976-77 season. Halfway through the season captain Alan Ball left for Southampton and nobody knew who would take over as captain. Pat said “We were all in the dressing room getting ready to get on the pitch when Terry Neill just said, ‘Pat, you take them out’. It was a complete shock to me. Honestly. I had played with some great men at Arsenal. I can still hear Frank McLintock shouting to me, ‘Take him down the line, Pat’, when a winger came up against me. Playing at the back in my position, I could see everything in front of me. I wasn’t vocal to start with, but I became vocal and a big voice on the pitch”.

Pat is interviewed on the pitch at Wembley by his old team mate Bob Wilson before the 1979 FA Cup Final

Pat is interviewed on the pitch at Wembley by his old team mate Bob Wilson before the 1979 FA Cup Final

Pat then skippered the team to the FA Cup Final losing 1-0 to Ipswich Town in 1978. In the losing dressing-room after the game Pat said to the team “Next season I want you to remember how we feel right now.” Using that as an incentive Rice took The Arsenal back to Wembley again in the FA Cup Final the following season with Arsenal dramatically beating Manchester United in a thrilling 3-2 victory with Arsenal winning silverware for the first time since achieving the Double in 1971.

Pat receiving the FA Cup from Prince Charles in 1979 after beating Manchester United in the “five minute final”

Pat receiving the FA Cup from Prince Charles in 1979 after beating Manchester United in the “five minute final”

Pat led the team out for the FA Cup Final for a third season in a row in 1980 as well as a Cup Winners Cup Final in Brussels. Unfortunately sheer exhaustion led to the Gunners ending up empty handed after a marathon 70 game season. At the end of that gruelling season Billy Bingham rung Pat up and said he wanted to award Pat his 50th cap for Northern Ireland but it involved a long distance trip to play Australia. Pat was so exhausted mentally and physically that he had to decline the offer.

Pat in the green shirt of Northern Ireland never did get that 50th cap

Pat in the green shirt of Northern Ireland never did get that 50th cap

Pat along with Sammy Nelson were the last survivors of the Double squad of 1970-71 still at the club. However In the 1980-81 season he only made two appearances as a substitute. His last ever game as an Arsenal player was at Anfield in a 1-1 draw against Liverpool on 25th October 1980 coming on to replace David Price.

Pat leads the team out down the tunnel at Highbury

Pat leads the team out down the tunnel at Highbury

In 1980 Pat signed for Watford and captained the Hornets to promotion in 1980-81 and finally hung up his boots in 1984 after helping Watford  to reach the FA Cup Final. Pat then returned to Highbury in 1984 where he coached the youth team for 12 years winning the FA Youth Cup twice in 1987-88 and 1993-94. Pat was a hard but fair taskmaster and the young professionals at Arsenal couldn’t have wished for a better person to show them the “Arsenal Way”. Shortly before Arsene Wenger came to Highbury Pat Rice took over as caretaker manager of the first team in September 1996 and he remains the only Arsenal manager with a 100% record in the league winning all three of the league games when he was in charge. Upon Arsene Wenger’s arrival as manager Pat became his assistant for 18 years before stepping down and retiring at the end of the 2011-12 season. Arsene said this about his number two  “Pat is a true Arsenal legend and has committed almost his whole life to Arsenal Football Club, which shows huge loyalty and devotion to this club. I will always be indebted to him for his expert insight into Arsenal and football as a whole. On the training pitches and on matchdays, Pat has always been a passionate, loyal and insightful colleague, who we will all miss”.

Pat with his gaffer for 18 years Arsene Wenger

Pat with his gaffer for 18 years Arsene Wenger

In the New Years honours list in 2013 Pat was awarded the MBE for services to sport. Which he richly deserved. In November 2013 It was revealed that Pat was fighting cancer typically Pat has since seen it off thankfully and still represents the club at various events including the recent ceremony where a headstone was placed at the previously unmarked grave of Arsenal’s founder David Danskin.

Pat with Her Majesty receiving yet another medal!

Pat with Her Majesty receiving yet another medal!

One final story before I wrap this up. A couple of years ago after reading in the match programme that Constable Alex Morgan had passed away, a man many of you will remember who sung for many years at Highbury with the Metropolitan Police Band.  A small group of us fans got together and called ourselves the “Friends of Alex”. I contacted the club on our behalf with the idea of having some sort of memorial for Alex. The club thought it was a great idea of ours and invited me as a representative of the “Friends of Alex” to a memorial ceremony at Highbury Square to be held in the morning before an afternoon game against Watford at the Emirates. I turned up bright and early and as I waited in the marble halls all the old Highbury memories came flooding back. Then the front door opened and in walked Club Secretary David Miles followed by the the unmistakable legendary figure of Pat Rice! Andrew Pigott who works for Arsenal introduced me and I shook hands with them both. Pat although now walking with a cane due to the ware and tear of professional football, looked very smart in his navy blue club blazer and red and white stripped Arsenal tie.

We had a wonderful chat about the good old days the marble halls stirring the memories and David Miles mentioned that nobody was allowed upstairs without a jacket and tie. Pat simply replied with satisfaction “Class” and you could feel the pride and love he has for Arsenal Football Club. The Morgan family members arrived and it was time to go and pay tribute to Alex Morgan. We walked down what was once the Arsenal tunnel leading to the pitch, a journey Pat had made many times as a player and captain and we turned left towards what was the old Clock End down to the corner of the East Stand. There a memorial plaque had been erected for Alex in the same spot he used to sing every other Saturday. Pat turned to me and said “I used to jump over the wall there to bunk in to watch us when I was a kid” I asked him if he was there that to watch the Busby Babes at the last ever match they played in this country the famous 5-4. “Yes I bunked in that day as well” Pat answered with a grin on his face.

Pat Rice played 528 times for The Arsenal scoring 13 goals. He also won 49 caps for Northern Ireland. He spent 44 years as a player and coach at Arsenal and he didn’t do too bad for a young kid that used to jib in to watch his beloved Gunners.

A couple of rare Pat Rice goals including his tasty one at Reading!

 As always thanks for reading

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