In fact, after words of encouragement from the veteran midfielder, Neill marked his Arsenal first-team debut with possibly the best goal he ever scored.
Terry Neill missed his home in Northern Ireland when, as a teenager, he joined Arsenal in 1959. It was only after he made it into the first team a year later that he really settled at the north London club – but not before a moment of sheer panic shortly before his debut.
What Neill did appreciate in his early days ay Highbury was the coaching he received. ‘The youth-team coaches – George Male, Ernie Collett, Alf Fields – were great people, really looked after us. Under their guidance I progressed to making my first-team debut in 1960 when I was 18.’
He had played in the reserves regularly and had started to train with the first team under Ron Greenwood, who by now was Arsenal’s assistant manager. On 23 December he travelled with the first team to play Sheffield Wednesday.
‘We were about to play a Wednesday team that included players like Springett, Kay, Swann and Bronco Lane,’ Neill says, ‘and, after the pre-match meal, George Swindin [the manager] sought me out in the hotel lobby, sat me down and asked if I thought I was ready to play in the first team.’
Neill says his immediate reaction was to say he needed a little longer. But he declared his readiness without being convinced, which is when Swindin passed on the really shocking news. Neill was going to take Tommy Docherty’s place.
‘Ah Jesus!’ was Neill’s reaction, which he still clearly recalls. ‘What is going to happen. Tommy is going to punch my lights out.’
By this time Docherty, a rugged Glaswegian, was a 32-year-old veteran who had built his reputation making more than 300 appearances in midfield for Preston North End (1949-58) and 25 for Scotland.
It occurred to Neill that this was no way to repay Docherty for all his kindness when he, Neill, had arrived at the club, and Docherty ‘put his arm around me, being concerned about my welfare…
‘But Tommy sought me out ten minutes later – George Swindin must have told him, “You’re out. Young Terry’s taking your place” – and, true to form, he sat me down and reassured me, “You’ll be fine, just continue what you’ve been doing, I’ve been watching you in the reserve games”.’
So, Neill played against Wednesday. ‘We were struggling after John Snedden, a young Scots lad who could have been another John Charles – could play anywhere, a good athlete, great in the air, skilful and a bit of pace – had to go off with an ankle injury.
‘Down to ten men, we had a corner, the ball was headed out, by Swann, I think, and I cushioned the ball on my thigh and volleyed it into the top corner. Don’t ask me where I got it from. I don’t think I ever did it again.’
After his part in a 1-1 draw, away from home, against a star-studded Sheffield Wednesday team, Neill reckons Swindin was sitting on the bench calculating that for two and a half grand he had landed the club a steal. ‘If I remember it took me another four months to score my second goal,’ Neill says, ‘but for the moment anyway George thought he’d got a bargain.’
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.