7amkickoff is proud to introduce Les Crang and a new feature called ‘An Arsenal Rogues Gallery’. Les is a London native, Librarian, lifetime Gooner, and until very recently lived steps away from the Arsenal. Every two weeks (or so!) Les will turn his talents toward the unknown, the uncovered, and the lesser-than-unknown-or-no-so-much-covered stories that make up the history of our fine club. We hope you enjoy.
Vladimir Petrović. Arsenal’s first big name foreign player. What a short career he had with us in 1983. 22 appearances and three goals. Sounds like a pretty poor career in many ways, but in 1983 Petrovic was one thing that many Arsenal fans had been missing: a marque signing (it has been known to happen occasionally at Arsenal), an exotic player, and a player to outshine the dross (Petrovic played alongside such luminaries as Lee Chapman and even captained at Arsenal by Peter Nicholas in one match).
As Jon Spurling put it more succinctly:
‘Don’t ask me to be objective about Vladimir Petrovic’s, his eventual influence on Arsenal was minimal. In the grand scheme of things – but what memories, however brief.’
In the pantheons of Arsenal mavericks in the modern era I’d put him next to Reyes. Frustrating, but both players were a delight to watch on song and also both left before their time.
Footballer Vladimir Petrovic, the captain of Red Star Belgrade, cannot join Arsenal because of Yugoslav football federation regulations which stipulate that no players can leave to play abroad before the calendar year in which they become 28. Petrovic is 28 next year. His appeal has, surprisingly, been refused.
But what was Vladimir Petrovic as a player? Who was he there to replace? And why the failure? Oh, such questions, especially are unfathomable to an Arsenal fan in the early 1980’s.
Petrovic was a 28 year old Yugoslavian international midfielder. Petrovic had played for Red Star Belgrade, winning five championships and 6 FA Cups in Yugoslavia. He also played 34 times for the Yugoslavian international team.
A playmaker but right sided, who was seen as a replacement for Liam Brady. He was 5 foot 9 inches and weighing ten stone. Unlike Liam Brady, one can see two problems already. Liam Brady, wasn’t called ‘chippy’ for his shot but his love of chips, which gave him his ‘rounded physique’. Having that extra weight also meant Brady would, to use the English euphemism, ‘put his foot in’. Two things poor Petrovic wasn’t made for. To underline the point, whereas Brady was called chippy, the Serbian nickname for Petrovic is ‘Pigeon’. An English game in the 1980’s which consisted hatchet men like Norman Whiteside and Graham Souness, would enjoy kicking lumps out of this diminutive character.
Terry Neill had been after a foreign player for many years. In his biography Revelations of a football manager, Neill discusses how he wanted to sign Cruyff at T***enham. Also, whilst at Arsenal he’d tried (and failed) to sign Maradonna, Jesper Olsen and a young Ruud Gullit. As this was a period when foreign players were influencing and entering the game (for example the two Argentinians at the ‘other north London club’, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijsen at Ipswich and that permed delight of the 1980’s Craig Johnston at Liverpool). The colour and skill that foreign players brought could also add something to the gate receipts. Something Arsenal certainly needed during the 1980’s with attendances often averaging just 18,000.
Terry Neill, in his book, discussed the transfer of Petrovic at some length, saying after 1982 they’d hope to sign him. He’d seen Petrovic play in a friendly for Red Star whilst managing T***enham and in a European game in 1981 that Arsenal lost. Terry wrote, that after the dismal World Cup, the Yugoslavs had refused Petrovic the opportunity to move to the west despite joining the team during the pre-season tour:
The news about Petrovic adversely affected morale of the whole [pre-season tour] part in Rotterdam. Vladimir had quickly made himself popular with the other players and they wanted to play alongside him…….Vladimir returned to Red Star, a sad and disillusioned young man.
Petrovic said of the problems in joining in the summer of 1982 that:
I’d been training with the Arsenal players that summer  anyway, but to all intents purposes the deal was dead. I returned to Red Star with a heavy heart. Then, just as the winter took hold, Red Star said, “You can go to Arsenal”. I was thrilled but in hindsight it was a bit rushed.
When Petrovic did finally join Arsenal it was a loan deal until the end of the season for £40,000 with an option to buy in the summer. Vladimir made his debut on the 1st of January 1983, a 2-1 win. Spurling wrote of it:
Even in the first minute of playing though, Vladimir later said he felt he might not last, even with the fans shouting ‘Vladi, Vladi’. He said of his debut :
Not a minute had gone before one of their big defenders went right through my ankle. My English wasn’t very good at all back then but I think he said ‘Welcome to England’.
His next game though came against the champions elect Liverpool (that long ago?). Playing at Anfield, Petrovic was silenced by the dubious skills of Sammy Lee and Graham Souness. Arsenal lost 3-1 and The Times politely described his display as ‘tidy but quiet’. Terry Neill and Don Howe saw something else.
On my way back I started to have doubts about his ability to play fifty or sixty matches a season in a hurly-burly of the English league season.
Petrovic next match was at Highbury against Stoke City. A game remembered for a cracking free kick from Petrovic. The Times described his performance as :
Petrovic, Yugoslavia’s captain during the World Cup, is filling a gap that Terry Neill admits has existed for several years on the right of Arsenal’s creative department. His ideas are already beginning to appear as prominently as Rix’s on the left. On Saturday at Highbury, Petrovic provided Rix with the chance to give Arsenal an early lead over Stoke City. He scored the second himself from a free-kick, and his cross confused Stoke’s defence and allowed Hollins to add the third from the penalty spot. Petrovic is clearly no longer a stranger.
Spurling described it thus:
Vladi sizzling free-kick against Stoke in a 3-0 win was a throwback to the era of Charlie George in terms of wild celebrations and the adoration of him that the goal provoked.
His next game was the Milk Cup Quarter-final against Sheffield Wednesday, in which Arsenal came out 1-0 winners, with Woodcock converting a Petrovic cross. The Times also saying of him:
Although Brady is no longer with them, they now have Petrovic, and he quickly caught the eye with one piercing through ball which sent Sunderland, one of the survivors of the epic previous  encounter, to the byeline.
Although some of Petrovic’s games were not always the most entertaining (a 1-1 draw with Notts County comes to mind), Vladi could still provide the subtle touches Arsenal had missed since Brady’s departure to Juventus. In the 3-1 defeat Brighton The Times described ‘Petrovic was the provider with a subtle chip over Foster’s head [for Raphael Meade’s second goal] .’ In this match though only 17,972 turned up for the match. Hardly the halo effect the board were expecting from their new signing.
In a season in which Petrovic would play in 2 cup semi-finals, he was also welcomed to some of the dross that Arsenal could often play. In the first leg of the Milk cup semi-final at Highbury against United, Arsenal lost 4-2. That was bad enough but the Gunners were 4-0 down with 80 minutes on the clock. Meanwhile, the original Van Persie, Frank Stapleton, was flicking his fingers at the home supporters after scoring for the Mancs. Arsenal were so woeful that even Peter Nicholas scored. But as ever with Arsenal, things would get much worse this season. Not all was Vlad’s fault either.
After losing the second leg at Old Trafford 2-1, Arsenal had two weeks off before their next match. A cup Quarter-final against Aston Villa at Highbury with Vladi on fire. Spurling wrote:
His finest hour in an Arsenal shirt arrived in the 1983 Quarter-final with Aston Villa. Petrovic ran the show… Then came the Vladi moment, the only concrete evidence he ever played for Arsenal… A sublime one-two with Peter Nicholas put him through with only Nigel Spink to beat. He drew back his right foot and shot the ball slamming against the post before skidding into the net.
But how do you cap a performance like that? Well Vladi didn’t. Stewart Robson said of his next match he ‘was anonymous again.’ Oh so very true. A 5-0 defeat to Spurs. Who were minus Hoddle and Ardiles. We were so poor, even Alan Brazil scored on us. The Times said of the game:-
It was not so much a famous victory for Tottenham Hotspur, more an embarassing humiliation for Arsenal. They were three down within 18 minutes, fortunate that the total was not doubled by the interval, conceded two more afterwards.
Though it must be pointed out he was only a sub, it was an unmitigated disaster. Neill said of the match that Arsenal had ‘yielded total control’ to Spurs.
Two games later after this debacle Arsenal had another Cup Semi against Manchester United. United, fielding an expensive team, with a dodgy keeper, an injury prone skipper and Arsenal reject up front [sounds familiar?], Arsenal pressed the first half of the game. Suddenly, we were one-nil up, The Times saying of the goal:
The tenacity of Stewart Robson triumphed over the combined challenge of Bailey and Albiston, Petrovic eventually cleared up the middle and Woodcock finished it at the near post.
Unfortunately, disaster struck in the Second half. No. Not the two goals for a Manchester United comeback. Not Missing a final, but Stewart Robson being injured [again] and substituted for Lee Chapman — that £500,000 waste of space.
A season with two semi-final’s ended with nothing except mid table mediocrity. Vladi played up to the end of the season. In the West Ham game, Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners, with The Times saying:
Davis, McDernott and Petrovic at the heart of their uncharacteristic spontaneity, that it was hard to believe they were without players of the calibre of Woodcock, Rix, Sunderland and Hollins. As it was, Nicholas produced a pass of which Rix would have been proud, to find Davis, whose fierce low cross was run in for the first goal by Petrovic in the ninth minute. The prelude to the second goal in the twenty-first minute surpassed the execution. Petrovic with immaculately weighted pass found the marauding Sansom, whose shot struck the bar to be cleared for a corner by Lampard. The ball was played short to Davis and lifted to the far post for Whyte to head in. The excellent Petrovic was also involved in the third goal. He accepted a short pass from Davis, nutmegged Lampard and crossed low for McDermott to tap in an absurdly simple goal.
In this match Arsenal played Brian McDermott down the middle as we had no Sunderland, Chapman or Meade to play centre forward. 1983 certainly was poor.
Spurling though underlines why we loved Vladi, saying of the goal:
Vladi’s joyful face, running towards 41,000 fans on that sunny highbury day with arms aloft is one of the 80’s images – up there with Mickey T’s gymnastics at Anfield in 1989.
The worst-kept secret in football yesterday became official. The Belgian first division club, Antwerp, announced that they had reached agreement with Arsenal’s Yugoslav international midfield player, Vladimir Petrovic.
His final appearance ended in a 2-1 defeat to Villa. The fan’s sadly waved Petrovic and John Devine good bye. They also said good riddance to Peter Nicholas.
So why the adoration of Petrovic and his ultimate failure?
The Adoration was easy to see. Petrovic had touch and vision. Stewart Robson said of him ‘I would argue that he was probably the most talented player i’ve ever played alongside… he was often outmuscled… but… I think he’d have flourished in today’s climate.’
Petrovic said his reason for failing at Arsenal were:
I don’t chase back, I create. English football too quick, no time to think. When I think, I get kicked.
In the early eighties it felt like we’d stuck with this kind of underachievement for ever. No place for talent, only runners and grafters. In 1983 you only had Petrovic [providing something different] and Woodcock – if the latter could be bothered.
Some of the reasons for Petrovic ‘failure’ are many fold. His main reason for me is his not being Liam Brady. The shadow he left can never be forgotten. Nick Hornby wrote of his departure in Fever Pitch:
After Brady had gone Arsenal tried out a string of midfielders, some of them were competent, some not, all of them doomed by the fact they weren’t the person they were trying to replace: between 1980 and1 986 Talbot, Rix, Rollins, Price, Gatting, Peter Nicholas, Robson, Petrovic, Charlie Nicholas, Davis and Williams… all played in central midfield.
Terry Neill’s biography of Petrovic time at Arsenal and failure to get a contract was ‘there was a new agent, Peter Kovacevic, representing Petrovic. I felt uneasy about his suggestions’ and a recent interview with el tel indicated that Petrovic did not want leave Arsenal. Terry discussed how there was ‘horse trading’ going on over the transfer from his agent as well as his not being Terry’s aggressive player needed in the first division. As Spurling says :
Terry Neill had balked at paying £300,000 to keep him [but not £440,000 for Peter Nicholas?] and the press deemed him an unpredictable luxury.
Neill also spoke in the recent interview, of how Petrovic broke down in tears when informed he was wasn’t staying. He also broke down in tears after his penultimate home game when fans cheered his name in a home defeat to Sunderland (yup, we were that poor).
Personally, my view of Petrovic was he was a man before his time. I remember when we signed Petrovic or were rumour to be buying him during the 1982 world cup, I watched him. I’d started being a fan in 1980 in which we’d got to two finals (and lost). Since then Terry had lost Liam Brady after offering him the highest wages in the league at the time. Terry had also enquired about Bryan Robson, Mark Lawrenson and Johan Neeskens and bought none of them. He had bought the likes of Lee Chapman (the times said he couldn’t even turn mud whilst at Arsenal) and Ian Hawley for the amount we’d sold Brady for. Christ. The Arsenal team were so poor it was embarrassing.
Petrovic. Well, Petrovic was not about size and hard tackles. His diminutive figure, his fear of tackling or tracking back were exactly what we didn’t have. Petrovic, was a breath of fresh air.
Petrovic though could never replace after a serious disadvantage though. Being ‘a luxury player’, as the xenophobic press called the foreign players with skill, he never stood a chance. He was also at the disadvantage of being Liam Brady’s replacement. Brady had been berated prior to his move to Juventus by the fans, but once he left, all midfielders were derided. Losing Brady, in my opinion was bigger than losing Viera, Henry, Cesc or Pires. The only player that comes near him in terms of greatness and impact (for me) is Dennis Bergkamp. If Brady was a woman he’d be Angelina Jolie whereas Petrovic would always be Liz Hurley.*
On departing Arsenal, Petrovic later said:
Fantastic letter when I left – ones that made me cry, you know. One said ‘maybe one day we’ll watch an Arsenal team where skilful players flourish, and where we accept that we can learn from foreign players. Maybe one day Arsenal fans will enjoy watching a skillful team, rather than a bunch of runners and kickers.
1983 had ended with Terry looking like he might be willing to spend money on a skillful foreign player. Instead Petrovic was let go. That summer felt pretty awful losing Petrovic. To most Arsenal fans, we’d began to wonder if Arsenal ever wanted skillful players. By the 22nd of June 1983 we had a new hero signing for us. Charlie Nicholas.
*You can keep your Angelina Jolie, I quite like Liz Hurley. – Tim