FRANK STAPLETON (1975-1981)
Frank Stapleton was one of the three outstanding Irish talents that came through the youth system and became massive stars for The Arsenal in the 1970’s. The other two being David O’Leary and Liam Brady. Cultured centre back David O’Leary stayed and played for the Gunners for 18 years and became our record appearance holder. Liam Brady with his wand of a left foot moved to Italy which at the time was the place to be for top footballers and they didn’t come much better than Chippy. Both O’Leary and Brady are Arsenal legends and are both adorn the outside walls of the Emirates stadium. However unlike the other two the third member of our Irish trio Frank Stapleton destroyed his legacy with the club the day he joined Manchester United.
I remember when Stapleton was first introduced into the first team in 1975 he was very raw and nowhere near the finished article. But he was a quick learner and got better and better. When Malcolm Macdonald signed for Arsenal Stapleton was the ideal foil for Supermac. Frank did most of the donkey work chasing everything down working like a Trojan while Supermac grabbed all the glory. But all the time Stapleton was gaining experience and by the time Macdonald had to retire through injury Frank had blossomed into a superb centre forward.
When Frank was paired with Alan Sunderland they became one of the best strike forces in English football their different attributes complimented each other perfectly. Frank was brilliant in the air so strong and combative with a tremendous work rate. Alan Sunderland was quick and so sharp in the box and he thrived on Stapleton feeding him with knock downs. Frank also had an almost telepathic understanding with Liam Brady invariably getting on the end of Brady’s amazing passes and crosses two of the most memorable examples of the Brady/Stapleton combination are the goal against Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup Final when Stapleton headed home a perfect Brady cross and a similar goal against Tottenham in the 5-0 demolition at White Hart Lane in December 1978.
When Stapleton left Arsenal in the summer of 1981 just a year after Brady left for Italy it didn’t go down well at all with the Arsenal fans in quite the same way that Brady’s transfer had. Although the Arsenal fans were devastated by the loss of Brady with me being one of them Liam was going to the best club in the best league in the world and was being paid wages that no English club could compete with. Also he wasn’t going to come back to Highbury at least once a season wearing the shirt of one of our most hated rivals like Stapleton was.
Stapleton was the first Arsenal player to be vilified and abused on his return with another club. He was called Judas and I remember the North Bank singing “Your just a greedy c*** Stapleton Stapleton”. Frank was the finest centre forward in the country and I think we should have got a lot more than £900,000 for a player of his class. Arsenal didn’t really replace him with a similar centre forward until we signed Alan Smith seven years later. The likes of Lee Chapman, Ray Hankin and John Hawley were very poor imitations of him and he left a massive hole in the team when he left us. I’m convinced that had Arsenal shown more ambition and made Brady the best paid player in the country he’s have stayed and that would have convinced Stapleton to stay as well.
ASHLEY COLE (1999-2006)
Brazilian left back Sylvinho seemed to be the long term replacement for Nigel Winterburn when Arsenal signed him in 1999. However it was youth product Ashley Cole a player who the Gunners came close to selling to Crystal Palace that became the Arsenal left back taking Syvinho’s place halfway through the Brazilian’s second season at the club and Cole made the position his own.
His final education in the art of defending was provided to him by Tony Adams and Cole went on to become one of the finest left backs of all time without a weakness in his game with a superb winning mentality. An integral part of the 2001-02 Double team and also a key member of the Invincibles side. It seemed that Cole was on his way to becoming a future Arsenal captain and earn himself legendary status as some of the other great Arsenal left backs such as Eddie Hapgood, Kenny Sansom and Nigel Winterburn but it all went sour between Cole and the Gunners
Arsenal allegedly offered Cole a contract of £60,000 a week then changed it to £55,000 a week. The reason being that it would cover the cost of his agent’s fees which Arsenal felt Cole should pay for and not Arsenal. That led to a disgruntled Cole saying he nearly crashed his car at such a derisory offer from Arsenal. This eventually led to Cole leaving the Gunners acrimoniously over £5,000 a week a petty sum in the grand scheme of Premier League wages.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho held a meeting with Cole in the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone despite telling the media he had no interest in signing Cole and claiming he was wasn’t tall enough to play for Chelsea!
Cole’s final two matches for The Arsenal were the last ever game at Highbury and the Champions League Final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.
After a long drawn out saga going right till the end of the 2006 summer transfer window Arsenal allowed Cole to join Chelsea in exchange for William Gallas and £5 million cash. The first of a few bad deals we’ve concluded with Chelsea. Cole won numerous trophies with Chelsea including the Champions League and played for them for 12 years. He also won 107 caps for England and was the only full back I’ve seen who could contain Cristiano Ronaldo one of the greatest players of all time in my opinion.
Instead of becoming an Arsenal legend he was jeered and abused by the Highbury faithful every time he returned with Chelsea. He got dogs abuse and to think maybe it could all have been avoided with that extra £5,000 a week.
CESC FABREGAS (2003-2011)
Arsenal swooped to take the 16 year old wonder kid from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy and his progression into the Arsenal first team was rapid such was his brilliant prodigious talent.
Amazing vision with a great range of passing Cesc made his debut in the League Cup against Rotherham at just 16 years old becoming the youngest player to play for Arsenal and later became the youngest player to score for the Gunners against Wolves in a later round of the competition. I’ll never forget him playing against Manchester United aged 17 in the Community Shield and running the game. That’s when the Arsenal fans started singing “He’s only 17 he’s better than Roy Keene”. He was adored by the Arsenal fans and he in turn loved Arsenal. So much was his commitment to the club he signed an almost unheard of eight year contract.
There were many memorable moments in his Arsenal career. I remember him coming on as as a half fit substitute against Aston Villa at the Emirates when we were 1-0 down and destroyed them with two goals in 16 minutes winning the game for us before limping off six minutes from time job done. There was the goal he scored against Tottenham at the Emirates running half the length of the pitch before smashing the ball in the back of the net. Another memorable goal was the one in the San Siro against AC Milan to give us a 2-0 victory then there was the penalty he scored against Barcelona with a broken leg.
In the 2004-05 season after Arsenal were robbed by Manchester United after going 49 games undefeated he threw a slice of pizza in the face of Alex Ferguson and was part of the Arsenal side that won the FA Cup in 2005 beating Manchester United on penalties. This was to be his only trophy with Arsenal. After the departure of Patrick Vieira to Juventus Fabregas took over his number four shirt. Cesc was also in the Arsenal side in the Champions League Final in 2006 which the Gunners lost against Barcelona.
By the 2007-08 season Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann had all left Arsenal and Fabregas became the fulcrum of the side that should have won the title that season. In November 2008 he became Arenal captain. The more he enhanced his reputation the more his boyhood club Barcelona upped their campaign to lure him back to Spain.
Arsenal’s young side were always in the running for honours and came close many times but lacked the experience to get over the line and win the major trophies and Arsenal found it difficult to compete with the vast resources of first Chelsea then Manchester City. Barcelona tried to sign Fabregas in 2010 and we all remember the infamous photo of Pepe Reina forcing a Barcelona shirt on him after Spain celebrated winning the World Cup at which Cesc made the winning goal for Iniesta.
He stayed one more year and eventually left Arsenal in August 2011 acrimoniously after a protracted and aggressive Barcelona media campaign to acquire his services. Fabregas also angered many Arsenal fans when he posted pictures of himself on social media attending the Spanish Grand Prix instead of attending Arsenal’s last match of the season away at Fulham. He ended up leaving for a £30 million fee which could rise to £35 million with add-ons.
Fabregas fell out of favour at Barcelona after three years and he wanted to return to London and Arsenal in 2014. The Gunners had first option to sign him for £30 million but Arsene Wenger didn’t trigger the clause and Fabregas signed for Chelsea winning the Premier League and the League Cup in his first season at Stamford Bridge. He was a special player and even in the twilight of his career gave a masterclass recently when coming on as a half time substitute for Monaco who were 2-0 down against PSG. He changed the game and scored the winning penalty to win the game 3-2. Unfortunately many Arsenal fans will never forgive him for leaving us the way he did and therefore he will never be recognised as an Arsenal legend.
ROBIN VAN PERSIE (2004-2012)
The young Dutch forward signed for Arsenal for £2.75 million on a four year deal in May 2004 from Feyenoord as a 20 year old who was seen as the long term replacement for fellow Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp.
Like Bergkamp he had great technique and was a brilliant striker of the ball and a wonderful player to watch. Van Persie spend a lot of the time on the bench in his first two seasons starting in only 25 Premier League games in that time.
I remember him scoring two fine goals in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Blackburn Rovers in a 3-1 victory in 2005 and he also came on as substitute in the Final against Manchester United and scored in the penalty shootout to win his only trophy with Arsenal.
Van Persie scored many spectacular goals for us none more so than a superb volley away to Charlton Athletic in 2006-07. Other memorable goals were in the 5-2 comeback against Tottenham at the Emirates and the equaliser he scored at home to Barcelona in the famous 2-1 victory when Arshavin got the winning goal. The only problem with Van Persie was he was injury prone. After the departure of Thierry Henry to Barcelona in the summer of 2007 the goalscoring responsibility fell more heavily onto Van Persie and Adebayor. He was also in the Holland side that lost to Spain in the World Cup Final in 2010.
He captained us in the League Cup Final in 2011 against Birmingham City but got injured scoring our equaliser and had to be substituted in a game we went on to lose. After Cesc Fabregas left he took over as captain. In 2011-12 his last season with the club Van Persie was exceptional. He was injury free played a full season and scored 30 Premier League goals and 37 goals in total. He also won the PFA Player of the Year Award and the FWA Player of the Year as well. He was by then the best player in England by a country mile.
However all through that last season there was massive speculation about him leaving. He hadn’t signed a new contract and on 4th July 2012 released this statement.
“This is an update for the fans about my current situation. I have kept quiet all this time out of respect and loyalty for the club and as agreed with Mr. Gazidis and Mr. Wenger, but since there is so much speculation in the media, I think it is fair for you guys to know what’s really going on at the moment.
“As announced earlier this year I had a meeting with the Boss and Mr. Gazidis after the season. This was a meeting about the club’s future strategy and their policy. Financial terms or a contract have not been discussed, since that is not my priority at all.
“I personally have had a great season but my goal has been to win trophies with the team and to bring the club back to its glory days.
“Out of my huge respect for Mr. Wenger, the players and the fans I don’t want to go into any details, but unfortunately in this meeting it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward.
“I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I have decided not to extend my contract. You guys, the fans, have of course the right to disagree with my view and decision and I will always respect your opinions.
“I love the club and the fans, no matter what happens. I have grown up and became a man during my time with Arsenal FC. Everybody at the club and the fans have always supported me over the years and I have always given my all (and more) on and off the pitch.
“I am very proud of being part of this fantastic club for the last 8 years. As soon as Mr. Gazidis is back from his 2-week holiday in America further meetings will follow and I will update you if and when there are more developments.”
In August 2012 Arsenal sold him to Manchester United for £24 million. Virtually gift wrapping them the title. I and most other Arsenal fans were pissed off with him for leaving us and was fuming about his statement. The club had stuck by him in the seasons when he was injured a lot of the time and he became another player that destroyed his legacy with Arsenal becoming a hate figure who got plenty of abuse when he returned to the Emirates with Manchester United. He won the Premier League in his first season with them and carried on where he left off at The Arsenal scoring goals galore. He questioned the direction Arsenal were headed in and in hindsight you have to say he had a point. He didn’t have much time left in his career to win things. Like Cesc Fabregas he’d given eight years to us and only won one FA Cup in all that time. Arsenal had become a selling club losing the likes of Fabregas, Adebayor and Nasri without adequately replacing them.
These four tarnished Arsenal players Stapleton, Cole, Fabregas and Van Persie won 390 international caps between them. All four of them were magnificent players for Arsenal and would all have undoubtedly gone on to become Arsenal legends. But they all choose to leave the Gunners under a cloud and destroy their legacy at Arsenal. You’ll never see those four immortalised on the outside of the Emirates that’s the price they paid for leaving the way they did. We as fans find it difficult to understand why they left we want them to love the club as we do. However they are professional footballers and see things in a different way to us. They do in their own way love the club but not unconditionally as we do. But no doubt they’ll all look back at their time with The Arsenal with great affection for a special club.
Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?