Arsenal History: Tribute to Terry Neill – Our 1979 FA Cup winning manager

Terry Neill-1979 FA Cup winning manager

In 1942 one of Arsenals standout captains and managers in history was born, his name is Terry Neill.

Whilst living in Belfast Neill started off as a youngster at Bangor, before leaving in December 1959 for Arsenal. He played in the reserve team for only a year before impressively making it into the first team in December of 1960 versus Sheffield Wednesday having just become an adult aged 18. Originally he featured here and there at the turn of the 1960s where in one instance he was worshipped as The Gunners youngest skipper when 20 years old.

Neill made a name for him whilst at centre back and wing half in the 1964/65 season in 29 league matches. After Billy Wright left Arsenal as manager in 1966 paving way for Bertie Mee, Neill retained his spot in the team where during the mid 60s he featured in 40 games for three years on the trot. Neill played in the 1968 League Cup Final which Arsenal narrowly lost 1-0 to Leeds United in and unfortunately didn’t participate in the 1969/70 Inter-Cities Fair Cup victory against RSC Anderlecht 4-3 over two final legs, despite appearing on five occasions previously that season in the competition.

Whilst adjusting to the quick tempo of football at Highbury Neill started to earn frequent call ups for Northern Ireland, being chosen for the first time round in 1961. Within seven years he was his Nations captain, but an ill timed period of jaundice (an abdomen and liver related illness causing yellow/green pigment of the skin) limited him being called up for his country throughout the 1968/69 campaign which also saw him miss out of Arsenals 1969 League Cup defeat. Struggling to secure his position in the starting line-up afterwards Neill only made 25 games throughout the 1969/70 season despite netting on ten of those occasions.

Despite being 28, Neil was brought by Hull City in July 1970 as player coach, securing the accolade of one of the youngest managers in football folklore before then, not so long afterwards occupying the same role for Northern Ireland. Neill set aside his boots in 1973 after owning 59 caps for his country, overriding Danny Blacnhflower’s tally however within a matter of years later Arsenal goalkeeper Pat Jennings would surpass Neill’s record.

Fast track a year and Neill had departed Hull City to take over the reins at Arsenal’s arch rivals Tottenham. He was in charge of arguably the least successful side of North London for two seasons just about avoiding the drop in his first campaign.

After upgrading Tottenham’s luck with ninth spot in his second season, Neil was grabbed by Arsenal once again to take over from Bertie Mee in July 1976, where by being only 34 years old to this day he is the youngest Arsenal manager in history. He quickly brought in Malcolm Macdonald and Pat Jennings who would add to the bustling heroics of Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton who were enjoying their best performances at The Gunner since the 1971 double winning year. Together Neill and Arsenal would reach three consecutive FA Cup Finals from 1978-1980.

Arsenal suffered an unexpected defeat in 1978 to Ipswich Town 1-0 before finally tasting victory in the 1979 final against Manchester United. The game would go down to the wire with Alan Sunderland finding the winner in the final moments of the game as Arsenal brought the Cup back to Highbury after a spectacular 3-2 triumph. A year on and Arsenal struggled to retain the Cup losing again 1-0 but to West Ham United instead.

In 1979 an ambitious Neill came marginally close to pulling off some of the biggest transfers the world had seen! He tried bringing Diego Maradona as a promising youngster from Argentinos Juniors and move Glen Hoddle from Tottenham, but he later commented “I don’t think my brother would have ever spoke to me again if I had joined Arsenal.”

In 1980 Neill aimed to finally get his hands on a piece of European silverware after losing out on the 1970 Inter-Cities Fair Cup as an Arsenal player. By the end of the 1979/80 season The Gunners found themselves in the European Cup Winners Cup Final versus Valencia but unfortunately Arsenal were beaten on penalties in dramatic fashion.

By the end of the 1980/81 campaign Neill took Arsenal to third in the league, the closest the club had come to winning the league since a decade earlier. The following year The Gunners narrowly slipped off finishing fifth in the table.

A year later Neill ensured Arsenal reached the semi-finals of both 1982/83 League and FA Cup, Manchester United defeated them both times to deny any real chance of silverware.

During the summer of 1983 Neill signed Charlie Nicholas from Celtic who was renowned for grabbing 50 goals in all tournaments for Celtic throughout the 1982/83 campaign.  Nicholas soon became the highest paid footballer in Britain after his transfer before becoming a pivotal part of Arsenal’s team that decade.

After being handed an upgraded three year contract at the beginning of the 1983/84 campaign, Neill left The Gunners a week before Christmas in 1983. The sacking was apparently an action chairman Peter-Hill-Wood struggled over.  Afterwards Neill stepped down from football retiring after only 41 years of age.

In July 2022 Neill’s life came to an end aged 80 after nearly 40 years since finishing his career and will never be forgotten for helping Arsenal win the 1979 FA Cup in style.

Liam Harding

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