I’m going to be honest with you, I’m frustrated with Arsenal Football Club. It appears that once again, we are falling behind in the transfer market. Manchester City have already splashed out big on Bernardo Silva and Ederson. Manchester United have signed Victor Lindelof for big money and have been linked with an astonishing move for Cristiano Ronaldo. Liverpool are close to sealing a £35 million deal for Mohamed Salah and are looking to strength extensively this summer. Chelsea are yet to spend but could open the cheque book any day now, with reports today suggesting that Robert Lewandowski has been in talks with the Blues.
Meanwhile, Arsenal have signed Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer, despite being the big team that needed the most strengthening, if not rebuilding. So, in an attempt to ease my frustration, this week’s Arsenal Scrapbook looks back at a player who signed for the Gunners 34 years ago today, choosing Highbury over Old Trafford and Anfield.
That player is Charlie Nicholas.
The young Scot had smashed 50 goals for Celtic in the 1982/83 season, winning Footballer and Young Football of the Year in his homeland. This astounding goal scoring season has drawn the attention of the big boys south of Hadrian’s Wall, and there was a fight on to secure his signature.
Despite Liverpool and Manchester United being two of the biggest teams in the country and Arsenal in somewhat of a slump, Nicholas chose North London. He officially joined Arsenal on June 22nd, 1983 for a fee £650,000, making him the second most expensive Scottish player ever.
Four years without a trophy and Liam Brady’s departure in 1980 had seen doom and gloom descend over Highbury, but the signing of Nicholas gave everyone a lift. Gunners boss Terry Neill described the Scotsman as “the most exciting player to emerge in Britain since George Best”, with Nicholas’ immediately becoming a favourite amongst the Arsenal faithful. It was believed that a 21-year-old Nicholas would lead Arsenal into a bright, new, trophy-laden era, and the early signs looked promising.
An impressive performance on his debut against Luton Town was followed by a brace against Wolves, but the young striker and Arsenal then began to struggle. Nicholas didn’t find the back of the net again until Boxing Day, Arsenal were sixteenth in the First Division and Terry Neil had been sacked. But Nicholas’ return to form was somewhat of a turning point for himself and the Gunners as he bagged a brace in the North London Derby against Tottenham and beginning a turnaround in Arsenal’s season.
The Gunners climbed up the table and finished sixth under new boss Don Howe, with Nicholas scoring 13 goals in all competitions, 11 coming in the league. Two consecutive 7th placed finishes in 1984/85 and 85/86 saw Nicholas just break into double figures for goals and Don Howe replaced by George Graham.
Although he could not match his goal scoring record at Celtic – due in part to being played as a second striker just off the front – Nicholas was still a fan favourite at Highbury thanks to his skill, ability to bamboozle opponents, flamboyance, and extravagance.
However, it was the latter two that got Nicholas in a bit of trouble and somewhat contributed to his slip in form. The Scot lived a party boy lifestyle in the capital, earning himself the nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’ from the press, as well as two driving bans for driving under the influence.
George Graham’s arrival as manager also saw Nicholas slip down the pecking order at Highbury.
Despite appearing less and less, Charlie Nicholas had one last moment to secure his place in Arsenal history and the hearts of Gooners when they faced Liverpool in the 1987 League Cup final against Liverpool. He took it.
Starting alongside Niall Quinn up front, Nicholas scored the equaliser in the 30th minute after Ian Rush’s opener, tapping home from close-range after a goalmouth scramble. Then, with just seven minutes left, Perry Groves found Nicholas on the edge of the box. The Scots shot took a deflection, wrong-footing Bruce Grobbelaar and finding the back of the net to end Arsenal’s seven-year trophy drought.
Despite not quite living up to expectation, Nicholas had won Arsenal a trophy, doing exactly what he was signed to do, sealing his place as an Arsenal cult hero.
Nicholas turned down a return to Celtic in the summer of 1987 as he believed he was still part of George Graham’s plans at Highbury. He was wrong.
Just four games into the 1987/88 season, Nicholas was dropped and spent the rest of his Arsenal career in the reserves before returning north of the border to join Aberdeen in January 1988.
Nicholas departed North London after five years of service, 184 appearances, and 54 goals, earning himself a place in Arsenal hearts and club history, despite not scoring as many goals as expected. His brilliance and skill got fans off their seats, made Highbury feel like a more positive place and, in the end, ended Arsenal’s trophy drought.
It is probably wrong to class Charlie Nicholas as a legend, but as a cult hero yes, he is certainly that.