Charlie George: Arsenal legend

Estimated reading time:10 minutes, 22 seconds

Everyone has a story. If you want to see Arsenal’s famous 1971 FA Cup goal scorer, Charlie George, at his best then book yourself on to his Legends Tour of the Emirates stadium. Interview by Nicola Baird

Arsenal '70s legend, Charlie George

Arsenal ’70s legend, Charlie George at the Emirates Stadium. (c) Islington Faces

Taking a Legends Tour of Arsenal is not cheap, but it’s a generous hour spent with a proper footballing hero who lets you ask anything. It’s perfect for Gunners fans, of all ages, as each is led by a special Arsenal hero – Perry Groves (1980s), Nigel Winterburn (1980s/90s), Lee Dixon (1990s/2000s), and Charlie George, the 1970s hero born in Holloway, who would surely bleed Arsenal if cut.

It's an Arsenal tradition to choose cut flowers in the away team's colours. These magnificent XX are on show on tour days. (c) islington faces

It’s an Arsenal tradition to choose cut flowers in the away team’s colours. These magnificent anthuriums are on show on tour days. (c) islington faces

All tours offer an enjoyable look at the pitch, the chic ‘30s style Diamond Club, adrenalin-charged players’ tunnel, trophies and state-of-the-art changing rooms. But on a Charlie George Legend tour you also get to meet The Man Himself, with his quick north London banter, and find out more about a playing career that started at Arsenal and took him to other teams – eg, Derby and Southampton – as well as seasons in the USA and Hong Kong.

It’s clear that Charlie is a big fan of the Emirates Stadium, calling it “fantastic”. He’s also a real admirer of manager Arsène Wenger.

NEVER MISS A NEW ISLINGTON FACES – follow Islington Faces by adding your email on the right panel. Interviews are published once a week.

Arsenal's Charlie George with Islington Faces' Nicola Baird at the Emirates on a Legends Tour. (c) Islington Faces

Arsenal’s Charlie George with Islington Faces’ Nicola Baird at the Emirates on a Legends Tour. (c) Islington Faces

Everyone’s there
During the tour Islington Faces enjoys, the 50-strong group has visitors from Australia, Hong Kong and Uganda. There are also French speakers and born and bred Islingtonians. Turns out that four men and a boy have joined this tour as a birthday treat, so it’s a nice touch when at the end of the Legends Tour Charlie gets these five to stand up and then solemnly wishes them, “a great day, great tour, great evening and a great life.”

It’s a catchphrase that in many ways suits his own career.

Charlie was born at home in Holloway, in 1950, three years after the flats at Hollins House, off Tufnell Park Road were completed. “My family come from Caledonian Road but I never met my grandparents. They were dead by the time I was born – I was a late baby, my mum had me when she was 40,” he says.

It was in Islington’s streets that his passion for football began – a fun way to be outside. “As a young lad you’d play football or cricket in the street. We’d chuck a couple of coats down in Tufnell Park Road and then play – cars would be flying by!”

Pies used to be a staple for '70s Arsenal players. You can still buy them but they are now the fans' choice not the footballers. There is a huge range of wittily named pies at Piebury Corner on Holloway Road. (c) Islington Faces

Pies used to be a staple for ’70s Arsenal players. You can still buy them but they are now the fans’ choice not the footballers. There is a huge range of wittily named pies at Piebury Corner on Holloway Road. (c) Islington Faces

Young fan
It was Charlie’s brother-in-law Joe who first took him to the Arsenal. “We’d be on the terraces at the Clock End. I’d stand on a milk crate, we were allowed to bring them in then. We’d have a cup of Bovril, and eat a pie or peanuts,” says Charlie. “The highlight of the day was the Metropolitan police band and that singing policeman – Constable Alex Morgan. He’s part of the history of Arsenal!”

Charlie will be 65 this October but it’s clear his love of the beautiful game is as intense as when Grafton Primary School teacher, Mr Heathfield, asked students to get a team together in 1961. “We played in a kit borrowed from the Boys’ Brigade,” he says. They won their first match at Coram Fields, against Hugh Myddleton, and soon Charlie was in the Islington Schoolboys league in a team with a reputation as hard to beat.

Charlie didn’t like school, reluctantly admitting that: “I went to Hugh Myddleton Secondary* after I was asked to leave Holloway.” There’s a lot on record about Charlie’s problem with authority, and he’s outspoken about not getting on with Arsenal manager Bertie Mee (1966-76). However he’s an entertaining and friendly host on his Legends tour, showing off the Emirates Stadium and finally answering any questions put to him in Arsenal’s impressive media suite. One of the first questions comes from seven-year-old Josh, and pretty soon the group’s unstoppable – mostly asking about Charlie George’s time at Arsenal.

Q: Have you ever scored a goal from miles away? (Josh, 7)
“Well not miles away. But 30 yards!”

Q: What’s your crowning achievement?
“As a young boy everyone wants to play at Wembley. It was a fantastic feeling scoring that goal [1971 FA Cup Final]. For the first 30 seconds it was better than making love.”

Q: If Arsenal has the finest training centre in Europe at London Colney with 143 acres, 10 pitches, indoor gym etc why don’t you win all the matches?
“I’m not playing…”

Charlie George Legends Tour. Emirates Stadium, Arsenal Football Club, London, 21/7/2014. Credit: Stuart MacFarlane / Arsenal Football Club.

Charlie George Legends Tour. Emirates Stadium, Arsenal Football Club, London, 21/7/2014. Credit: Stuart MacFarlane / Arsenal Football Club.

Charlie George chats to fans on the Legends Tour. Hundreds of people work for Arsenal - you can see a few busy maintaining the pitch at the Emirates Stadium. (c) Islington Faces

Charlie George chats to fans on the Legends Tour. Hundreds of people work for Arsenal – you can see a few busy maintaining the pitch at the Emirates Stadium. (c) Islington Faces

Joining Arsenal
Back when a scout spotted the young Charlie he was invited to join the youth side training Mondays and Thursdays at Arsenal’s training ground, London Colney, near St Albans. He even got paid.

“We’d come to Highbury and you’d be taken up in a bus. After training they’d bring you back home,” he says. At the time the training ground facilities were basic. Charlie explains there were only two tin baths, which had to be shared with 50 other muddy, sweaty blokes. He’s probably joking…

He certainly is joking when he quips that Arsenal’s infamous Time Capsule, buried when the Emirates Stadium was finished, was broken into recently so someone could steal the lock of Charlie’s own hair.

The busy Armoury shop where you can buy tickets and all sorts of fan memorabilia including named shirts.(c) Islington Faces

The busy Armoury shop where you can buy tickets for games, tours and all sorts of fan memorabilia including personalised shirts.(c) Islington Faces

Q: Favourite Arsenal team?
“I’ve been coming to Arsenal for 40 years. I think the Invincibles were amazing – unbeaten for 49 games (unbeaten throughout the 2003/04 season).”

Q: Footballing heroes?
“Dennis Bergkamp (120 goals) and Thierry Henry (228 goals) are the greatest players I’ve ever seen. There’s Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law (nothing to do with Arsenal!). David Herd was a great goal scorer.”

Q; Tell us a dressing room secret?
“Players get two new shirts a game. We had four a season!”

Q: What about food?
“I was in the team proper at 19. You’d drink in the local pubs – they always sold jellied eels and cockles outside. I don’t mind jellied eels occasionally. I’d jump in the bath with a cup of tea, pork pie and cigarette. In the ‘60s we’d eat steak and kidney pie with chips then apple pie and custard. It’s all different, now Rob the chef prepares chicken, pasta, fish and pizza for the players.”

Q: Where do you like going out in Islington?
“I’m quite down to earth. I rarely eat or drink in Islington. I don’t go out much.”

Q: Worst ground?
Leeds United was intimidating in the ‘60s.

Q: Where do you watch games?
At Arsenal or indoors.

Role model
It’s been argued that the young Charlie George’s many hair styles led to fans wanting to look like their heroes – perhaps forgetting the influence of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Whether it’s right or not, Charlie was easily recognisable on the pitch by his long hair, cut in Islington. “I used to have a skin head when I first started,” he says. “I went to the local barber in Brecknock Road. Later on a guy (Philip) used to come to my home – he’d cut my wife’s hair and then my hair.”

The Armoury at Arsenal. (c) Islington Faces

The Armoury at Arsenal. (c) Islington Faces

Millionaire players
However famous Charlie was in the ‘70s, footballers were paid peanuts. Under Arsenal is a huge car park which Charlie says on match day will have 750-800 cars including the players’ fancy vehicles. Back in the day Charlie used public transport to get home. “I was born five minutes away in Holloway, so after a game I walked up to Finsbury Park and got the bus home. It was OK when we’d had a good game. But not if it was bad! I’d have to hide behind a big newspaper,” he jokes.

Charlie talks abut how his take home weekly pay as an apprentice professional for Arsenal in 1966 was 4 pounds 7 shillings and 6 pence. Players got a “signing fee of £30. We thought it was a fortune,” he says, well aware that footballers now make thousands a week a week – the sort of money that during Charlie’s era the squad (17 players) made in a whole year. But there’s no bitterness: “Anyone who earns money, good luck to them,” he says. “If you’re a dad, a granddad or a godparent get your children out in the fresh air. Get them fit and healthy. An average footballer will be a millionaire in two years. So when I die I want to come back as an ‘average footballer’.” Cue wicked laugh before Charlie adds that a friend said he’d already been that…

Not true of course. We’ve all seen the replays of his famous Wembley goal.

These days you may spot Charlie on his walk to work, but probably not elsewhere in the borough. That’s because Charlie George spends a huge amount of time at the Emirates Stadium – doing his excellent Legend tours, working as a match day host and watching football. If you get the opportunity to join a Legends Tour with Charlie, take it. It’s great. Just like that goal.

Charlie George signing autographs during his excellent Arsenal Legends tour. (c) Islington Faces

Charlie George signing autographs for fans during his excellent Arsenal Legends tour in the super chic Diamond Club at Emirates Stadium. (c) Islington Faces

7 Treats for the Arsenal fan in your life

  1. A Legends tour around the Emirates Stadium https://bookings.arsenal.com/stadiumtours/booking/default.htm
  2. Watch the black and white whodunnit, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, 1939, which features Manager George Allison (1934-1947) and has great shots of Highbury when pitches were more mud than grass.20160822_143934
  3. A trip to the Arsenal Museum
  4. Seeing a game live
  5. A pre match drink before home games at proper Arsenal pubs – The Auld Triangle, The Gunners, The Arsenal Tavern, The Blackstock, The Highbury Barn are just a few of the local football pubs. Prefer brunch? Try the wittily name, The Library, Drayton Park.
  6. Feast your eyes at The Armoury – Arsenal’s busy shop on the Holloway Road side of the Emirates Stadium.
  7. Arsenal books – try Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and Highbury: the story of Arsenal in N5 by Jon Spurling

NOTES*
Hugh Myddleton – the man who 400+ years ago funded the New River bringing water from Hertfordshire to Islington – used to have two schools named after him in EC1. Only the primary, at Myddleton Street, is still operating. However Hugh Myddleton Secondary’s famous former students include Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and of course Charlie George. Facebook link here.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola