The story so far…
- Arsenal in the 70s, part 1: the re-birth of the club. 1969/70
- Arsenal in the 70s, part 2: preparing for the impossible. (July to December 1970)
- Arsenal in the 70s, part 3: The Golden Treble
- Arsenal in the 70s, part 4: What went so right in 1971, and why did it then go so wrong?
- Arsenal in the 70s, part 5. After the double, double doubts.
By Tony Attwood
After an up and down start to the season, and with Arsenal 8th in the table and nine points off the leaders, Arsenal returned to Europe to finish off the job against Grasshoppers on 3 November. 31,105 turned up and if the consensus was that Arsenal were unconvincing in Zurich, this time they relaxed and played beautiful football while Bob Wilson counted the blades of grass in the penalty area.
As a result it seemed quite amazing that until the 41st minute Arsenal had not added to the two scored in Switzerland, but then Radford passed to Armstrong who slipped the ball to Kennedy who volleyed home.
The visitors obviously knew they could only count on miracles to turn the tie around, but they valiantly played their part, even though the opening of the second half included five Arsenal shots at goal in the space of three minutes – the last of which resulted in a goal by George.
With unnecessary viciousness Charlie hit a 25 yarder aimed straight at the keeper’s head. Instead of helping the ball up and over the bar Deek (the goalkeeper in question) tried to fist the ball away, but it was moving at such speed that his actions simply edged the ball upwards and flew into the net.
Finally with 10 minutes to go George and Kennedy exchanged passes and Radford copied George’s earlier shot by aiming at the keeper – and duly scored.
On 6 November league action returned and Arsenal took some positives out of the match for the trip to Anfield, but the result did nothing to help Arsenal’s position: Liverpool 3 Arsenal 2 in front of 46,929
Having just been knocked out of Europe, while Arsenal had progressed, Liverpool came to this game looking to prove themselves and were aided in their industry by a referee who might perhaps be called “friendly” in his leanings towards the home team, although there are other words that could be used.
Even when the ref did stir himself to book Lawler (his second booking in three weeks) Shankley felt moved to respond with typical sarcasm, “You can tell he’s a bad one… he swore once.. about six years ago”). It was a typical Liverpool ploy at the time, helping deflect any criticism…. ever.
Arsenal took the lead through Kennedy after five minutes but Hughes equalised for the home side on 41 minutes. Arsenal seemed happy to keep things at 1-1 until Callaghan showed a moment’s brilliance on 53 minutes with the sort of elegant lob that no keeper can ever deal with.
Smith then slipped in his own area and scored an own goal to balance the scores once again until four minutes from time when Liverpool took almost the whole team forward to pack the area, allowing Hughes to score the winner.
That might have been thought to be bad enough for the Champions, but on 8 November 8 we had Sheffield United 2 Arsenal 0. At least it wasn’t a league match but the Football League Cup 4th round replay. The attendance was 35,461, but, we were able to think, Arsenal didn’t like the league cup with those horrible messy finals, so perhaps it just cleared the way to an assault on one of the three remaining competitions.
Yet Arsenal didn’t see it that way and their frustrations were shown in the booking of Roberts and George. Wilson saved Arsenal with one of his trade mark dives at the feet of an onrushing player (Woodward in this case) and the Gunner’s defence tightened up to deny United space.
But it was United who went close with Reece thumping the ball over the bar from two yards. Then on 22 minutes, clearly offside, Reece crossed the ball for Woodward who tapped it in.
Arsenal responded by pushing George further forwards but Reece, realising that his luck had returned kept up the pressure. After 63 minute a Roberts clearance went straight to Currie, who passed to Reece who shot past Wilson. Seemingly Stoke had passed the mantle of being Arsenal’s voodoo team to Sheffield United.
There was hope that with the league cup out of the way Arsenal would now find their proper form in the league especially in playing one of the new pretenders, Manchester City. But on November 13 it was not to be and the result was Arsenal 1 Manchester City 2 with 47,443 in Highbury.
Nothing much happened in this game until halfway through the second half. Nelson wandered through the City offside trap, and much to everyone’s surprise, scored the opening goal.
It looked like the opportunity for Arsenal to get over the recent defeats to Sheffield and Liverpool, and for them to regain lost confidence. However the goal galvanised the visitors and it was they who took the initiative for the first time in the match, as Arsenal showed that they really had lost the power to see out games, which was taken for granted through much of last season.
Radford did come to life later on, and George’s passing became more intelligent but a rare poor header from McLintock let Mellor through to beat Wilson in a one on one. Then Bell edge on a centre for Lee to pass to Bell who slid the ball home. Arsenal had no reply and looked like a team that had stopped believing in themselves. Arsenal 1 Man City 2.
But at least Arsenal had not suffered the humiliation of the Stoke City type from the previous season. Except that on November 20 it happened, with Wolverhampton Wanders 5 Arsenal 1. Only 28,851 turned up at Molineux – and they were probably wondering at half time why they bothered, as it appeared that Arsenal might cast aside their run of three consecutive defeats and get something out of this match, for they were 1-0 up from a goal by Kennedy.
But what happened in the second half was partially good football from Wolverhampton, partially an outsmarting of Arsenal tactically, and partially an imploding of Arsenal’s communal psychology.
Arsenal opened the second half with a determination to keep the score at 1-0. But Wolverhampton had seen the Man City and Sheffield tactics, and immediately started moving the ball around very quickly, making it impossible for Arsenal to slow the game as their current style demanded.
As the quick equaliser was followed by Wolves’ second, Arsenal heads dropped, and apart from McLintock the team seemed to have little appetite left for the game. In the end it was a rout. Bertie Mee told the press that he would be making changes. “About time too,” was the sanitised version of the reply.
Next up was the north London derby on 24 November 24 at White Hart Lane with 52,884 in the ground.
With both sides having been told by their managers that they were not making enough effort, and with the memory of the final game of last season still fresh, both sides tore into this match and produced a classic. Not a classic of pure football, but rather a classic in terms of determination, vision and drive, and pure unending entertainment mixed with nerve tingling tension to which the crowd responded with noise, noise, and unending noise. Tottenham retained their unbeaten home record, and Arsenal at least stopped the run of defeats.
Arsenal’s tactics were utterly different from those seen at Wolverhampton. When Tottenham attacked, Arsenal pulled back and packed the area, and then when the opportunity came sent nine players running forwards to catch Tottenham on the counter.
Storey was booked on the half hour – leading to press comments about him being not quite the sort of man that should be playing for England (possibly he went to the wrong school) – but then on 36 minutes Rice took a free kick, passed to Kennedy who dribbled inside the area and shot past Jennings. Rice was also unfortunately involved in the equaliser, with his back pass intercepted by Chivers who had only Wilson to beat. But at least we had not suffered the humiliation of a defeat to Tottenham.
This was followed by another all-London affair on November 27 which ended Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 1, with 32,461 in attendance.
So Arsenal finally won a game after four defeats and a draw, but for much of the match, they were reduced to looking like an ordinary team playing without inspiration, without belief, and without the genius that was at the heart of the Double winning side.
True, at the start Kelly, McLintock and Storey had looked assured and ready to produce a quality win. A dozen shots reigned in on goal and Kelly scored amidst the horde of players gathered in defence.
But then Arsenal somehow lost their self-belief, with Storey the only one capable of a they-will-not-pass approach to the game.
Yet against the tide Arsenal scored a second on 35 minutes as Radford volleyed in from an Armstrong corner. But on 50 minutes Palace came back as Taylor sent in a shot from 25 yards which left Wilson stuck to the spot. Palace kept on pushing forward and nearly equalised with a deflected attempt. If it had gone in Arsenal would have had only themselves to blame.
From a London perspective the table looked decidedly sickly; northern dominance was being reasserted.
The league situation was bad but not utterly hopeless if Arsenal could just turn their performances around, but the start of December seemed to suggest otherwise, as Arsenal drew 0-0 away to West Ham on December 4.
Despite their approach of generating a frenetic atmosphere on the pitch to match that in the crowd with the aim of never letting West Ham settle, it merely resulted in even West Ham (who had not managed to beat Arsenal since 1963) being able comfortably to hold the Gunners at bay.
Both keepers were in good form – Ferguson rushing off his line after Moore mis-kicked and let Radford through clear on his own, and later Wilson diving full length to save from Robson, as well as making three saves in a minute just before half time from Hurst, Brooking and Best.
Radford and Kennedy were forced to play much of the game with little coherent midfield support (a result of the high tempo approach) and apart from frantic appeals for handball by Taylor, there was nothing doing.
Next up was Coventry at home, who were duly dispatched 2-0 on 11 December. The crowd (always lower just before Christmas in the 1970s) was nevertheless very disappointing at 28,599.
But it was at last a match in which Arsenal could exist in their favoured cruise control throughout and win even if it was without ever getting near the standards of last season. Graham’s passes didn’t always make it, and Storey’s tackles were less crunching than usual, but Coventry lacked invention and endlessly ran into McLintock and Simpson.
Within five minutes Radford got the first, heading in an Armstrong corner, and that more or less killed the visitors’ off. Then when Mortimer’s shirt pulling tactics for once failed to haul back McNab, he passed forward to Armstrong whose shot was parried. The ball ran to Radford who had all the time in the world to tap it in.
Amidst the tedium of the second half Marinello brought a cheer as he came on for Simpson (his first game after his cartilage operation) , and the sub came close to scoring, but two was more than enough against this young Coventry side.
The score was repeated in the next game, once more at Highbury as Arsenal beat WBA on December 18 2-0 once more with a low crowd of 28,177
Bottom of the table West Brom looked like a team waiting for something magical to happen and were bemused when it didn’t. As a result they were easily and efficiently out-manoeuvred by Arsenal who fitted into their approach of making things happen.
John Roberts (having been dropped for Peter Simpson the week before) spoke of the special feeling for Don Howe that everyone at Arsenal had and proved it by scoring twice – a remarkable achievement having scored the only goal of the game when the sides met in the Midlands in early September.
WBA seemed to have no ambition to get into Arsenal’s penalty area, and little idea what to do on the rare occasions when they did manage to get there. Don Howe took time to praise Arsenal and said he expected them to be challenging for the title.
And then, on 22 December 1971, Arsenal paid £220,000 for world cup winner Alan Ball. Having been transferred from Blackpool to Everton in 1966, Ball had played 208 for his new club, before moving to Arsenal. It was a clear statement from Bertie Mee that something needed to be done. But if Arsenal were looking for an immediate major upturn in their league form, they didn’t get it. Arsenal had 24 points from their first 21 games. By the end of the season they had 52 points from 42. So yes, an improvement, but only by four points. Such a record breaking transfer, it was hoped, would have delivered more.
So, on December 27 we had Nottingham Forest 1 Arsenal 1 with 42,750 packed into the City Ground.
Alan Ball made his debut, replacing Peter Storey, who had to settle for a place on the subs’ bench, but he had little to offer Arsenal. Strangely, despite his two goals against WBA John Roberts was dropped and again replaced by Simpson. That seemed bizarre – unless it was to accommodate where Ball was supposed to be playing – but if it was, it didn’t seem to work.
Ironically the star of the show turned out to be Ian Moore, who rumour had it, was about to move from Forest to Everton as a replacement for Ball. Moore scored a sensational goal in the 14th minute after receiving the ball just inside the Arsenal half. Despite having four Arsenal players in front of him and Ball running alongside him, Moore evaded the lot of them and beat Wilson from 15 yards.
It was George Graham who got something back for Arsenal, on the 33rd minute. Rice passed to Graham, as the Forest defender miskicked as he tried to clear. Graham waited for the keeper to advance before curling his kick around him and high into the net from the edge of the area.
The second half declined into a tougher sort of game with the Forest players deciding (probably unnecessarily) to block Ball at every turn. Eventually Gemmell and Hindley were booked, along with Eddie Kelly.
And thus the year ended with Arsenal in 8th but unbeaten in the last six.
Perhaps, in the new year, the cup would give some comfort. For having transferred Ball before the FA Cup started for the top teams, he joined Arsenal without being cup tied.
On New Year’s Day 1972 Arsenal drew 1-1 with Everton at Highbury.
Alan Ball made his home debut against his old club, but although he was the centre of attention in the warm up, he certainly wasn’t that involved in the game, which seemed to pass him by.
Everton scored on 19 minutes after Rice headed out to Kendall at the edge of the area. Kendall volleyed the ball back in and by pure luck it passed everyone by including Wilson.
Arsenal then moved onto constant attack, leaving Everton hanging on desperately for most of the game. But the attacks tended to be all the same, as no one yet had worked out how to use Ball – although he did nearly get through for a goal on two occasions.
On 70 minutes George came on for Armstrong but it was too late for him and he only managed one shot, which West in Everton’s goal saved easily.
Everton chased their first away victory of the season, and looked to have got it until the 82nd minute when Radford crossed, Royle headed out and Simpson at the edge of the area shot past West.
Still, we could all reconcile ourselves with the fact that Ball needed time to settle in, and everyone needed time to work out how to play the game with him. Unfortunately by the time of the next match, things still were not sorted and it ended on 8 January, Stoke City 0 Arsenal 0, in front of a typical Stoke crowd of just 18,965.
Simple passing and keeping possession were Arsenal’s watchwords, and they did both well enough, but in achieving these two ends they managed to go nowhere and get nowhere.
Alan Ball failed again to find his way into the game and the travelling fans began to show a little impatience with their new star. He did not help his cause when, having one of the best chances of the game, (as he received Armstrong’s centre on the far post) he then missed the goal utterly.
Kennedy came closest, but when clean through gave up on hearing a whistle from the crowd – the referee of course took no action however.
For Stoke, George Eastham (playing his 500th league game) pulled the strings and even managed a couple of fine shots, but the closest they came to scoring was when Conroy beat Wilson only to find that Rice facing the wrong way managed to flick the ball up onto the cross bar and away.
It was not exactly exciting, but at least there was a spot of relief around the corner as the following saturday saw the 3rd round of the FA which ended Swindon Town 0 Arsenal 2 with 32,000 packed into the ground.
This was the match when Alan Ball finally showed why Mee bought him. True Swindon were only a mid-table second division club – but they were the club that beat Arsenal in the League Cup final of 1969 – and that memory was still strong and painful.
At the start however it didn’t look that wonderful and on 30 minutes Ball, when faced with an open goal, somehow sent the ball to Armstrong instead of into the net. Armstrong however duly sorted matters out and scored.
From that point on however Alan Ball did begin to look more and more like his old self, and on 70 minutes he picked up a through ball, drawing out the goal keeper and committing him to the lunge, before wading through mud which seemed as if it could swallow him up totally. Miraculously he emerged at the far side of the swamp and stroked the ball into the net.
After the game it was announced that Bob McNab, who didn’t play, could be out for the rest of the season with a constant nagging pain in his stomach. A specialist neurologist confirmed that total rest was probably the only treatment available.
It was hoped that the Swindon victory might give Arsenal a little more drive and the following saturday, 22 January, did indeed see Arsenal beat Huddersfield 1-0 with 36,670 at Highbury.
However if the match between these clubs back in August had been a poor advert for football, this one was (if possible) marginally worse. Huddersfield were under no illusions as to the limitations of their play, but Arsenal seemed (as in the earlier fixture) unwilling to push on and take the goals that were surely theirs, if only they had tried hard enough.
Ball and Armstrong were the only stars, and it was appropriate that Armstrong should again score on 15 minutes, from a Kelly cross. As for Huddersfield they managed only two shots through the whole game, giving Wilson just one save to make.
In the second half Ball went off and Charlie George returned to the fray, but he was not at his best, and the game was all over, and a lot of the crowd gone, long before the final whistle.
Surely, we thought, somehow, in some way, Arsenal could shake themselves out of their lethargy, and indeed on January 29 1972 they finally produced a game worth of a place in the anniversary files. It ended Sheffield United 0 Arsenal 5 with 30,778 in attendance. It was the first time Arsenal had scored five or more since beating WBA 6-2 in September 1970.
Yet for a 10 minute spell it looked as if Sheffield would beat Arsenal for the fourth time in the season as shots were blocked, turned for a corner, saved by Wilson, headed over, and just wide.
Then Arsenal in general and Ball in particular, awoke. His distribution was perfect, George looked pleased to be playing, and Armstrong decided to cover every blade of grass.
On 21 minutes a shot by Graham was parried and George popped it in. On 24 minutes with nine Sheffield men in attack Wilson cleared to George. Hemley tried to trip him up, George danced past and scored.
In the second half Kennedy hit the bar, before Ball passed to Graham who scored between the keeper’s legs. In the 57th Simpson volleyed in off Badger’s head. Kennedy rounded it off on 85.
In the end the game had enduring moment as Ball sat on the ball, waiting for someone to try and get it of him. No one fancied it.
Although the press didn’t notice it, Arsenal had just gone 10 league games without defeat. True, half of those had been draws, but given the three league games prior to the run were all defeats, this was an improvement. Better, during this run of 10 league games, Arsenal had only let in four goals. Suddenly there seemed a little ray of light on the horizon.
The table, inevitably, looked more promising with Arsenal in fifth, five points behind the leaders. To make progress Arsenal needed to see all four teams slip, while they marched on – an unlikely scenario, but even so, it was more hopeful, and (for those who noticed such things) we were once again the top London team.
The series continues…
The Arsenal History Society Books
Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football, is now available on Kindle at £9.99. For more details and to buy a copy please click here or go to Amazon Kindle and search for Woolwich Arsenal.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal
Danny Karbassiyoon – what’s it like? By Danny Karbassiyoon
Arsenal: The Long Sleep 1953-1970. By John Sowman. Introduction by Bob Wilson.