Terry Neill: Arsenal’s Enigma?
This piece originally ran on Tale of Two Halves in 2018 but given the sad passing of Neill this week, we felt it right to republish.
Terry Neil managed Arsenal from 1976 to 1983, reaching four cup finals, three semi-finals and securing several top-five finishes. He was then sacked in December 1983 and never returned to management again.
All in all, the story of the management career of Terry Neil is a bit of an enigma. After managing Arsenal for seven-and-a-half years, at the relatively young age of forty-one he simply seemed to disappear off the face of the (footballing) earth, never to manage again.
It is a weird tale that deserves further scrutiny.
The Facts: An Outline
Just the bare facts of his managerial career make for confusing reading on their own. He was made player-manager of Hull in 1970 and then simultaneously player-manager of Northern Ireland in 1971. He continued as a player in both capacities until 1973 when he retired to concentrate on managing. This meant that between the years of 1970 and 1973 he had in effect four jobs at the same time.
Upon retirement as a player, this was reduced to two, and in 1974 he left Hull to manage Tottenham. This too was a weird career move as he was a former Arsenal player with no obvious links to Spurs, and initially, he continued to take charge of Northern Ireland on a part-time basis.
He gave up the NI post totally in 1975, and in 1976 he made the short trip across North London to manage his old playing alumni, Arsenal, for whom he’d made more than two hundred and fifty appearances.
These are the bare details. Now for a more detailed look at the career of William John Terrance Neill.
Early days and playing career
Born in Belfast in 1942, Terry Neill had a mixed playing career. Undoubtedly talented and possessing the leadership skills that made him Arsenal’s youngest ever permanent captain at the time at the age of 20, Terry suffered from injuries and illness at a crucial period in his career and so never really fulfilled his potential on the field.
Signing for Arsenal in 1959, he struggled for the next half a dozen years or so to nail down a first-team place before becoming a regular towards the end of Billy Wright’s reign as manager. Under Wright’s successor, the legendary Bertie Mee, Terry Neill became a confirmed starter and an integral part of the team.
Although he made a Wembley appearance as Arsenal lost the League Cup final to Leeds in 1968, he rather unluckily contracted jaundice shortly after, and following recovery was unable to regain his place in the team. This meant he missed both the League Cup final defeat against Swindon the following year and the European Fairs Cup victory the year after.
Unable to regain his place in the team and seeing the writing on the wall, Neill accepted the chance to move to Second Division Hull City in 1970 as player-manager. In doing so he became one of the youngest ever league managers ever at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
As well as playing for and managing Hull, Terry Neill was still turning out regularly for Northern Ireland. Having made his debut in 1961, Neill had become captain in 1968 just as he was contracting jaundice. He was to make a total of 59 caps and become, at the time, his country’s most-capped player.
In 1971, after one year managing Hull, Terry Neill was named player-manager of Northern Ireland in tandem with his day job(s). On the face of it, it was perhaps asking a lot of a man not yet thirty to be player-manager of not only a Second Division side, but his country too.
In reality, however, the position of Northern Ireland manager was only a part-time one, and indeed Neill only took charge of twenty games in four years. One of these games, however, was notably a 1972 British International match at Wembley against England. The only goal of the game came courtesy of player-manager Neill in front of more than 64,000 spectators.
In his first season in charge of Hull, he led The Tigers to a tremendous fifth-place finish, missing out on promotion to the top flight by just two points. Three steady if unspectacular mid-table finishes in the next three seasons were not especially eye-catching, but together with his work with the Northern Ireland national side, they proved significantly impressive to get the attention of the board at Tottenham Hotspur.
When Bill Nicholson stepped down in the autumn of 1974 it was somewhat surprising that former Arsenal man, Terry Neill, was Spurs’ choice for a replacement. Nevertheless, to a fair degree of consternation of certain sections of the White Hart Lane faithful, Neill was duly installed in the manager’s office.
By this time Terry had ceased playing for both club and country and thus was able to concentrate purely on management. A year into his tenure at WHL and Neill stepped down as part-time boss of the Northern Ireland team, too.
To say that his appointment to the Spurs’ hot seat wasn’t met with universal agreement would be putting things mildly. In hindsight, it was perhaps never really going to work, and two years of struggle followed, with relegation only just avoided in the first season and mid-table obscurity achieved in the second.
It was no surprise then that the experiment came to an abrupt end after less than two years. What was perhaps more of a shock given his lack of success at Tottenham, however, was that it was Arsenal who came knocking and looking to take their old boy back on board following the retirement of Bertie Mee.
Presumably, neither Spurs nor Neill wasted much time haggling over the terms of his departure, and so it came to pass in the summer of 1976 that Terry Neill was safely ensconced as Arsenal’s youngest ever manager. An interesting point to note at this stage is that his replacement of Mee at Arsenal following that of Nicholson at Spurs meant Neill directly and uniquely followed two- double-winning managers into the hot-seat.
Back home and a Wembley treble
Upon taking over the Highbury reigns, Neill made an immediate splash by signing larger-than-life and sometime England forward Malcolm McDonald from Newcastle. Supplemented by talented players already on the staff such as Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Graham Rix and David O’Leary, Neill then set about building an exciting side.
Some of the older players, such as Alan Ball, did not respond well to the changes, however, and did not last long.
The rebuilding was completed when Neill returned to Spurs to make the controversial signings of centre-back Willie Young, and most famously, Pat Jennings.
Arsenal in the mid-1970s had been a dour, aggressive side in the final years of Mee’s stewardship, and had twice come close to relegation. Now, however, Neill had them playing a breed of more attractive football and slowly but surely Arsenal became a force to be reckoned with again.
A solid eighth place finish in 1977 saw an improvement of nine places on Mee’s last season, and this was followed up with a top-five finish the next year (and UEFA Cup qualification) and a rather unfortunate 2-1 aggregate loss to Liverpool in the semi-final of the League Cup.
However, it was in the FA Cup that year that Arsenal really started to make people sit up and notice them, as they battled their way through to a Wembley final against huge underdogs, Ipswich Town.
Having finished thirteen places ahead of their Suffolk counterparts, the Gunners were expected to swat Ipswich aside. Unfortunately, almost the entire team failed to turn up that day and Ipswich prevailed in what was probably the most one-sided 1-0 victory in the history of FA Cup finals.
Over the course of the next two seasons, Arsenal were able to maintain their reasonably good form in the league with a seventh-place finish in 1979 and one of fourth in 1980.
These seasons also saw Arsenal and Terry Neill make history by becoming the first club to appear in three consecutive Wembley FA Cup finals. In both 1979 and 1980 Arsenal were embroiled in mammoth ties along the road to the final. In 1979 it took five matches in the third round before Jack Charlton’s Sheffield Wednesday were finally dispatched, while the following year Liverpool were finally defeated at the fourth attempt in the semi-final.
Perhaps all these matches on ‘The Road to Wembley’ had something to do with the fatigue Arsenal seemingly encountered once they got there. The 1-0 defeat to Ipswich in ’78 was mirrored by a loss by the same score-line to Second Division West Ham in 1980. The only victory in the trio of final appearances was a 3-2 victory against Manchester United when the Arse did everything possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by conceding two goals in the last five minutes before scrambling a last-minute winner.
70 and out!
In fact, 1979-80 was a heartbreaking season for Arsenal. As well as losing the FA Cup final to West Ham, the Gunners lost on penalties to Valencia in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup just five days later. This was in spite of seemingly having done the hard work of beating Juventus in the semi-final.
In the end, their fourth-place finish wasn’t even sufficient to secure a UEFA Cup slot, and so after a seventy-game season, Arsenal truly had nothing but memories to show for it.
In the summer of 1980, Liam Brady decided to seek his fame and fortune in Italy at the end of that season, and so Terry Neill set about re-tweaking his side.
After a somewhat mysterious state of affairs when Clive Allen was signed from QPR for over a million quid only to be moved onto Crystal Palace in part exchange for Kenny Sansom a few weeks later, the 1980-81 season kicked off.
Hopes were high that Arsenal could build on previous seasons and, without the distractions of European football, challenge for the title. However, this proved to be a false dawn, and although a third-place finish did ensure European football was back on the agenda, no real title challenge was forthcoming.
The next two seasons saw a top-five finish in 1982 and a disappointing tenth the next year when matters were not improved by semi-final failure in both domestic cups at the hands of Manchester United.
By now the knives were out for Neill and the absence of any prolonged title push during his tenure was becoming a stick to beat him with.
With one last throw of the dice, Neill somehow persuaded young Scottish starlet Charlie Nicholas to spurn the advances of Liverpool and move to the bright lights of London in time for the 1983-84 season in a club-record signing from Celtic.
The move wasn’t a success, however, and by December Nicholas had only scored twice. On the 16th December 1983, with the Highbury faithful long having turned against him, Terry Neill was sacked.
What happened next?
So, what happened to Terry Neill? Why did he disappear from all forms of football management at the age of forty-one? Was he that scarred from his experiences at Highbury that he just felt he didn’t want to go through the trials and tribulations again?
Whatever the reasoning, surely a man with such a reasonable record could have continued to find employment within the game. Instead, Terry Neill largely dropped off the radar.
Never to hold another coaching or management job in football, he has become immersed in business ventures. He has owned and run successful sports bars and been involved in media management. In an interview in 2018, he reflected on his time at Arsenal and appears to hold no grudges over the manner of his dismissal
He is nowadays remembered by slightly older Arsenal fans as a man who brought a degree of success to the marble halls of Highbury without going all the way.
Had some of the players he had reputedly tried to sign ended up at the Arsenal, history might record Terry Neill’s legacy somewhat differently, though. At one stage he was reportedly close to signing a teenage Diego Maradona, while another failed transfer attempt saw Glenn Hoddle decide to remain at his spiritual White Hart Lane home.
One thing Terry Neill is remembered for though is his acid wit and cutting tongue.
On one cold winter’s morning, he is said to have been watching training with his arms folded and lips pursed. Unable to control his disdain at what he was viewing, he supposedly called across to one of his players:
“Hey you. I’ve been watching you, and every day you play worse in training than you did the day before. Well, today you played like it’s tomorrow!”