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Nov 17, 2011

Charlie George: Highbury hero

Tall, strong, powerful in the air and a good passer, Arsenal legend Charlie George was an entertainer on and off the pitch who became an instant hero and the darling of Highbury in the early 1970s.

Described as ''A bona fide Cockney rebel'' by journalist Jon Wilde, George, like many footballers of the 1970s, was a rough diamond and someone who courted controversy wherever he went. His many bust-ups with managers, players and fans saw him loved and hated in equal measure, but ultimately his combative personality would see him only ever play one game for England.

Born and brought up in Islington, deep in Arsenal territory, George was only five when he made his first trip to Highbury to see the Gunners play. An immediate convert to football, he would stand on the terraces cheering on his side for 11 years, although an early insight into his explosive, fiery and sometimes violent temperament came as he was expelled from his local Holloway Comprehensive School where Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson was a master.

As his emerging talent for the game saw him consider football as a career path, there was nowhere else he wanted to play and, in May 1966, he realised the dream of many by signing for his boyhood club as an apprentice, turning professional within eighteen months. "Three-and-a-half years later I had gone from standing there shouting out the players' names to actually playing with those guys,'' he told the BBC.

George began in the reserves, but struggled to follow orders and once called in sick to miss a match only to travel to Bristol to watch the first-team in an FA Cup tie. A rebel at heart, he would not have to wait long to make his debut though and ran out in the opening fixture of the 1969-70 season, notching his first goal against West Bromwich Albion two games later.

Under autocratic manager Bertie Mee, George struggled to curb his rebellious behaviour and his ill-discipline was something of a hindrance to his development. Mee picked George's games, claiming that he wanted to ''bring him on carefully'' and that he had seen ''too many young players destroyed by over-exposure in the Press and on television." Determined that this would not happen with his latest star, Mee dropped him to the reserves for three months.

Still, amid his frequent clashes with officials and opposing fans, George's potential was there for all to see and he could not be kept from the spotlight for long. ''This boy could be the King of Highbury in five years,'' proclaimed team-mate Wilson, while The Guardian's Albert Barham wrote of a ''calculated gamble'' on the teenager taken because Arsenal ''had seen in him a ready-made player with flair and potential.'' By the end of that campaign he had bagged 15 goals and picked up his first trophy - the European Fairs Cup - breaking the club's 17-year wait for silverware.

His swagger had brought a renewed sense of optimism to Highbury, but a broken ankle at the start of the 1970-71 season kept him out until the New Year and when he returned he found his position up front taken by Ray Kennedy. Forced to drop back to an attacking midfield role, his creativity blossomed and he finished the season with 15 goals and an historic Double of league and FA Cup wins. Indeed, the Wembley final would be his defining moment in an Arsenal shirt.

Having wrapped up the league title at north London rivals Tottenham on the Monday with a Kennedy goal, Arsenal faced Bill Shankley's Liverpool in the final five days later. Unable to break the deadlock in normal time - although George came close with a long-range effort in the first-half and George Graham hit the bar late on - the game went to extra-time.

Within a minute, Liverpool's Larry Lloyd began a move deep in his own half which eventually found Steve Heighway on the edge of the area. Heighway found the net with a low drive and seconds later Wilson had to react well to stop John Toshack doubling the Reds' lead. However, Arsenal found a way back as an overhead kick from John Radford into the Liverpool penalty area caused problems and Eddie Kelly became the first substitute to score in an FA Cup final as he tapped home the equaliser from close range.

George would later say that ''not being too blasé, we should have won the game three or four-one'' and he took centre stage to bring the trophy to Highbury with a wonderful solo effort nine minutes before the final whistle. Radford again was the provider, but the plaudits went to George as his powerful shot from outside the box beat goalkeeper Ray Clemence with ease. The celebration - in which he fell to the ground with his arms outstretched above his head - is one of the most memorable images in the history of the club, and the FA Cup, although George did take some of the romanticism out of it.

''Fans will ask me about flicking the V-sign to supporters or telling some linesman to stick his flag up his arse. Most of the time though it's that cup final goal against Liverpool,'' he told Wilde. ''They'll ask me why I collapsed on the ground after I scored it. My answer is always the same. I fell down because I didn't have another drop of energy left in me. I wasn't thinking that I ought to do something that people will remember. I was just f***ing knackered. As for that rumour about me having an erection while I was laying there, that's b******s. I never got an erection after scoring a goal.''

That moment would be as good as it would get for George. The following season saw ill-discipline continue to haunt him and he was disciplined twice by Mee, first after headbutting Liverpool's Kevin Keegan, and then for flicking a V-sign at Derby supporters after he'd scored at the Baseball Ground. Nick Hornby described the latter incident in his book Fever Pitch, saying: "He got booed off the pitch and fined by the FA. We got chased all the way on to our train, bottles and cans cascading around our ears. Cheers, Charlie."

George often made unwanted headlines, whether it was for disrespecting officials, fans, or others players, but as he revealed in a later interview to Wilde: ''I gave as good as I got. He [Chelsea's Ron 'Chopper' Harris] whacked me really hard one time at Highbury so I jumped up and down on his chest. He was coughing up blood according to the papers. All the other Chelsea players piled in and it was a mass brawl. Didn't bother me. I liked a fight. And I always stood up for myself. That's how I was brought up. Coming from Holloway you learn from the pram to nut people who pick on you.''

With such incidents causing his relationship with disciplinarian Mee to worsen, George's impact for the Gunners waned over the next few years. He was dramatically placed on the transfer list on the eve of the 1972-73 season after a dispute over a new contract and made to play in the reserves again and, although the pay issue was resolved in September, he never regained his best form and made it clear in a bylined article in the Daily Mirror at the end of the season that ''you'd hear no bleats from me if Arsenal decided to let me go.''

Having scotched rumours that he would be quitting the game to try life as a pop singer, George stayed on for another two years and netted five times in 28 matches in 1973-74 but was dropped from the first-team again the following year after another bust-up with Mee. His role in 1971's success should have propelled him to further greatness, but injury and inconsistency followed and, as the Double-winning side disbanded, Arsenal slipped down the table and George eventually moved to Derby County in the summer of 1975 for £90,000 after deciding against defecting to Spurs.

As he later pointed out to Wilde, his relationship with the fans was always better than with his manager. ''I always got on fine with the Arsenal supporters because they saw me as one of their own,'' he revealed. ''I liked a drink and a bet and they could either find me down the local or down the bookies. I was on first-name terms with half of them. I'd see them down the pub after a game and they knew they could come over and have a chat.

''I wasn't one of them footballers that hid behind the velvet rope. I didn't ponce it up like some superstar. There was no chance of me getting an ego because the supporters would keep me in check. If they thought I was talking b******s they'd tell me so. If I'd had a bad game they'd say, 'F*** me, Charlie, you were useless today. You couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo.' And I'd say, 'Fair point. Now get the beers in.'"

At Derby, George enjoyed life under the wing of Dave Mackay and his career took a sharp upturn in his first season. He netted a hat-trick in Derby's ultimately ill-fated European Cup tie against the great Real Madrid - losing 6-5 on aggregate - and, most incredibly of all, did not pick up a single caution. However, it could not last.

The first game of 1976-77 saw George return to his old ways as he was sent off against Newcastle and was booked against Leeds for chasing and haranguing the referee. Just as the dissenters began to gain a voice once more, he was called up to the England squad to face the Republic of Ireland at Wembley and The Guardian's David Lacey wrote: ''Once upon a time, the idea of George playing for England was about as plausible as the prospect that [Rolling Stones singer] Mick Jagger might one day appear at La Scala Milan.''

England manager Don Revie (who held similar views to Mee) said that he would be discussing George's disciplinary problems with him before the game. However, as journalist Matthew Rudd revealed, it was a tactical dispute that put paid to his international career after just one game.

''George played well for an hour in a three-pronged attack with Stuart Pearson and Kevin Keegan but started a heated dispute with Revie at the break after the England coach told George to play on the left wing,'' Rudd wrote. ''George disagreed with the tactic but soldiered on until the hour mark when Manchester United's natural winger Gordon Hill began warming up.

''Inevitably, it was George who was substituted, and infamously, he told Revie in somewhat colourful language that he thought little of him as he exited the Wembley pitch, and never came back, even though Revie himself was packing his bags nine months later.'' George conceded later that "it wasn't the brightest thing I've done or said in my life," but that "I am not sad or apologetic about it".

By 1978, George's career at Derby was winding down and he also snubbed the chance to play for Ron Greenwood's re-established England's B team against West Germany in February. Having spent so long being banished to the Arsenal reserves, the forward took the invitation as a snub and his international career did not develop any further.

After playing for the Minnesota Kicks in the North American Soccer League, where he made 18 appearances and scored nine goals in the 1978 season, he then had spells with Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth and Brighton, while he also spent a season playing for Bulova in Hong Kong in the early 1980s.

It was not the end many would have wished for a career that promised so much and, after retiring in 1983, George undertook two unsuccessful business ventures as a pub owner and garage manager. Never far from negative headlines, he was plastered on the front page of the Daily Mail in January 1990 when he was questioned by police in a probe over a shooting at an Islington club, though he was later eliminated from their enquiries.

Ultimately, he found peace at his beloved Arsenal (for whom he scored 49 goals in 157 starts) as a tour guide at the Emirates stadium.

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