Arsenal in the 80s: The original class of 92 without the PR machine

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Arsenal 80s youth team: Rocastle, Adams, Merson, Thomas, Davis

Something else “Class of 92” passed through my timeline the other day and it made me think what an exceptional job the PR machine has done there. 30 years later, and they are still overly-remembered by many football fans regardless of their allegiance.

Don’t get me wrong – it was special. To have that many world-class talents come through at the same time and to go on and win what they won is a fine achievement.

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But, there is no doubt – the image of the “Class of 92” massively benefited from English football’s reinvention post-Italia 90 and Gazza, the dawn of the Premier League era and the Manchester United publicity machine. I think we can also all agree, had David Beckham not been in the group and, for example, Ben Thornley was (no disrespect to Thornley), their longevity might have also been a little different. Oh, and Sir Alex – we probably shouldn’t underestimate the impact of one of the greatest managers ever to manage, should we?

Arsenal’s batch of players who came through their youth team in the 1980s didn’t have any of these things working in their favour.

Yet, the core of their early 80s youth teams made up the base of George Graham’s sides that played won the Littlewoods Cup Final of 87 where they beat Liverpool, the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final of 88 where they were shocked by Luton Town and, of course, the 1989 First Division title winners.

Surely, had these players come through in the 90s and achieved what they achieved we’d be remembering the group of Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson, Niall Quinn and Martin Hayes in a different way – with Paul Davis being the “Ryan Giggs” the of the group, the older player from the youth ranks already established in the first-team side and not forgetting Martin Keown who would leave Arsenal before returning many years later.

There was even Gus Ceaser, more infamous for his time at Arsenal than famous – but he too came through the same youth ranks in the same era.

That’s nine players from what we could now consider the Academy that were guided by the likes of Alf Fields, Steve Burtenshaw, Terry Burton, Tommy Coleman and Pat Rice.

Several were given their debuts by Don Howe before Graham arrived and put his faith in their ability to win the club titles.

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In this piece, we are going to look back at each of the players in this often-forgotten group before reflecting on the Littlewoods Cup Finals of 87 and 88 and then that famous night at Anfield.

Paul Davis – signed in 1979, debut in April 1980

Every youth team or Academy needs their roles models – if you go to any Academy in the world now, they will have the players who went on to ‘make it’ on the wall, there to inspire the current crop of hopefuls that they too could break into the first team.

Paul Davis was very much the poster boy for the players that followed him.

Born in Dulwich, Davis was signed by the Gunners as an apprentice in June 1979. He immediately caught the eye and was given his first-team debut just a year later, against Tottenham of all people on April 7 1980. Deep and end are the words that spring to mind.

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For me, Davis was one of the most underrated midfielders of the 80s. As a Luton Town fan, I will often spend time thinking about what Ricky Hill could have gone on to achieve had he played at a bigger club yet Davis was at Arsenal and still not getting the credit he truly deserved.

It took a couple of seasons for Davis to claim a regular spot in the side – initially, he was competing with the likes of Graham Rix, Brian Talbot, John Hollins and, you know, Liam Brady. As a younger player, patience was needed.

But, in the 1981/82 season, he found himself getting more playing time – and, by the time George Graham arrived at Highbury from Millwall, Davis was very much a settled part of the midfield.

Davis was 25 – and hadn’t won anything. Graham would, as we know, change that. The midfielder was possibly the standout player in the new manager’s first campaign, the 1986/87 season which culminated in a Wembley triumph.

What really stood out about Davis was his elegance in the middle of the park – we have to remember that being in central midfield in the 1980s didn’t mean you got 400 touches and dictated the play like we see often today. Far from it, a lot of the time was spent watching the ball go from the back to the front in one launched ball – and then you’d fight for the second one.

Davis seemed above that – Tottenham may have had Hoddle but Arsenal could not feel short-changed with their main playmaker. And it showed at Wembley where he and Steve Williams ran the show against Liverpool’s famous midfield.

Crazily, he was never capped for England – though he was an unused substitute in 1988 against Denmark. It’s not a great leap to suggest that what happened the following week prevented him from ever turning his B cap into a full one – Davis was caught punching Southampton’s Glenn Cockerill on video, breaking his jaw. None of the officials had seen it and in the early version of the video making things look worse than they are (OK, he broke his jaw – it probably was as bad as it looked) Davis had the book thrown at him. A nine-match ban and a £3,000 fine followed – his previous good record of a mere 14 bookings in nine seasons ignored.

Ultimately this, and a thigh injury, meant he only played 12 games in the First Division-winning season of 1988/89. By now, Michael Thomas – who we will come on to – and Kevin Richardson were very much Graham’s first-choice pairing.

Davis is certainly an Arsenal legend – 447 appearances for the club and 30 First Division goals. A 1987 League Cup medal along with First Division medals for the 88/89 and 90/91 seasons. A cup double in 1993 and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 94 – a career that lasted 15 years at Highbury.

If and when I do my “underrated XI from the 80s”, there is every chance Paul Davis will wear the armband.

Tony Adams – signed 1980, debut in November 1983

If Davis made some other youth team players think they could make it, then there is no doubt Tony Adams had a similar effect.

Adams signed for the Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1980 and didn’t have to wait too long before Don Howe gave him a chance. A first appearance was made just four weeks after Adams turned 17 – 5 November 1983 against Sunderland.

Graham, again, must have been delighted when he arrived and saw that Adams was ready to become the backbone of his defence. Despite being taunted by rival fans, “Donkey” the moniker given as not much playing out from the back occurred when he was on the ball, it was clear Adams was destined for great things.

He played at Wembley in 87 and then was made club captain in 1988 at the age of just 21.

Again, as a kid growing up in the 80s, I was probably only aware of Adams from about 87 onwards. I remember rushing home from school and catching England play Yugoslavia – it must have been a qualifier for Euro 88 and I am sure Adams scored. I certainly remember him scoring one of England’s two goals in that fateful summer of 88 – and I also have to admit that one of my favourite football photos of all time is Brian Stein wheeling away celebrating at Wembley, Adams standing there forlorn with one hand on hip.

Buy this stunning framed poster of Tony Adams from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy this stunning framed poster of Tony Adams from the Football Bloody Hell shop

It was only as I grew older that I started to relate more to Adams – a fellow alcoholic, my first warning sign really should have been in 2000 when, having read his first book, I instantly went out on a binge session. It seemed to give me more ideas than warn me off.

But as a centre-back myself, I loved watching Adams play and his leadership on the pitch – he could play a hell of a lot more than he was given credit for and we started to see that when Arsene arrived. Was Graham as guilty as anyone for Adams being labelled a donkey? Most probably, he didn’t seem to be a fan of bringing it out from the back and pinging it wide.

Adams would eventually retire in August 2002 – his haul at Highbury was most impressive. 19 seasons brought 504 games. In his medal collection, Adams would find four top-flight wins, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup and two, er, Charity Shields. He won 66 England caps and shoulda coulda won Euro 96.

Doing all this whilst fighting addiction? Fair play to him, an inspiration in many ways – a statue fully deserved.

David Rocastle – signed in 1982, debut 28 September 1985

David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle signed for Arsenal on Terry Neill’s watch in 1982. He turned pro in 84, putting the rejection by Millwall behind him.

Overcoming some early issues with his vision – literally, not in the ‘can he see a pass’ sense – Rocastle, complete with contacts, made his Gunners debut versus Newcastle in September 1985. By the time Howe was replaced by Graham, he was starting to make the right-hand side of midfield his own.

Like many of this group, it was the 86/87 season where Rocastle pushed on – he netted the winner against Spurs in the League Cup Final semi-final replay which sent his side to Wembley.

It was also in this season that Rocky saw red for retaliation at Old Trafford – which some say sparked the fierce rivalry between the two clubs that remained strong right through the Ferguson and Wenger years and only really died a little when, um, both teams ended up nowhere near as good as they used to be.

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He won the Young Player of the Season award at the end of that campaign, having got a League Cup winners medal before the age of 20.

He was back at Wembley the next year and was a key protagonist in Arsenal trying to win the Littlewoods Cup for a second season in a row. Rocastle took a little cheeky tumble in the Luton area which led to Nigel Winterburn seeing his spot-kick saved by eventual man-of-the-match Andy Dibble? Was it a penalty? Hell no. Does it matter now? Course not – Luton won!

Arsenal fans still recall two memorable Rocky strikes in their title-winning campaign of 88/89 – a solo strike against Middlesboro and a 30-yard lob against the Villa. He played at Anfield in the famous victory.

When I think back to Rocastle, I just feel for him – obviously a life taken too soon, but during his career, it felt like he was robbed of what he could have been. The knee injury suffered in the 89/90 season not only stopped him going to Italia 90 but began the journey to the Highbury exit. But, I also remember him scoring a hell of a goal on my 13th birthday – lobbing Peter Schmeichel in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. The season before, he’d played just 16 times as the club won the First Division again – injuries preventing more.

Less than a year later, it was over – he was sold to Leeds.

Rocastle played 277 times for the Gunners, scoring 34 goals – winning two titles and a League Cup. The sale surprised many – but, impartially, given how he never recaptured his amazing Highbury levels, history could suggest Graham called it correctly. Harshly, but correctly.

Martin Hayes – signed 1982, debut 16 November 1985

Next to pull on the red and white shirt for the first time at first-team level was Martin Hayes. He was just 19, like many of his peers.

An attacking player, Hayes picked up appearances here and there – mainly as Graham Rix’s backup on the left of midfield. And, like those before him, it was in Graham’s first season that he really had his breakthrough year – Hayes became first pick in the 11 shirt and rewarded his new manager with 24 goals, 12 penalties helping him become top scorer.

As we know, he ended the season with the League Cup in his hands – and Arsenal had a side that had the pedigree of Davis in the middle with youngsters Hayes and Rocastle owning the wings.

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Hayes scored at Wembley again the next season, off the bench for Perry Groves and equalising Brian Stein’s opener. He also hit the post in a game that wasn’t meant to be for the Arsenal.

But Graham felt Hayes’ star burned bright and fast – he signed Brian Marwood who became a mainstay on the left in Arsenal’s title charge in 88/89. He got enough game time to get a medal and was on the pitch as Micky Thomas scored that goal.

By the time Graham had decided Hayes had no future at Highbury he had played 132 games and scored 34 goals. He headed north of the border to Celtic for £650,000 – but the move did not work out as Hayes managed only seven appearances.

His career tailed off as quickly as it started – going from being the top scorer in a First Division side to being released by his last club, Swansea, at 29 and his professional playing career being over.

Niall Quinn – signed 1983, debut in the 1985/86 season

Niall Quinn was yet another Arsenal youth team player to make his debut under the watchful eye of Don Howe – before going on to make an impact for his successor, George Graham.

Having opted for football over Gaelic, Quinn was rejected by Fulham. Arsenal signed the gangly schoolboy centre forward in 1983 and he slowly made progress through the ranks.

18 reserve team goals in 18 games in the first half of the 85/86 season got Quinn his chance in the first team – he made his debut against Liverpool and scored in a 2-0 win.

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The Irishman immediately found himself in Graham’s plans, playing 35 First Division games and scoring eight. He started at Wembley in the League Cup Final win over Liverpool.

But, whatever Graham had seen over the season had convinced him that he needed a better option then Quinn for the next campaign – and he splashed the cash on Alan Smith, a move which restricted Quinn to just 20 games and five goals over the next three seasons. Unfortunately for him, he did not play enough in the 87/88 season to get a winners medal.

A transfer request was handed in at the start of the following season but, in a sign of the times, it took time for Quinn to find a new home – Manchester City paying £800,000 for him in March, just before the transfer deadline.

Quinn made 94 Arsenal appearances scoring 20 goals.

Gus Ceasar – signed in 1982, debut 21 December 1985

Oh, Gus. Unfortunately for Caesar his is an Arsenal career that tailed off incredibly quickly.

From a top debut at Old Trafford in 85, where he marked Jesper Olsen out of the game in a 1-0 win to the Arsenal to the infamous showing at Wembley in 88, Caesar found himself being booed by home fans towards the end of his time at the club.

A promising defender who could play either in the middle or at full-back, Gus got his break as injuries kept David O’Leary out for periods of time. In fact, he was only selected to play against Luton due to O’Leary being unavailable and he had, being gentle here, a shocker.

Graham immediately hit the transfer market, signing Steve Bould. Caesar only played five more times after the League Cup Final defeat and left on a free in 1991.

Paul Merson – signed 1984, debut 22 November 1986

Paul Merson – what a player he was for Arsenal Football Club. Having signed as an apprentice in 1984, Merse only had to wait two years to make his first-team bow following a good loan spell at Brentford.

His debut was against Man City and slowly but surely he became the creative hub of Graham’s not overly-creative side.

He wasn’t involved in either the 87 or 88 League Cup Finals – it was the 88/89 season where Merson really became important to the side, scoring 10 times, making his England U21 debut and, of course, winning the First Division at Anfield.

Merson went on to win another title in 1991 – scoring 13 – and followed that up with the FA Cup and League Cup double in 93 and helped the Gunners lift the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup.

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And so, an admission – the first-ever actual professional football match I attended was in 1994 at Highbury. The whole Fever Pitch thing was going on and one of my best friends at school was from a huge Arsenal supporting family and they took me along.

Arsenal won 1-0. Merse scored the winner. I didn’t become an Arsenal fan.

But I did like Merson. Creative, maverick and, as I got older I started to understand like many a creative genius he had an addictive side.

What a player he was – and what he did after leaving Arsenal was almost as impressive.

It’s fair to say that of all this group of players that came through at Arsenal, not many who left went on to do better things – Martin Keown, who I just don’t have space to talk about much in this piece, was another player in the same group who left to get first-team football before coming back and becoming an Arsenal almost-legend.

Merson left and did incredible things at Middlesbrough and Portsmouth – even at the Villa where he wasn’t as brilliant, he still helped them get to the 2000 FA Cup Final.

He left Arsenal after 11 seasons, having represented them 423 times and scoring 99 goals – not bad for a creative player.

Michael Thomas – signed 1982, debut in February 1987

Michael Thomas – you’re not going to forget his name in a hurry. Thomas is remembered for the small matter of scoring the winner at Anfield in 1989. Did we mention that led to, seconds later, Arsenal being crowned First Division champions?

George Graham obviously saw something he liked in Thomas as he threw him into the frying pan with his debut – the League Cup semi-final against Spurs in February 1987. Arsenal lost that game at Highbury but went on to win the semi thanks to Rocastle’s winner.

Thomas then found himself on the bench at Wembley, coming on for the last seven minutes in the win over Liverpool.

He became a regular the following season, mainly at right-back before Lee Dixon was signed. Thomas moved back into midfield and grew into a trusted player for Graham – even with such big competition in that area as the 80s drew to a close. Merson was featuring more on the right, Rocastle was getting game time centrally but Thomas was still keeping his shirt frequently.

Buy an iconic poster of Michael Thomas from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic poster of Michael Thomas from the Football Bloody Hell shop

He was a vital cog in the 1990/91 title-winning season until a fallout with Graham saw him leave the club quickly – heading to Liverpool for £1.5 in December 1991.

Thomas played 206 times for Arsenal and scored 30 – though, obviously, none came close to that one we all remember.

Going back to my underrated team of the 80s – Thomas would certainly be in and around the starting XI. I could not understand why he only won two England caps.

The key matches

So, they were the players that rolled off the Arsenal production line over the course of the 1980s and as mentioned several times, it was the backend of the decade that started to bear fruit trophy-wise.

The original plan was to take us back through the 1987 League Cup run and eventual triumph over Liverpool, the same for the 88 campaign that ultimately ended in defeat to Luton and, yes, the 88/89 season where it all ended so dramatically with the final kick.

I think that’s at least one more piece in itself – so maybe we should all go and take a break and come back soon for that.

And the next time someone starts going on about “The Class of 92” just politely remind them that whilst United’s lot were clearly very, very good there wasn’t a bad group before them out of North London.