The original King of Highbury – From North Bank to North Bank’s Darling

Charlie George FA Helmet
My first Highbury Hero for 2017 takes us back down memory lane to revisit another of the 1971 Double squad. This was the man who clinched the Double, who went from watching The Arsenal as a fanatical fan from the North Bank, to wearing the famous red and white shirt and playing for his beloved Arsenal. It’s the King of Highbury Charlie George.

King Charlie!

King Charlie!

Charlie was the 1971 Double side’s maverick, the most naturally gifted of all the 1971 Double squad, often doing things off the cuff and he was the one who had the key to unlocking stubborn defences with his imaginative brand of football.

Charlie George had the lot. A fine burst of pace with a lovely body swerve. Brilliant vision and control. A fine header of the ball. A superb range of passing, accurately dispatching passes 30 or 40 yards. Not to mention Charlie’s tremendous long range shooting with either foot, he had one of the hardest shots in the game.

Arsenal v Man City 1970-71 with Bob McNab interview and Jimmy Hill’s analysis of Charlie’s passing

Charlie could play both upfront or as an attacking midfielder just behind The front two of John Radford and Ray Kennedy. Charlie wouldn’t be intimidated by the hatchet men of the day either. He was perfectly capable of looking after himself on the pitch and could give it back when defenders tried kicking him.

Charlie standing up for himself!

Charlie standing up for himself!

This is what Bob Wilson says about his team mate Charlie George in his book Behind the Network. “Within this perfectly constructed jigsaw there was one special rogue piece, who could frustrate and inspire in equal measure. I knew of Charlie’s special talent long before our special season. As a schoolboy in 1963 he trained alongside Pat Rice and me twice a week in the indoor gym. He was cocky, funny and blessed with a touch of footballing genius.”

Charlie heading in on goal

Charlie bearing down on goal

“When I taught part-time at Holloway School, he was just as cheeky and a bit of a problem to all the teaching staff with whom he came into contact. No one, but no one, doubted his ability or that he would make his mark as a professional footballer. He was made for Arsenal, loved the club and still does. In training we would sometimes challenge him to show his skills. In one test, we kicked a ball as high as we could into the sky and asked Charlie to control it on the way down. With a cushioned knee, outside of the foot, chest or even backside, he would invariably kill the missile instantly, give a cheeky look in our direction and with an ‘OK!’ Stroll off. Charlie was the most glamorous piece in our puzzle, eyecatchingly similar to Manchester United’s George Best and he cared passionately about his local team.”

The Arsenal fans adored Charlie and I was no exception. Frank McLintock once said it was as though Charlie was the fans on-field representative. I concur with Frank, when Charlie was on the ball the crowd volume increased, as the excitement intensified on the terraces. I think Charlie himself felt he was our representative as well and the extra pressure of representing his own community, often led to him vomiting in the dressing room toilets before games. Something that never happened when he played for any of his other clubs.

Charlie with ball at feet, ready to excite the crowd

Charlie with ball at feet, ready to excite the crowd

When I was younger I used to try and model my game on Charlie and my brother Tony modelled his game on George Armstrong. I was tall and skinny like Charlie. I had the long hair, I even had the 1971 FA Cup Final shirt, but try as I might I couldn’t replicate Charlie’s wonderful natural ability and flair. In fact I didn’t even come close. The truth be told my brother made a better job of impersonating Geordie than I ever did mimicking Charlie down our local park!

Born in Islington on the 10th October 1950 Charlie has always been a dyed in the wool Arsenal fan. His dad was a fair footballer and once represented the district and scored a hat-trick at Highbury. When Charlie was just two years old he was taken to a street party on his estate to celebrate the Queens coronation in 1953, dressed up as Arsenal’s Jimmy Logie. When Charlie was six years old he was taken to Highbury for the first time and watched the likes of Jack Kelsey, Jimmy Bloomfield, Danny Clapton and David Herd.

Young Charlie, already a Gunner!

Young Charlie, already a Gunner!

Charlie was an outstanding player at schools level and a prolific scorer. He once scored all five goals in a 5-1 win for Islington schools in a cup final against Tottenham schools and scored ten for Holloway in a 20-1 victory over Finchley. Plenty of clubs were interested in signing Charlie, but they were all wasting their time as Charlie was only ever going to sign for the club he cheered on from the North Bank every other Saturday. Arsenal had him over for regular training sessions and they deployed Arsenal legend George Male to keep an eye on him.

When Charlie was 14 and a half he was expelled from Holloway School by the Deputy Head Louis Watt, whose son was celebrity Arsenal fan Tom Watt, and Charlie had to finish his education at Huw Middleton School. The trouble was Charlie wasn’t really interested in any of the lessons except the ones involving sport. He was disruptive when he did attend classes, but tended to bunk off a lot! He knew he was going to play for Arsenal and that was that.

He signed for Arsenal as an apprentice on the 2nd February 1966 and turned professional for them two years later. This is how Sammy Nelson described Charlie when he first met him. “I have this image of Charlie standing on the steps outside Highbury. He’d have been about fifteen years old when I first came across him. He looked like a great big tadpole with his hair shaved, he was a genuine skinhead then and the long hair came later, but he had a confidence about him that must have come from the knowledge that he knew he was different class. He was right. I lived with a local family and Charlie was running with a right little gang. They were to become lifelong friends, like me.”

Charlie with short hair

Charlie with short hair

A big mate of Charlie’s then and still is was North Bank terrace legend Johnny Hoy. Charlie reckons he was just as talented a footballer as he was but was only interested in watching The Arsenal. After the second leg of the Fairs Cup Final against Anderlecht Johnny Hoy ran onto the pitch and asked for Charlie’s shirt, which Charlie happily gave to him.

One day Charlie was meant to be playing for Arsenal reserves, but he phoned in sick and then got the train to see Arsenal play Bristol Rovers away in the FA Cup. When the Arsenal fans got off the train the news photographers were waiting for them. Charlie had to hide his face as a snap of him in the newspapers would have finished his Arsenal career. Below is one photo with Charlie in it. It was a daft thing to do but shows how into Arsenal Charlie was and still is, come to that.

Charlie underneath the "N" of "North" (Bank)

Charlie underneath the “N” of “North” (Bank) banner, and possibly Johnny Hoy far right front row wearing a sheepie.

When Charlie was an Arsenal apprentice one of his more unusual jobs was to help put up the ring at Highbury for the World Heavyweight Title fight between Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper.

Charlie Cassius Clay

Highbury stages Clay v Cooper

Charlie made his debut on the 9th August 1969 in the first game of the season against Everton in a 1-0 defeat, I was there that day and Charlie didn’t have the long hair then, but you could tell he was going to be a special player for us right from the off.

In Charlie’s second game for the club he scored the winner against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns. Bertie Mee said he couldn’t talk to the press about his goal, which annoyed Charlie and was a sign of things to come between Bertie and Charlie. Later on that season Charlie also got sent-off against Glentoren in the Fairs Cup and Bertie didn’t pick Charlie again for three months!

 Frank McLintock, Peter Marinello and Charlie before the Semi-Final Second Leg against Ajax In Amsterdam

Frank McLintock, Peter Marinello and Charlie before the Semi-Final Second Leg against Ajax In Amsterdam

Despite that Charlie went on to play 39 games scoring ten goals in his debut season. He really came of age when he played against Ajax in the Fairs Cup Semi-Final First Leg, when 19 year old Charlie George even outshone the great Johan Cruyff, scoring twice in a 3-0 win. One newspaper headline the next morning read KING CHARLIE WIPES THE FLOOR WITH AJAX.

Charlie also won his first medal with Arsenal and set up Jon Sammels to score the third goal in the famous 3-0 win against Anderlecht on a glorious night at Highbury to help clinch the Fairs Cup for Arsenal in the Second Leg of the Final.

In the opening match of the 1970-71 season against Everton, Charlie bravely clipped the ball past an on-rushing Gordon West and into the net, but Charlie unfortunately collided with West and sustained a very serious fracture of the ankle. So despite getting a creditable 2-2 draw against the reigning champions at Goodison Park, we lost Charlie from the side till December, when he came on as a substitute in the Fairs Cup against Beveren-Waas away.

Charlie recovering from a broken ankle

Charlie recovering from a broken ankle

He made only his second appearance since the opening day, as a substitute against Portsmouth at Fratton Park in the 4th round of the FA Cup on the 23rd January.

Charlie came back into the side for the replay with Portsmouth, playing just behind John Radford and Ray Kennedy who’d formed a great partnership in Charlie’s absence. Charlie scored in the 3-2 win. He then stayed in the side, playing in the last 25 games of the season and contributed a crucial 9 goals in those matches.

In the 5th round of the FA Cup Arsenal faced a difficult tie against Manchester City at Maine Road. The pitch was a mud bath but Charlie was in his element scoring two brilliant goals to take us through to the next round 2-1. This was also the first time Charlie did his iconic celebration, where he lay on his back with arms aloft. Fans only seem to remember him doing it in the Final against Liverpool. I once had a great poster on my bedroom wall of Charlie sitting in the dressing room after that Man City game, still in his kit and splattered in mud from head to toe with a big grin on his face. I mentioned the poster to Charlie recently and he said typically “Did I have a fag on the go!”

Charlie was superb that night and captain Frank McLintock may have had something to do with that. This is what Frank said in his book True Grit. “Charlie was very headstrong and tended to be very black and white in his assessment of people. As far as he was concerned there were only two categories: you were either ‘a diamond geezer’ or a ‘c***’. I decided to play on this before our game with Manchester City when I told him that their manager Malcolm Allison, didn’t rate him much as a player. ‘He thinks you’re a fancy dan, a flash in the pan, someone who can’t last the full ninety minutes,’ I claimed.

In fact, Malcolm is exactly the sort of person that Charlie would normally like. He admires talent and brashness but on this occasion I thought it might help us if Charlie thought City’s manager fell into the other category. My little wheeze fired Charlie up no end and he was outstanding that day, scoring both goals in our 2-1 victory on a very heavy pitch. When he came off at the end he started screaming and gesturing at Malcolm, who must have thought him a head-case.

I quickly tried to bundle Charlie down the tunnel in case my trick had greater repercussions than I’d planned. I told Malcolm what I’d done and he was great about it. He liked to use psychological stunts to get the best out of players and was gracious enough to have a laugh when the tables had been turned on him.” I’m sure you’d all agree that was a marvellous bit piece of captaincy from Frank!

Charlie hits a brace at Maine Road to knock Man City out the FA Cup

Charlie also got the winner in the sixth round replay as well with a great header against Leicester City at Highbury.

Charlie scoring against Leicester City in the FA Cup 6th Round

He was also doing the business in the league as well scoring some vital goals in the Title run-in. Charlie scored three times in a row against Nottingham Forest away in a 3-0 win, then smashing home a beauty against Newcastle United at Highbury in a tight 1-0 win, he also scored from the penalty spot in a 1-0 victory against Burnley away.

Charlie scores a cracking vital goal against Newcastle at Highbury

Charlie played in that unforgettable final league game at White Hart Lane. Before immortalising himself in Arsenal’s rich history with the thunderbolt that won us the elusive Double. The celebration that followed is probably the most iconic image in FA Cup Final history. I feel so privileged to have been at both of those games that won us us the Double.

The 1971 FA Cup Final

Before the start of the 1971-72 season Arsenal suffered a catastrophic blow when Don Howe left the club to become West Bromwich Albion manager. This would lead to major repercussions for Arsenal. It was never the same after Don left. It affected Charlie more than most as Don knew how to get the best out of him, whereas Bertie didn’t have a clue how to handle Charlie. The truth is they were poles apart from different generations. Bertie was ex-army and must have hated Charlie’s long hair and rebellious nature, while Charlie thought Bertie was pompous and cold. Charlie once turned up for pre-season training having grown a beard in the close season. Bertie said “Shave it off or you’ll never play for this club again!” I dread to think what Bertie would have made of today’s players beards and hairstyles.

Arsenal failed to retain their Title finishing 5th and 6 points adrift of the new champions Brian Clough’s Derby County. We reached the FA Cup Final again and along the way Charlie scored both goals at the baseball Ground in a 2-2 draw. Charlie gave the Pop Side the V sign and got in trouble with the FA. Charlie also scored scored one and made one in the 2-1 FA Cup Semi-Final replay against Stoke City and he came close to scoring in two FA Cup Finals running when Charlie smacked the ball against the Leeds crossbar, but we lost 1-0 in that Final.

Charlie scores one and makes one in the FA Cup Semi-Final replay with Stoke City in 1972

In 1972-73 Arsenal finished runners up in the league to Liverpool just three points away from them. In the FA Cup Quarter-Finals Charlie scored again in in a 2-2 draw against Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge, in his favourite competition, before Arsenal knocked them out them 2-1 at Highbury in the replay. We went out to Sunderland in the Semi-Final at Hillsborough. Arsenal didn’t play well on the day especially Jeff Blockley! But Charlie scored our goal. What a depressing journey home that was!

By Charlie’s last season at Arsenal 1974-75 he was hardly playing, starting just 9 League games. His final goal for the club came against Sheffield United away in a 1-1 draw on the 28th December 1974 and his final appearance in an Arsenal shirt was away at Coventry City in the FA Cup, which was a 1-1 draw on the 25th January 1975, when he was substituted for John Matthews.

Charlie’s situation over the last last four seasons had gradually deteriorated. Any sort off of relationship he had with Bertie Mee had long gone, not that there was much of a relationship to begin with. Charlie had suffered from injuries and Bertie Mee had taken to dropping Charlie from the side. He was dropped for immaturity once and on another occasion Charlie had told Bertie to “F*** off when he was dropped for a game against Spurs. Charlie put in three transfer requests to leave as he couldn’t stand the way Bertie Mee was treating him. It was soul destroying that he only started 9 games in that last season. But In the end it was Bertie that forced Charlie out. The only thing Bertie said to Charlie was “It has been agreed to let you go”. Then the next time he addressed Charlie he said “Spurs want to speak to you; you are free to do so”.

'Supporting Arsenal Is A Funny Old Game' by Dave Seager

Charlie never wanted to leave Arsenal, but It just shows the desperation of not playing and having to work under Bertie Mee, that Charlie had talks with Spurs boss Terry Neill, he even had a medical but hadn’t yet agreed terms. Charlie then got a call from a reporter who asked “Charlie have you signed for Spurs?” Charlie said he hadn’t but had agreed to. Then he got another call from Des Anderson Derby County’s Assistant Manager wanting clarification. “Have you actually signed for them” “No” said Charlie “Well Dave Mackay wants to know, would you be interested in joining us” “Would I!” Said Charlie and so met Dave Mackay hit it off immediately with him and signed for the League Champions in July 1975.

Charlie playing for Derby County

Charlie playing for Derby County

I was so angry that Arsenal had sold Charlie at just 25 Years old and was gutted he left, as were many other Arsenal fans. This is what Dave Mackay said when Derby signed him. “Charlie cost us £100,000. For a player of his ability that was daylight robbery. I had spoken to Bertie Mee on the Monday (30th June 1975) He told me that I was too late and that Charlie had gone to sign for Spurs. But the deal hadn’t gone through that night and Charlie insisted that he wanted to see me and listen to our terms”

It’s strange that Bertie Mee didn’t inform Charlie of Derby’s interest. Maybe Bertie wanted Charlie to join Spurs and ruin his relationship with the Arsenal fans, who knows. But I’m just so pleased he didn’t go to Spurs. The Derby fans loved him. Who wouldn’t, Charlie was such an entertaining player to watch. I remember him scoring a Hat-trick against Real Madrid in the European Cup and thinking Bertie what the f*** have you done selling Charlie!

When Charlie returned to Highbury for his first game against us, the Arsenal crowd gave him an a great reception and an Arsenal fan ran onto the pitch from the North Bank and presented Charlie with a bunch of flowers.

His form was so good at Derby that the press started a big campaign for Don Revie to pick Charlie for England. Revie eventually did pick him just to get the press off his back, but then set Charlie up to fail. Charlie played the first half behind the front two and he did reasonably well. Don Revie then took Charlie to one side at half time and said “I want you to go down the left side” Charlie was stunned “What? I’m not a left winger” replied Charlie. After about 20 minutes of the second half Charlie noticed Gordon Hill warming up and he knew he’d been stitched up by Revie. As he came off Revie offered Charlie his hand Charlie responded by saying “Go f*** yourself” and that was the end of Charlie’s very brief England career.

Charlie’s only England appearance

Later Ron Greenwood did invite Charlie to join the England B squad. Charlie was in red hot form for Derby and was offended at only being considered for the B squad. He left it to Tommy Docherty to politely decline the offer. But the Doc being the Doc sent this message to the FA “C is for Charlie, C is for Class, tell Ron he can stick the B’s up his arse”.

After three and a half seasons with Derby County Charlie moved to Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton in December 1978. This is what McMenemy said about Charlie. “Charlie was an amazing talent. He had something extra, not only an extraordinary ability, but a quality of character that gave him a special rapport with the fans. It came across at Arsenal, which you’d expect, but at Derby too and also in his short time with us. They knew he wanted to do it for them; they recognised that and loved him for it. What I quickly learned about him was he never lost his enthusiasm to play. It genuinely upset him that injury meant he never played for Southampton as often as we both would have liked. It was a matter of honour for him to give value for money, when possible.”

Charlie in the stripes of Southampton

Charlie in the stripes of Southampton

After signing for Southampton in December Charlie’s knee flared up and he missed the rest of the season without even playing a game for them. He’d always been prone to injury ever since his time at Arsenal. By the time he left Southampton in the summer of 1981, Charlie had only played 44 league games for them.

Charlie played a couple of games for Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest on loan, Charlie then went to Hong Kong to play for Bulova. He also had a couple of loan spells earlier on in his career, when he was at Derby County, Playing for St George’s in Sydney, Australia and in America playing for Minnesota Kicks. He finished up playing twice for Bournemouth and then returned to play for Derby County to help them avoid the drop. Then that was it. Charlie’s career as a top class player was over at 30 years of age. The injuries had ended his playing days prematurely.

A compilation of Charlie’s goals

Charlie made 179 appearances for Arsenal and scored 49 goals. He kicked against authority, he was rebellious, he could be impetuous, he was impulsive, he was volatile on the pitch. The opposition knew he had a short fuse and played it on. But if Charlie had the right coach or manager such as Don Howe or Dave Mackay and he was fully fit and on song there was no finer sight in football. It was foolhardy to let a player like that walk out the club at 25 years old. He should have played at Arsenal for ten years and played many more times with Liam Brady, they’d have been sensational together.

Charlie now does the Legends tours at the Emirates and I attended one with Charlie in November. He was the perfect host with a lovely line of patter. He couldn’t do enough for you. Photos, autographs and questions to him about his playing days, none of that was a problem to him. What came across from him is his deep love of Arsenal Football Club and it’s great that he’s ended up back where he belongs. He is part of the fabric of the club. They even have a lock of his hair in a time capsule at the Emirates. Charlie Charlie Charlie Charlie born is the king of Highbury.

Yours truly with Charlie George

Me with one of my favourite Arsenal legends of all time

As always thanks for reading, there’ll be another Highbury Hero coming your way next week.

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4 Responses to The original King of Highbury – From North Bank to North Bank’s Darling

  1. Michael Goldberg January 17, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    Along with Brady the best natural player before the modern era. His departure was a disaster to rival those of Stapleton and Brady. I remember going to WHL to see him in a youth game along with a number of others from the North Bank. A superb iconic player.

  2. Stephen Donovan January 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

    Last year he phoned my mate Martin Toomey to wish him well..Martin was in The Royal Marsden..It made Martins day..A week befote Liam Brady visited him..Charlie wasnt well himselfvat the time so couldnt get over to see Martin..Those 2 plus a few other players “oldskool” players made Martins ladt few days memorable.. Legends.

  3. Jimmy Balantyne October 17, 2018 at 6:25 pm #

    Absolutely fantastic article. I recall all the games you detail and this was a real pleasure to read. Charlie George was an exceptional footballer and your piece did him justice. Bravo.

  4. Paul April 20, 2019 at 11:27 am #

    Charlie was one of my heroes when I was growing up on Avenell road,Highbury,what a place to grow up!.We used to play football on Avenell road using the main green gates to the Clockend as a goal-these are the big green gates right next to the Gunners shop,they led to the Clockend and the indoor 5 a side pitch.
    Almost every day Arsenal players would arrive in their Ford Cortinas and Anglias and we’d see them all,many came on foot and they’d stop and chat and have a kick about with us or a little boxing spar ! (Peter Storey usually!).
    One day we clocked Charlie walking up the road towards us just at the moment my mum was coming out of the house to go and do some shopping,we were all awestruck as Charlie got closer and were about to engage him in conversation when he saw my mum and walked over to chat to her !,she never told any of us that she knew him !,I was so proud and could not believe it,there they were conversing in Greek (My mums Greek) like old friends.Turns out that Charlies mum or Dad(can’t remember which) were old pals from the same town in their old country Cyprus !.Charlie always had time for us after that and would have a kick about with us on the street.
    Johnny Hoy lived just down the road too,I didn’t know that at the time,as did Sammy Nelson and later on Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady were living on Conewood street,lodging in Mrs O’Briens house-she was the mother of the Arsenal player O’Brien,my pal Mick lived right next door to them and we’d chat to them over the garden fence,this was when they both first came over from Ireland in about 1975.
    Great days.

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