By Tony Attwood
A past manager might be hated, loathed and detested in his day, but the chances are he will get a fulsome round of applause upon his passing. And I know that, whenever called upon so to do, I have tried to show respect for those who have gone before. Thus I have nothing against the round of applause for Terry Neill, who died at the age of 80, that was heard at the Arsenal stadium today.
But somehow, somewhere, should we not also note that actually, he wasn’t one of our best managers by any measure and the seven and a half years he had as manager took us nowhere in particular.
Neill returned to Arsenal as manager at the age of 34 in 1976. In the year before he took over, Arsenal came 17th in the league, following the horrible, season-on-season decline in the club under the management of Bertie Mee. On 16 December 1983, the day Neill was sacked, Arsenal were 16th and fans were in revolt. The last league home crowd under Neill was 17,384 and Arsenal were haemorrhaging money.
True in the earlier years he had more success, taking us to season endings in positions between 3rd and 10th, and he won one major trophy – the FA Cup.
And yes he took us to two other FA Cup finals and the Cup Winners Cup final, but we lost all of those.
So I really am not saying that we should not pay proper respects to the departed, but it seems to me there is a dividing line somewhere which is being blurred.
On the day Terry Neill was sacked Arsenal were 16th in the League. Arsenal had just won two of their last eight games. The last four games were all defeats including a 1-2 home defeat against Walsall in the League Cup in which Arsenal put out their first team. It rather diminished the value of the victory away to Tottenham in the previous round of the same competition.
So I guess I am saying, in death we remember the good and set aside the bad, and maybe that is right, especially as those who sacked Terry Neill have also long since gone. But then, if that is the case, should we really be so angry with those who don’t quite live up to our expectations, when they are still alive, as many fans seem to be today.
In his final season at Arsenal, which lasted just 17 games, Terry Neill’s record was won seven, drawn nil, lost ten. That was considerably worse than Arsene Wenger achieved in his last season in which the media and some fans combined to hound him out of the club. That season the club won 19, drew six and lost 13.
So Wenger was hounded out by “fans” who felt he was damaging the club and not delivering what was their due. Were any of those “fans” applauding today in the memory of Terry Neill? I suspect there were some – and if so I wonder if they pondered that point.
Clubs’ fortune rise and fall and Arsenal are unique for their longevity in the top division. Alongside us in the season when Neill was sacked were Coventry City, (fourth at the moment Neill was forced out), Queens Park Rangers (fifth), Luton Town (seventh), West Bromwich Albion, Ipswich Town, Sunderland, Birmingham, Notts County (now in the fifth tier of English football) and Stoke City.
Thus clubs rise and fall, even Arsenal, which since 1919 have never fallen down a division, And yes we should acknowledge of course that Terry Neill as a player and a manager was part of that longevity. But let us also not forget that the media railed against him, supported as ever by a fair number of Arsenal fans who wanted him removed from the club as quickly as possible. Let us not pretend it was all sweetness and light – for if we do, how do we ever learn the lessons of history?
He gave us the one trophy the club won in a 15 year spell, and that we should celebrate, just as we should celebrate the lives of many, but some balance is needed somewhere.
But even if you profoundly disagree by my thoughts, let together also remember that on the day that Arsenal supporters applauded the life of Terry Neill, The Guardian ran this line: “Gabriel Jesus seems a more natural fit for Mikel Arteta’s plans at Arsenal than Alexandre Lacazette ever did, even if doubts remain about his finishing.”
It’s a funny old world.