Experienced Northern Irish international full-back Sammy Nelson was an Arsenal legend who joined Brighton towards the end of his career.
The last four of his 51 international caps came while with the Seagulls. One was a 4-0 defeat to England at Wembley when Albion teammate Steve Foster made his England debut, another was a substitute appearance at the 1982 World Cup against Spain. His last appearance for his country came in a 2-2 draw with Austria at that tournament.
Leading up to that competition, Nelson had played a significant part in helping Albion to what remains their highest ever finish in the football pyramid: thirteenth place.
A lot of fans didn’t like manager Mike Bailey’s style of play, but, with some degree of resonance to the current management, he built his side on a solid defence and preferred experience over youth.
Nelson was a key player in that defence after ousting long-serving Gary Williams a third of the way into the 1981-82 season.
He played alongside his former Arsenal teammate Steve Gatting, who Bailey had signed for £200,000 as a replacement for Mark Lawrenson (the famous departure to Liverpool having been the trigger for Alan Mullery to quit as manager).
Nelson had made only one substitute appearance for Arsenal in the previous season but he enjoyed a bumper testimonial game when a crowd of 20,000 turned up at Highbury for a game against Celtic.
Bailey declared on paying £35,000 for a 32-year-old player who had made 339 league and cup games for the Gunners: “The signing of Sammy Nelson has now given me the sort of squad I feel we need to compete with the best in the division.
“Sammy is a fine player and a very good professional but, like everyone else, he will have to compete for a team place.”
He did indeed have to wait for his chance, largely because he had a foot strain at the time of signing. But the chance came in a league cup second leg game at home to Huddersfield at The Goldstone. Williams was restored for the following two league games but Nelson got the nod for a third round league cup game away game at Barnsley (which ended in a 4-1 defeat) and kept the shirt for all but two games through to the end of the season, making 32 appearances in total.
After only seven games, he gave an interestingly candid interview to the Argus. He admitted he was struggling with the daily commute from his home in Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire, being that it necessitated a 6am wake up.
“Towards the end of a week, it is only natural to start feeling tired at that sort of routine when, instead, I should be fresh for the coming game,” he said.
In the same interview, Nelson went on to take a bit of a swipe at a small section of the Albion following. “They expect the championship to come overnight. Some of them, instead of getting behind the team, have begun to get abusive, even vindictive,” he maintained. “I would have expected a little more loyalty from the crowd, but I must stress that I am only talking about a small section.”
It must have given Nelson some pleasure in April 1982 to be on the winning side as Albion beat Arsenal 2-1 in the top flight for the first time in nine attempts since gaining promotion in 1979.
Especially as former boss Terry Neill was up in arms about a challenge Nelson had made that went unpunished. The News of the World declared: “Arsenal boss Terry Neill last night blames former Highbury hero Sammy Nelson for his team’s defeat.
“Neill claimed the Brighton fullback should have been booked for bringing down Raphael Meade as the striker closed in for a goal which would have sewn up the match for the Gunners.”
Nelson was born in Belfast on April Fools Day 1949 and joined Arsenal on his 17th birthday in 1966, just as all eyes in England were focused on the World Cup.
His first silverware came as a member of Arsenal’s FA Youth Cup winning side that year, when they beat Sunderland 5-3 over two legs.
At that time he was a left winger but coach Don Howe converted him to a full back. The established first choice left back was Bob McNab and in the famous 1970-71 Double winning side, Nelson only got to play four games.
In fact he understudied McNab for the best part of five years, until the former Huddersfield man left the Gunners in 1975. Then Nelson made the position his own, with fellow Irish international Pat Rice on the opposite flank.
Nelson was almost ever present for five seasons and was part of the Arsenal team which reached three successive FA Cup Finals: 1978, 1979 and 1980, picking up a winners’ medal in the 1979 win over Manchester United. The Arsenal 1-2-3 that day were all Ulstermen: Pat Jennings, Rice and Nelson.
I particularly like this story from Arsenal fan Paul Reynolds, published on untold-arsenal.com: “In 1980 I took on a paper round and one of the houses I delivered newspapers to was where the Arsenal left-back Sammy Nelson lived. I didn’t see him often because I delivered the papers very early, but I’ll never forget the morning of the Arsenal v West Ham final.
“At about 10am I got a phone call from the paper shop owner to tell me that Sammy had popped in the night before and dropped off two tickets to give to the lad who delivered his papers. I was thrilled to bits and my girlfriend and I rushed off to Wembley and just about made it in time for kick-off – we didn’t care that we had to stand right at the back.
“Although, sadly, we lost the game 1-0 I’ll never forget that generous and thoughtful gesture by my former Arsenal hero and will always be grateful to have been supporting the club during an era when the players genuinely had a connection with the supporters and cared enough to go out of their way ahead of a massively important game to help a fan like me. Arsenal ‘til I die.”
arsenal.com remembers Nelson as one of their top 50 players, describing him as “a funny and endearing individual, the Ulsterman was held in genuine affection by team-mates and supporters alike”.
It also recalls the time he dropped his shorts and bared his backside to the North Bank – which earned him a fortnight’s ban by the FA. It was his response to scoring an equaliser after he’d earlier been barracked for scoring an own goal in a league game against Coventry.
The website adds: “A fine strike in a League Cup trouncing of Leeds United in 1979 was the pinnacle of his goalscoring feats, but Nelson was always willing to venture into enemy territory. At the back his obdurate tackling and bravery was complemented by a sure touch on the ball.”
Arsenal’s signing of Kenny Sansom spelled the beginning of the end of Nelson’s time at Highbury and he moved to Albion in September 1981.
Although he started the 1982-83 season in the Albion first team, he picked up an injury and retired at the end of the season having played a total of 45 games for the Seagulls.
On retirement he initially became Albion’s reserve team manager and then first team coach when Chris Cattlin took over as manager from Jimmy Melia. But he left after only one season and took up a City job in life assurance and pensions.
Funnily enough, as a regular commuter to London myself at that time, I’d frequently see Sammy joining the train at Hove in the mornings and then relaxing in the buffet car on the return journey in the evenings.
He told the Independent in a ‘where are they now?’ feature in March 1994: “It’s funny, I never saw myself being part of the rat race but now I find myself standing on the platform in the right place for ‘my’ seat, just like everyone else.”
According to Wikipedia, Nelson, now 68, is a tour guide at the Emirates.
Pictures from my scrapbook
A Goal magazine action shot of Nelson in Arsenal’s colours and the full-back in action for the Albion at the Goldstone, pictured in the matchday programme.
Also pictured: Nelson in full flight against Southampton; with young Gary Stevens captured by the Argus singing In Brighton at Busby’s disco in Kings Road; making the headlines in the News of the World; in action against Wolves.