Rob Shepherd meets former Arsenal and Hull boss Terry Neill.
Whatever the outcome of the FA Cup final one thing is for certain, those Arsenal and Hull punters who are in the company of Terry Neill before the match will have a day to savour.
At 72, Neill remains fit and lean, and is one of the most colourful characters left in the game. Certainly there are few better raconteurs.
On behalf of the FA, Neill will offer fans of both clubs who have taken up hospitality at Wembley’s Bobby Moore suite a fascinating trip down memory lane.
This is a man who over a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio (and yes, a few fag breaks) will whisk you through a career that saw him play on the same pitch as George Best, nurture Liam Brady and Glenn Hoddle, rub shoulders with Cary Grant and Dustin Hoffman, become friends with a Great Train Robber, oh and who was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher but eventually turned the Iron Lady down.
And of course apart from all that he played for and managed both of the FA Cup finalists.
After 11 years as Arsenal’s centre-half and skipper, Neill took on the role of player-manager at Hull at the age of just 28.
“I took a pay cut but I got an E Type jag as a company car… I think the only footballer at the time who had a car like that was George [Best]. I see one is now up for auction for a £1 million pound. I knew I should have kept it!” laughs Neill.
“I was Northern Ireland skipper when George made has international debut against Wales at Vetch Field in 1964. Pat Jennings (former Arsenal and Spurs keeper) made his debut too. Proper legends them.
“I remember being asked after the game what I thought of Best. My reply was that he played a game that was ‘unfamiliar’ to me. I was a journeyman compared to him.
“But I became a good manager. The experience at Hull was a wonderful grounding.
“The team were in the old second division and it was a struggle. I would be driving up and down the country sometimes doing 3,000 miles a week going to games looking for players. But it could be done. I ended up finding Stuart Pearson who went on to play for Manchester United and England.
“He was playing non-league and working up on telephone poles. I still think there are rough diamonds like that out there. But now they are lost because most managers and coaches seem to rely on agents and videos when it comes to recruiting players.
“But on that front I would say Steve Bruce is an exception to the rule. He has done a great job and with due respect to the Hull players – and I like Huddlestone and Livermore in particular…clever buys… – Bruce is Hull’s biggest asset for this game.
“He’s been there and done it. He will get Hull up for it and if they get a foothold in the game then Arsenal could have a big problem… after all Hull have nothing to lose, Arsenal everything.”
So should defeat be the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign?
Neill, who took the Gunners to three successive Cup finals but won only one and eventually got the sack when big money striker signings Lee Chapman then Charlie Nicholas failed to propel the club to title success, says: “I would still stick with Arsene, win or lose.
“But I would say he needs to take a break… step back and look at the bigger picture. He’s a workaholic but sometimes you can just do too much .The place needs freshening up. Perhaps bringing in an assistant such as Dennis Bergkamp could be the way forward.”
Given his credentials it seems amazing that after leaving Arsenal in 1983 at the age of 41 Neill never managed again.
But he moulded a career working in the media – he is still an ambassador for The Hub London and a technical advisor to FIFA – and the Thatcher government. You only live once…
“Cecil Parkinson who was Chairman of the Conservatives was a pal and he introduced to me to Maggie,” recalls O’Neill. “I became a football advisor to her at the height of hooliganism. When I got a call from here at 6. am and she said ‘Terrence, can you be at number 10 in an hour’ I knew it was important.
“One day she said to me “I think it’s about time you had a gong Terrence (Neill was being put up for an MBE). I politely turned the offer down. She was rather bemused. I had to explain to her that it would have been awkward to accept such an honour given I was a working class boy who grew up in East Belfast.”
The Great Train Robbery connection?
“When I was at Hull I used to do visits to the local prison to talk to long term inmates …and I struck a rapport with (the late) Jimmy Hussey who was one of train robbers,” explains Neill.
And the movie star connections..?
“My first job for FIFA was as an assessor at 1984 LA Olympic Games. It was first class all the way and at the closing ceremony after party I was on the same table as Dustin Hoffman, Carey Grant and Henry Winkler.
“Grantie (as O’Neill refers to the movie icon in soccer speak) asked my wife Sandra if she had liked the ceremony. She told him she would rather have watched one of his movies.
“The thing is – and this is what too many in the modern game forget – football stars, movies stars, prime ministers, celebrities… yes they are famous… but they are still people and they should never lose touch of reality.”
So where did it all go wrong for Terry Neill..?
I would suggest that for a man who has played with Best, marked Pele, was a close pal of Bobby Moore, walked tall in the corridors of power as well as Highbury’s Marble Halls – and made Cary Grant and Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) crack up – it’s been a long life of, well, Happy Days.
So which side will make his day at Wembley..?
With the kind of lyrical Irish charm and diplomacy that saw him lead a Northern Ireland team at the start of the Troubles Terry Neill replies: “To the victor, the spoils…”