Geordie on the Wing – A Mandatory Read.
World-famous scribe Stephen King once described books as “ a uniquely portable magic “. Upon finishing ‘Geordie on the Wing’ by Dave Seager ( Goonerdave66 ) I would have to concur with him. I never had the chance to watch him play or meet him but thanks to the experiences shared in this book, I feel like I know him. Let me be your guide as I attempt to illustrate why this tome must be mentally imbibed by all Gooners.
As mentioned above, I’ve never had the pleasure of watching Geordie rampaging down the sodden Highbury turf on another sojourn to terrorise opposing full-backs. My age is a legitimate excuse! What implored me to buy the book is that Arsenal are so steeped in history and class. They still attempt to carry these moral codes through to the present day – something that due to money being the powermonger of the sport is proving to be evermore difficult. If the club I adore has such a strong clasp of the way things should be done – a gentleman’s rulebook if you will – then I should throw myself headfirst into the past and find out why. George Armstrong was a vocal champion of this and would no doubt be one of the main reasons why it still courses through the veins of the club.
The book starts with a beginners guide on Geordie. A quite brilliant idea as – much like myself – a lot of Gooners will not be familiar with the exploits of our 3rd highest appearance maker. It is but a dip of a toe into deep waters as the story that unfolds in the unread pages is a plunge into a life that served only two things. His family and Arsenal. I hungrily devoured the ongoing paragraphs and it left me wanting to find out more.
The first main chapter is ultimately the ending. The send-off for Geordie. It illustrates perfectly though, what Armstrong meant to each and everyone at the club. It is worth mentioning that at the time of his passing in 2000, Arsenal were run with a far smaller infrastructure of people that now, with at least 500 employees. The book however, lets you know in no uncertain terms that if he were around today, Geordie would’ve known each and every one by name and he would be adored by them in return.
It describes the sheer number who came to say goodbye to a truly great Arsenal man. The entire first team squad, Arsene, the reserves, the youth teams, the historic ’71 team. The family chose Geordie’s closest friends to say a few words. Frank Mclintock was one of these. He broke down several times as he attempted to read some words of remembrance. Upon reading what testimony was uttered on that fateful day, by teammates and family, it was impossible not to share the emotion that no doubt was running rife. Each word was packed with sorrow at his untimely passing and joy at having known him.
The book then veers into his modest beginnings as a boy growing up in the North-East. He was a small kid but more than made up for his diminutive frame by having the most incredible fitness levels – something that throughout his career never left him. His talent meant his stock rose quickly and after a couple of dalliances with Grimsby Town and Newcastle, he had a trial with George Swindin’s Arsenal. Swindin signed him up and in 1961, Armstrong and Arsenal began a relationship that would change both parties for the better.
The author then invites you inside the sanctum that few ever witness, and in the best possible way. This book helps you colour the grey spots much more effectively by using the words of former team-mates as a vocal paintbrush which paints Highbury and beyond. Mclintock, Bob Wilson, Simpson, David Court and so many more were more than effusive when waxing lyrical on the genius of Geordie. It was wonderful also, to hear the correlation of certain factors that run through the books spine like torrents of red and white.
It was moments such as when Peter Simpson stated that himself and Geordie used to visit charity organisations off their own back that really forged a connection when reading these excerpts. These moments in time were brilliantly encapsulated as they were forged in the mind of someone who experienced it first hand. The author wisely leaves this untampered so its effect as you visualise are all the more colourful.
A main focal point that is highlighted is Geordie’s amazing ability, one of the reasons why he outlasted many managers and team mates and was the lynchpin that enabled many team rebuilds. His crossing ability – from the opinions of colleagues, opposition and journalists at the time – all concur that he could “ put it on a matchstick “. Coupled with his amazing fitness levels and true two-footed ability made him an absolute wonder on the wing.
A brilliant touch from the author was to solidify the opinions of Geordie’s team-mates by gleaning information from the other side of what could be perceived as rose tinted-spectacles. Seager approached players who faced Geordie regularly, he spoke to journalists of the time ( Keep a keen eye out for the comments of Martin Tyler ) and all of them offer their voices in a chorus of agreement. Geordie was the best player to never play for England. It is a mystery that is pushed under the spotlight sporadically throughout the book and all are in accordance that Ramsey would’ve benefitted from Armstrong’s exuberance on the field and unerring accuracy from his deliveries.
His greatest moments wearing the cannon he adored so much were focused on also. The Fairs Cup Final 2nd Leg Vs Anderlecht was a unanimous vote in favour of being Geordie’s greatest game. His ebullient nature and tireless work in defence were a key factor in what was a breathtaking comeback Vs Anderlecht. All were in agreement he was a titan that night and left everything on the field.
1971 and the Double team are featured heavily in the book and with good reason. It is a recurring thought that – despite a lack of stat gathering back in ’71 – Geordie and his crosses were responsible for half the goals scored in that monumental season. Indeed, Radford and Kennedy knew that if they loitered in the box then Geordie would find them. What an ally to have. Lest we forget that it was Geordie who put it on a plate for Kennedy to score the all important goal at White Hart Lane.
By this point in the book- despite not ever seeing the small-statured Geordie in full-flight – I have been swayed to be of the same opinion of the people who commented in the pages I had just read. Geordie had great close technique, had the perfect eye for a delivery, was two-footed to a point where even close friends couldn’t differentiate which was his favoured and had the stamina of three men. I started to feel dismayed that I hadn’t been aware of how brilliant he had been. Little did I know that far more polish was to come for the gleaming image of Geordie.
His testimonial took place in 1974 Vs Barca and a certain Johann Cruyff. Highbury was rocking and via a neat segway, the author gives us a chapter on the fans opinion of Armstrong. The fans speak of a hero on the pitch who never turned a fan away for an autograph. His generosity is mentioned not only by the fans but by his peers. It seems that selfless acts and a modest approach were something that made up the cornerstones of Geordie. Despite making history with the club and being perceived so highly, the boy from Hebburn was giving to a fault. So much so that many feared that he could be taken advantage of by more nefarious types. With team mates of such fearsome repute though, they needn’t have worried! A revelation in the book that raised an eyebrow was the moment Geordie turned up to training in a brand new Jag. Most players were behind the wheel of Ford Cortina’s but for once, Geordie allowed himself a moment of lavishness. From the opinion of most though, it appeared that he was almost ashamed to be seen in it for fear of being labelled something he quite clearly wasn’t. To all who had come into contact with him though, they would already know this wasn’t the case.
A quite ingenious part of the book is where contributors are asked what player Geordie reminded them of from today’s game. So many names were mentioned such as Ribery, Pires, Santi. A lot of people closely compared him to Ryan Giggs though. Even Gooners can admit he was a fantastic player. The chapter just cements what talent he had at his disposal and states that – due to his strengths – he could’ve been a huge asset for us today!
We then follow Geordie as he tries his hand at coaching, via the resolution of his playing career at Leicester, Villa and Stockport. A trait that Geordie showed was being the ‘arm round the shoulder’ and ‘ go-to-guy ‘ for the younger players. No matter what the situation, Geordie always made himself available and was accommodating to a fault. This obviously stood him in good stead in his pursuit of being a coach. From Middlesbrough to Wiltshire with sojourns in Norway and Kuwait, he left glowing reports no matter where he was. The lengths Seager must’ve gone to obtain these opinions that adorn the pages must’ve been tiresome. However, it is for the benefit of the book and a highlight to hear his experiences in these foreign lands from friends who still miss him dearly.
His return to Arsenal was written in the stars. His capacity as Reserve Coach was so well-fitting to his talents with the youngsters as well. We hear from all manner of players who learned under the tutelage of Geordie and their experiences of training with him. It was fascinating to read what approach he took to training and how he overcame the difficulties of dealing with disgruntled stars and frustrated teens who wanted their share of the limelight. No matter the problem though, Geordie always diffused the situation perfectly and left all with a smile.
A perfect way to prove this is to recant the experience of Stephen Hughes. Stephen had been under the watchful and caring eye of Armstrong for some time and thanks to his work, Hughes as we all know, broke through into the first team. In 1999 however, he was told that he was dropping back into the reserves for a game. Hughes – with hindsight he regrets this – went nuclear and shouted and hollered. This filtered its way through to Arsene Wenger and he gave Hughes a £1000 fine. After all, this wasn’t the Arsenal way that Geordie made great care to teach the youngsters. Geordie – instead of tearing a strip off of Hughes – took him to one side and offered him some sage advice like only Geordie could. He told Stephen to go straight into Wenger’s office and apologise like a man and offer to write a £1k cheque to the newly set-up Willow Foundation charity. Wenger was deeply impressed by this act and it healed a potential rift. As I read paragraphs from these kids who were now older and wiser – it was becoming apparent that the main talent that Geordie had in his armoury and that left the longest impression were his genuine people skills. There was no façade, just an unadulterated warmth and generosity. What coach in today’s game would call around to give you a second chance once you had been told you weren’t going to make it at the club? That was the consensus from the raft of players that were approached by Seager.
It would seem Geordie had made a seamless transition from ‘On the Wing ‘ to taking students ‘ Under his Wing ‘.
It was the anecdotes and stories that enabled me to share in the experiences as I read. His wife Marj offered a story to the book and it is richer for it. On the coach to White Hart Lane for the game that would decide the destination of the title in 1971, Marj and her dad were walking due to traffic trouble to the ground. They were spotted by the team coach and the doors opened for them to get on. Marj clambered on but her poor dad was left behind. Geordie made sure his cohorts were on ‘DadWatch’ and eventually they found him. Geordie enlisted some Gooners to lift his father-in-law up through the emergency window so he could get aboard the bus. This story- maybe because of the glorious occasion or just because it typifies the wondrous person Geordie was – stayed with me.
Another powerful moment that is perfectly epitomised on paper came from Martin Keown. It was on the Wembley pitch after Arsenal had secured the first Double since the Geordie-inspired 1971 feat. Most players had joyfully sauntered down the tunnel after their lap of honour and Keown was about to follow suit. He felt a tug on his shirt and it was Geordie. Geordie told him that he might not ever experience this again and he should soak up every drop of it. They both stayed on the pitch and wrung every last moment out. Keown states he will never forget that. Thanks to the way it is presented, neither will I.
It is these stories and the way they are told verbatim that only serves to amp the power with which they reverberate. Each nugget of nostalgia willingly shared by these luminaries of the game and his family share a resonance that doesn’t lose impact despite us not being there first-hand. Much like the opening line from Stephen King I shared with you – Each page only brought me closer to the essence of Geordie and made me realise that I hadn’t been aware of such a true servant to the club.
It should be mandatory to at least learn of the impact he has had on our club. He personified the Arsenal way and proudly did so. He made sure the charges under his wing knew of this code of conduct and the way to present themselves. He was a conduit for the morals that we are so proud of today. This book serves to show a glittering diamond of a man, shining a light on every facet and evidencing that Geordie Armstrong WAS Arsenal.
Many words have less impact through overuse. One of these is ‘legend’. In the English dictionary, it is ‘ One that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame’. I think this is perfect for Geordie.
Thanks to this book I now feel like I knew George. Isn’t that the aim of a book? To envelope you in its literary surroundings and make the veil of reality that little bit thinner to enable you to peer through it? Dave Seager has done this and I hope this review makes you realise that the pages within this book will show you just how much we owe him. Geordie himself would argue that point!
One last thing. If Geordie were with us now, then I have no doubt that I would have met him. He would be signing autographs and telling stories with the fans outside the Emirates. At least with this book I can say without reproach that Geordie IS a legend.