James Lawton: Disloyalty of Cole wounds pride of an old school defender of the Arsenal faith

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Once upon a time Bob McNab was the left-back of Arsenal. It was always something of a fantasy to him - one that was professionally sealed when the Highbury backroom staff made a video of a defensive performance he put in against George Best, a tactical masterpiece which he later reflected would have been in ruins if the genius Irishman had taken rather than missed by an inch what might just have been the best goal he ever scored.

Once upon a time Bob McNab was the left-back of Arsenal. It was always something of a fantasy to him - one that was professionally sealed when the Highbury backroom staff made a video of a defensive performance he put in against George Best, a tactical masterpiece which he later reflected would have been in ruins if the genius Irishman had taken rather than missed by an inch what might just have been the best goal he ever scored.

"Peter Simpson and I made an alliance against Best over the years," McNab was reflecting this week. "I stuck so close to George it would have been impossible if Peter hadn't been filling the space behind me. He was the ultimate challenge for a defender. You couldn't lunge at him because that's what he wanted ... if you did it, he bit."

Like his successor Ashley Cole, McNab had been tapped up by a big club after a contract dispute. He was playing for his hometown team Huddersfield Town at the time, so well that each week he saw his name linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool.

After playing a full season he thought, as Cole did recently, that he was worth a rise on his modest wages - in McNab's case up to £25 a week with £10 appearance money. Huddersfield said that they could not afford it. Eventually, he realised that as their most saleable asset, the grand plan was for him to move.

A fiver would probably have placated him. But Huddersfield said no, and then came the tap. It was from the mighty Liverpool of Bill Shankly. High-powered agents were not involved because they did not exist. The word from Shankly came from a local schoolmaster, a neighbour of the Scot when he was manager of Huddersfield. McNab was told that his progress was being closely monitored.

McNab rode the bus to Huddersfield station and was met by Shankly in Liverpool. He was told that he could earn as much as £125 a week with win bonuses in Europe. However, Arsenal had also made a bid and when McNab saw the marble halls there was nowhere else he wanted to go.

For a while he was immensely proud to wear the club blazer, tailored in Savile Row, but then some of his team-mates, sophisticated denizens of the West End, pulled his leg once too often and, with some regret, he put it into mothballs in a wardrobe in his rented house in Southgate, north London. But then everyone had to wear the jersey and you could not stop him being proud to do that. Indeed, even today you might see him donning it again in the garden of his home in southern California while cooking the prawns and the steaks on the barbecue.

Sometimes McNab apologises for his sentimentality, but the 10 years he spent at Arsenal conditioned the rest of his life; as a property developer in Los Angeles he has had his coups and his daughter Mercedes is a successful young Hollywood actress, but in the best and the worst of his days now there is always Arsenal; always that year when they won the Double and he played 64 games, missing just two, once while riding the subs bench for England and once injured. He will never forget those climactic moments of the season; victory at Wembley, over Liverpool, and the delivering of the title at, of all places, White Hart Lane.

He has always admired the adventure and confidence of Ashley Cole's game, though defensively he thinks there is still too often a hint of vulnerability and sometimes he suspects there is more bluster than cold steel in his tackling, especially on 50-50 balls. Certainly, he does not dispute Cole's right to improve his rewards, to explore what the market will bear.

However, he does chuckle a little grimly when he recalls how Huddersfield handled his own transfer request. "I took a couple of days composing it, not having an agent, and it consisted of two sentences - one said I was disappointed not to get a rise and the other was I wanted a move."

That night, the Huddersfield evening paper reported the club would have to bow to the pressure of McNab's demands. The manager Tom Johnson told him, "You've got what you wanted. Liverpool and Arsenal have agreed a fee, go and talk to them - and don't come back here expecting any money."

Huddersfield received £50,000 in 1966 - £15,000 more than the previous record for a full-back, Everton having paid them £35,000 for Ray Wilson, subsequently a World Cup winner, two years earlier. Arsenal gave McNab a signing-on fee of £5,000, paid over four years, and that beautifully tailored blazer. After two years in the first team he was able to put down a deposit on a modest house in north London.

He has been following the Cole saga closely over the last few weeks, not too surprisingly, with mounting dismay and disbelief. Now his abiding hope is that Cole, the inhabitant of his old jersey, has been misrepresented in the torrents of claim and counter-claim that have so disfigured the image of English football.

"What I don't want to believe," he says, "is that Ashley Cole has put a negotiating point of an extra £5,000 a week - on top of £55,000 - before any feelings he has for a club which has brought him on down the years, and one which has done a brilliant job in going for their new stadium and at the same time remaining competitive, with young players like [Cesc] Fabregas showing such potential.

"Of course, Arsenal would not be in this position without the work of Arsène Wenger, who is being charged with running a French clique to Cole's detriment. Of course, there are always going to be groups within groups in a football club, but I know Wenger well enough to say that he has always had one priority, and it has had nothing to do with a player's nationality.

"It is to do with whether he can play or not. Cole has enjoyed wonderful success in a team which went unbeaten the season before last... He was offered £55,000 a week, with two years running on his contract, and I find it hard to believe that his reaction was to go running off to Chelsea. We all know how much tapping there is in the game. But it is the clubs and the agents who get involved, and the player keeps a low profile.

"But what Cole was found guilty of takes us into another dimension. It says that you can play for years for a club, you can grow up with it, and that none of this means anything the first time you don't get your way entirely. If there is any semblance of truth in the reports of what Cole has said about his club and his manager - if it is not just Chelsea making mischief - then you can only be shocked to your bones."

Eventually McNab moved to Wolves, but he reflected this week on how little he had left. "Looking back, I suppose I was knackered - physically and mentally. With players like Frank McLintock, Peter Storey and Peter Simpson, I had given Arsenal everything I had ... and it was wonderful to see the team's progress, wonderful to have that pride in your club. What I can't understand now is quite what Arsenal have done to kill such feelings in Ashley Cole ... he was part of a brilliant team, one that still has everything to play for."

It all still seems so simple to McNab. You play in a great team and if, while you're doing it, you are building financial security for the rest of your life, what could be better than that?

The point is that when McNab got right down to it the money did not matter so much, not even when they sang in the bath after racking up another win bonus that would not have added up to a decent tip in Cole's favourite nightclub.

McNab's rage these last few days, he says, has been provoked by the injury inflicted on a football club which he is sure has done most things right. That's what he says, and maybe what he believes. But then perhaps he has also received a personal wound - the one that comes to a man when he suspects the meaning of his life has been mocked.

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