Sport

Terry Neill obituary

Terry Neill, who has died aged 80, was an influential footballer at Arsenal in the 1960s and later managed the club to three successive FA Cup finals, from 1978 to 1980, winning one and losing two. He was also a longstanding player for Northern Ireland, winning 59 caps between 1961 and 1973 – a record at the time – and serving for four years as their manager.

Although Neill’s achievements as a player and manager at Arsenal were modest in terms of the team’s illustrious history, he was held in great affection by fans there for his overall contribution to the club, and was even forgiven for becoming manager of their north London rivals, Tottenham, for a two-year spell immediately after finishing as a player.

A central defender at Highbury between 1959 and 1970, Neill was unable to lift a trophy while at the club, and left just before Arsenal’s double-winning season of 1970-71. Returning as manager between 1976 and 1983, he delivered a best position of third in the First Division in 1980-81 and, aside from his achievements in the FA Cup, guided Arsenal to the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1980.

Terry Neill, centre, talking to the players at the European Cup final match between Arsenal and Valencia in 1980.
Terry Neill, centre, talking to the players at the European Cup final match between Arsenal and Valencia in 1980. Photograph: Getty Images

When he was sacked in 1983, Neill was only 41 and looked to have a good future in the game. But he never returned to management, instead settling into many years of running sports bars in London, adding in some media work along the way.

Born in Belfast, Neill grew up in the seaside resort of Bangor, Co Down, where he attended the town’s grammar school and played in Bangor FC’s youth team before joining Arsenal in 1959. He made his first-team debut at 18, gained his first Northern Ireland cap in 1961, and from 1964 onwards was a core member of the Arsenal set up under both Billy Wright as manager and his successor Bertie Mee.

Arsenal were generally a mid-table outfit during Neill’s decade-long sojourn as a player, and were not particularly successful in cup competitions either – although he did appear in a losing cause in a League Cup final against Leeds in 1968. The side’s fortunes began to pick up after that, but jaundice, and its after effects, prevented Neill from playing in a second League Cup final against Swindon the following season and ruled him out of the 1970 Inter Cities Fairs Cup final, which Arsenal won against Anderlecht.

By then 28 and struggling to regain his regular team place, Neill accepted an offer from Hull City to become their player-manager. The following 1970-71 season, as he led his new team to fifth place in the Second Division, Arsenal won the First Division title and FA Cup without him.

Terry Neill, left, with Malcolm MacDonald in 1976.
Terry Neill, left, with Malcolm MacDonald in 1976. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images

At Hull Neill delivered mid-table finishes over the next three seasons, and from 1971 he was also player-manager of Northern Ireland. In 1973 he stopped playing altogether so that he could concentrate on both managerial roles.

Having impressed at Hull as a natural leader, in 1974 Neill was chosen by Tottenham as successor to their double winning manager Bill Nicholson – a daunting task, not just due to Nicholson’s status but because, as an Arsenal man, Neill was viewed by some Spurs fans as an enemy agent. Initially he continued to manage Northern Ireland but, after narrowly avoiding relegation in his first term at Spurs, he gave up his international duties in 1975, leading to a significant improvement with ninth position the following year.

Although he had hardly set the world on fire at White Hart Lane, Neill’s efforts were deemed impressive enough for Arsenal to come calling in the summer of 1976, when they took him on as a replacement for Mee. A colourful character, chipper, witty and well-liked by his players, Neill fostered an attractive brand of football at Arsenal that was built around a talented contingent of Irish players, including Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and Pat Jennings. Eighth place in the league in 1976-77 was a significant upgrade on the last knockings of the Mee era, and over the next five seasons Arsenal finished seventh, fourth, third and fifth in the First Division.

It was in the cups, however, that Neill’s sides made the biggest impression. In the first of three consecutive FA Cup finals, in 1978, they were favourites against Ipswich, only to be soundly beaten 1-0. Compensation came in 1979 when, after having led Manchester United 2-0, they were pegged back to 2-2 late in the game, only for a dramatic Alan Sunderland goal in the 89th minute to seal a 3-2 Arsenal victory. In the 1980 final they were again defeated 1-0, by West Ham, and a few days later, wearied by their Wembley exertions, they lost the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup final on penalties to Valencia.

Fifth place in 1981-82 appeared to render Neill’s position reasonably secure, and he was given a three-year contract extension soon afterwards. But the departure of key players had begun to reduce his resources and after two of his big signings, Lee Chapman from Stoke and Charlie Nicholas from Celtic, proved unsuccessful, he was relieved of his job in late 1983.

Pocketing a hefty compensation package, Neill decided he would be better off venturing into the world of business rather than exposing himself any further to the vicissitudes of football management. With his wife, Sandra (nee Lichfield), a former model whom he had married in 1969, he opened and ran sports bars in north and central London. He also invested in a media management company, The Hub, and picked up media work, including as a pundit with Capital Gold radio.

In retirement in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, Neill continued to travel to Highbury for matches, proclaiming that “I’m an Arsenal man until I die”.

He is survived by Sandra, their daughters, Tara and Abigail, and his grandchildren, Izaak, Zeb, Azania and Florence.

William John Terence Neill, footballer and manager, born 8 May 1942; died 28 July 2022

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