Charlie George: Highbury's local hero keeps the flame alive

As Arsenal head for another Cup final, the scorer of one of the grand occasion's greatest goals is still close to the heart of the club he has loved and served for over three decades
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The Independent Online

Whatever unfolds in Saturday's FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United, there's very little chance that the Gunners will win with a goal that lives in the memory as long and as vividly as the one scored by Charles Frederick George on 8 May 1971.

Those too young to remember Charlie George's winner against Liverpool that day might reasonably ask what was so special about it. Well, firstly it was the defining moment of a terrific match, which had been goalless after 90 minutes, only to finish 2-1 after extra time.

"It was an almost intolerably dramatic, pulsating Cup final," wrote Brian Glanville in The Sunday Times the following day. And what could be more appropriate, asked Glanville, than that the winning goal "should be scored by a youngster born virtually on the club's doorstep".

Indeed. George was a devoted Arsenal fan who had been roaring on the team from the terraces just a couple of years earlier, dreaming along with everyone else on the North Bank of scoring the winner in an FA Cup final.

What a winner it was, too, a piledriver from just outside the penalty area six minutes into the second period of extra time, after Steve Heighway had put Liverpool into the lead and Eddie Kelly had equalised. And it did not just win the FA Cup for Arsenal; it clinched the League and Cup Double for only the second time in the 20th century, matching Tottenham Hotspur's achievement a decade earlier.

The League and FA Cup double has become downright commonplace since the start of the Premier League; Saturday's finalists have won it five times between them. But in 1971 it still represented English football's Holy Grail, in which case George was Arsenal's Sir Lancelot ... not that Sir Lancelot ever celebrated anything by lying flat on his back with his head lifted, apparently gazing respectfully at his codpiece.

For years George has done little to dampen speculation that the goal made him instantly aroused, and he was admiring the result. But the more mundane truth is that it was a time-wasting tactic.

"I used to think ahead of other people, and I knew it would take quite a while to pick me up off the floor," he says.

We are sitting in an executive box overlooking the pitch at Highbury, where along with Kenny Sansom, Paul Davis and Bob Wilson he conducts "Legends Tours" of the stadium. And it was by lying on the Wembley turf as much as by scoring the goal that he secured his own immortality as an Arsenal legend.

"But I'm amazed people don't remember that I scored two goals in the fifth round at Man City and done exactly the same thing," he adds, "I laid on the ground just their side of the half-way line. It wasn't just something I did in the final."

Whatever, it remains one of the most potent of FA Cup final images, the more so because his long, lank hair matches the place to a time: unmistakably the early Seventies. The barnet these days is much shorter but still recognisably the same hair, as indeed he is recognisably the same man, with the same skinny frame and the same faintly dissolute look. There's also a finger missing on his right hand to compound the inescapable feeling that this is a man with a past that is both colourful and murky. "Caught it in a lawnmower, years ago," he explains, cheerfully.

I ask him how much he remembers of the '71 Cup final.

"Everything. The lot. It don't go away. I remember going to look round Wembley on the Friday. The younger players, like Ray [Kennedy], Eddie [Kelly], Peter Marinello and myself hadn't played there before, and for us it was an absolutely awesome place. Then we stayed that night in the Grosvenor House, Park Lane. Very nice.

"The match itself we should probably have won four or 5-1. Liverpool were a very good side, with good youngsters like Steve Heighway and lots of experience in the likes of Tommy Smith and Chris Lawler, but we played much better than them. I wish I had a penny for every time the goal's been on telly or spoken about.

"Ray Clemence took a goal-kick, I knocked it out to John Radford on the left, but he didn't want to shoot so he knocked it back to me. The next thing, I was just outside the box and I could strike the ball from anywhere with quite a bit of venom. As soon as I hit it I knew it was in. Big Larry Lloyd always says he got a nick on it but I didn't see the ball deviate at all. And if Clemence had got to it, it would have broke his hand."

The Double represented the crowning glory in the impressive managerial career of Bertie Mee, but George, as he makes abundantly clear in his recently published autobiography, had scant respect for Mee. "He's long gone now and he can't answer back," he says, when I ask about his relationship with the manager. Silently, I commend him for his sensitivity. A pause.

"But I thought he was a pompous little man. He'd been a physiotherapist but got the job after Billy Wright was sacked. I was Billy Wright's last signing. Just after he signed me, we only had 3,900 people here for the last game of the season against Leeds, and we got beat 3-0. So the board decided on a change. To be fair, we won three trophies in three years. But a lot of that was down to the coaches, Don Howe and Dave Sexton before him."

Whoever was pulling the Arsenal strings, in 1972 George was back at Wembley for his second successive FA Cup final appearance. This time, however, they lost 1-0 to Leeds, whose manager, Don Revie, would as England manager give George his only international cap, against the Republic of Ireland in September 1976.

"I played well, too, as good if not better than the majority of players, who included [Kevin] Keegan, [Ray] Wilkins, [Trevor] Brooking, Stuart Pearson. But at half-time Revie come in the dressing-room and wanted me to go down the left-hand side. I'm not a left-winger, and I told him so. But I knew when I saw Gordon Hill warming up that I was coming off, and I told Revie what I thought of him in no uncertain terms. So I had an hour for England and that was it."

In the book he is a little more candid. When Revie tried to shake his hand as he left the field George advised him loudly to "go fuck yourself!" He concedes 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".

He felt, and feels, that Revie deliberately played him out of position so that, having bowed to media pressure in picking him, he could then drop him. I always enjoy listening to the paranoia of ex-footballers, but maybe it was so. I remember Alan Hudson, another mercurial talent, telling me the same thing about Revie. In fact, I tell George what Hudson said to me, that he thought Revie was biased against Londoners.

"Yeah," he says, thoughtfully. "That was probably true."

But by this time George was at Derby County, where he sensibly did not tell the manager, Dave Mackay, what he told Revie. In fact, he got on well with Mackay, played the best football of his career at the Baseball Ground, and has happy memories in particular of a case of mistaken identity, when the Derby chairman, Sam Longson, assumed that his wife Susan must be Susan George the actress.

"Susan George was going out with Jimmy Connors at that time, and she'd been at Wimbledon watching him. So the chairman told her he'd seen her at Wimbledon. She didn't know what he was on about."

He and Susan are long divorced - "hearing my name chanted on the North Bank just a couple of years after standing there chanting names myself, that was better than sex. Not that I can remember much about sex," he says - and George lives on his own five minutes from Highbury. He gambled away most of the money he made from football, but it has not stopped him betting, although he never bets on the Arsenal. He remains as avid a fan as he ever was, and rebukes me when I observe that the FA Cup final offers Arsène Wenger and his team their only chance of a trophy this season.

"You say that as if we've had a bad season," he says. "We've been beat four times in two years. It's a fantastic side, and we play the game proper.

"We pass and move, pass and move, the way the game should be played. And we're moving to a new stadium which will generate £25m a year extra for the manager to spend. So we've got an exciting future but we fully deserve to win a trophy this year. If we don't it will be a tragedy, the way we've played, particularly at the beginning of the season. We've definitely played the best football, and we're coming into top form again."

These are prescient words, as we are talking just a few hours before Arsenal's 7-0 destruction of Everton. But what does George make of the composition of the side? Surely, for an Islington lad whose boyhood dream came true at Wembley 34 years ago, it must be a matter of regret that Arsenal occasionally field teams containing no British players?

He looks at me darkly again. I don't think he likes hearing Arsenal criticised. "Yeah, but who would you rather see playing here, Pele or me? It's fantastic to see the best players in the world playing for Arsenal, and it don't matter where they come from. It's true that when I was an apprentice here all the lads were English, Scottish and Irish. There was even a couple of Welsh lads. But I'm a great believer that if you're good enough you'll come through."

Has Wenger ever talked to him about '71? "No, but he's got enough on his plate without worrying about me." Does he know about it? "I would imagine so."

George looks out on to the resplendent Highbury pitch.

"It would be rolled mud by this stage of the season when I played," he says, and I can't help but admire his cheerful perspective on modern football. Unlike many of his contemporaries he does not seem to begrudge the top players their vast salaries, does not waste time dwelling on what he himself might have commanded had he played today.

In other respects, though, he is almost the prototype Seventies footballer; frittered the money, got the divorce, ran the pub. He also did the other classic Seventies thing, signing up for the North American Soccer League in its fleeting heyday.

"Yeah, I played for Minnesota Kicks. Freddie Goodwin was our manager, used to manage Birmingham City. We had some good players: Alan Merrick, Chico Hamilton, Ronnie Futcher. In fact, we played New York Cosmos and beat them 9-3 when they had [Giorgio] Chinaglia, [Franz] Beckenbauer and [Johan] Neeskens. They beat us in the return leg 3-1 but it wasn't done on aggregate because the league wanted the big team through, so we played overtime, and Beckenbauer scored the winner with the outside of his foot and just kept running off the pitch and up the tunnel. Class."

Almost as classy as the winner in the '71 FA Cup final.

'Charlie George: My Story' is published by Century, priced £16.99