The Hero Who Strode From Gillespie To Anfield Road

All aboard the time machine. This week’s trip down memory lane takes us back to the start of the seventies to revisit a Highbury Hero who went on to re-invent himself as one of the most decorated midfielders of all time. But Gunners fans of a certain age will remember him as one half of an awesome twosome powerhouse strike force for The Arsenal. He’s one of the bravest centre forwards ever to play for us it’s Ray Kennedy.

Ray’s main attributes were his power in the air or on the ground. Ray also had a great touch for a big man, controlling and laying the ball off neatly with his left foot. His ability to strike a ball on his left foot at maximum velocity, with minimal back-lift was another great asset. Strong as an Ox, He was superb at holding the ball up with his back to goal and bringing others into the game. Ray was so strong it was difficult for defenders to shift him. He’d run himself into the ground for the side.

Ray closes in on Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti

This is what Arsenal’s inspirational captain Frank McLintock said about Ray Kennedy. “When Ray went to Liverpool and was turned into a great midfielder by Bob Paisley, some pundits claimed that he’d found his true position, as if he’d been a makeshift striker for us. It was utter crap”.

“He was an exceptionally good centre forward, he was pitiless in the air, had a powerful shot with a short back-lift, would run his legs to stumps before he gave up and had such strength that defenders used to bash him all match long while he barely batted an eyelid. ‘Bloody concrete legs’, I used to say to him. He was always chunky but later, if Bertie had stopped him snaffling crisps, takeaways, Coca Cola and lager, he wouldn’t have ballooned, got stuck on the transfer list and a wonderful centre forward Ray Kennedy would have remained”.

Ray poses for the camera

It’s impossible not to talk about Ray Kennedy without talking about the wonderful partnership and understanding Ray had with the other half of Arsenal’s Double strike force John Radford. This is what Frank said about the pair of them.

“I wouldn’t have swapped Ray and Raddy for any other partnership in the division. If I was ever in trouble I knew I could put my right foot through the ball and the two of them, thanks to hours of extra afternoon sessions with Don Howe, would deal with it in textbook fashion – one would fight for the ball, the other would be ‘on his bike’ to create space or position himself to pounce on the knock-through. Both of them could face up, back to goal, and collect the ball, something which takes great courage to maintain throughout a season when fourteen-stone centre halves would launch all their bulk into a tackle targeted at your Achilles’ tendon”.

“They made such intelligent runs too, zigzagging all over the place. Defenders hate that, as you have to keep stamping all your weight from one foot to another, and it scrambles your brain since you focus solely on the player you’re marking and lose perspective. Furthermore, the two of them had worked so hard at coming short and losing the marker – who would stick to his zone – that I could play it short or, if their man had shadowed them, I could hit it long and they would spin him and sprint into the vacant gap”.

“They got so good at it that they could bluff and double bluff, changing direction in a split second, moving as if they were going to spin and drive forward and then come short. We worked on this so often in training that I could read their body language and interpret what they wanted me to do, so, even if I had my head down, I could guess their next move by how their feet were placed”.

Ray and Raddy a deadly combination

Ray was born on 25th July 1951, in the North East at a village called Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. He was at Port Vale when Stanley Matthews was the manager and at sixteen was told by Matthews “He was too slow to be a footballer” and when the club released him he was told by the club “You will never make a pro as long as you have got a hole in your arse!”. Which has to be right up there in the echelon of stupid comments alongside Dick Rowe’s of Decca Records saying to Brian Epstein when rejecting The Beatles “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein”.

Ray went home to the North East and got a job working in a sweet factory and was spotted by an Arsenal scout playing for amateur side New Hartley Juniors. The scout had gone to watch Ray’s strike partner, but it was Ray who impressed him, and Ray signed as an apprentice for Arsenal in May 1968, before signing a professional contract in November 1968.

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Ray made his debut in the 1969-70 against Glentoren away in the Fairs Cup on 29th September 1969, when he came on as a substitute to replace the man he was to form such a formidable partnership with John Radford. He made his league debut coming on as a substitute for Bob McNab, up at Roker Park against Sunderland. His first goal for The Arsenal came in the return league fixture against Sunderland, at Highbury in a 3-0 win on 28th February 1970.

With 13 minutes left Arsenal were 3-0 down at Anderlecht in the first leg of the Fairs Cup Final and with a last throw of the dice they turned to 18 year old Ray Kennedy, with less than a handful of appearances to his name to come on to replace Charlie George and somehow do something to get us back in the tie. With barely five minutes left Geordie Armstrong sent over one of his glorious pin-point crosses. There was Ray Kennedy getting his head to it, to squeeze the ball past the Belgium goalkeeper and into the back of the net, to give Arsenal the precious away goal, which was a lifeline to take into the second leg at Highbury That goal was the first of many vitally important goals for the club and though Ray took no part in the second leg it was his goal which gave Arsenal the platform to win their first silverware for 17 years, which was the springboard to the Double the following season.

In 1970-71 fate played a big part in Ray’s progression to being a first team regular, when Charlie George suffered a broken ankle up at Goodison Park in the first game of the season. Ray came in and played as Charlie’s replacement and never looked back. But when he first came into the side he lacked a little self esteem and confidence, even though he was playing brilliantly, when people praised him he’d he say “But I’ll be out again when Charlie’s fit”. Ray stayed in even when Charlie returned. In fact Ray played in every game that season apart from that opening game at Everton.

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In September Ray was in the thick of the infamous brawl outside a restaurant in Rome between the Arsenal and Lazio teams. There was bad blood between the sides throughout the match and the animosity continued at the after match meal that was laid on for the two sides. Ray Kennedy and Sammy Nelson went outside the restaurant, where they met the Lazio centre half. Words were exchanged, then the Lazio player tried to knee Ray in the balls. Now Ray couldn’t be provoked on the pitch but as Frank McLintock says off the pitch Ray would fight his own granny and responded by giving the centre half a left hook.

Bob Wilson sounded the alarm and the whole Arsenal side flew out the restaurant and a mass brawl ensued. Peter Marinello was thrown across a car. Frank McLintock and Eddie Kelly our two lads from the Gorbals led the Gunners into battle. Poor old Bertie Mee was pinned against the Arsenal coach by his opposite number. The police turned up and drew their guns and Frank was just about give one of the Italians a final right hander when John Roberts put his arms round Frank’s neck and dragged him onto the coach to avoid further trouble with the police. Frank said Garth, as John Roberts was nicknamed, had been fantastic in the punch up and laid out about three of them!

I remember one of the most memorable games that season was against Chelsea at a packed Highbury, where 62,087 fans saw Arsenal win 2-0, with Ray scoring both goals.

Ray scores a brace against Chelsea

Ray was also one of the Arsenal scorers in the 2-0 FA Cup Semi-Final replay against Stoke City, at Villa Park which helped us on our way to Wembley.

Ray scores against Stoke in the 1970-71 FA Cup Semi-Final Replay

Ray ended up top scorer with 26 goals. The most important one being the winner against Tottenham at White Hart Lane to clinch the Title. Again it was Geordie pinging in a perfect cross for Ray to head home powerfully past Pat Jennings, off the underside of the bar to send about 30,000 Arsenal fans at White Hart Lane into ecstasy including me! Ray was also part of the side which completed the Double beating Liverpool, at Wembley in the FA Cup Final 2-1 after extra time.

Ray’s header at White Hart Lane seals the Title for The Arsenal

Geordie and Ray celebrate winning the Title

The following season Arsenal failed to retain their League Title. But they did come close to retaining the FA Cup, narrowly losing 1-0 to old enemy Leeds United in the Final. Ray scored another vital goal getting Arsenal to Wembley netting the winner, in the 5th Round 2nd replay, against the soon to be League Champions, Brian Clough’s Derby County. Though Ray only came on as substitute for John Radford in the final against Leeds.

In 1972-73 Ray did the business again scoring the winner in the FA Cup 5th Round Replay at Highbury, against London rivals Chelsea, in front of 62,746. It was probably the longest queue I’ve ever stood in at Highbury to get in that night to see the game. Ray loved a goal against Chelsea. I think he scored nine times against them in six matches. Unfortunately we got knocked out the FA Cup by Sunderland in the Semi-Final 2-1, falling just one hurdle away from going to Wembley three seasons in a row. We also narrowly missed out on the Title, finishing second, just three points behind the Champions Liverpool. But it wasn’t a good season for Ray and he scored just nine goals. As Frank McLintock stated earlier Ray was eating and drinking far too much rubbish and his weight rose to over 14 stone.

Ray scores the winner to send Arsenal through to the FA Cup Semi-Final in 1972-73

In 1973-74 Arsenal finished tenth in the table, twenty points behind the Champions Leeds United. Ray had a lean spell and scored just thirteen times that campaign. But he did play in every game and finished the season in fine form, netting five goals in the last six games. Unfortunately it was too little too late as far as Bertie Mee was concerned and he’d already decided to move Ray on and replace him with Brian Kidd. That proved to be a disastrous decision by Bertie. One of many during the later years of his reign.

Ray’s last goal for Arsenal came away to Coventry City at Highfield Road, in a 3-3 draw on 27th April 1974 and his last appearance in an Arsenal shirt was three days later in the last game of the season, a 1-1 draw with QPR at Highbury. Liam Brady came on as a substitute to score our goal and it was also Bob Wilson’s last game before retiring. I think John Radford spoke for all of us about Ray when he said “I couldn’t believe it when he left and felt it was a great shame to have broken up our partnership which had wobbled slightly but which I was sure would come together again with a little time”.

Ray is Shanks last signing

Liverpool paid a club record fee of £200,000 to sign Ray in July 1974. It was Bill Shankly’s last act as Liverpool manager before resigning from the job. Bob Paisley showed what a shrewd judge of a footballer he was when he converted Ray to a midfielder, where he went on to win 10 trophies in eight years with Liverpool.

This is what Bob Paisley said about Ray in his autobiography “Ray’s contribution to Liverpool’s achievements was enormous and his consistency remarkable. So much so, in fact, that on the rare occasions he missed a match his absence was felt deeply simply because he was a midfield power house with tremendous vision and knowledge of the game. In my view he was one of Liverpool’s greatest players and probably the most underrated”.

Ray in the all red of Liverpool

Ray also won seventeen England caps while with Liverpool and scored three goals. As is so often the case with Arsenal players Ray didn’t get a look in with the full England side while he was with The Arsenal, but did win six England Under-23 caps.

Ray on England duty

He moved to Swansea for £160,000 in January 1982, before joining Hartlepool United in November 1983. By then Parkinson’s Disease was beginning to take an affect on him, although it wasn’t diagnosed till November 1984. He had brief stints as player-manager with Cypriot outfit Pezoporikos and in the Northern League with Ashington before calling it a day.

Ray playing for the Swans

Ray Kennedy played 212 games for Arsenal scoring 71 goals. He did make one final Highbury appearance when he came onto the pitch to wave to the Highbury crowd one last time, before his benefit game of Arsenal v Liverpool, on 27th April 1991. His old team mates Geordie Armstrong and Jon Sammels turned out for The Arsenal, while Grahame Souness played for Liverpool.

The programme from Ray’s benefit match at Highbury

Sadly Ray has suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for many years now. Even in his twenties there were early signs, as sometimes he’d struggle doing his shirts buttons up. These days Ray has to be under constant supervision. But he’s left the Arsenal and Liverpool fans with some brilliant memories of the wonderful deeds he performed for both clubs.

A nice compilation of some of Ray’s goals for The Arsenal

Special thanks to Martin Wengrow for his input. As always thanks for reading Highbury Hero. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and there’ll be another one along shortly.

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