By Les Crang
I usually write an article called Rogues Gallery for 7amkickoff and was just about to start an article on another Arsenal player, when I heard the news that Pat Rice is presently receiving hospital treatment for cancer. How could one not write an article about Pat Rice? Mr.Arsenal himself. This is the man who started at Arsenal in the early 1960s and only retired last year against West Brom. Who can forget that defining moment when we need to win to stay ahead of Spurs in the league and after a shot went wide, Arsene Wenger hugged Pat Rice? (see below):-
So this article is not about a rogue: this is about a professional who has given his all for the team. This about the man that lived for the team. This is about a man who we hope recovers soon to be there to enjoy success at the stadium.
Rice was born in Belfast and moved to London as a youngster. He grew up an Arsenal fan and even remembers asking Jon Sammels for his autograph as a kid. Later he worked at a Green Grocer’s on Gillespie Road before signing for Arsenal as an apprentice in 1964, turning professional in 1966, and making his debut on December 2nd 1967 against Burnley in a 0-1 defeat. Pat Rice described himself as a ‘little fat’n, not good enough to model myself on any player.’ Eddie Kelly described him as the ‘hardest working pro I have ever seen. I never thought he was good enough when he was young… About four afternoons a week Pat would come back and do sprints around the red ash track, backward sprints and forward sprints. He got himself to such a great level of fitness.’
As a fullback, Pat at first only made a few starts at Arsenal, as they already had a pretty good full back in Peter Storey. Pat’s games up to the double team were limited with him at one stage having played more international games for Northern Ireland than league games for Arsenal (3 internationals to 2 league games). Fortunately, Bertie Mee had a master stroke in putting Storey in as a midfield enforcer. From there, Pat Rice would go on to play all but one league game in the double season. He also played all FA Cup ties including the final.
The following season, Arsenal had looked to retain the FA Cup, and if you are a feverpitch fan, like I am, you may remember when Hornby gets embarrassed by Reading fans for not supporting his local team (Maidstone I think) rather than Arsenal. Well, this was the game that Rice got one of his few goals, with The Times saying:-
So it became simply, a struggle of character and nerve and it was only a powerful shot seven minutes from the end by full back Rice, deflected marginally on its way, that separated the two sides.
This goal ended up with the fans shouting ‘Pat Rice, Tasty goal’.
Pat’s second final was a defeat to Leeds. But Pat still had another 3 finals to go at Arsenal though.
If you go through the mid 1970’s, Arsenal became a team in decline as Mee sold some star players way too early (George Graham, McLintock and Sammels). But the one constant was Pat Rice. In 1976 Mee had left, and Pat Rice’s former team-mate at Arsenal and Ireland became manager, Terry Neill. From the heady days as champions in 1971, Rice was the only player left from the double team playing regularly (Storey was in the reserves and was later sold to Fulham for £10,000). Terry Neill made him captain. Rice said of the captaincy:-
Never in a million years did I expect to be captain.
Remember, Remember how you feel now. When the cup run starts next season you can think back to this.
As if inspired by his words, the following season Arsenal would go on to win the cup final against Manchester United in a famous 3-2 win.
The next season (79-80) would be his last as a Gooner. That year, Arsenal played in 2 finals and 70 games in total. Pat would be twice a loser again with defeats to West Ham and Valencia. Pat played 397 league games and won 49 international caps for Northern Ireland in his time with us and became the first Arsenal player to play in 5 FA Cup finals (later equaled by David Seaman and Ray Parlour).
Pat finished his playing days at Watford, where former Arsenal manager Bertie Mee was assistant coach. Seems Pat couldn’t leave the Arsenal if he tried. Pat would be made captain helping them to gain promotion to the 1st division. And Rice scored in Watford’s first game in the top flight in 1982–83 against Everton (49 seconds in) before hanging up his boots in 1984.
After retiring Rice came back as a youth coach at Arsenal, under Pat Rice, Arsenal produced some wonderful talent such as Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Martin Hayes, David Rocastle, David Hillier, Ian Selley, Kevin Campbell and Michael Thomas. It was said that he was ‘incredibly strict and protective’ of them. As a fan during the 1989 season, if you watch the game against Liverpool and those last couple minutes it is not George Graham on the bench, but Pat Rice playing with his glasses and waiting to run on to the pitch to congratulate and celebrate with the players. George later said he didn’t want decorum to go out the window in winning. Pat just didn’t seem to care.
As the years and managers passed, Pat Rice, like Ken Friar was as constant as the North Star. Pat has been caretaker manager after Bruce Rioch left and assistant until last year under Arsene Wenger. On his retirement from the assistant manager post Wenger spoke with sadness in his voice of Pat Rice’s ‘tremendous contribution to Arsenal and ‘how is life was linked with Arsenal’ .
In his last game against WBA the Arsenal fans sang his name and he waved goodbye. If you want a taste of irony, he wasn’t the only man to think of leaving as Robin Van Persie hardly waved and certainly didn’t have 44 years of service to the club. One left as a legend, the other as simply an ex player.
So, why write this? Especially since I’ve never seen him play live and never meet him? Well, Pat Rice was my first captain as a fan. A man who had played with distinction. A man who is a life-long fan of the team. Pat Rice is also regarded highly for his coaching at Arsenal and if you listen to a recent podcast with Perry Groves, he talks with real fondness of the man.
Pat is also the embodiment of why I personally support the club. A man, like many of us, he has gone through the trials and tribulations of being a fan. A man who wears his heart on his sleeve. A man who had a barbeque with the players on retiring (no fancy dinner at the Ritz for Pat). A man of small physical stature but collosal in the Arsenal history. Therefore, like way too many fans (and many of them not Arsenal**), my hopes and prayers are with Pat and his family.
Get well soon Mr.Arsenal, we want you there to see the seventh title win in your life time.
*Big thanks to Tim, Andy Kelly and David Tossell’s excellent books for making this story possible and aiding me with advice etc.
**It was also very touching when the Cardiff fans clapped when we sang Par Rice’s name.