The fanfare which accompanied Charlie Nicholas’ march south in August 1983 rivalled that which greeted the original Bonnie Prince Charlie some 300 years earlier. Here was the Messiah who would take Arsenal into the promised land, the dream signing who could propel the Gunners into a new age of success and prosperity. Celtic manager Billy McNeill described him as “the most exciting young player I’ve ever seen” after Charlie plundered 52 goals during the 1982-83 campaign for the Glasgow club. Opting against joining Liverpool, Manchester United or Tottenham, Nicholas described Arsenal as “the team of the future.”
“I was interviewed dozens of times during those first few weeks,” he recalls. Amidst the popping flashbulbs and the microphones thrust in his face, one question cropped up more than any other from the journalists: whether Nicholas, who cost Arsenal £650,000, feared he might become the “new Peter Marinello.”
Marinello had failed to live up to his star billing after joining Bertie Mee’s Arsenal from Hibernian for £100,000 in January 1970. “He was 19, and I’m 21. I’ll be trying to make sure that I’m more successful in London,” was Nicholas’ trademark response. Nicholas’ four-year Arsenal career was not without its high points, and he was a hero for many Gunners supporters, but he never threatened to become a messiah. And the similarities with Marinello, both in style and substance, were there for all to see.
Shortly before Nicholas arrived, the club announced that due to financial constraints, they would not be handing out free turkeys to employees that Christmas. The Gunners had felt the economic pinch in the early 1980s, as attendances plummeted to a hardcore 20,000 (and sometimes less) following the departures of both Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton. Charlie’s brash entrance would reaffirm Arsenal as a major power; the ‘Bank of England’ club was open for business once again.
In true 1980s style, Arsenal fans, many of whom now copied Charlie’s mullet-style haircut, could stand up and shout ‘Here We Go’ at top volume. At least, that was the plan. Charlie came with a reputation for being a man about town, and his reputation for ‘larging it’ around Glasgow was well known. “See four, five, six pints. That to me isn’t a real drink,” claimed Charlie in what he later admitted was “a series of ill-thought-out media soundbites.”
No matter. On his debut at Highbury against Luton Town in August, Nicholas flicked the ball around well, and goals from Tony Woodcock and Brian McDermott steered Arsenal to a 2-1 victory in front of a much-improved 39,348 crowd, the vast majority of whom were there to see him make his Highbury bow. The collective hysteria from Gunners fans that greeted his every move would have given Duran Duran a run for their money. Fittingly, on Football Focus earlier that day, an action sequence of him in Scotland was backed by the Duran Duran hit The Reflex, with obligatory camera shutters clicking throughout. This was how it would be for the next four years.
Away at Wolves two days later, Nicholas scored both goals in another 2-1 Arsenal win, and Desmond Lynam rounded off Grandstand by telling BBC viewers: “Arsenal are top of the league, thanks to that man, Charlie Nicholas.” It seemed that nothing could go wrong. “I’m hoping that I can just continue the form I showed last season in Scotland,” he explained.
But Nicholas was uncomfortable with being the biggest star in town. Prior to the Luton game, as the Arsenal players lined up in the tunnel, the players were informed that they’d be introduced separately to the home crowd. It was an initiative pioneered by new Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, and it was designed to give Charlie maximum publicity. “I can remember the announcer saying: ‘And welcome to Number 10 – Charlie Nicholas.’ I got a huge ovation, and I got on superbly with Arsenal fans from the start, but I was embarrassed, because all I wanted was to be a member of the team, and not the big star.” With the money Arsenal had spent, there was no chance of Charlie being granted his wish, and Nicholas’ form, like Arsenal’s was about to plummet.
Thirteen years earlier, Peter Marinello was thrown in at the deep end by Arsenal boss Bertie Mee at Old Trafford against Manchester United in January 1970. With George Best injured, all eyes were on Marinello who, with his diminutive physique and long hair, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Ulsterman. “I was dubbed ‘London’s George Best’, which was massively flattering at the time, but on reflection was a problem. I replaced Jimmy Robertson in the Arsenal team that day, and didn’t do an awful lot… except for scoring at the Stretford End,” Marinello recalled. His first-half goal followed a distinctly ‘industrial’ passage of play between the two sides. Marinello took hold of a loose ball, jinked between a couple of defenders, and slammed the ball firmly past Alex Stepney. It was a wonderful piece of improvisation, and the United crowd, perhaps mindful that it was a ‘Bestie’ type goal, sportingly applauded him. No matter that Arsenal ultimately lost the match 2-1, the former Hibs hero had made his mark.
To be brutally frank, this was as good as it ever got for Marinello at Arsenal, with Bertie Mee – now building a team which would win the Fairs Cup later that season and the League and FA Cup Double a year later – uncertain how to deploy his new protégé. He flitted in and out of the team, and failed to score for the Gunners again for more than two years.
There are various reasons why Nicholas failed to live up to his star billing. There was an ongoing problem in that first season with his ankle. Surgery was required but Arsenal were reluctant to sanction it because they needed their star turn on the pitch. Terry Neill and coach Don Howe never quite knew what his best position was. The Scot was at his most consistent early in the 1984-85 campaign, when Don Howe – who replaced Neill as manager after the latter had been fired at Christmas ’83 – played Nicholas in the ‘hole’ behind a front pairing of Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner. For a couple of months, with Arsenal top of the league and Nicholas flourishing, it worked perfectly. But as Arsenal’s form collapsed in mid-winter, and the team’s drink-driving convictions stacked up, his form collapsed. “One issue was that I didn’t have the pace to make it in the English game,” Nicholas admits. “I had the skills, but on my own, I was never going to turn that team around.”
Off-the-field distractions didn’t help. Horror of horrors, Nicholas had an agent, a former bankrupt named Bev Walker. Walker predicted Nicholas would be a millionaire within five years, and in order to help him maximise his commercial potential the agent encouraged him to develop links with the fashion and music industries. He was arguably the first 1980s player to merge showbiz with football. Prophetically, Terry Neill had predicted that the Scot was 10 years ahead of his time. He advertised fitted kitchens, sleeveless tank tops, leather trousers, Burton’s gear… whatever.
Nicholas liked listening to the Cocteau Twins, and once he’d dispensed with the New Wave wedge haircut, he decided to grow his fringe and his hair at the back, and modelled himself on U2’s Bono. Listening to U2’s We Will Follow became his pre-match gee up. At last, an English footballer had broken free of the Eagles, Dire Straits and ELO straitjacket.
Then there were the girls. Nicholas dated Flake advert model Janis Lee–Burns (“I just call her the flake, and if you’ll pardon the pun, she’s very tasty,” he said), TV presenter-cum-gymnast Suzanne Dando, and Dollar lead singer Thereza Bazar. Nicholas insisted that for much of his Arsenal career: “I felt lonely in London quite a lot of the time. A lot of the time, I stayed in and drank a couple of glasses of wine and watched a rented video.” But with tabloids gleefully recording the occasions he did venture to Tramp and Stringfellows, it seemed that the £2,000-a-week Scot was perhaps the root cause of Arsenal’s malaise. With the Gunners misfiring horribly in the 1985-86 season, even Peter Marinello, now 36, and with a string of failed businesses behind him, urged Nicholas “not to make the same mistake I did.”
After his eye-catching Old Trafford debut, Marinello floundered. Crushed by media expectation, he quickly drowned in a sea of bad modelling shots, dodgy newspaper columns and mediocre performances. Photographer Terry O’Neill later recalled feeling “terribly sorry for the young man. He looked totally out of his depth.”
Still, he did get to appear with Pan’s People on Top Of The Pops. Like Nicholas a decade or so later, his musical tastes didn’t conform to the stereotypes of that era. Citing Chicago and Spooky Tooth as his favourite bands, Marinello, in the 1971 Fab 208 annual, commented that he liked “hard swinging music, particularly in the underground style.”
Tellingly, he also liked spending “rather too much money on clothes, but I believe that a footballer at the top level should dress well, as does a singer or an actor.” Indeed, he was linked with a cameo role in a low-budget horror flick. Like so many things in Marinello’s brief Arsenal career, it never came off.
He had one further opportunity to make a name for himself at Highbury, when Bertie Mee handed him a starting berth against Ajax in the second-leg of the European Cup quarter-final in March 1972. Trailing 2-1 from the away leg in Amsterdam, Marinello had a gilt-edged chance to give Arsenal an early lead, but fluffed his opportunity badly. Bertie Mee muttered darkly about “the bad habits” he’d picked up in Scottish football, specifically a “quick temper” and “a tendency to let his head drop if things don’t go well.”
Marinello was also embittered by “…the way my London ‘friends’ turned their backs on me when I faded out of the Arsenal team.” Within three years, he drifted away from Highbury, never able to dislodge dynamic winger George Armstrong from the starting line-up. Privately, he also struggled after his wife Joyce was diagnosed with post-natal depression following the birth of their second child. “It wasn’t discussed in those days,” shrugged Marinello, who now acts as full-time carer for Joyce, “but it was very hard for our family.”
He was able to rebuild his football career with Portsmouth, and subsequently with Motherwell and Heart of Midlothian, before retiring from the game. For much of that time, he’s struggled to make ends meet, and several years back, even lay in wait, shotgun in hand, with the intention of killing the conman who’d ripped him off and taken the bulk of his fortune.
“I lacked the intensity and the will to win of the lads who won the Double with Arsenal. Bertie Mee made it clear that he’d only tolerate consistency and focus, and he did a great job with those players,” he admitted. “To be honest, I only have myself to blame.”
A disciple of Bertie Mee’s team, and a teammate of Marinello, George Graham had little truck with Charlie Nicholas’ wayward flair, either. A puritanical Roundhead to Nicholas’ exuberant Cavalier, Arsenal’s new boss marched into Highbury, every inch the zealous Puritan. With scalpel in hand, he surgically removed Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner within days of arriving. Despite early publicity shots of the pair grinning uneasily at the camera, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, Graham and Nicholas was never going to be a marriage made in heaven.
It didn’t help that, as Millwall manager, Graham had joined the Arsenal team in the Orange Tree pub, Totteridge, for a Saturday night drink. (“He knew about our nocturnal habits before he even arrived,” explained a rueful Nicholas.) In May 1986 he summoned Nicholas to a meeting at Highbury and told him: “You’re wasting your talent.” Nicholas was simply too flash for his new manager. The day his three-year drink driving ban was lifted, Charlie took delivery of his custom-built Porsche.
And yet Graham gave Nicholas, who’d never lost his self–confidence, time to succeed – or fail – in the new regime. In the previous three seasons, the ex-Celtic striker had displayed a penchant for scoring against North London rivals Tottenham (“I’d always played really well in Glasgow derbies, and I always enjoyed rising to the big occasion,”) and he remained popular with fans and teammates.
Nicholas scored the winner against Manchester United at Highbury in Graham’s first match, but a leg injury meant he missed two months of the season, during which time Arsenal embarked on a long unbeaten run. “I knew, and George knew, that Arsenal could be a better team without me,” Nicholas admitted. Paul Merson graduated from the youth team, and Graham purchased Alan Smith from Leicester in April 1987. Here were the strikers who’d combine to steer Arsenal to the title two years later. Nicholas’ time was almost up.
But there was one final, glorious chapter, when Graham’s Arsenal won the Littlewoods Cup against Liverpool at Wembley in 1987. It was the day when Nicholas was crowned king, for 24 hours at least. His two goals, both poachers’ strikes, combined with his full repertoire of flicks and shimmies, lit up Wembley. Graham wasn’t taken in by the ‘CHARLIE IS OUR DARLING!’ and ‘SELL ME IF YOU DARE’ headlines. Within six months, after a barren start to the following campaign, Graham sent Nicholas as far north as he could, to Aberdeen. In his autobiography, The Glory And The Grief, Graham described Nicholas as “a fool to himself.”
“In the best traditions of Scottish football, Peter and Charlie loved to entertain crowds and dazzle with their footwork, but in order to be successful, and to play in a winning team, a player needs focus and discipline too,” insisted George Graham.
Marinello and Nicholas headed south to a club keen to inject some panache and devil-may-care spirit into its ranks. But Bertie Mee and George Graham resorted to type – namely dogged determination, a mean-machine defence and the hardest of pressing games – to bring silverware to Arsenal. In such a system, there could be no place for the Scottish duo’s fripperies and sporadic shows of sorcery.