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Everyone has a story. If you want to see Arsenalâs 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
Taking a Legends Tour of Arsenal is not cheap, but itâs a generous hour spent with a proper footballing hero who lets you ask anything. Itâs 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.
All tours offer an enjoyable look at the pitch, the chic â30s style Diamond Club, adrenalin-charged playersâ 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 â eg, Derby and Southampton â as well as seasons in the USA and Hong Kong.
Itâs clear that Charlie is a big fan of the Emirates Stadium, calling it âfantasticâ. Heâs also a real admirer of manager ArsĂ¨ne Wenger.
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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 itâs a nice touch when at the end of the Legends Tour Charlie gets these five to stand up and then solemnly wishes them, âa great day, great tour, great evening and a great life.â
Itâs 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. âMy family come from Caledonian Road but I never met my grandparents. They were dead by the time I was born â I was a late baby, my mum had me when she was 40,â he says.
It was in Islingtonâs streets that his passion for football began â a fun way to be outside. âAs a young lad youâd play football or cricket in the street. Weâd chuck a couple of coats down in Tufnell Park Road and then play â cars would be flying by!â
It was Charlieâs brother-in-law Joe who first took him to the Arsenal. âWeâd be on the terraces at the Clock End. Iâd stand on a milk crate, we were allowed to bring them in then. Weâd have a cup of Bovril, and eat a pie or peanuts,â says Charlie. âThe highlight of the day was the Metropolitan police band and that singing policeman â Constable Alex Morgan. Heâs part of the history of Arsenal!â
Charlie will be 65 this October but itâs 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. âWe played in a kit borrowed from the Boysâ Brigade,â 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 didnât like school, reluctantly admitting that: âI went to Hugh Myddleton Secondary* after I was asked to leave Holloway.â Thereâs a lot on record about Charlieâs problem with authority, and heâs outspoken about not getting on with Arsenal manager Bertie Mee (1966-76). However heâs an entertaining and friendlyÂ host on his Legends tour, showing off the Emirates Stadium and finally answering any questions put to him in Arsenalâs impressive media suite. One of the first questions comes from seven-year-old Josh, and pretty soon the groupâs unstoppable â mostly askingÂ about Charlie George’s time at Arsenal.
Q: Have you ever scored a goal from miles away? (Josh, 7)
âWell not miles away. But 30 yards!â
Q: Whatâs your crowning achievement?
âAs 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.â
Q: If Arsenal has the finest training centre in Europe at London ColneyÂ with 143 acres, 10 pitches, indoor gym etc why donât you win all the matches?
âIâm not playingâŚâ
Back when a scout spotted the young Charlie he was invited to join the youth side training Mondays and Thursdays at Arsenalâs training ground, London Colney, near St Albans. He even got paid.
âWeâd come to Highbury and youâd be taken up in a bus. After training theyâd bring you back home,â 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. Heâs probably jokingâŚ
He certainly is joking when he quips that Arsenalâs infamous Time Capsule, buried when the Emirates Stadium was finished, was broken into recently so someone could steal the lock of Charlieâs own hair.
Q: Favourite Arsenal team?
âIâve been coming to Arsenal for 40 years. I think the Invincibles were amazing â unbeaten for 49 games (unbeaten throughout the 2003/04 season).â
Q: Footballing heroes?
âDennis Bergkamp (120 goals) and Thierry Henry (228 goals) are the greatest players Iâve ever seen. Thereâs Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law (nothing to do with Arsenal!). David Herd was a great goal scorer.â
Q; Tell us a dressing room secret?
âPlayers get two new shirts a game. We had four a season!â
Q: What about food?
âI was in the team proper at 19. Youâd drink in the local pubs â they always sold jellied eels and cockles outside. I donât mind jellied eels occasionally. Iâd jump in the bath with a cup of tea, pork pie and cigarette. In the â60s weâd eat steak and kidney pie with chips then apple pie and custard. Itâs all different, now Rob the chef prepares chicken, pasta, fish and pizza for the players.”
Q: Where do you like going out in Islington?
âIâm quite down to earth. I rarely eat or drink in Islington. I donât go out much.â
Q: Worst ground?
Leeds United was intimidating in the â60s.
Q: Where do you watch games?
At Arsenal or indoors.
Itâs been argued that the young Charlie Georgeâs many hair styles led to fans wanting to look like their heroes â perhaps forgetting the influence of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Whether itâs right or not, Charlie was easily recognisable on the pitch by his long hair, cut in Islington. âI used to have a skin head when I first started,â he says. âI went to the local barber in Brecknock Road. Later on a guy (Philip) used to come to my home â heâd cut my wifeâs hair and then my hair.â
However famous Charlie was in the â70s, footballers were paid peanuts. Under Arsenal is a huge car park which Charlie says on match day will have 750-800 cars including the playersâ fancy vehicles. Back in the day Charlie used public transport to get home. âI 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 weâd had a good game. But not if it was bad! Iâd have to hide behind a big newspaper,â 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 âsigning fee of ÂŁ30. We thought it was a fortune,â he says, well aware that footballers now make thousands a weekÂ a weekÂ – the sort of money that during Charlieâs era the squad (17 players) made inÂ a whole year. But thereâs no bitterness: âAnyone who earns money, good luck to them,â he says. âIf youâre 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 âaverage footballerâ.â Cue wicked laugh before Charlie adds that a friend said heâd already been thatâŚ
Not true of course. Weâve 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. Thatâs because Charlie George spends a huge amount of time at the Emirates Stadium â 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. Itâs great. Just like that goal.
7 Treats for the Arsenal fan in your life
- A Legends tour around the Emirates Stadium https://bookings.arsenal.com/stadiumtours/booking/default.htm
- 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.
- A trip to the Arsenal Museum
- Seeing a game live
- 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.
- Feast your eyes at The Armoury â Arsenalâs busy shop on the Holloway Road side of the Emirates Stadium.
- Arsenal books – try Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby andÂ Highbury: the story of Arsenal in N5 by Jon Spurling
Hugh Myddleton â the man who 400+ years ago funded the New River bringing water from Hertfordshire to Islington â used to have two schools named after him in EC1. Only the primary, at Myddleton Street, is still operating. However Hugh Myddleton Secondaryâs famous former students include Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and of course Charlie George.Â Facebook link here.
Over to you
If youâd 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 theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles or Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola