As this is the first in a series of Highbury Heroes. I’ve decided to start where it all started for me watching The Arsenal back in the 1960s and an early favourite of mine Jon Sammels.
Jon came from Suffolk, near Ipswich and joined Arsenal in 1961. He was an outstanding young prospect and it wasn’t very long before Jon was given his debut by Billy Wright as a 17 year old, scoring at Blackpool on 27.4.1963.
Dark haired Jon had the looks of a 1960s pop star. Very much the Golden Boy of Highbury. Though he was very quiet and modest. Jon was a highly successful England Youth international, as well as becoming a regular for the England under-23s. Jon Sammels had the world at his feet.
He gradually established himself in the Arsenal side playing 17 league games in 1964-65 and 32 league games in 1965-66. Playing alongside Arsenal play-maker George Eastham.
Arsenal team photo from 1962-63 (thanks Getty Images)
The following season Bertie Mee took over as manager and he sold one of the biggest names at Highbury George Eastham, leaving Sammels to take on the mantle, as Arsenal’s playmaker. Jon played all 42 League games that season, as Bertie put his faith in the young guns and the nucleus of the Double side begun to take shape.
He had great control and his two main assets were his superb passing ability and his powerful long range shooting. He wasn’t prolific but scored some spectacular goals from distance. I remember being at a packed out Highbury, when we played Manchester United in 1967, in a 63,563 crowd and hanging halfway up a drainpipe in a corner of the Clock End, to get a decent view as Sammels banged one in from outside the box.
Jon was part of the side that lost successive League Cup finals against Leeds United and Swindon Town. Although these were crushing defeats we could sense the team were getting better and on the cusp of being successful.
17 long years since the club’s last trophy the Arsenal team and fans were finally rewarded with silverware in 1969-70 as we won our our first European trophy the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and Jon played a big part in this playing in all 12 matches and scoring 6 goals in the competition, including the 3rd goal in the 2nd leg of the final at Highbury.
1970-71 was Jon Sammel’s final season at Highbury. He had an ankle injury and missed the first three months of the season. But Jon got back in the side playing the next 18 games but was then left out for George Graham. He made three more substitute appearances that season. He scored his last goal for Arsenal against Crystal Palace away. He came on for Charlie George in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Stoke and his last ever appearance for the club was against WBA away when he came on for Pat Rice.
Some Arsenal fans to their shame had completely destroyed his confidence and his Arsenal career in the process. A couple of paragraphs by Frank McLintock, from his book True Grit sum it up in a nutshell.
“Of all the young players at the club given their debuts in the dying months of Billy Wright’s tenure, Jon Sammels seemed to me to have the brightest future. Although there was only a couple of year’s age difference between us, we almost immediately struck up a father and son type relationship. Jon had all the attributes of a top player: He could run all day like Colin Bell, he had an exquisite right foot and a more than adequate left, he could hit a powerful bending shot and he was a very crisp and accurate passer. All in all he was an absolutely tremendous, dedicated guy but was quite shy for a footballer and suffered intermittent spells where he lost all confidence. This, sadly, prevented Jon from achieving all that his talent promised.”
“Great players need the swagger of a Mackay or a Cantona, the certain knowledge of how good they are. Cockiness and self-assurance – as long as they don’t lead to conceit – are fine attributes for footballers. I have never seen a footballer so affected by the crowd as Jon. He wasn’t a boo-boy as such, rather the crowd’s impatience led to jeers, which sometimes made him think too long and dither more on the ball. He was the last player they should have jeered because he was sensitive and it shocked him. I tried all the time to cajole him, but it wasn’t enough; sessions with a proper sports physiologist, unfortunately unheard of in the mid-sixties, would have propelled him into the top echelon of professionals.”
Jon then went on to have seven good seasons with Leicester City signing for another old Highbury favourite Jimmy Bloomfield. I was gutted when Jon left Arsenal and felt he still had so much more to offer. After Jon retired he became a driving instructor. One of his pupils Jon taught to drive, being none other than Geordie Armstrong’s daughter Jill @touchofpowder
The last time I saw Jon Sammels in an Arsenal shirt was at Ray Kennedy’s benefit match against Liverpool in 1991. The dark hair had turned to grey. But all the old skill and passing ability was still there.
About 18 months ago at the book launch of James Durose-Rayner’s book ‘I Am Sam’. I had the pleasure of meeting Jon, who was there at the Arsenal Supporters Club, along with Frank McLintock before a match against Everton. A lady went up to Jon just before he left for the game and said “We used to sing a song for you. How did it go” I started to sing it and with that the whole of the Arsenal Supporters Club joined in. It was brilliant that the fans still remembered and was very emotional, both for us old fans and Jon. James told me the next day that Jon walked out of the Arsenal Supporters Club that day feeling ten foot tall! As the old North Bank song goes to the tune of Al Jolson’s Mammy.
“Sammels, Sammels, I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals Jon Sammels”