Continuing our Summer series of articles in search of Arsenal’s greatest ever team, this week we continue to highlight the defenders. Don’t forget to take the opportunity to choose your personal favourite defender by voting in the poll at the end of the week
17. Nigel Winterburn: 1987-2000
Nigel played in 584 games over a 13 year period.
He was born in Arley, Warwickshire and began his career with Birmingham City gaining his first youth caps for England while with the club. He left to join Oxford United and then in 1983 he was signed on a free transfer by Wimbledon who gained promotion to the First Division in 1986, at the same time Nigel won England under-21 honours. Nigel was the Wimbledon supporters, Player of the Year, for each of the four seasons he spent at Plough Lane.
Arsenal, who was looking for a long-term replacement for Captain Kenny Sansom, paid Wimbledon £350,000 in the summer of 1987 and Nigel became an Arsenal player. He began his Arsenal career at right-back even though he was heavily left-footed. When Sansom left Arsenal Nigel moved to his more familiar left back role and stayed there for more for more than a decade.
He and fellow full back Lee Dixon flanked central defenders Tony Adams and David O’Leary later being joined by Steve Bould, George Graham would often play all five of them as his defensive unit. They played together. as Arsenal beat holders Liverpool to a last-game showdown at Anfield for the First Division title, he made his England debut later that same year.
Arsenal ended 1990 trophy less, but went on to win the league title again the next year, with only one loss. Two years later he was in the Arsenal team which won both cup competitions and thus completed his domestic set of medals. Arsenal defeated Sheffield Wednesday 2–1 in both the League Cup and FA Cup finals. In 1994, Arsenal beat Italian side Parma’s 1–0, to win the European Cup Winners Cup, Arsenal’s first success continentally for a quarter of a century.
Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal at the end of 1996 and instilled new self-awareness and dietary habits into the Arsenal squad, allowing the ageing defence to thrive in their latter years and prolong their football careers. Arsenal won the “double” of Premiership and FA Cup in 1998 and in 2000 they reached the UEFA Cup final.
He left Arsenal and joined West Ham United in 2000 for a fee of £250,000, playing in 94 games in all competitions for West Ham and retired in 2003
He played in 429 matches for Arsenal placing him the fourth on the all time list.
18. Tony Adams: 1983-2002
Tony played in 669 games over a 19 year period.
Born in Romford, London, Tony grew up in Dagenham before signing for Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1980. He made his Arsenal first team debut in November 1983 just four weeks after his 17th birthday and became a regular player in the 1985–86 season, winning the Football League Cup Final, his first major trophy, in 1987.
Alongside Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, he was part of the “famous back four” that lined up in Arsenal’s defence – they became renowned for the use of their well-disciplined offside trap. On 1 January 1988, he became Arsenal captain at the age of 21 and remained as such until his retirement 14 years later.
Their, strong and disciplined defence was a major a factor in Arsenal winning the League Cup in 1986–87 followed by two First Division championship titles; the first in 1988–89 and the second in 1990–91 after losing only one game all season. In 1992–93 he became captain of the first English side to win the League Cup and FA Cup double, and he lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following year.
All along Tony had a ghost in his closet, namely his battle with alcoholism, which started in the mid-1980s and became increasingly worse; reportedly he was often being involved in fights in nightclubs. On 6 May 1990, he crashed his car and when breathalysed his blood alcohol level was found to be more than four times the legal drink-drive limit, in December of that year, he was found guilty and he was imprisoned for four months. Unfortunately his alcoholism continued and he was involved in further alcohol-related incidents. In September of 1996, he went public admitting that he was an alcoholic and was receiving treatment. Since his recovery he has become one of the most high-profile recovering alcoholics in the UK and his battle with alcohol is detailed in his autobiography, “Addicted”.
The arrival of Arsène Wenger as Arsenal manager in October 1996 was also played a significant part in his recovery as Wenger reformed the club’s dietary practices and the players’ lifestyles. Wenger showed his faith in Tony by sticking by him and keeping him as the club’s captain, the improvements in the regime probably helped to extend his career by several years. Arsene’s trust was rewarded with Tony captaining the club to two Premiership and FA Cup Doubles, in 1997–98 and 2001–02 – he is the only player in English football history to have captained a title-winning team in three different decades.
In August 2002, just before the start of the 2002–03 season, he announced his retirement from professional football after a career spanning almost 20 years in which he played 668 matches for Arsenal making him second on the all time appearance list, he is also the most successful captain in the club’s history.
He made his debut for England against Spain in 1987, and played in Euro 88, scoring one of England’s two goals. He was the first player to represent England who had been born after the 1966 World Cup win. In total he appeared 66 times for England.
Nicknamed “Mr Arsenal”, he was honoured by Arsenal with a testimonial game against Celtic in May 2002 with many Arsenal legends playing, including Ian Wright, John Lukic and Adams’s fellow back four stalwarts, Dixon, Winterburn and Bould. The game finished 1–1 with Lee Dixon, in his final appearance for the Gunners, getting their goal.
In 2004, Tony was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in recognition of his impact on the English game. A statue of Adams was placed outside Emirates Stadium in celebration of the club’s 125th anniversary on 9 December, 2011. He has also been honoured with the MBE for his contribution to football.
19. Lee Dixon: 1988-2002
Lee played in 619 games over a 14 year period.
Born in Manchester, he was a boyhood Manchester City supporter. He began his professional playing career in the lower divisions joining Burnley as an apprentice in 1980, turning professional in 1982 after which he played for Chester City and Bury before joining Stoke City in 1986.
His performances attracted the attention of Arsenal and he was signed by Arsenal boss George Graham in 1988 following the departure of England right back, Viv Anderson, to Manchester United. This was the first time that he had played in the First Division and it took a while for him to be given a first team role at Highbury. Nigel Winterburn had been a guarded success in the unfamiliar role of right back, though Lee did make his debut against Luton Town in February 1988 and played six times in total before the season ended. In the new season, Winterburn moved across to left back, allowing Dixon to take over the No.2 shirt, which he duly did for well over ten years.
He and Winterburn made the full back positions their own for the next decade or so, while Captain Tony Adams and the long-serving David O’Leary operated in the middle. Later in 1988 they were joined by Steve Bould who, like Dixon before him, had been spotted by Graham playing for Stoke City. These five defenders, often playing as a back five together and were the foundation stones of much of Arsenal’s success.
He wrote in his column in The Independent of the defence that he played in at Arsenal.
“I was fortunate to play in an Arsenal back line that earned itself a reputation as being OK. I’m not trying to be overly modest in saying that, as individuals, we weren’t the best players in the world. But certainly all my weaknesses were compensated for by Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Steve Bould, and vice versa. If one of us wasn’t playing well, the others picked up the slack”
His career at Arsenal saw him collect four league champion’s medals, three FA Cup winner’s medals and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup medal. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year twice, for the seasons 1989–90 and 1990–91.
His retirement came at the end of Arsenal’s domestic double-winning 2001–02 season, their second in his time at the club.
He made his England début in April 1990 in a World Cup warm-up game against Czechoslovakia, ending up with a total of 22 caps.
His 619 appearances for Arsenal place him third on the all time list.
20. Martin Keown: 1981-2004
Martin played in 449 games over a 23 year period.
Born in Oxford, Martin first played for local sides and his local Gaelic football team, before joining Arsenal on a schoolboy contract in 1980; he made his professional debut while on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion in 1984. His debut for Arsenal came in November 1985, when Don Howe was still manager. He played 22 league games that season but when George Graham became manager in 1986, he decided that Martin was not part of his plans and sold him to Aston Villa for £200,000.
Villa was relegated after finishing bottom of the First division on 1986-87. After Graham Taylor was appointed manager Villa won promotion back to the First Division, Martin helped them secure their top flight status the following season, but was sold to Everton in 1989, following which Everton sold Martin back to Arsenal in 1993.
This move created intense competition for the central defensive positions between himself, Andy Linighan, Steve Bould and Captain Tony Adams, for places in the centre of one of the best English defences of the 1990s. He rarely missed a game in his first four full seasons back at Highbury, though he was used sparingly by Arsene Wenger in the 1997–98 double winning campaign, playing just 18 times. But Martin still claimed the first two major trophies of his career, after well over a decade of waiting. He went on to became a key player in Arsène Wenger’s double winning sides of 1998 and 2002, he remained as a first team regular until the end of the 2002–03 season, when the Gunners won their ninth FA Cup.
Martin remained at Arsenal until 2004, winning another Premier League title, before being released on a free transfer. His final season he made 10 league appearances – the minimum to qualify for a title winner’s medal. On his release he signed for Leicester City, but left after less than six months and signed for Reading in January 2005, he played until the end of the season and then he retired.
He made his England debut in 1992 against France, earning a total of 43 caps.
His 449 appearances for Arsenal place him ninth on the all time list.
Written by GunnerN5 and compiled by Gooner in Exile