David Armstrong 1954 -2022
First an explanation for the regular readers of the blog, who are likely to be baffled by this one. The normal diet of political rants, opinion pieces on Education, and reviews of Books, Music, Films, TV and Theatre have been put to one side for this edition to indulge in a personal reflection. Bear with me for five minutes or so.
It’s taken me some time to get down to write this. As you get older, news of one’s contemporaries deaths gets increasingly common. At first, it’s people who seem to be sewn into the fabric of your childhood. TV stars and musicians and sports people. People who figured, back in the day, as media celebrities and who seemed to have always been there, often in the background, in one’s life. And with every death announced, even the minor characters, a part of your childhood dies with it.
But some deaths are more significant than others. Some people have carved a special place in each of our personal Halls of Fame, and their loss is more keenly felt. The death of David Bowie, for example, left me feeling bereft for a while. A great artist who had provided me with wonderful memories and songs that I’ll always play. Most of the time, it’s a sense of sadness, a moment or two of reflection, a few memories and a few nostalgic conversations about the old days. And then there are yet others whose passing seems like a shift in spiritual tectonic plates. The recently announced death of David “Spike” Armstrong is one such example.
There’ll be many people reading this who have no idea who on earth Armstrong actually was. What did he do? What’s his claim to fame? So, a few basic facts first. He was a left-footed football player, who played in the Seventies and Eighties, predominantly for my team, Middlesbrough FC, and then for Southampton. He played a couple of times (3?) for England, but then, apart from some low key radio punditry, disappeared from view. It’s a thin basis for devotion, but the bare facts don’t really tell the story, which is quintessentially a tale of the Seventies, a more innocent time than today.
My Username on the Middlesbrough FC Fan Message Board, Fly Me To The Moon, is Spikelangelo. It was intended to be my tribute to the artistry of Spike, a player who did the footballing version of the Sistine chapel ceiling most Saturdays at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough during the Seventies and early Eighties. Yes, I know. It’s an over the top, hyperbolic description, but I’m really trying to give you a flavour of the talent of this largely unsung sporting hero.
I first saw him play when I was seventeen, living in Stockton-on-Tees doing my A levels at Stockton Sixth Form College. Up until that point, nothing much had happened for Boro, a perenially underperforming small town team. I had been a supporter since I was elevenand strangely, I went to the games regularly on my own. Back then, it was cheap, and although this was the beginning of the legendary era of football hooliganism, for a young kid, it was pretty safe. I was hooked the first time I went. The extraordinary vivid green of the pitch, the sense of space, the smell of bovril and pipe smoke, the tannoy announcements, the singing and the roar of the crowd – they all had a profound effect on me.
I also went on my own at that age because my Dad was profoundly cynical about Boro. He talked of Mannion and Hardwick and some mythical glory period, but then told me as many times as I would listen that Boro would never amount to anything. They would beat superior sides regularly and then let you and themselves down by losing ignominiously to minnows. ( I hate to acknowledge this, all these years later, but that assessment seems to contain a nugget of truth for the long suffering supporter) He famously promised that if Boro ever went up, he would pay for a season ticket. This was round about 1970. It was a promise he would mysteriously forget about just four years later. They did go up and, predictably, no season ticket materialised.
Of course, as an eleven year old, I had no idea about football. I could sort of tell when we played well, or if the opposition was any good, but tactics, formations, skills were all a bit of a mystery to me. Favourite players might be chosen on the back of a spectacular goal, or the chants, or what it said in The Sports Gazette, or even what they looked like. So one of my early favourites was a winger called Derrick Downing, partly because of his dashing sideburns and longish hair. I think he was pretty good, and he did once score a wonderful diving header against glamour team West Ham, but I couldn’t really form a valid opinion about that on my own.
One thing that stood out for me, though, was that it didn’t really look much like the football I saw on Saturday night on Match of the Day. I’d only just been allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a window on a much more glamorous world than that Ayresome Park contained. It seemed as if everywhere else had a proper football club, that played proper, attractive, attacking football. Nothing more underlined just how small town, nowheresville Teesside seemed, than the fact that we would never, ever get to be in Division One and be on Match of The Day regularly.
So when in 1973, the legendary World Cup winner, Jack Charlton was announced as our manager, and this was reported on the national news, something was very definitely going on. Something different, something special. We started winning regularly. Very soon in that season, after an early hiccup or two, we hit the top of the table and inexorably extended the lead. Supporters went to the games expecting to win and expecting not to concede any goals. They also, in a dimension that you don’t often hear mention of, expected thrilling football and lots of goals.This was in large part down to Jack Charlton’s tactical innovations and partly down to the quality of the first team.
By this time, I had seen a lot more football, and played a lot more proper eleven aside football myself, so I was beginning to understand what was really going on in a football match. I was very lucky that this stage of my footballing education coincided with going to watch probably the greatest side in our history. By then, I’d learned to ignore my Dad’s cynicism. He could keep his Mannions and Hardwicks, that seemed to me to belong to ancient history, with brylcreem and black and white photos. I preferred the present and the future to the past, like just about every seventeen year old in recorded history.
And I was no longer Billy Nomates, getting the bus to The Blind School on my own. I had a group of friends who were my partners in crime on this new, exciting Holgate adventure. I’ve long thought that the friends you have when you are Seventeen, the books you read, the records you bought, the gigs you went to – all of these are deeply formative experiences. The camaraderie of that shared experience as you are growing away from the family unit and taking your first faltering steps in the adult world. It’s an exciting period of your life and the friendships you make then forge unbreakable bonds and powerful memories. And that season, and the emergence of my beloved Boro, was a crucial part of it, and made a lasting impression on me.
We were not, as ill informed myth has it, a long ball, kick and rush team. There’s a great video somewhere of Charlton taking a training session. He says to Spike, “You’ve got to be brave enough, Spike, to hit the space behind the fullback. Don’t worry about Alan or Millsy – they”ll get there.”
And he was right – they did get there. A watertight defence that led to Bobby Murdoch, or Souness or Spike playing the ball down the channels for very fast players breaking from midfield, who would either go on to score, or cross for one of the midfield, who had surged into the box, to a score. It was a little like watching today’s Liverpool. Just without the fitness, pressing, and with Players Number Six and Double Maxim. (By the way, if anyone has access to that video, I’d love to see it again. The internet is not as all powerful as I had previously assumed, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I imagined it.)
Souness, of course, was the King of the side. Head and shoulders the greatest ever player I saw playing for Boro, bar none. But not far behind him, in my humble opinion, was Spike. “My Little Gem”, as Charlton affectionately called him. He taught me that there was a lot more to skill as a footballer than George Best type mazy dribbles. There was the skill of being able to bring down a ball, no matter how hard it was hit at you, or at what impossible angle it came at you, and have it under control instantly. There was the skill of having the full range of passing: the two yard lay off after winning a tackle, a forty yard raking cross field ball, a cunning slide rule inch perfect pass between centre back and full back, the perfectly weighted ball into someone’s run, such that they didn’t have to break stride before hitting it.
There was also the reading of the game and the stamina to go box to box for ninety minutes. And finally, the coup de grace, the skill of arriving in the box at the far post at exactly the right moment from midfield, to score. For about six years in a row, after he became a regular starter, Spike scored 77 goals from the left hand side of midfield. If he were playing now, with those stats, he’d be worth silly money.
The other joy of this, was the fact that, as far as I was concerned, he was my first independent discovery. For most of us, in most areas of life (cinema, theatre, art, sport, politics etc) our opinions are generally speaking based on received wisdom. If people in the media say such and such is good, well they must be, because that commentator knows much more about it than I do. With Armstrong, it was one of the very first times when I saw something and after a while thought, “Bloody hell, he is a really, really good player.” It became even sweeter when those same pundits started talking about him as a future England player. Then, he became my player, my discovery.
So, if he was that good , why did he only play for England three times? It’s a fair question. First, he was unlucky to be playing in the Seventies for a very unfashionable provincial club. There was very little football on the telly back then. Had he played for a London club, or one of the giants, I think he would have had many more caps. Second, he was very unlucky that he overlapped with three other gifted left footers: Trevor Brooking, Ray Kennedy and Alan Devonshire. He was better than all of them. I did get to see him play at Wembley in 1982. It was Bobby Robson’s first home game as manager. He did alright, but it was already a little late for him. I was just delighted to see him in an England shirt. My special player for my special club. It didn’t mean much to anyone else in the crowd that night, but it meant a lot to me, an exiled Teessider in London, trying to keep the flame alive. And by 1982, the glory days of Jack Charlton were long gone, and Boro were about to enter a period of terrible decline.
That Wembley friendly seems to have been airbrushed out of his record, and its not widely known about, but the highlights video below give you a flavour. He’s always showing for the ball, but nearly gives away a goal via a poor/unucky back pass. It’s worth a dip in, just to see Spike in an England shirt at Wembley.
And now, Spike has gone, and a part of my adolescence has gone with him. My apologies for this piece being as much about me as about him, but really, that’s the point of the article. There have been many touching obituaries to Spike in the last week or so, but they only really give us the surface details. He meant much more to me than the accumulation of his stats. The real meaning of this, is in the relationship we individually forge with our heroes, and the impact they have on us and the way they enhance our lives. So, I will finish by sending sincere condolences to Spike’s friends and family. I hope it is of some comfort to you, in what must be a difficult time, to know that he touched people’s lives in a positive way, by being a key player in a great side that meant an awful lot to a community struggling through difficult times at the end of the Seventies.
RIP Spike. And thanks for all the great memories.