Yesterday morning we learned of an honour. An honour bestowed on one Mr Pat Rice. Or as we must henceforth know him: Patrick James Rice Member Of The British Empire. I’m not much of a one for Empires. From Moguls to the Byzantine, Incas to Romans not much seems to come of them bar defeat and occupation of peoples who were otherwise minding their own business and generally just trying to get through this life without being subjugated, forcibly converted, garotted or generally pissed off. However I am delighted that such an incredible servant to our club with a record which must be the envy of most if not all involved in the game should receive any recognition from any quarter. I’d be over the moon if he stuck two fingers up to the whole overpriced and embarrassing royal shambles and told them to shove their award where Sri Lankan prisoners keep their phones, but if he and his family are happy with the gong then that is all that matters.
Pat was there at the start for me. I didn’t know back when I started following the club in 1970 that he’d only played a bit part in our Fairs Cup winning season nor that like Li’l Jack he came up through the youth set up to captain the team to glory. Woops, sorry I’ll cover the crystal ball over don’t want to spoil the surprise for the rest of you when certain events come to pass. Anyway as I say when I started supporting the coolest team in the land Pat Rice was the right back, I’d known no other and neither would I for the rest of my childhood. To give you some context as to how ever present Mr Rice MBE has been in my life I was at St John’s Infants when I first cut out his picture for my scrapbook and working for the Ministry Of Defence, married and living in my first flat when he left us to pursue a twilight career with Watford. This has been a strangely Riceless season for me.
As it’s Bacary’s birthday today and I seem to be strolling down memory lane once more I thought we might take a few moments out of our hectic lives to consider the right back. The Arsenal right back of course. And naturally we will start with Mr Rice. My first.
I don’t intend to give you any great tactical insights as to how vital the full back position has become to our style of play. I’m a little under qualified. However I did used to play right back for Reg’s Bar first 11 in the lower reaches of the Frome and District Sunday league so I do have some little sensibility of the role. The one thing my research has shown is that Pat in his heyday was a little more mobile than I used to be. It’s easy to assume that defenders back in the late sixties and early seventies were just lumpen cloggers hoofing the ball clear and the opposition winger with it. Think Stoke City or Sunderland circa 2013. Easy but wrong. Pat used to bomb forward with every bit as much aplomb as the modern full back, dark locks streaming out behind him and in many matches you’d see him crop up in unusual areas of the pitch, meandering across to the left, or making runs inside his winger a la Andre Santos in fact. I’m watching the 1971 final against Liverpool as I write this and he’s just skinned Steve Heighway on the half way line and charged forward in the inside right position to unleash a shot which, well, ok so let’s draw a veil over the somewhat tame pass to Clemence which may have a been a through ball so subtle that only a time travelling Thierry Henry could have got on the end of it or may just have been a lame shot, the point is I was weaned on attacking minded right backs with dubious finishing skills.
Pat was there as I’ve said for a long time. A very long time. He was our RB for ten years and when he left a pattern began to emerge. We seem to replace long serving right full backs with a series of bit part players. Some win things with us, some don’t. Some amuse others infuriate but they don’t last. And then the next long term incumbent dons the number 2. Or whatever bloody number they wear these days. After Pat we saw John Devine. Apparently. I seem to remember John Hollins playing in defence as well but my recall is hazy at best so forgive me. I do clearly remember Viv Anderson coming to us from Brian Clough’s Forest.
Double European Cup winner, tall and somewhat elegant for a full back Viv was another attack minded defender scoring fifteen times for us and looking for all the world like an inside forward rather than a full back. However Anderson was approaching his thirties and only lasted three seasons. George Graham provoked the eighties equivalent of a black bag protest by selling him to Man United without any obvious world class talent to replace him. Of course fools who react to managers’ far sighted decisions in the transfer market with knee jerk protests and spasmodic convulsive complaints are almost always proved wrong. Graham had bought a young, fancied but untested Lee Dixon from Stoke City and the rest is history. Pat’s true successor had arrived, and the next full time right back assumed the position. OK if you must have the facts, after a failed experiment with Nigel Winterburn on the right he assumed it. Dixon’s playing career was nothing short of phenomenal. He was with us from ’87 to 2002 won titles and cups galore and managed to make the switch from Graham’s rigidity to Arsene’s fluidity without drawing breath.
The pattern of long term incumbent followed by bit parters continued after Lee retired with Oleh Romanovych Luzhny AKA The Horse (ask your parents why), Lauren (The Invincible) and His Royal Eminence Lord Emmanuel Eboué Dada all pretenders to Pat’s throne, but none quite making the grade. And then our birthday boy arrived. If Bac is to maintain the pattern he must sign an extended contract and play on well into his thirties and of course I fully expect him so to do. I was derided from all sides for saying I fully expected Theo to sign on for another stint and look how that turned out. I therefore have complete confidence in my powers of prediction. The crystal ball of course comes in handy here too.
Bacary is very much in the Pat Rice MBE tradition. Piling forward at every opportunity, extravagant hair-do flowing in his slipstream and yet brutally unforgiving in his defensive duties he is as Arsene is alleged to have said the ‘best right back of all time in the Premier League’ . If anyone questions his commitment just look at how he has tackled since coming back from two broken legs. No. Strike that – if anyone questions his commitment just piss off and follow a different sport. He’s the kind of man that has the character to play through a run of poor form needing no protection from the manager and as his out of position heroics against Sunderland (who were remember playing with a ref and an extra player for much of the match) proved he has versatility and footballing intelligence in his locker to boot.
Those predicting Corporal Carl to take Bac’s shirt any time soon need to beware the pattern. After the long standing player steps aside a period of uncertainty must follow and only then will the next true heir to Mr Rice MBE become known to us mortals. Unless of course , like me, your balls are crystal.