Youngest ever Arsenal captain, player/manager for Northern Ireland, top boss in north London, FA Cup wins and Maradona regretting not playing for him
Terry Neill was a force of nature. Charisma oozed out of him, so too the most entertaining stories about stars of soccer, stage and screen. He met them all and from Diego Maradona to Bob Marley had a captivating tale to tell about every single one.
I loved chatting to Terry. He was a joy. Sadly, he has passed away, aged 80. No more enriching stories from the boy born in east Belfast and brought up in Bangor who became one of the biggest characters in football. Just memories are left now. Good ones.
Neill played for Arsenal and Hull City and managed both as well as Tottenham and Northern Ireland. He revelled in talking football and being in the company of people who did the same and was even happier when including his family in an anecdote like the time he, wife Sandra and daughters Tara and Abigail were rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty after watching the closing ceremony for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“It was an amazing show. At the end we were with Dustin Hoffman, a big pal of my friend the actor Tom Courtenay from Hull, and he introduced us to Henry Winkler, the Fonz. Cary Grant was also there,” recalled Terry in an interview we did for the Belfast Telegraph in 2019.
“Sandra saw Cary Grant and said to Dustin, ‘With all apologies, he is one of my favourite actors’ so Dustin brought him over. Cary said to Sandra, ‘Wasn’t that a magnificent closing ceremony?’ and Sandra came out with this great line, ‘I would rather watch one of your movies any day’ and we fell about laughing!”
Terry smiled at the thought. There was also a twinkle in his eye when he chatted about one of his favourite musicians.
“After training with Arsenal I used to play football with my good friend Bob Marley on the astro-turf in west London. He was actually a good midfielder. Bob was quite the character. I’m going to have his music played at my funeral, though I hope to be around for a while yet,” he said, chuckling in his beautiful Brighton home.
Neill was best known for his time as a straight-talking manager and leading Arsenal to a famous FA Cup triumph in 1979 against Manchester United in the ‘five-minute Final’ but he was a fabulous player too, joining the Gunners as a teenager in 1959. By the time he was 20, the former Bangor Grammar pupil was captain of the club.
“It took me six weeks to agree to join The Arsenal because I was serving an engineering apprenticeship and I was thinking, ‘Why should I leave my beloved family and go to a big, strange city?’,” he told me.
“I was fortunate having the best mother and father ever and was enjoying an idyllic childhood growing up in Bangor.
“The Arsenal were a bit taken aback because they weren’t used to young upstarts giving a move a bit of thought. Then I decided to give it a go, feeling if it didn’t work out I would come home.”
It worked out and then some. Neill played for over a decade at Arsenal and established himself in the Northern Ireland side. He credited the great Bertie Peacock for walking and talking him through his first cap as an 18-year-old in Italy and loved how legendary manager Peter Doherty and other trusted mentors Danny Blanchflower, Harry Gregg and Peter McParland guided him in the right direction in those early days.
He would win 59 caps between 1961 and 1973 and became player-manager of his country, remarkably at the same time as doing the same job for Hull City, where he had been appointed boss at the age of 28!
Terry’s greatest moment for Northern Ireland was scoring against England at Wembley in a famous 1-0 win in 1972 when he was also boss. Another was being able to play alongside and manage ‘the genius’ George Best.
The toughest times managing Northern Ireland came during the Troubles when opposition teams refused to travel to Belfast to play at Windsor Park.
“I was getting death threats and getting parcels sent to me at Hull City,” said Neill.
“In the parcels there were all sorts of wires and the local police became involved. I had to get a special mirror to look underneath the car and it was concerning but at the same time I had to get on with it because I was so busy as player-manager of Hull and player-manager of Northern Ireland.”
In 1974, Neill left his role at Hull to replace the iconic Bill Nicholson as manager of Spurs, a move that did not go down well with some of their fans due to his Arsenal connection.
He recalled: “The home supporters didn’t want me and the directors didn’t really know who the hell I was. I was physically abused by our own fans before and after games and hate mail came in but I had that Northern Ireland grit and got on with it.”
Neill took Spurs from struggling against relegation to ninth in two seasons but it was never going to be enough. He left in 1976 and was quickly snapped up, aged 34, to be the boss of his beloved Arsenal.
“It was like a homecoming going back to manage the club,” said Neill, who guided the north London outfit to three FA Cup Finals in a row between 1978 and 1980, winning the middle one 3-2 when Alan Sunderland scored with virtually the last kick of the game after the Red Devils had come from two goals down to draw level late on.
“It was a relief to win because when United made it 2-2 I was starting to think they were growing stronger and we were beginning to tire. I was harbouring thoughts that if we lost I would be classified as a loser,” said Neill.
“I realised that when they equalised the TV cameras would be on me so I did my best acting ever, looking serious and not in a panic. Then seconds later we scored the winner through Alan Sunderland. What a feeling that was.”
Up until last year when Brendan Rodgers won the FA Cup with Leicester, Terry was the last Northern Ireland manager to do it. Ahead of the 2021 Final, Neill sent his best wishes to the Foxes boss who appreciated the gesture.
Neill would take Arsenal to the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup Final where they lost to Valencia on penalties. The Ulsterman tried to sign Diego Maradona and Michel Platini to inspire a Championship challenge but the deals didn’t come off and in 1983 he was sacked.
At 41, for family reasons, he was done with management, preferring to do work for FIFA, advise the Government on football hooliganism and run a London sports bar. Later, he would be heavily involved in a media management company in Covent Garden.
Speaking about Maradona, Neill revealed a meeting between the pair years after the move for Diego fell through.
“When I covered the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 for FIFA, Argentina were in the group that I was doing reports on so I had full access to their training camp,” said Terry.
“Diego called me ‘Mr Terry’ and when I saw him in Mexico he would say to me, ‘Mr Terry, I should have come to you’. He would be smiling when he said it so I’m not sure he was being serious and I would say to him, ‘I couldn’t afford you and everyone that was going to come with you’. We used to have a laugh.”
That was the thing about Terry Neill. Everyone had a laugh with him. He was brilliant company and a loyal friend to many.
Most of all, though, he was a family man who adored his wife, children and grandchildren.
In one of our last conversations, he said: “My family are the strongest part of my life and were the key reason in me ending day-to-day football management. I always carried a guilt and I think most football managers do about being absent from their family. I have no regrets at finishing managing at 41 and I can say I’ve had a great time in my life.”
He lived it well for 80 years knowing it could have been over when he was a child.
“With the coronavirus and all the praise the NHS staff have rightly been receiving, it takes me back to when they saved my life at the age of nine,” he said to me in an interview in 2020.
“I had a serious fall in the scout house in Bangor when I ruptured all my intestines.
“If it hadn’t been for Doctor Nixon, who was the local doctor, getting me into an ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and the surgeons in the Royal saving me, I wouldn’t be here.
“I remember it like it was yesterday with my sister (Phyllis) shouting at me, ‘Don’t die, don’t die’ and the bumps in the road in the ambulance from Bangor to Belfast. I still have the scar down my stomach.
“The surgeons and specialists did an incredible job in the Royal Victoria and saved my life. But for the quick thinking and brilliant work of the NHS staff there would have been no Arsenal, Northern Ireland or any of that.”
We are grateful to the NHS and those of us who knew him are grateful for having enjoyed the company of the great Terry Neill.