GUS CAESAR: I still have nightmares about Wembley final disaster

BY JEM MAIDMENT An Arsenal defender born and bred in Tottenham does not stand a chance in red and white. Step forward Gus Caesar. His name will go down in Arsenal infamy for a dark, dark day at Wembley exactly 20 years ago this week. On April 24, 1988, Arsenal, the holde

An Arsenal defender born and bred in Tottenham does not stand a chance in red and white.

Step forward Gus Caesar.

His name will go down in Arsenal infamy for a dark, dark day at Wembley exactly 20 years ago this week.

On April 24, 1988, Arsenal, the holders, somehow managed to blow a 2-1 lead with less than 20 minutes to go, to lose 3-2 to Luton Town in the Littlewoods Cup final at the old Wembley.

More than two-thirds of the 92,000 crowd were stunned into silence as the Bedfordshire minnows took the trophy - and a scapegoat was needed.

Not Martin Hayes for hitting a post from a yard. Nor Nigel Winterburn for missing a penalty. Either would have made it 3-1 Arsenal.

Most Read

Caesar, instead, fitted the bill perfectly. A raw stopper and barely a regular first-team player, with seven minutes to go he miskicked a routine clearance - falling ungracefully to the lush Wembley turf to add to his humiliation - into the path of Luton's Brian Stein, who crossed for Danny Wilson to equalise.

Stein twisted the knife with a winner moments later.

Arsenal would fight back to win the title for the first time in 18 years the following season. Caesar's career, though, never recovered.

"What people still don't realise," Caesar told Ham&High Sport, eager to put the record straight, "is that I had lots of injuries and shouldn't have played. I had a condition called Gilmore's Groin. In those days nobody knew what it was but it was essentially a hernia that's almost exclusive to footballers.

"It was tough, but you don't say 'no, I can't play' when there's a Wembley final, do you?

"In addition, I also had a really bad ankle injury. I was playing in what should have been recovery time. After the game there was no finger pointing at me. Nobody in the dressing room blamed me."

Arsenal fans, however, laid the blame squarely at his feet. He was forced to run a gauntlet of catcalls from an unforgiving Highbury crowd - normally so eager to support their own - on the rare occasions he would appear as a substitute.

Caesar is philosophical. "We all make choices in life and I became a footballer," he said. "The barracking did not bother me - I can't remember much of it at all. I actually only remember one game when I got some serious stick and that was against Tottenham. I was having a bad game so I deserved it.

"I never got abuse in the street, mainly because nobody knew who I was outside of Highbury."

That all changed in 1992 when Nick Hornby's best-seller Fever Pitch hit the stands. In it the author singled out Caesar with a now famous passage in which he described his incredulity at how a player with such limited talent could rise through the ranks. For Caesar, who had left Highbury in 1991 after just five more appearances following his Wembley nightmare, it would re-open old wounds.

"He wrote a book and did what he did," he said dismissively. "As I said, we all have to make choices in life."

It could have been so different. Caesar's Arsenal career began on the highest of highs - a starring role in an unlikely win at Old Trafford. It was December 1985 and Ron Atkinson's Manchester United were leading the Canon League division one after a blistering start to the campaign.

When England star Viv Anderson was suspended, Gunners boss Don Howe drafted in the 19-year-old rookie defender for his debut at right-back.

Far from being overawed, the laid-back teenager had an outstanding 90 minutes, negating the threat of the in-form Denmark winger Jesper Olsen. Arsenal won 1-0.

"It was strange really, it just kind of happened," he recalled. "Don Howe told me I was playing and that was that. I thought others were ahead of me, but clearly not.

"Don said nothing special to me before the game. Kenny [Sansom], who I think was skipper that game, came up to me, that was all. I was just expected to do a job."

Football, however, was not the be all, end all for the youthful Caesar. "It took Arsenal six weeks to persuade me to sign," he revealed. "I had a bigger view, football wasn't the centre of my world. Lots of the players talked nothing else. They'd go for beers and play golf after training but not me.

"I wanted to set up my own business. I had ideas about property development and I knew that I would eventually do other things.

"People would come to my house and be amazed I was a footballer. There wasn't one trophy, shirt or photograph connected with the game on show. I knew early on I had no desire to stay in the game after playing."

And he has not. After a rapid descent which saw him take in spells at clubs such as Airdrie and Cambridge United, he played in Hong Kong until the turn of the Millennium.

Now, aged 42, he lives in the former British colony for six months of the year, working in finance. The rest of the time he spends at the family home in Essex. "The only guys I have any real contact with from my Arsenal days are Paul Davis - a lovely bloke - and Michael Thomas, who just cracks me up," he said.

And after eight years service at Arsenal, the club, maybe surprisingly to some, remains close to his heart. "It's very hard not to have affection for your former clubs, especially when they are as big as Arsenal," he said.

"It was a large part of my youth. The last time I saw them live was the last ever game at Highbury. I've been to The Emirates but not for a game, although I enjoy watching them on telly."

And his verdict of the new arena may also surprise one or two as he looks towards a place he knew only too well - the substitutes' bench. "I wasn't that impressed to be honest," he admitted, "it's a bit corporate.

"But the thing I really couldn't work out is there is no roof over the dugouts. All the subs will get wet if it rains. Little thing I know, but it perplexed me."