Throughout the illustrious histories of Arsenal and Tottenham, very few have managed to successfully traverse both ends of the sprawling noise of Seven Sisters Road in north London.
Terry Neill, who has passed away aged 80, was one of a kind. It takes a special kind of personality to endear to both such rivals, but the Northern Irishman managed to do so.
The Bangor man, a former Northern Ireland international captain and manager, always seemed to take on his responsibilities with relish and, indeed, characteristic wry humour.
Football was a much different world in 1959 when Neill swapped Bangor’s youth team for Arsenal for £2,500, and it was a sign of the central defender’s noted precocious nature which was to follow throughout his career that he made his first-team debut for the Gunners aged just 18. Moreover, while famous players such as Frank McLintock, Pat Rice, Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira subsequently went on to skipper Arsenal, Neill, then 20-years-old, still holds the record as the club’s youngest-ever captain.
Neill was invariably associated with making history whatever the circumstances. In the days to come, Northern Ireland fans will fondly remember a winning goal in 1972 when the visitors clipped the wings of Alf Ramsey’s gilded England. It remains the last time Northern Ireland beat their old Home International rivals at Wembley.
Looking at 1973, the role as national boss for Northern Ireland during the dark days of the Troubles was quite the prickly challenge in an era when the men in green had to play ‘home’ games away from Belfast — yet pioneering Neill embraced it as player-manager having, at 28, already taken to the task at Hull.
The sheer responsibility on and off the field was significant, but he never lost his sense of humour. Asked who was first name on his team sheet while player-manager of his country, he remarked: “Me! Then George Best and Pat Jennings.”
If football in that particular decade has been widely declared as being a golden age of the game, the ‘glory’ of the sport itself, to paraphrase another Northern Ireland legend, Danny Blanchflower, was still a precious commodity, then Neill was, in his unique way, a beating heart of the whole, muddy, lovely, off-the-cuff mess.
Neill possessed the confidence in himself to take over Tottenham, following on from the legendary Bill Nicholson while overseeing Northern Ireland on a part-time basis. Eventually, he swapped Tottenham for Arsenal four miles down the well-travelled road in 1976. It was at Highbury where he found his niche and was much in the spotlight in guiding the Gunners to three successive FA Cup Finals between 1978-1980.
A more recent interview saw Neill lament how the game is unrecognisable these days: the excess money, the sports-washing and what he generally viewed the garish, unedifying clutter of ‘modern football’. He spoke of the truly ‘great men’ of the game, Sir Bobby Robson of Ipswich and John Lyall of West Ham, people of utmost decency who apologised for beating his enterprising Arsenal — containing fine players he nurtured such as Liam Brady, Malcolm Macdonald, Alan Sunderland, Sammy Nelson and Frank Stapleton — in two of those Wembley Finals. Neill was cut from the same fabric.
A natural leader, he reconstructed Arsenal to express themselves with exhilaration, and had them on the crest of a wave in the late 1970s. And his finest hour, the dramatic ‘five-minute’ 1979 FA Cup Final, when his team edged out Manchester United 3-2 in the last moments, is up there in the pantheon of great wedges of drama ever to be witnessed at the national stadium. It was during these heady days that Arsenal attracted many additional fans from these shores with talents like Jennings, Rice, Nelson, David O’Leary, Brady and Stapleton on display.
Europe proved to be unfortunate and frustrating for Neill in management. Only a penalty shoot-out prevented Arsenal from lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Valencia in 1980. This, following another first in the Semi-Final, when Neill orchestrated triumph as boss of the first British side to beat Juventus in Italy. In a sense, what was a wonderful night for Arsenal to claim victory in Turin’s packed-out, old Stadio Comunale was possibly the zenith for Neill as a tactician, helped by vastly-respected coach Don Howe. Utilising 18-year-old Paul Vaessen, a relative unknown, off the bench to net a late winner reflected both Neill’s foresight and self-belief in his players.
A seven-season spell as Arsenal manager — featuring four top-six finishes — ended in December 1983, but Neill, whose overall association with the club spanned 20 years, was always fondly remembered in north London. His feats, presence and lively personality remained in the memories of former clubs, and he was a special guest at Wembley for the 2014 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull. Appropriately, what transpired to be a thrilling showpiece, won 3-2 by the Gunners, was in the same sparky spirit of that cherished 1979 glory.
It was no surprise that Neill, a loquacious personable man, branched out into the world of hospitality when his career in the dugout ended with Arsenal, opening sports bars in London.
Those sun-drenched, exhausted efforts by the Ulsterman’s Gunners against United counterpart Dave Sexton saw Arsenal legend Brady awarded man of the match.
“I feel very sad,” said Brady, whose best days at Highbury came under Neill’s watch. “We were together for the 40th reunion of the ’79 Cup Final three years ago and it was great to have everybody together again.
“Three Cup Finals on the trot was some achievement back in the day. Terry and Don Howe took us there.”
In Arsenal’s own words, Neill’s tenacity, vision and natural leadership will be remembered.