Anyone watching football in the 1980s will remember how rare it was to see live games on TV. Not every Sunday was a Super Sunday so live games left an indelible mark on your memory. One of mine was the Cup Winners’ Cup final between Arsenal and Valencia in 1980.
In what was a dreary affair, memorable only because it was live and my parents let me watch it, the two teams slugged their way through normal time, extra time and onto penalties – the first time in European club history.
Arsenal were wearing a special shiny version of their yellow away kit which had numbers with an unusual blocky font. To my increasingly sleepy eyes, it was all very exotic. With the scores 0-0 and penalties carefully poised, a gangly winger with his socks rolled down to his ankles stepped up for Arsenal. He juggled the ball clumsily while the referee fussed, then rolled his kick harmlessly into the grateful arms of the Valencia keeper to give the Spaniards the win. That was the first time I remember seeing Graham Rix.
Incidentally, that game was also the only European cup final to feature two ex-Oxford managers – Brian Talbot was also in the team that night.
During the early eighties I went to Highbury a few times, so Rix became a bit of a recurring theme. For some reason I loved the number 11 shirt – John Robertson at Nottingham Forest, Clive Woods at Ipswich; this was the number Rix would wear at Arsenal.
Like many wingers, Rix’s international career was spasmodic, he made his debut for England in 1980 against Norway but only played in 17 games in the next four years, about a third of England’s games played during that time.
In 1982 England qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years. Rix was selected for the squad, wearing number 16. He was somewhat lucky to be in the squad, let alone the team. Typically, manager Ron Greenwood would have played Trevor Brooking on the right, but he was injured and would only be fit for the latter stages.
Many preferred Tony Morley of Aston Villa as Brooking’s replacement, fresh from winning the European Cup against Bayern Munich, but Greenwood opted for Rix. It was generally accepted that this was due to the influence of Greenwood’s deputy, and Rix’s former coach, Don Howe.
The opener was against France in Bilbao. England were wearing a fancy away kit which was red with blue and white lapels. England playing in the World Cup was exciting but I was used to watching highlights on TV when the action and goals came thick and fast. It’s possible that if the match had been boring, I might not have been gripped like I was.
Kicking off though, the ball bounced out for a throw on the right under the shadow of the stand. Steve Coppell took it quickly, Bryan Robson ghosted in at the far post and scored in the opening seconds – the fastest England goal in the World Cup. France scored in the 24th minute, but Robson grabbed his second just as it appeared England were faltering. A third from Paul Mariner made it a triumphant 3-1 win.
Rix would go on to play in wins over Czechoslovakia and Kuwait qualifying for a second group stage with West Germany and Spain. Injuries to Trevor Brooking and England captain Kevin Keegan meant they missed all the group games, but were thrown in against Spain to try and salvage things. It was too little too late and they bowed out.
Rix left Arsenal in 1988 and headed for France with Caen before he developed a coaching role with Chelsea just as the Premier League was dawning. Following the departure of Ian Atkins in 2003, Firoz Kassam thought he’d take the up-and-coming coach route and landed Rix as manager.
By this time, dark clouds were gathering over Rix’s name. In 1999 he’d been convicted of sex with a minor at the Chelsea team hotel. In the pre-Me-Too era, there was a narrative that Rix had been somehow tricked by the girl’s charms and he kept his reputation despite a period in jail.
None-the-less, having sacked Mark Wright 3 years earlier – ostensibly for racial abuse of a referee – Kassam persevered with Rix as his latest solution to his endless managerial problems. Atkins had built a muscular, effective fighting unit, which had raced to the top of League 2 before falling away. On his departure, the side had started to stabilise and there was some hope that the play-offs were still possible.
Rix dropped goalkeeper Andy Woodman and brought in disinterested winger Courtney Pitt from his Chelsea days, insisting that players built for booting the ball as far as they could must play the ball on the ground. The results were instant – 5 defeats and 3 draws in 9 games, our play-off changes drifted away. He lasted 20 games into the new season – winning just five before being fired and replaced by another World Cup Yellow – Ramon Diaz.
Following a brief spell at Hearts, Rix largely disappeared only to reappear recently in a variety of troubling stories about racism and bullying at Chelsea in the late 90’s. Nice guy.