5 November: Tony Adams league debut remembered.

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On 5 November 1983 Tony Adams made his league début for Arsenal in a game against Sunderland which  Arsenal 1 Sunderland 2.  Tony Woodcock scored – it was his eighth goal in three consecutive games.

But although we remember Woodcock it is Tony Adams who we think of more often as he was part of the “famous back four” which became legendary in the football of the era. Indeed it is said that when Arsenal Wenger joined Arsenal the one instruction everyone said to him was, “don’t touch the defence”.

And yet, in many ways the back four was something of a journalistic shorthand, and as so often when we find ourselves talking of Arsenal and journalists, the journalists’ facts and the reality don’t quite mix.

After all, was it really a back four of Adams, Bould, Winterburn and Dixon?  Or was it a back five, which also included Keown? Or even a back six also including Seaman? For those players most certainly played their part.

Obviously you can pick and choose any way you want to say it, but the question I asked myself recently was, how did they come together?  And I found that although I had a fair idea, I could not bring all the dates to mind, until I started looking a few things up.

Here’s what I got…

Player Signed Signed by…
Adams Signed as a schoolboy 1980 (first game 5 November 1983) Neil
Keown Signed as a schoolboy 1980 left June 86 re-signed February 1993 Neil, Graham
Winterburn Summer 1987 Graham
Dixon January 1988 Graham
Bould Summer 1988 Graham
Seaman Summer 1990 Graham

So here they are…  the earliest date (1980) to the last (1993, the re-signing of Keown) were 13 years apart, but if we leave schoolboy signings out of this for a moment, the actual spread of time in terms was 1983 to 1990.  Seven years.  Or excluding the goalkeeper, 1983 to 1988 – five years. And yet the way they are talked about today one might have the impression that they were all signed at around the same time and played for a generation.

It is interesting to remember that two of these players were signed by Terry Neil, and that Graham let Keown go, and then brought him back again – something else that doesn’t quite fit the narrative.

Here is another set of data that took me by surprise.  And this perhaps explains why the notion of the back four, five or six has become such an enduring legend… The number of games each man played:

Player Games
Adams 504
Keown 333
Winterburn 440
Dixon 458
Bould 267
Seaman 405

These are astonishing numbers, and seeing those it is no wonder that we revere these players and the back four, five or six that they created.

When one sees those numbers it is clear why these players became such a legend. Finding one or two players who play 250 games or more for the club is one thing. Finding six who all played in the defence during the same era and who all played over 250 games, that is something else. And that is why the legend of the back four lives on. It doesn’t matter if it is four, or five or six, they really were part of something utterly remarkable.

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