By Les Crang
It has been said that you should never meet your hero as you’ll be disappointed. In many instances that may be true, but when I met Paul Davis at the Paul Vaessen book event at the Emirates I couldn’t have been happier.
To me, Paul Davis (alongside Dennis Bergkamp) is probably my favourite player. Similar in some instances to Bergkamp, a player not with blistering pace, a player who looked cool as an iceberg on the pitch but who was willing to strike back at opponents, and most importantly, one of those players you want to play forever and never retire. To me that was Paul Davis.
Paul Davis was often regarded as the first black player at Arsenal, but this was untrue as Brendan Batson had played 9 games for us in the mid 1970’s. Also, the great winger, Laurie Cunningham had been an apprentice at Arsenal for a year before being moved on to Orient. Paul Davis though was perhaps our finest young prospect of the late 1970’s, alongside the late Paul Vaessen and Stewart Robson.
Paul Davis had made his debut for Arsenal debut on the 7th of April 1980 at the age of 17 years old. Arsenal were in the midst of going for two finals, playing one semi-final against Liverpool on the Saturday. Tottenham on the Easter Monday and Juventus in the Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final on the Wednesday. With two Cup semi-finals coming up, manager, Terry Neill decided to play 6 reserves, of which Davis was one. Spurs, not wanting to assist Arsenal in winning a European Cup Winners Cup, had made sure Arsenal fulfilled the game.
As is so often with Spurs, the plan backfired, as Arsenal won 2-1 at White Hart Lane, with The Times famously saying (license required):-
It was not surprising that they began with six reserves including a complete newcomer, Davis, a 17-year-old who strolled into the game with almost veteran assurance.
Spurs defeat would leave Arsenal fans to sing ‘we won the game with six reserves’ on the occasions we played them. Davis as a player was a left midfielder, that could also play in the middle. Tall, thin, with a range of passes and a suspective challenge. A rare scorer, but of the 37 goals he got in 447 games at Arsenal, many were gracious rather than scruffy.
The thing is, if you look at the late 1970’s early 1980’s, one can’t talk about Paul Davis without discussing racism. At West Bromwich Albion, Paul Rees has discussed this in his excellent book Three Degrees looking at the three black players Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson. Rees discussed how the barracking of fans was hardly mentioned until the year before Davis debut, when Gerald Sinstadt mentioned it when WBA beat Manchester United at Old Trafford 5-3 (2 minutes 58 seconds in)
Brendan Batson said of the Arsenal fans :-
I wasn’t aware of any form of racist abuse directed at me during my time at Arsenal. When I left and went to Cambridge, there was a bit. And then when I went to West Brom, me, Cyrille (Regis) and Laurie (Cunningham) used to get a lot of abuse at away games. I don’t think there are any straightforward reasons as to why the Arsenal crowd is more open-minded than others. Maybe it’s because there’s always been a tradition of Greeks, Italians and Cypriots at Highbury. Maybe it’s due to the club’s proximity to Hackney Marshes.
Other fans had seen the rise of the National Front outside Highbury. Jon Spurling when writing Highbury said :-
It would be a gross over-exaggeration to claim that racial harmony persisted in and around the ground. When I placed an advert in the Islington Gazette for information on aspects of Highbury history, I soon received three virtually identical testimonies, citing problems at the exit to Arsenal tube station, and in the maze of streets nearby. In the mid-1970s, National Front leader John Tyndall admitted: ‘We hope to swell our ranks by launching a recruitment campaign outside football grounds.’ The National Front clearly made its presence felt around Highbury at the time.
At Arsenal though the booing, was often aimed at his poor early form in the team. Away from home Davis was often barracked, especially at Chelsea, West Ham United and Millwall amongst others. Out of London, Davis would also be abused. For example, in January 1981 Arsenal played at Everton. One author said of the game:-
It was a match made memorable for the vile taunting of Paul Davis by the racist scum element in the Everton crowd. What incensed them even more was Davis’ measured display symbolising grace and culture, not qualities which those moronic fans would comprehend.
But let us not forget that Everton were still throwing bananas at John Barnes whilst at Liverpool in the late 1980’s. What a great bunch of humans they were.
In a recent interview Davis said of the racial abuse:-
During my 20-year playing career, I was racially abused by other players around 10 times. That’s not even taking into account the racial abuse I got from fans.
To be honest, as ridiculous as it sounds, I don’t think 10 times is that bad given the period I played in. I’ve been called ‘monkey’, ‘n*****’ and ‘w**’ – you name it, I’ve been called it. In those days you just learned to deal with it.
But there’s no running away from the fact it is deeply upsetting. It makes you feel sick. I just had to find a way to be strong mentally on the pitch; to make sure the abuse did not affect my game.
The barracking at home in his early years was usually down to poor form on occasions and Terry Neill. Under Neill and Don Howe Paul Davis, from what Andy Kelly told me was booed because his play was often to give a good thirty yard ball to some very poor players. He was frustrating, but in a team with few artiste, Davis would often shine in comparison to ‘honest pro’s’ like Ian Allinson and Tommy Caton.
Tony Woodcock in his biography Inside Soccer spoke of Paul Davis lighter (or shall we say, lack of sharpness?) For example, the time he bought a new car (an XR3) and was told by the garage to not go over 30 mph. Davis took this to mean he could not go over 30 miles per day, therefore making sure he was close to both training ground and stadium. You can imagine the ribbing he received for this.
If Davis had showed glimpses with Terry Neill and Don Howe (plus Dave Sexton in the England under-21 side in which he played 11 games and scored twice). Davis really began to shine under George Graham’s arrival to Highbury in 1986. He said of his old boss’ arrival and impact on the team :-
Under Terry Neill and Don Howe training wasn’t serious enough because no one was taking any responsibility. The players weren’t conducting themselves in the right way. It was like a casual jog. George Graham had real clout though, and was mentally strong, right from the training ground to players’ contract negotiations. He made it clear that the joking was over.
George Graham would be parsimonious as ever in the transfer stakes buying a ginger haired winger from Colchester in Perry Groves for a laughable £50,000. Funnily enough, up to early new year though, George had us playing effectively and on 4th January 1987 we went 4 points clear, when the North London derby was televised live and Arsenal won 2-1 at White Hart Lane, with Tony Adams and Paul Davis scoring (a low free-kick into the bottom corner).
George had got not just Davis playing well but the whole team had started working well together. Graham Weaver wrote:-
Davis and Steve Williams. After his promising debut at White Hart Lane in 1980 Davis had initially struggled to live up to expectations, but by now he was, in his own calm and unassuming way, playing some of the best football of his career and his simple passing and calming influence was at the heart of much of the team’s play. Alongside him was Steve Williams who had been signed from Southampton for £600,000 in December 1984. Due to injury the England international had yet to make a significant impact on the team, but now he was able to form an effective partnership with Davis at the heart of the side.
Although Arsenal’s championship form petered out quicker than Paul Gascoigne quitting drink, our march to Wembley was still on. Unfortunately, in the semi-final we would meet Spurs in which Paul Davis was mainly remembered for his pass to Ian Allinson in the replay with Tottenham in which we equalised (30 seconds in) with a long diagonal ball over the top (read ‘punt’).
Davis later said of the impact of the goal on Spurs confidence:-
I looked at experienced players like Gough and Waddle. In a split second, their heads were gone. They had nothing left.
David Rocastle’ goal two minutes from time put Davis and the team through to their first final. It also provided us with another song to goad the unhappy spuds:-
‘One nil down, two one up we knocked Tottenham out the cup’.
Off to Wembley and only Liverpool to beat. Lets be honest, this was some Liverpool team. Steve ‘one minute’ McMahon, Ian Rush and England international Paul Walsh and Jan Molby as well. On the bench? Kenny Dalglish. Arsenal had Perry Groves on the bench. On paper we looked to be making up the numbers. But nothings is won on paper.
Note on the video, 2 minutes 24 seconds Davis nearly gets an equaliser with a stinging shot outside the area, hitting the post. Davis also took the free kick for the equalising goal (though hardly the best one he took). Although Liverpool had the first twenty five minutes Williams and Davis won the battle in the middle against Whelan, Molby and McMahon. Arsenal had won their first trophy since in 8 years. Davis had won his first trophy too.
With George Graham winning his first trophy in 1987, it would allow him to mould it into the team he wanted. From the team he inherited in 1986, by 1988-9 Davis would be one of six players left from that squad (the others being David O’Leary, John Lukic, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Tony Adams). The season of 1988-9, to most Arsenal fans is a thing of joy, culminating in Arsenal winning the title in dramatic circumstances:-
For Davis, it would be one of ultimate frustration for Davis within the Arsenal team and more especially internationally. In recent weeks, there has been much mention of Arsenal having 5 players playing against San Marino. Unprecedented. Not really, In September 1988 England manager Bobby Robson had chosen a preliminary squad of 6 with Alan Smith, Tony Adams, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle , Brian Marwood and Paul Davis for a game against Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, circumstances would conspire against him on playing for England.
The event would be a 2-2 with Southampton:-
In many ways, Davis is remembered for this game rather than the other 446 games he played. In a situation which was totally out of character. In a game in which Southampton midfielder Glenn Cockerell constantly barracked Davis, informing him of the intimate relations with Davis mum the previous evening, he took offence, turned around and punched him in the jaw, breaking it. Davis was unceremoniously dropped from the England team. The media outrage can be seen here on the ITN news.
Davis went to the F.A. Pleaded guilty as charged. The F.A said that due to his impeccable disciplinary record (14 bookings in 8 year), they would be lenient with him. They gave him, at the time, the longest ban of 9 games. Paul Davis was never played for England. As Dave Seager wrote:-
In 1991/92 Paul Davis got no caps and Geoff Thomas got 9 – I leave you with that horrific thought.
Davis would play a mere 12 games in the championship team of 1988/9, scoring one goal (a rare diving header against Charlton Athletic). With the appearances he made, Davis would still receive a title medal. Although still injured for Anfield, Davis still went up with the team, and was behind the goal when Michael Thomas got the winner and celebrated with the fans in the away end with Gus Caesar. Now, would that happen now? Not sure if I mean winning the title or having a player with the groundlings?
The following season he would make just 11 league games. The season of 1990-1 would see perhaps Davis at his finest. It is often remembered for Anders Limpar on the wing, Alan Smith scoring and Steve Bould at the back. For me it was Paul Davis. The displays I remember? Maybe the double strike against Norwich at Highbury? What about the second goal against Aston Villa in a 5-0 thumping (goal is 1 minute 27 seconds in)
Or perhaps the display against Chester City with 3 assists in a 5 goal haul. The back heel to set up the third? The putted chip for Adams scoring the fourth.
In a season were adversity was Arsenal’s middle name, with the FA taking two points from us for the brawl at Old Trafford and then Arsenal captain Tony Adams sent to jail for drink driving, Arsenal and Davis rose to the top. With the captain out, George Graham had to choose a captain. The natural choice might have been Steve Bould or David O’Leary. Paul Davis was in fact made captain.
Davis would play all but 1 league games that season. Davis had an amazing season, winning a title medal. Just watch the passing. Its just concise if a ground ball and floated if a ball in the air. Watching our number 8 was just a pure joy. But no England caps.
With Arsenal in the European Cup for the first time in 20 years, George Graham had high hopes for the team saying:-
Paul Davis could well be the player who makes the crucial difference for us in Europe this season.’ George Graham, speaking prior to Arsenal’s European Cup campaign.
Playing against Benfica away, George was effusive again of Davis saying:-
Paul sacrificed his attacking urge for the team. He understands what you need to be successful in Europe. One ill-thought-out move can prove disastrous and give your enemy the advantage.
Unfortunately, in the home game Arsenal would lose 3-1 and be out of the Europe. For Davis, this would spell a period of him in the wilderness. After the defeat to Benfica to early March 1993 (15 months) Davis would play 2 games. Davis had previously mentioned George Graham could be like this with players, saying after being dropped the previous season against QPR:-
When it comes to the crunch, there is only one boss – and at Highbury it is definitely George Graham. Go storming in, and there can only be one loser. It won’t be the manager.
For Davis, this was an all time low. In a recent Podcast, Davis discussed this period, saying George Graham never told him why he had been dropped and was pretty upset at being dropped for such a long period. For me, this was perhaps one of George Graham biggest mistakes. Davis, although thirty, still had plenty more to give (and certainly more than Jimmy Carter could).
He would be back though for the Cup Double in 1993 and Davis would also play in the European Cup Winners Final, where along with with Alan Smith he would have a magnificent game with George telling ‘Davis was told to track Thomas Brolin’. Arsenal would stick out a hard fought One-Nil win:-
After this game, Davis would play 7 further games, with a brief period at Brentford and Norway before retiring. Davis is now a senior coach/coach educator for the organisation and he is also an ambassador for the ‘Kick It Out‘ and ‘Show Racism the Red Card organisations’.
It seems funny really, looking over Davis career. It is often forgotten that Paul Davis, along with Tony Adams, was the only player to win all 6 trophies George Graham he won at Arsenal. He was a subtle player, often overlooked (certainly by England managers). But to many an Arsenal fan he could mix it, he could pass and he could shoot. Under Graham he also developed his repertoire. To me, the finest Arsenal player never to play for England. Though i’m sure a few people will disagree.