Soccer

'He decided to rugby tackle Theo and they ended up in a ditch' | Alan Smith

Ruairi Carberry
Ruairi Carberry

13:50 29 Jun 2020

Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith joined OTB AM on Monday morning to discuss the impact of the late Theo Foley. 

Foley, who represented the Republic of Ireland nine times, and was second in command to George Graham during Arsenal’s heroic league championship triumph in 1989, sadly passed away at the age of 83 on Friday.

While Graham was known for his stern demeanour around the dressing room, Foley’s good nature around the training ground provided a bright contrast for those in the Arsenal side who famously edged title holders Liverpool on the penultimate day of the season, to what was then the English First Division Championship.

“I'll never forget one day, we were running around the perimeter of London Colney in twos in a long line and Niall Quinn was actually up the top with Theo and he decided to rugby tackle Theo and they ended up in a ditch. He was the balance to George’s disciplinarian type nature. Theo was the good-cop to the bad-cop if you like.”

The Dubliner, who also managed Charlton Athletic during his coaching career, played a vital role in Arsenal’s success. While Smith acknowledged that Foley was a character who enjoyed joking with the players at Arsenal, he was also a skilled coach who understood the game and contributed heavily to a hugely successful team.

Foley’s legacy will live on in Arsenal history, says Smith.

“Everyone will remember Theo, and I hope the club will do something as well. He deserves to be fondly remembered, he played a big part in the history of the club.”

Graham took charge of the training sessions,  and Foley reinforced his ideas to individual players according to Smith.

“George would lead the session, all those sessions we had with the back four working on shape and Theo would be there. He was one of those [coaches] that would go around to the individuals, having a quiet word you know. Are you OK with what the boss is asking you to do here, and maybe explaining one or two things.”

The former England international, currently a commentator for Sky Sports, has fond memories of clinching the title at Anfield, against an excellent Liverpool side, a night he described as incredibly special. 

Needing two goals in the second half, Smith popped up to head home the first to set Arsenal on their way. However, the drama of Michael Thomas scoring late to deliver the Gunners’ their first championship for 18 years lives long in the memory of all involved at the club, at that time.

“I clipped it through towards him, it did seem to go into slow motion. When he eventually just clipped it over Grobbelaar, I mean that was the moment. We quickly went to Mickey and then went to the corner of the ground where our fans were and it was just bedlam.”

After dropping points against Derby County and Wimbledon during their last two games at Highbury, that had left the squad “deflated,” Graham insisted that they still had a chance to wrestle the title from Liverpool, which they duly delivered in the most dramatic fashion.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams of the late ’90s and the early 2000s stand the test of time, as perhaps some of the best in English football during the Premier League years, particularly the Invincibles of 2003/04. 

Wenger would have struggled to deliver the early Premier League success, had he not inherited the back four from Graham’s teams, said Smith.

The commanding presence of the likes of Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon, guided Arsenal to the double in 1997/98 and would prove to be the foundation for the early Wenger sides who were known for their power, and mental fortitude above all else.

While they would move away from this towards a more progressive style in later years Graham’s influence undoubtedly remained.

It manifested itself in the form of Steve Bould, who played under Graham and was assistant to Wenger for a time. He now coaches the U23s at Arsenal.

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