By Les Crang
Tommy Caton, a bit like David Rocastle and Paul Vaessen, was an Arsenal player who died young and played for us during the 1980’s. Tommy Caton was a Liverpool born, Manchester City player, before signing for Arsenal in December 1983. He played between 1983 – 1986 as our Centre-half alongside David O’Leary. In 1993 he passed away after a heart attack aged just 30 years old.
Tommy Caton made his debut for Manchester City* as a 16 year old in August 1979. For many City fans his finest moment was the FA Cup final and replay against Spurs in 1981, when he was just 18 years old. Caton had a pretty good game but unfortunately, Tommy is most likely remembered in the final for being one of the players beaten by Ricardo Villa for that goal.
Manchester City in these days were a team that spent large amounts of money on useless players (Steve Daley? Kevin Reeves? and Michael Robinson?) and ineffectual managers. No change then. By season 1982-3 Manchester City were relegated with David Pleat famously dancing across the pitch when his team Luton Town stayed up and City went down.
Being relegated to the 2nd Division, Caton wanted to join a 1st Division club. And so, Terry Neill, who had lost a Spurs reject called Willie Young two years previous (after he said manager Terry Neill was a w*nker for not putting him on at home game to Winterslag), and tried replacing him with Chris Whyte, a hard working local lad, but often ineffectual took a punt on Caton for £500,000.
Things were rocky right from the start, The Times reported (license required) on December 1, 1983:
The England under 21 defender hopes it will revive his international ambitions. “The idea of joining a stable club like Arsenal delighted me,” he said. …..but Don Howe and Terry Neill convinced me I’m joining an ambitious club.”
But Caton could find himself suffering another managerial change unless fortune smiles quickly again on Neill.
Neill said: ‘I feel a deep hurt. I can understand the crowd’s frustration and I share it. I can’t remember the last time I was so disappointed. You don’t have to hear them to share their feelings. I accept my share of the responsibility but the players must also be an enough to do likewise.’ Neill was putting on a brave face amid growing pressure for his departure. He insisted: “rve been through it all before and will probably go through it all again:” The chorus of criticism, has been loud enough for the Luton manager David Pleat and Billy McNeil of Manchester City to be touted as the next Highbury incumbents [heaven help us if that had happened - LC].
Tommy was presented to the crowd before our home game against Walsall in the league cup. The winning goal by Walsall underlined how bad Chris Whyte was (just watch the video). Tommy Caton came to Arsenal saying he was looking forward to the stability within the club and 16 days after Caton was bought, Neill was sacked. Welcome to Arsenal in the early 1980’s.
With Tommy Caton signing, I think I was struck by his permed hair, which never moved in the wind. A bit like Arteta. Tommo’s debut under a new manager of Don Howe started with a home defeat to WBA two days later.
Tommo was often a mocked figure, but at City he’d been the best defender for one so young. Let’s not forget he was only 20 year old when he signed. Spurling said of Caton:-
Caton would always lack the vital physical presence and would be saddled with the unwanted titles ‘ex England under 21 international’ for the rest of his career.
Unfortunately, Tommo showed his true class as an Arsenal player at Old Trafford. A 4-0 defeat and Spurling said Tommo ‘played a nightmare…Tommy saved his worst match for United matches.’ So how bad was it? Well, Tommo hacked down another permed favourite of 1980’s football Bryan Robson, for a converted Arnold Muhren penalty and a red card.
The Times said of the game:-
Howe admitted that after Caton had been harshly sent off just before the interval, for a second foul on Whiteside, “we all might as well have gone home.” Even at that relatively early stage. United were two up and swaggering towards their biggest home win of the season.
Docherty put the contest into his usual colourful perspective. “Arsenal were absolutely pathetic,” he said. “like England in yellow shirts.”
Although bought to replace Chris Whyte, and certainly an improvement, Tommo was also facing an Arsenal side with two young defenders coming from the reserves. These were Tony Adams and Martin Keown, alongside the stalwart David O’Leary.
For many fans though, Tommo wasn’t always remembered for helping these young players on the pitch but for being a member of the drinking team at Arsenal, along with Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom and Graham Rix, they would later be called the Tuesday club. Kenny Sansom in his biography said of a famous drinking sessions with Tommo on tour in Germany. On the tour Tommo and Kenny (and a Sun reporter) broke into a fridge of booze, drank it and ended with Kenny pulling Tommo away from three security dogs he wanted to fight when trying to get back into their hotel. I can’t see Mertersacker and Sagna doing that.
Obviously, his drinking and two Arsenal legends breaking into the team hardly helped Tommo at Arsenal. By season 1986-87 George Graham had to choose who his team would be. For defence he choose O’Leary and Adams as his defensive pair, selling Keown to Aston Villa for £200,000 after Martin asked George for a £50 rise per week. Caton, at 24 years old, was no longer needed at Arsenal. After 100 appearances and 3 goals in League and cup games, Tommo was sold to Oxford for £100,000 in February 1987. He then moved on to Charlton 3 years later, retiring in March 1993 aged just 30 years old. Very Sadly a month later he died from heart attack leaving a wife and 3 children.
Although Caton was often seen as a poor player at the time, I do feel its unfair. Lets not forgot players like Ian Ure and Gus Caesar played and helped us lose League cup finals in 1969 and 1988 respectively. So, raise a glass to Tommo and his great perm and boxing Alsatians.
*Great Article on Tommo’s time at City found here.