We’ve all seen the TV footage. The Messiah of North London, on his back and awaiting adulation from his team-mates who raise him from the dead to celebrate what proved to be the winning goal in the 1971 FA Cup final. Arrogant, triumphant, expectant. Charlie George, the idol of the Highbury North Bank revelling in the finest moment of his career. All too soon.
George, along with pop singer Marc Bolan, was the face of 1971. He should have gone on from that season to have a stellar football career, but he didn’t. It was an unfulfilled talent, a career that stuttered and started, waxed and waned, flew in the face of authority and ultimately ended in heartbreak as a young man, an Arsenal fan from the neighbourhood, left the club he loved.
If there are comparisons, look no further than Chelsea’s Alan Hudson, who also shone brightly in the early 1970s but left under a cloud and never quite scaled the heights that were expected of him. George and Hudson played with a chip on their shoulder and it would consign them to history as “nearly men”.
While Hudson has largely been consigned to history and labelled a difficult child of his time, Gunners’ fans still eulogise about George. But there are some myths about this enigmatic character and his contribution to Arsenal’s history. For a start, he played just 17 games in Arsenal’s Football League title win due to injury. The games he played in the title run-in, along with Arsenal’s FA Cup route to the Wembley FA Cup final, would cement the legend of Charlie George.
He had made a key contribution to Arsenal’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup win in 1970. His performance against a rising Ajax moved the great Johan Cruyff to sing George’s praises.
George was not yet the straggly-haired rebel that he became and he was singled out as a player to watch in 1970-71. Arsenal started with a 2-2 draw at the reigning champions’ Everton. George scored, but he broke two bones in his foot after colliding with Gordon West, a sizeable obstacle if ever there was one.
While Arsenal were in the top six virtually all season, they were chasing Leeds United for much of the campaign. There were issues between the two clubs, dating back to the Football League Cup final of 1968 – you can easily find the photos of the brawl that took place – and generally, London clubs and Leeds didn’t get on too well during that period.
Arsenal were often criticised for being functional and sterile. It was a little harsh, but Arsenal didn’t have a George Best or a Colin Bell, but they did have George Armstrong and Peter Storey, players who were more about function than form. Thank heavens they had already got rid of Ian Ure! George, and the more experienced George Graham – a far more elegant player than he was a manager – were supposed to provide the flair.
With George sidelined, Arsenal got on with the task of grinding out results and became exponents of the 1-0 win, giving birth to the tag “1-0 to the Arsenal”. They won 10 games by 1-0 and of their 29 league victories, 14 were by a single goal. They scored 71 goals but conceded only 29.
George got Arsenal out of a hole on more than one occasion as they closed in on the championship finale. He also scored vital goals in the FA Cup against Portsmouth and Manchester City. But he was also a target for the boo-boys at opposition clubs. “Get your hair cut, get your hair cut, get your hair cut, Charlie George,” was a familiar song from the stands. It wasn’t just the jealousy that Arsenal had a rare talent, it was also George’s demeanour, his “don’t give a shit” style of celebrating a goal. He was on the North Bank as well as delighting the North Bank.
Straight away, the young player who had provided the fresh impetus that helped Arsenal’s 1971 side earn its place in history was earmarked as one of England’s “must-haves” for the 1974 World Cup. But he didn’t get a look in – and it wasn’t just England’s fortunes that slumped after 1971.
George lost his way in 1971-72 to some extent, despite the arrival of Alan Ball at Highbury for a record fee. Arsenal reached the cup final again, but their league form was too inconsistent to seriously challenge for the title. He should have been one of the stars of the season, but ill-discipline and a growing discontent that he was not earning as much as others at the club started to chip away at his relationship with his beloved Arsenal.
Ball was a huge supporter of George, coming to his aid when a V-sign gesture to Derby fans in February 1972 got him into trouble. “What should be remembered is that this boy is just 20 years old and that a bit of devilment is part and parcel of the game,” he told the media. Ball added that George had learned from his mistakes, but events over the coming years suggested the opposite.
Rumours that George sought to leave Highbury or that he was at odds with the establishment figure of manager Bertie Mee became tedious back page fare over the next two years. With Arsenal in decline, and the double side breaking up, George went into the 1973-74 campaign wracked with uncertainty. He started the campaign well and Brian Clough, then Derby County’s manager, and a long-time admirer, hinted at a £ 300,000 bid for Arsenal’s wayward talent. The early season momentum faded, however, and he was eventually dropped from the first team. By Christmas 1974, he was transfer listed and even considering a move to Tottenham, which for a lifelong Arsenal man, would have been tantamount to heresy.
Eventually, George got his move with Derby – now under Dave Mackay – paying a knock-down price of just £ 100,000 for a player in desperate need of a career boost. At Derby he made the sort of start that brought back memories of 1970-71. If the goal against Liverpool at Wembley will forever be George’s calling card, in the Midlands they will point to his hat-trick against Real Madrid in October 1975. Derby beat the Spanish giants 5-1 in the European Cup second round first leg tie, with George “inspiring and inspired….the most eye-catching performer on the pitch”. George’s memory has played tricks with him because when Robert Lewandowski scored four against Real in 2012-13, he claimed he was the last player to scored four against them. Derby lost the second leg, by the way, but George had an excellent first season at Derby, arguably his best since the spring of 1971. He even got his England cap, playing an hour against the Republic of Ireland, but that ended in acrimony due to a spat with manager Don Revie as he was substituted.
After that, his career was distinctly anti-climatic. Clough finally signed him on loan, for a cameo appearance in Forest colours, but it was brief and in truth, his career had burned out before he was 30.
Should George have won more caps? On the evidence of his overall career, probably not. He had talent, but so did a number of players during that era – Osgood, Marsh, Currie, Bowles, to name but a few – who could play but not necessarily apply. And if you were an international manager with half a dozen games a season to be judged on, wouldn’t you select players you could truly rely on?
George had flair, but it often went missing. He lacked discipline and focus. To most football fans who saw him play, he was a flawed genius, a terrace chant. But to Arsenal fans who watched the climax to the 1970-71 season, he has always remained a legend. Over-rated, perhaps, but it’s good to see he is still around…