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1987 – the trophy, the awful games, the modest signings

By Tony Attwood

10 consecutive league games without a win.  In eight of those games Arsenal failed to score.  In the other two games Arsenal got one goal, in each.

It wasn’t Arsenal’s worst ever run – that was in 1977 and was 11 without a win, including seven consecutive defeats under Terry Neill.

But still it was pretty bad.   Here is the sequence from 1987…

Date Against H/A Score Crowd
Jan 18 Coventry H 0-0 17,561
Jan 24 Man U A 0-2 51,367
Feb 14 Sheff W A 1-1 24,792
Feb 25 Oxford U A 0-0 13,296
Mar 7 Chelsea A 0-1 29,301
Mar 10 Liverpool H 0-1 47,777
Mar 17 Nottm F H 0-0 18,352
Mar 21 Watford A 0-2 18,172
Mar 28 Everton H 0-1 36,218
April 8 WHU A 1-3 26,174

By any standards it is fairly shocking – by Arsenal standards it is awful.

Arsenal did redeem themselves a bit by winning five of the last eight games in the league, and by the fact they had lost not one of the 16 matches that led up to this run starting on January 18.  But even so, pity those of us with season tickets…

But the lack of goals was an issue.  In September 1986 Arsenal had a run of four consecutive games in which the club failed to score.   Three 0-0 draws and a 0-1 defeat.  By the end of the season Arsenal had scored 58 – just four more than Leicester who were relegated.  But Arsenal also had the second best defence in the league, letting in 35.  Everton, the champions, let in 31.

The season ended with Arsenal fourth – not bad compared with the 6th and 7th positions occupied in the last four seasons.

But the crowd figures above show that even a fourth finish was not enough to bring the attendances in.  Crowds of 17 and 18 thousand at Highbury were neither acceptable nor profitable.

But…

But there was a redeeming feature.  For the curse that had hung over Arsenal since 1979 was lifted.  In 1971 Arsenal had won the Double, and in 1979 the FA Cup.  Other than that, nothing save two cup final defeats.  Indeed in 1975 and 1976 there had been talk of relegation, although the club rallied at the end to get away from any danger.

So 16 years had passed since Arsenal won the Double, a triumph following closely on the heels of the club’s first European success, and during that time, just one FA Cup victory.

Now the crowds were collapsing, but even so there was brightness, because on 5 April 1987 Arsenal won the League Cup in Charlie Nicholas’ finest moment.

The story of the cup run, and the undefeated run of the earlier part of the season are given here – including the relevant league tables.

But I would like to add one extra point that I missed when I wrote that earlier article.

Below is a list of some of the events that happened from the time of the cup semi-final onwards.

  • 26 March 1987: Alan Smith signs and is then loaned back to Leicester.
  • 5 April 1987: Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1.  League Cup Final.   Until this moment all we had heard was“Liverpool never lose if Rush scores…”  Two goals from Charlie Nicholas put an end to that mantra.
  • 8 April 1987: WHU 3 Arsenal 1 makes it 10 without a victory.  It does however end the run of six games without scoring.  Arsenal’s goal is a penalty from Martin Hayes.
  • 11 April 1987: Arsenal 2 Charlton 1.   Arsenal finally get a victory.  Paul Davis and Martin Hayes score.
  • 26 May 1987: Nigel Winterburn signed
  • 18 July 1987: George Graham signed a new five year contract
  • 12 September 1987: Arsenal start series of 10 straight wins (ending November 14)

My point is that it is often hard to see what the future will bring.  The unbeaten run from 4 October 1986 to 4 January 1987 (when we beat Tottenham 2-1 in the league away and went to the top of the league) suggested the corner was turned, Arsenal were on the up.

The cup semi-final wins at Tottenham sent us all delirious, and it took us (well at least me) about 10 years to finally admit that actually there was an element of luck about going through to the final.  That’s not to say we didn’t deserve it but at the time of the replay against Tottenham we had just played four league games without a win, scoring just one goal.

Winning the league cup as underdogs was a triumph, especially with the tedious TV commentator’s “Liverpool never lose when…” but sitting through the four of those ten games at the end which were played at Highbury and catching the rest on the radio was an awful, truly awful, experience.

Yet we won the cup which was good, and signed a centre forward from Leicester who had just been relegated (which was perhaps good), and a full back who had played 165 for Wimbledon having signed for them when they’d just won the Fourth Division title (which really didn’t seem good enough at all).

These were signings but hardly the marquee signings that we would have liked.  I remember debating the point with my pal Roger.  We both agreed, if we were just signing lower league players that wasn’t going to win us the league!  Which in retrospect shows what we knew.

But the board had faith in George Graham and after one season in the job gave him a new long term contract.  They did this on the basis of these six points…

  • Winning a trophy
  • Being top of the league in January
  • Two signings that most certainly did not splash the cash
  • Two goals and no wins in 10 games
  • No relief from the very low crowds Arsenal had been suffering in the Don Howe reign.
  • Coming fourth instead of 6th or 7th.

My point is, in all such situations the board has to make a call – is that success or failure?  Sometimes it is obvious.  Winning the Double is success.  But mostly, seasons are bits and pieces.

In 1987/8 Arsenal slipped back to sixth, and lost in the league cup final to Luton Town (and had another dire run – this time eight matches without a win).  So if there were still doubters on the board they might well have been saying “told you so”.

But then we had 1989.

Which teaches us that quite where a club is going is not always clear.

Classic Articles from the Arsenal History Society

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