Prior to the Everton game, Arseblog News was invited into an intimate huddle and a couple of beers, which is not altogether unusual for a home game, but this huddle featured none other than Nigel Winterburn.
Nigel had just finished taking part in a ‘Play With A Legend’ match in the Arsenal Hub, next door to Emirates Stadium which he’ll regularly be joining before weekend home games. Fans can play 7 a side with Nigel or other Arsenal legends, before joining an hour long Q & A session with drinks included – all for £99 per head or £35 for just the Q&A. Click here for more information and for the chance to win a place in a match with Nigel ahead of the Liverpool game.
Nigel Winterburn joined Arsenal from Wimbledon back in 1987, winning three league titles, two FA Cups, a League Cup and a Cup Winners Cup in a 13 year spell at the club. ‘Nutty’, as he was affectionately known by supporters, formed part of the team that won the league at Anfield in 1989- his ‘aeroplane’ celebration in front of the Anfield Road End as Thomas’ shot hits the net is surely embossed onto the memory of all Arsenal fans.
He is also a ‘double’ winner and was an ever present in the 1990-91 league winning team who lost a solitary league game. He will forever be associated with one of the most legendary back fives in football history (yes, I include David Seaman in that, as should you!) Yet Nigel’s beginnings were humble, prior to joining George Graham’s exciting young Gunners side, Winterburn had spent his career in the Football League, with Birmingham City, Oxford United and Wimbledon.
Winterburn was part of Graham’s project to replace underperforming, established stars with a mixture of the young and the hungry- fresh faced academy products and up and coming Football League pros. Nigel signed for the Gunners when club captain and England international Kenny Sansom held the number 3 shirt- he had to bide his time before ascending to Arsenal royalty.
“Not many people know that I had been to Chelsea for talks two weeks before I spoke to Arsenal,” Winterburn tells me, “But two days later they signed Tony Dorigo. Then I got a call from the chairman at Wimbledon and I was told to come here to meet George. I came here on my own, I didn’t have an agent and I went to the Marble Halls to his office.
“For me, it didn’t really matter what they offered me in terms of salary. The money wasn’t great at Arsenal at that time anyway, but when I travelled up here I had already decided that I was going to sign. I had a rough idea of the wages here and what I wanted and I just thought if I got somewhere near to what I wanted, I would sign,” remembers Winterburn, his face beginning to crack into a mischievous smile. “Typical George, I got much less than I wanted but still signed anyway!”
Joining Arsenal from Dave Basset’s Wimbledon was a big leap in status. But he still had the small matter of club captain and England star Kenny Sansom playing in his favoured position. Nigel says he didn’t ruminate much on the prospect of competing with Kenny and George didn’t mention it either. “George didn’t say anything about Kenny. At the time I didn’t really assess it in truth, when you get an offer to go from Wimbledon to Arsenal, you’re not going to turn it down,” Winterburn exclaims.
“The first few months were a learning curve for me, training with Kenny, who was a different style of left-back to myself, I learned a bit more about the position. But George didn’t say ‘you’re going to take over.” Winterburn says it is only with hindsight that Graham’s plan to overhaul the squad came to light.
“Looking back, he quickly got rid of a lot of the established players; so Kenny, Charlie Nicholas, Graham Rix, Steve Williams all went, so did Tony Woodcock. But now you can see what he was doing, bringing through players from the academy and players from the lower leagues.” Nigel came to know of George’s machinations on a need to know basis, but he admits that the first few months were tough for him at Arsenal.
“I have to say that the first six months were horrible, I didn’t like it because I wasn’t playing. Even though there were only crowds of 6,000 at Wimbledon, I missed that feeling of going out onto the pitch and you’re going out for a reason. All of a sudden, I’m not running out of the tunnel and I’m not playing and you lose that reason for training and working hard all week. I was playing in the reserves in midweek in front of a couple of hundred and it was mentally difficult for me to adjust to.”
Eventually, Nigel did see some first team minutes- albeit at right-back, a fact remembered with great amusement by those of us that recall Nigel being the most one footed player in living memory. Having spent an hour playing 7 a side with him prior to this chat, it is clear that, though Nigel still plays a lot of football, his right foot remains exclusively for standing on.
“Gradually I got games at right-back, then I’d get the odd game at left-back.” I ask if playing right-back was made any easier mentally, having been starved of first team action for so long, “No!” He responds unequivocally. “The only good thing about playing at right-back was that George liked to cut off the pitch and make it narrow, so he encouraged us to show the winger inside. Defensively that was ok for me because I was showing my opponent onto my left foot.
But Nigel’s Arsenal career received a shot in the arm in the summer of 1988, when Sansom was sold to Newcastle. Arsenal won the title in 1988-89 and Winterburn’s left-back turf remained virtually unchallenged for over a decade. “Kenny left and I came in at left-back and, for me, that’s when it all started for me at Arsenal,” he recalls. The rest as they say, is history.