Rewind just over forty years, and the young Goonerholic was entranced by a lightening fast goalscorer who endured, rather than enjoyed, a brief spell in Italy.
As Thierry Henry is idolised today, so was Joe Baker in his prime at Arsenal. Born in wartime Liverpool the son of a Scottish sailor he was returned north of the border as soon as his father left the navy. That accident of birth would later see him pull on the three lions as England’s centre-forward, although he was capped by Scotland as a schoolboy international.
It was in the colours of Hibernian that Baker made his name, scoring a staggering 159 goals in just four seasons. Little wonder he became the first player from outside the Football League to be capped by England, and he scored on his debut against Northern Ireland in 1959.
With such a formidable strike record it was no surprise that the big clubs came looking. Along with the young Denis Law from Manchester City, Joe moved to Torino in 1961 but the following year both left the club after being involved in a car crash. Newly appointed Arsenal manager, Billy Wright, persuaded the board to part with £70,000 to secure the diminutive finisher.
Joe spent nearly four years in an Arsenal shirt, scoring 101 goals in just 156 games. That statistic only goes part of the way to illustrating why he was held in awe by Arsenal fans starved of success in the ‘swinging sixties’. Though only five feet seven inches tall Joe was more combative than players half a foot taller, as Liverpool stopper Ron Yeats discovered in an FA Cup tie at Highbury. Both players were sent off for the punch up that ensued, but it was the giant defender who had to pick himself up off the floor to make the walk for his early bath.
Shortly before the 1966 World Cup Baker scored England’s clincher in a 2-0 win away to Spain, but the last of his eight caps came in a home draw with Poland and he missed the final cut when the squad for England’s successful campaign was announced. By the time the tournament kicked off Joe had been transferred to Nottingham Forest.
Joe went on to appear in the colours of Sunderland, Hibs (again), and Raith Rovers. In 2003 Joe sadly succumbed to a heart attack. At the age of 63 my first idol was gone. Every now and again I pull out the history of Arsenal tape and fast forward to the clip of Joe’s debut goal for Arsenal at Leyton Orient. His flying header in the first ‘Match of the Day’ at Anfield also gets a regular airing.
Cue an old cliche about players from the past, ‘I wonder what he would be worth today?’ This much I do know, with his pace, control, and finishing ability, you can bet Arsene Wenger would have been in for him.
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