Over the years Arsenal football club have had a huge affiliation with players from the Island of Ireland. Records suggest that over 40 players north and south of the Irish border have featured for the Gunners since their formation in 1886.
The first Irishman to play for the famous red shirt was a Belfast man named Patrick Farrell in 1897. Tommy Shanks was the first ever individual to score over 20 goals for the club. In 1903/04 the Wexford man scored 24 goals for the then known Woolwich Arsenal. Joe Toner hailed from Co.Down and he was the first Irish player to play 100 games for Arsenal. The Northern Ireland man would achieve this milestone within a 7 year period from 1919 to 1926. The last Irish player to kick a ball for the Highbury outfit was Dubliner Anthony Stokes. The striker played for the Gunners in a league cup tie in 2005.
So who were the best Irish players to have played for the club? Below are three players from the Republic of Ireland and two from Northern Ireland who I believe are firmly embedded within the fibre of Arsenal football club.
Former Republic of Ireland international David O’Leary holds a very distinguished record. The stylish central defender has played more games for Arsenal than any other player in the history of the club. He lined out 772 times in what was a stellar career covering 18 years at the club. Today, ball-playing centre-backs are the norm especially at top clubs across Europe. O’Leary would fit nicely into such a category. In a sense, he was ahead of his time. Very elegant on the ball, a fantastic reader of the game and accurate distributor of a football. The former Leeds gaffer was very comfortable in bringing the ball into midfield and could in-fact play in a central midfield position too. O’Leary won two league titles, two FA Cups and two league cups in London.
On an individual level, the Irishman would feature in three PFA teams of the year. In a penalty shoot-out in the 1990 World Cup, O’Leary would famously score the winning penalty against Romania to send the Irish to their first ever World Cup quarter-final. Ireland would go out to Italy, but David O’Leary’s legacy for club and country is cemented in the archives.
Perhaps not as elegant as some of the players who will feature on this list, but Pat Rice will forever stay a vital part in the history of the Gunners. Not only did the former right-back cover 528 games for his beloved Arsenal between the years of 1967 and 1980. The 49 capped Northern Ireland player was part of the club for a further 28 years after his retirement as a player. In terms of silverware, Rice won a league title and two FA Cups with the Londoners.
From 1984 to 1996 Rice was youth team coach playing a critical role in the development of Arsenals youths. After the sacking of Bruce Rioch in 1996, Rice would agree to take up the role of caretaker manager for four games, just before a little known Arsene Wenger took the over the club. Upon the arrival of the Frenchman, Rice became his trusty number 2 staying in the position for 16 years before finally leaving the club. The much-loved Pat Rice spent a total of 44 years at the club, and thus creating a massive legacy.
Frank is what we describe today as an old-fashioned centre-forward. At 6ft he wasn’t the biggest. However, he was powerful in the air and strong on the ball. The Dubliner actually played more matches for Manchester United, but his time at Arsenal was more productive. The 71 capped Irishman would spend 6 years at Manchester United between 1981 and 1987 scoring 78 goals in 365 games. However, at Arsenal, he spent 7 years at the club between 1974 and 1981 scoring 108 goals 300 games – a far better goals to game ratio.
Arsenal fans from a certain vintage will certainly remember him best for his partnership with English striker Malcolm McDonald. The pair bagged a whopping 46 goals between them in the 76/77 season. Indeed Stapleton would be top scorer for the club in three successive seasons thereafter. The Irish great scored 20 goals for his country, but he would only win one trophy in North London, in the shape of the FA Cup in 1979. He managed to score in that final in a 3-2 win against Manchester United, the club he would sign for in two years time.
Between the years of 1973 and 1980, the elegant and stylish Brady graced the turf of Highbury. He played 307 times for Arsenal scoring 59 goals. Capped 72 times for the Rep Of Ireland Brady also scored a fantastic solo goal against Brazil in a famous 1-0 win for the Republic in 1987. Brady was a player likened to the style of French master Zinedine Zidane. The Dubliner was essentially a playmaker, but he could weave away from players effortlessly with his quick and tight ball control. He had a superb footballing brain executing passes that many failed to see.
While at Arsenal, the Irishman was the first foreign player to receive the PFA player of the year award in 1979. The midfielder would feature in three PFA teams of the year and would also claim the Arsenal player of the year on three occasions. Liam would win the FA Cup with the Gunners in 1979, which would prove to be the only trophy he won at the club before he moved on to Juventus where he won two Serie A titles.
Finally, but not least one, of the World’s best ever goalkeepers Pat Jennings. Today Jennings still holds the record for most capped Northern Irish man with 119 caps. The former shot-stopper is unique as he is a legend at Arsenal but also at deadly north London rivals Tottenham. After spending 13 years at White Harte Lane, Jennings was deemed surplus to requirements in 1977. Amazingly he made the shock move to Arsenal that year where he stayed until 1985.
To the embarrassment of Spurs Jennings would prove he had another few years at the top level. The legend would go on to play 327 for the Gunners. In 1983 the Newry man would become the first player to reach 1,000 games in English football. On that milestone, he also managed to keep a clean sheet. But like many on this list, he would win a solitary trophy at the club with that FA Cup victory in 1979
Many more Irish greats from north and south of the border have donned the red jersey of Arsenal. The likes of Terry Neill who would also go on to manage the club. Not forgetting players like Joe Haverty and Billy McCullough who have a special place within the fibre of Arsenal football club. The Irish have played a key role along the path of Arsenal’s 132-year history. Times have changed however and scouting is very much world-wide. It is now 13 years since any Irishman has graced the shirt. One thing’s for sure, the five Irishman on this list are amongst the best ever players for the north London side, period.