Big Time Charlie
As the series of Arsenal's pioneers moves apace into the seventies, there is one character that simply cannot be ignored. He would arrive into the first team very fittingly in 1969, as Woodstock and a tragic incident at a Rolling Stones gig, (where Hell's Angels had been hired for security and a crush killed many Stones' fans) had bought the curtain down on the 60s age of innocence. The quickfire deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix that year had curtailed the insularity of a seemingly consequence free environment. Illusions were being shattered, the flower children were experiencing comedown. Arsenal had been utterly useless for the best part of fifteen years. Then along came Charlie.
Frederick Charles George was born in Holloway in Islington in October 1950. He grew up supporting his local club Arsenal, who he followed home and away. The young George attended Holloway School, where his obvious footballing talent earned him a place in the Islington Schoolboys side, before Arsenal snapped him up into their academy in 1966. George was briefly taught at Holloway by future team mate Bob Wilson. Wilson attests that the cocksure George refused to refer to Wilson as 'sir' or 'mister', preferring to greet him with a breezy 'awight Bob?' George eventually began training with the first team where he immediately impressed with his fearless show of skill and poise. Team mate and captain Frank McLintock nostalgically recalls that the teenager had no problem calling senior professionals 'wankers' in the name of training ground banter. The established pros took to him instantly.
Bertie Mee and Don Howe decided that George was ready for the first team and he made his debut in August 1969 at Goodison Park at the age of 18. His virtuoso attacking style bought some much needed flair and invigoration to a side that was lacking in panache. George became a first team regular, playing 39 games. He had a starring role as Arsenal removed their seventeen year trophy albatross by winning the Fairs Cup. George scored a crucial goal against Dinamo Bacau in the Quarter Final and was lauded by the great Johan Cruyff himself for his starring role in the 3-0 destruction of Ajax Amsterdam at Highbury in the Semi Finals. George cemented his growing stature in the side by playing both legs of the Final against Anderlecht. But it wasn't just his silky skills that earned him cult status on the North Bank. George played the game with a swagger and a sneer, often poker faced, his en mode neat mod haircut and adolescence following his hometown club make him the most venerated footballer in the club's history. During the summer of 1970, George began to grow his hair so that it lapped his collar, the North Bank followed in their idolatory. However, George is always keen to dismiss his status as a 70s Highbury style icon, he was merely following the style made famous at the time by Syd Barrett and Robert Plant. In typically brash fashion, George says today, 'I played football with me 'ead, not me 'air.'
However reluctant, George unwittingly walked into an age where television was just beginning to become involved with the game. Colour TV was a relatively new invention, the expert panel had been invented in the coverage of the 1970 World Cup and celebrity became an increasing influence in football coverage thanks to playboys such as George Best. Charlie was an effervescent and infectious character, who was ghenuflecting the fantasies of those that paid to watch him. However, George was not always comfortable with that sort of elucidatory spotlight, he would often be violently ill before games. As well as dismissing his status as a trend setter, George also did not fit the profile of the playboy footballer he was supposed to represent. Having married his childhood sweetheart at the age of 19, George was no lothario. After the 1971 title win at White Hart Lane, as his teammates piled into a Wood Green boozer, George went home to bed. But often his impulsive attitude would land him in trouble. His mythical legend looms larger than the facts suggest. George often eschewed the advances of lucrative commercial opportunities, remarking, 'I'm a bloody footballer, not a piece of meat.' His rare excursions into commercial frolicking were often unspectacular and left Charlie cold and uncomfortable. George could not even fit the mould of a misfit.
On the first day of the 1970-71 season, George broke his ankle scoring an equaliser at Goodison Park and would sit out until December. Ray Kennedy moved upfront in George's absence and Arsenal stayed in the frame for the title race. But as pitches began to get heavier and legs grew weary, George's return gave the Gunners a much needed injection of genius. Mee gave him a free role, roving deep from midfield and being encouraged to let fly with his venomous shooting. George scored five league goals in 17 games and grabbed goals in the 4th Round, 5th Round (where he single handedly destroyed Manchester City at Maine Road) and the Quarter Final of the F.A. Cup. It would elevate him towards his finest hour. However, signs of future troubles were being foreshadowed in the heat of the battle field. George could mix it with the 70s bully boys. In April 1971, sick of being kicked by Newcastle's Bobby Moncur, George lifted Moncur off the ground by his throat and warned him not to leave his foot in again. George would tellingly score the only goal of the game minutes later. In May 1971, in a tense title clash at Elland Road, Arsenal players protested long and hard about Jack Charlton's match winning goal. But as McLintock and Storey surrounded the referee, George took the ball and sent it into orbit in the Elland Road terraces. The constant charge with which George played was recognised by his teammates. His captain McLintock now claims he used to lie to Charlie prior to games, telling the youngster that the opposition manager didn't rate him.
George's finest hour arrived inthe 1971 Cup Final. With the league secure, Arsenal had the chance to write themselves into history. George was largely a bystander in the epic 120 minute affair against Liverpool at Wembley. Howe decided to move George upfront in extra time to keep him out of the way. However, George ignored the instruction and on 111 minutes dropped deep to collect the ball on the edge of the area and smashed an unstoppable shot past Clemence. George had won the Cup and sealed the 'Double' for his team, he had achieved every boys dream. His celebration is iconoclastically etched into Arsenal folklore, moon faced, George lay on his back on the boggy Wembley turf, his yellow shirt soaked with perspiration.
However, inevitably the star that burns twice as bright burns hslf as long. Having scored a winning goal for his local team in an F.A. Cup Final and won the Double at the age of 21, George experienced something of an anti climax thereafter. The 1971-72 season would see him in more trouble. He was twice at the centre of controversy, firstly when he headbutted media darling Kevin Keegan. Due to his pop star status and long flowing locks, he was considered fair game for opposition supporters, who would gamely mock the meat they fed on. At a notorious game at Derby's Baseball Ground, Arsenal were 2-0 behind and George was being raucously informed by the East Midlands punters that he walked like a woman and wore a bra. George scored twice to bring the game level and he chose to celebrate by running the length of the pitch, index and middle finger defiantly erect in the face of the braying Derby support. Manager Bertie Mee, a stern disciplinarian, became disenchanted with George and Charlie- hardly a shrinking violet- let it be known that the feeling was mutual. Arsenal lost the 1972 Cup Final to Leeds and George punched Leeds' Alan Clarke in the kidneys. His star was fading.
George, along with Eddie Kelly and Ray Kennedy, complained to the board that, as Youth Team graduates, they were not being rewarded financially for their loyalty whilst new signings such as Alan Ball were walking into bigger wage packets. The rift between George and the club was becoming untennable as he lost his form, scoring only 5 goals in the 1973-74 season. He was dropped the following year and placed on the transfer list. Even today, Charlie candidly admits he was all set to move to Tottenham, shrugging that he would have dealt with any flack forthcoming from his worshippers. But Derby and Dave Mackay bought him for £100,000, well under his market value, in July 1975. Controversy would continue to stalk him. A car crash in his early Derby career left him with a smashed cheekbone. An accidental collision with ex team mate and friend Ray Kennedy destroyed his knee cartilage. Despite his mercurial talent, George was largely ignored by England, much like fellow Englishmen who had the gall to be entertainers, such as Hudson, Bowles, Marsh and later Le Tissier. He would be given his first cap in September 1976 in a friendly against Eire, where he was bafflingly deployed on the left wing. Don Revie hauled the ineffective George off after an hour and gently enquired whether George would like to sit on the bench or go for a bath, 'Fuck you!' came the ernest reply. George would never be capped again. In 1978 he was offered an olive branch by Ron Greenwood in the shape of an England 'B' call up. George declined. And not necessarily politely. George would also be fined £440 and charged with assault in 1979 when at Southampton. A pitchside photographer held the ball a little too long as George went to take a throw in. The photographer was rewarded with some of the George treatment.
Never one for the beaten track, George would have short spells in the U.S, Hong Kong and Scotland before retiring in 1981 because of persistent knee problems. Even retirement offered him no peace as he lost a finger in a domestic accident involving his lawnmower! George was Highbury's favourite son, it is often remarked that he jumped over the North Bank perimeter fencing and onto the pitch. He played with the fire and passion of a supporter, but with the style and the swagger of of a Keith Richards guitar lick. His career was often controversial, but controversy does not often follow the bland. George was something of a renegade, and the supporters loved him and hated him for it. In an age when fashion was just beginning to matter on the urban catwalk of the football terrace, George bridged that gap and bought the wallflower culture onto the pitch. Arsenal's 71 Double side were largely accrued from the academy. Pat Rice's mother still runs a newsagent in N5, Radford, Kennedy and Storey had the club running in their blood, but George ran through the blood of the club. He was one of us. Nowadays, he conducts stadium tours, I can personally vouch for his abilities as a no nonsense raconteur. I can also vouch for the fact that he's still one of us.LD.
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