Alex Forbes: Indomitable wing-half who starred in the potent league and cup-winning Arsenal teams of the 1950s

 

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The Independent Online

Alex Forbes, the last survivor of Arsenal's 1950 FA Cup-winning side, was a pugnacious midfield ball-winner who made a crucial contribution as the Gunners lifted the League championship three seasons later.

The flame-haired Scottish international wing-half netted with a typically ferocious drive in the 3-2 home victory over Burnley on the final day of the campaign which secured the title by 0.099 of a goal – this during the era of goal average, the infuriatingly complicated system used to separate teams on the same number of points before the introduction of goal difference.

Forbes was a relentless competitor, fearsomely strong and endlessly energetic, abrasive in the tackle and occasionally even sharper of temper, and while he lacked some of the game's subtleties – his pass selection could be questionable and some critics reckoned him prone to unnecessary dallying in possession – he was by no means the least delicate of contemporary performers with the ball at his feet.

An excellent all-round sportsman who played ice hockey for home-town club Dundee Tigers and Scotland at the age of 16, Forbes was put through his teenage paces by Aberdeen, then took his boots in a brown-paper parcel to Sheffield United, who signed him from junior side Dundee North End for £40 in December 1944, the fee later increasing to £105.

His early efforts as a rumbustious centre-forward revealed an indomitable spirit, some talent and immense dedication – he returned for extra afternoon training sessions, which was extremely unusual at the time – but he looked unlikely to make the professional grade until he was converted into a left-half. Thereafter his progress was meteoric as he helped the Blades to win the wartime League North championship in 1945-46, then to finish sixth in the top flight in 1946-47.

Now Forbes' swashbuckling style caught the eye of the Scotland selectors and in April 1947, still only 22, he earned the first of 14 full caps in a 1-1 draw with England at Wembley.

As his star continued to ascend, Forbes' impetus was jolted by appendicitis, but while he was in hospital he was convinced by his fellow Scot, Archie Macaulay, to join him at Arsenal and a £12,500 transfer went through in February 1948.

In what remained of that season the newcomer helped the Gunners to clinch the League championship, soon forming a potent wing-half partnership with Joe Mercer but not making quite enough appearances to qualify for a title medal.

Thereafter, ironically, he kept his chum Macaulay out of the side for the 1950 FA Cup final, in which Liverpool were defeated 2-0 and Forbes was key to neutralising the threat of his brilliant countryman, the powerful attacker Billy Liddell.

Forbes experienced the taste of Wembley defeat two years later, when Arsenal lost the final 1-0 to Newcastle United, having been reduced to ten men for more than half the match – in those pre-substitute days – by an injury to full-back Walley Barnes. Still the Scottish redhead cut an inspirationally defiant figure, battling the odds heroically and shooting against the Magpies' crossbar towards the end of the game.

That spring, too, he pulled on his country's shirt for the final time, in a 3-1 reverse against Sweden in Stockholm, but there was rich consolation at club level in 1952-53 when he missed only a handful of matches as Preston North End were so narrowly pipped in the championship race.

Now Forbes was in his prime but his unyieldingly physical approach took its toll as he suffered a serious knee injury midway through 1954-55, and in August 1956, having played 239 League and FA Cup games for the Gunners and scored 20 goals, he was allowed to join second-tier Leyton Orient in a £3,500 deal.

No longer the same dynamic driving force that he was, Forbes made little impact at Brisbane Road and moved on to divisional rivals Fulham in the autumn of 1957. However, his knee injury continued to trouble him and after only four senior outings for the Cottagers, he switched to Gravesend and Northfleet of the Southern League.

There followed a fleeting stint with Sligo Rovers in the Republic of Ireland before he returned to Arsenal in 1962, where he worked as a youth coach.

However, he didn't re-settle at Highbury. Instead, he emigrated to South Africa where he coached and managed, being described as a footballing missionary for taking the sport into black townships during the dark days of apartheid. His employers in South Africa included Wanderers, Highland Park, Johannesburg Rangers and Orlando Pirates. He also coached briefly in Israel and Kuwait.

IVAN PONTING

Alexander Rooney Forbes, footballer and coach: born Dundee 21 January 1925; married (one son, one daughter); played for Sheffield United 1944-48; Arsenal 1948-56; Leyton Orient 1956-57; Fulham 1957-58; died Johannesburg, South Africa 28 July 2014.

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