01 April 2015

Geordie On The Wing: A life cut tragically short...

You'd be hard-pressed to find a footballer who played with as passion or dedication as George Armstrong, who made 621 appearances over 17 years for Arsenal before going to coach the Reserves for ten more. Tragically, Armstrong suffered a brain haemorrhage at age 56. If there's any consolation, he was doing what he loved best, where he loved it and was loved most—playing football at London Colney. You won't find a more-fitting and stirring testimonial to him than Dave Seager's Geordie Armstong On The Wing. The pathos, emotion, and admiration that arises from those pages its not to be missed. Recently, I had the pleasure of learning more directly from Seager, and I invite you to read on below.

Could you briefly explain how you came to be involved in sharing Armstrong's story?
The Project was initiated by Jill, Geordie's daughter, after he passed away. After collecting many tributes, the original idea was to have a tribute book that his grandchildren could read when they grew up so that they too could know what a wonderful footballer and—more importantly—person he was. Everyday life took over, and Jill found the who thing very difficult, so the tributes sat on a shelf gathering dust until her entry into the world of Twitter in 2013 made her realize just how much love there was out there for her father among the Arsenal faithful. Jill thought perhaps she would write a blog or two, and a few kind individuals suggested that I was a writer with integrity who could be trusted. When approached and on hearing the story, I was immediately convinced that she should be true to her original concept and renew the book project as her father deserved it. I suggested she contact an Arsenal journalist as any would bite off her hand to write a book about one of Arsenal's finest and football's truest gentleman. However, Jill and Marje, Geordie's widow, wanted the passion of a fan rather then the superior writing talent of a journalist and convinced me to take it on. The rest, as they say...

The book presents a seemingly never-ending line of coaches, teammates, rivals, fans, and others who will all attest enthusiastically to Armstrong's quality as a player and person. What, to you, qualifies him to be a bona fide Arsenal superstar? 
In this day and age, when any player after a good season or two can be labeled as such, perhaps the term has lost its value, but it is hard to compare the two eras. When Geordie and his ilk played, it was for the love of the game and for their team-mates and for the cannon on the shirt, not for the cash or fame. That is not a criticism necessarily of the modern player as he is a product of a different era, but Geordie qualifies on so many fronts—for his talent, unquestionably; for being a winner, indisputably; and for the one trait that we may not enjoy anymore, that of loyalty.

Arsenal had commissioned a poll in 2008 to identify the club's 50 Greatest Players, on which Armstrong finished 40th. Last week, The Telegraph's Jeremy Wilson placed Armstong as 12th on his list. If pressed, where would you place Armstrong and why? 
The Arsenal.com poll is obviously not a true reflection of the fan base, nor could it be. Anyone voting with the early Wenger success fresh in their mind and on the internet would vote accordingly. Add to that the number of younger fans on the internet in comparison to those who watched Geordie in his pomp. I suggest you only need to look at Kanu at #13, a popular player but one who was rarely first choice and scored fewer goals than Giroud in twice the time to realise the poll is somewhat distorted. A far better comparison in the poll both in attitude, club loyalty and talent would be David Rocastle at #16. There is so much similarity between the two and I think those to nestled together at #15 and #16 would be about right.

Given that Armstrong's role and positionthat of traditional wingerhas largely faded from Arsenal's set-up, who among our current squad seems most-similar to him, either in disposition, skill, style of play, or connection to the club? 
There are many great comparisons made by more qualified contributors to the book than I but there are two players that I would liken him to for work-rate and talent as box-to-box wide players: Rocastle and Parlour. However ,you then have to add in the pure winger element, which neither of those were while Geordie was. You see, he was one of the few true box-to-box wingers of any era, and Arsenal in the modern era have not played a traditional crossing winger. The closest comparable player in the last 20 years is Andrei Kanchelskis (who played for Man U, among others, in the 1990s-ed), but the last Arsenal player to cross the ball regularly and at even close to the level Armstrong managed his whole career would be Brain Marwood. For actual accuracy his obvious peer for crossing in play or deadball would be Beckam. For work rate in the Arsenal side of 2014-15, Alexis is the only comparison, and for complete two-footedness, Santi Cazorla is the only Arsenal player I have ever seen on a par with Armstrong.

For better or for worse, modern football is driven by statistics--goals, assists, key passes, transfer-fees and weekly-wages, among others. Is there room in modern football for the kind of player Armstrong was—one whose selflessness and work-rate defined him wherever he played or coachedor would he have been expected to deliver more final product, getting (and staying) further up the pitch and neglecting defensive duties to deliver "stats"?
The simple answer is yes, he would easily fit into the modern game. We don't have a player currently with more end-product than he had, and it is quite likely that we have never had a player before him or since him with more assists. His ball-retention was superb as well and would serve him well in a Wenger team.

It might surprise some younger readers that none other than Ashley Cole stands out as "Geordie's finest protégé." Cole himself says "he was always in my head, his words of wisdom. I still hear his voice on the training pitch...I owe so much of what I have achieved to him." What does it say about Armstrong's contributions to the club that a player like Cole, who left the club under acrimonious circumstances, still credits Armstrong for his successes (at Arsenal and beyond)? 
What it says about Geordie is that he simply had more time for young players at Arsenal than anyone else. For Geordie, being the Reserve Team coach was not a job. It was a responsibility and a way of life, just as playing had been. He had time for every player who came under his charge, as long as they wanted to work and learn, which all who were trained by him did. Jill will tell you that Cole was on the phone to Geordie most evenings at home, and he never turned a call or a chat away. His boys meant everything to him, and even those who did not make it at Arsenal he tried to assist in finding new clubs and stayed in touch with them. He would watch those he had mentored on Match of the Day after they had left the club and then call them the next day to congratulate them or offer advice. Men like Geordie simply don't exist often in the tough word of professional football, and it is hard to comprehend just how many young players and senior players he influenced in a positive way. Numerous in the book and so many others who have contacted me since the book came out, upset that that had not been able to contribute, will confirm that.

After leaving Arsenal, Armstrong spent time as a player or coach, experiencing success or frustration in equal measures, before returning to coach the Arsenal Reserves in 1990. How do you suppose those experiences groomed him for coaching the Reserves, a mixture of up-and-coming ingenues, rehabbing first-team players, and fringe-players who might never make it? 
I am sure his experiences around the UK and the world as a Manager and Assistant were all valuable experience, but, if I am honest, I think it was his love of the game, enthusiasm and charisma that were his biggest assets, combined with what he had achieved at Arsenal. There is no reserve team football today, which for me is another failing in the Premier League era, but as you say dealing with returning first-teamers, out of favour first-teamers and young talent was a tough job, and I met no one in the whole book writing journey who ever doubted that Geordie could do it or that he was anything other than a total success at it. Bottom line is Geordie was an Arsenal man and a winner who instilled the correct values in all those he coached. Geordie Armstrong in essence was the living embodiment of the'Arsenal Way.'

There you have it, a quick sampling of Seager's conviction and insight. That should more than whet your whistle for the exquisite elegy he's assembled for Armstrong. I urge you to go out and get this book—strike that; stay where you are and click this link to order a copy. Seager will personalise books ordered through this link. If you're in the mood, you can find him on Saturday morning at The Gunners Pub where he'll be signing copies along with David Hillier. Hillier was one the first of Armstrong's Reserves to break into the first team, playing a key role in the 1991 title-winning campaign.

For those old enough to remember and young enough to be on the internet, if you have first-hand memories of Geordie on the wing, please feel free to share in the comments-section below...