When a transfer announcement sends tingles down your spine and leaves a smile on your face for weeks then you know it’s something special. I’m old enough and lucky enough to have experienced that sensation on a number of occasions. So, as we sit by our computers this summer waiting to be transported into football heaven by the news of a stunning new signing for the Arse, it seems like a good moment to consider some of those great out-of-the-blue transfers of years past.
To be clear, I do not mean the signing of players who turned out to be brilliant – so there’s no room here for Thierry Henry (who arrived after being a bit-part winger during France’s ’98 WC win) or Patrick Vieira (rescued from anonymity and mediocrity in Italy). We certainly welcomed those signings and hoped they would turn out for the best, but we hardly thought “that’s it – the title’s in the bag.” I’m talking about how things felt at the very moment the player was signed, without the benefit of hindsight.
So here goes: in reverse order, the 10 most exciting incoming transfers in my Arsenal supporting memory.
10. David Seaman (from QPR, 1990)
When George Graham did the brown paper bag business to land Spunky it was a surprise to most Gunners as we were pretty happy with John Lukic. But Seaman was already being talked of as the best young keeper of his generation and his arrival was a signal of intent: if we were going to be the best in the country, we needed the best goalie in the country. The 1990/91 season proved how good a move it was.
9. David Platt (from Sampdoria, 1995)
The 1994/5 season had ended in failure and disgrace for us, with Graham sacked for his aforementioned activities in the paper bag area. More of a crime, as far as many of us were concerned, had been his teams’ style of play during his last couple of years in charge. A midfield including Morrow, Hillier and Selley was about as daunting for our opponents as going 12 rounds with Noddy. It was hard to be optimistic about the season ahead – but then Bruce Rioch was appointed manager and two quick signings were enough to get us fired up again. One of them was Platty, one of the heroes of Italia ’90 and a player who had excelled in Serie A, winning the UEFA Cup with Juventus before joining Sampdoria. Good signing? Well, at least we’d heard of him.
8. Dennis Bergkamp (from Inter Milan, 1995)
Before anyone starts saying he should be higher up the order, I can tell you that DB10 is my all time favourite Arsenal player. And when he joined us in the same summer close season as David Platt, I was thrilled. I knew him as that incredible Dutch player who had single-handedly destroyed England and who had scored 103 league goals in 185 outings for Ajax. But in the couple of years immediately prior to joining Arsenal, Dennis’s star had waned at Inter (a goal return of 11 in 52 starts over two years tells its own story). I hoped he’d be brilliant – and I was overjoyed that at least he was a step up from signings like Eddie McGoldrick and Glenn Helder – but I didn’t know he would turn out to be a once in a lifetime player for us.
7. Pat Jennings (from Sp*rs, 1976)
With my Irish family background I had always loved Jennings, even though he played for them. He was so patently brilliant, with hands the size of dustbin lids and a voice as deep as the Mariana Trench. In 1976 the Spuds came to the conclusion that Big Pat was at the ‘last orders’ stage of his career and sold him to us. Oh, how we laughed eight years later as he was still there between the sticks at the mighty Arse, with three FA Cup Final appearances under his belt.
6. Ian Wright (from Crystal Palace, 1991)
When you’ve just won the league you really want to hear that your manager is not sitting on his laurels but is strengthening the team to keep momentum going. Wrighty’s signing was a great statement by George Graham. He was obviously a brilliant striker (his supersub performance for Palace against ManUre in the 1990 FA Cup final stands out in the memory) and he seemed just the man to push us on to a period of true dominance. Little did we know that it would take seven more years and the arrival of a professorial Frenchman before Wrighty would ever get a champions medal.
5. Charlie Nicholas (from Celtic, 1983)
In the 1982/83 season Charlie scored 48 league goals for the Hoops in 74 games – an amazing return for a young striker. He was Scottish Player (and Young Player) of the year and Liverpool and ManUre were desperate to sign him. (The Liverpool-based Scottish players conducted a campaign of persuasion not dissimilar to that of the Barca boys in their attempt to woo Cesc). So when it was announced he was coming to Highbury it was Scotch whisky all round.
4. Malcolm Macdonald (from Newcastle Utd, 1976)
I nearly cried with happiness when I heard we’d signed Supermac. The dynamic Londoner who’d made his name with the Geordies was a perfect blend of pace, power and skill. If he couldn’t out-sprint defenders he just ran over them. He was a brick wall with a Formula One engine. Just a year before joining us he had scored five goals in a single game for England (against Cyprus). It was obvious he would lead the Arsenal line for years to come. Sadly, after two seasons as top scorer, a knee injury brought his career to a premature end.
3. Davor Suker (from Real Madrid, 1999)
Yes, younger readers – in those days players left Madrid to join us. Suker was a superbly gifted Croatian striker who had been a sensation at the 1998 World Cup in France. I was driving down the A1 after a visit to relatives when the news came through on the radio that we’d signed him. My fist-pumping and screaming caused great alarm to drivers in adjacent lanes. He never really lived up to his promise with us (although I fondly remember one stunner at home against Villa) but, on the day we signed him, life felt good.
2. Clive Allen (from QPR, 1980)
It was one of the strangest transfer episodes ever in the history of our club, but when the young striker signed for us the press were universally agreed that, going into the 1980/81, season Arsenal would have the strongest attacking line-up in the league: they called it the SAS attack – Stapleton-Allen-Sunderland. I was on Cloud Nine when he signed. And then on Cloud One (?) two months later when he left us for Crystal Palace without ever having kicked a ball in anger. There was talk of a dodgy deal by which QPR were not able to sell him directly to Palace and in which we agreed to act as go-betweens, but it was all very strange. It didn’t turn out all bad though – we did get Kenny Sansom from Palace in part exchange, who became arguably the best left back we’ve ever had.
1. Sol Campbell (from Sp*rs, 2001)
Oh what bliss, oh what joy, oh what schadenfreude. Big Sol was far and away the best player at the Spuds for the previous few seasons. He was their talisman, their captain, their heart and soul. His contract was at an end, he had told the Spuds fans he would not leave, some of the biggest clubs in Europe wanted him – and he joined one of them: Arsenal. What a coup, what a masterstroke. Spuds fans of my acquaintance literally could not bring themselves to speak. It was finest piece of David Dein and Arsene Wenger teamwork ever.
That’s it. Older supporters may want to suggest names from the ‘60s and earlier who don’t appear here. Others of you may want to challenge my ordering or insist on other signings who should be in there. Feel free to disagree… that’s the point of blogs like this.