Arsenal in the 70s, part 24 July to Dec 79. One pace forwards, one pace back.

By Tony Attwood

The pre-season started off in a most curious manner with the signing on 15 July 1979 of John Hollins who joined from QPR.  He played initially for Chelsea (with a spell as captain) and in 12 years knocked up 436 appearances including 167 consecutive games and then had four seasons at QPR before moving to Arsenal aged 33.

He got his first game on 28 July in a friendly v Munich 1860 coming on as a substitute for David Price in a 1-1 draw in front of 8000.   Those who observed such things saw that there was no Malcolm Macdonald in the squad and wondered….  Stapleton scored.

And the absence of Supermac was well noted because on 29 July 1979 Malcolm Macdonald announced his retirement from football.  He had been injured in a league cup match early the previous season, had made an attempt at a comeback, and then vanished again, before returning to score in the last game of the season against relegated Chelsea.   But clearly he was not getting back to his full fitness.  

There is no doubt that without his injury he could have helped Arsenal, who had just won the FA Cup, to greater things and his loss was a major blow. But such things happen.

In retrospect we might ask if Arsenal should not have bought an additional centre forward during the summer given the club must have known that there was a problem very soon after the Chelsea game – but with no transfer window to worry about there was no rush – and perhaps that is what let Arsenal down.  Macdonald had been targeted with an aggressive deal in June.  But prices had rocketed upwards ever since, and maybe the notion of “seeing how it goes” and a fear of spending quite so much money as was soon being bandied around, made the club become inactive.

On 31 July Arsenal played out another 1-1 draw with Duisburg, (Arsenal’s goal coming as an o.g.) this time in front of 5,000.  The team line ups were as might have been expected, with the only item of note being the substitute appearances of Paul Vaessen who clearly looked like a player of the future.

Two more pre-season friendly matches were played

  • 3 August Ajax 0 Arsenal 0.  (40,000).
  • 5 August Hamburg SV 0 Arsenal 3 (Rice, Sunderland and Stapleton) (35,000)

Then on 11 August it was Liverpool against Arsenal at Wembley in the Charity Shield – Arsenal losing 1-3, with 92,000 in attendance.  This was Arsenal’s tenth Charity Shield appearance and Liverpool’s ninth but was also Arsenal’s first appearance in the Shield since 12 October 1953. Arsenal’s team was…

Jennings, Rice, Nelson (Young), Talbot, O’Leary, Walford, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Price (Hollins), Rix.

Liverpool were not just the firm favourites they were the absolute favourites, having gained a record number of first division points the previous season, and conceded the fewest goals in a 42-game Football League season – just 16.

However although everyone expected Liverpool to dominate they failed to create chances in the match and Stapleton came close to scoring early on.

But as half-time approached, Kennedy, so very much part of Arsenal at the start of the decade, and a man who should never ever have been allowed to leave, passed to McDermott who scored.

Arsenal looked as if they could make it back in the second half until Sammy Nelson collided with McDermott and went off concussed with Willie Young coming on as a replacement. As Arsenal tried to adjust Liverpool scored the second.

With the balance of the team gone Hollins came on for David Price, and once again, as Arsenal re-adjusted Liverpool scored.  Alan Sunderland scored a consolation goal for Arsenal.

And so the season began – and it began with a bang on 18 August with Arsenal winning 4-0 away to just promoted Brighton And Hove Albion – the first time Arsenal won an opening match under Neill after four attempts.

Brighton had just gone from the Division 4 to the first division in 14 years and on August 18 1979  played their first game in the top league.

Later reviews have shown that Brighton didn’t handle the day well, failing to treat the game, from the players point of view, as they might every other match.  Instead Mullary went onto the pitch to wave to the fans… and so the nervousness of the players was hyped up.

For about ten minutes the sheer noise and enthusiasm of players and crowd combined to unsettle Arsenal, but then Brady and Rix began to combine with Talbot the powerhouse behind.

And with the focus on those players Stapleton received a pass from Sunderland and scored from 20 yards out.  Within a minute of the restart, Brady got a free kick, Young headed the ball to Sunderland who simply nodded the ball in from one yard out.

For the third Rix sent a high pass through the middle of the pitch to Sunderland who waited until the last seconds to dash in, take the pass and knock the ball over the keeper’s head. 0-3 at half time.

The Arsenal fans spent half time changing the “Seagulls” call of the Brighton supporters into “Three goals”.  Finally a Brady penalty made it 0-4.

Anyone who bothered to create a league table would have had Arsenal at the top as a result of this game, but the papers were more interested in the creation of a fifth national division, sitting beneath the football league, and known as the Alliance Premier League.  It later became the Conference, and then later still, the National League.

It was perhaps fortunate that no attention was paid to the league table because it was not just the only time that Arsenal would sit in that position all season, but also the only time that Arsenal scored four in the league all season.

After such a fine start, Arsenal supporters expected a decent follow up for the first home game on 21 August, against Ipswich, and 33,255 turned up in expectation.

But Ipswich, defeated at home on the opening Saturday had issues of their own to cope with and Arsenal’s buoyancy was not on their mind.  Having had to face the ignominy of Bobby Robson offering him to anyone with £100,000 going spare defender Allan Hunter determined to prove to his manager that he was worth keeping  by scoring the first on 22 minutes and setting up the second in the second half.

As for Arsenal it looked for all the world as if the team thought everything was going to be as easy as Saturday.  Stapleton and Sunderland had less than a dozen attempts on goal through the whole and Brady played a defensive midfield role prior to the break although he came more forward in the second half.  Ipswich however saw their chance with Brady out of the way and Muhren got the second.

With a fine win and a woeful defeat thus far, Arsenal next went for the goalless draw on 25 August and duly achieved it at home to Manchester United  in front of 44,380 fans.  We didn’t know it at the time but it was an omen.

The press, knowing that Man U fans are spread evenly throughout the country, and that positive reports on the club will boost circulation, had slipped into the habit of calling the side the “Great Entertainers”.  But even the pro-Man U press could not find anything good to say about this team, at least in its away mode where they are “deadly dull” as one report put it.  So having had to watch a dreadful game against Ipswich, the fans had to watch another.  The word was out, if you want a point against them, “don’t let Arsenal play”.  It was an approach that lasted for months, and months, and…

Here the more Arsenal played the more Man U retreated, and the more the press in their reports after the game said that Liam Brady (who missed the game through injury) must stay at Arsenal, not just for Arsenal’s sake but for football’s sake.  Gatting was Brady’s replacement, but it was an impossible job.

Every game like this, the media said, sent more and more people away from football.  And the Man U style now had a name: Smothering Football.  It was a horrible phrase and it was horrible to watch.

The opening month of the season ended with the League Cup on 29 August, Arsenal being drawn away to the old enemy, Leeds.  It ended 1-1, 23,421 present.  Brady was now back in the line up with team being Arsenal’s first choice XI: Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Talbot, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Hollins, Rix.

Arsenal were able to absorb the early Leeds pressure and grew in adventurousness in the second half to create the goal on 50 minutes with Stapleton scoring from a Hollins free kick.  But Hollins helped in Leeds’ equaliser six minutes later, pushing Graham to concede a penalty.  Sunderland almost got the winner but was thwarted by Harvey in the Leeds goal before Curtis hit the bar with a header in the last minute.

So it was hardly a wonderful start to the season for Arsenal, but at least the position of Tottenham in the league was a matter of some light relief.

Thus Norwich who had never finished in the top five were on top, and Tottenham who won the title a couple of times were at the bottom, below newcomers Brighton and Hove Albion.

September began as August had ended with an away game with Leeds – this in the League Cup on the 1st of the month.  It ended 1-1, a marginally lower attendance of 23,245 being recorded.  The regular first team playing except Brady who was replaced by Gatting.

And even without Brady Arsenal still looked far too good for Leeds as Harvey in the Leeds goal was constantly tested, and indeed saved a Talbot penalty brilliantly.  Rice and Nelson did not have the chance to get forward much of the time but it was Nelson who scored the equaliser on 47 minutes wiping out the lead given by a Leeds goal (scored seconds before half time) with a header from a corner.

Apart from Talbot’s penalty Sunderland came close to getting the winner twice, as did Stapleton and Nelson but the ball just would not go in.  But it looked hopeful for the league cup replay for which it was predicted Brady would be back.

And hopeful it certainly was as Arsenal swamped their opponents who, let us not forget, sat alongside them in the first division and who had held Arsenal to two 1-1 draws.   The result on 4 September being a memorable Arsenal 7 Leeds United 0.   35,133 were there and a similar number who weren’t must have wished they were.

The team for this momentous evening was clearly Arsenal’s first XI: Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Talbot, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Hollins, Rix.   The scorers were Sunderland 3, Brady (2 penalties), Nelson and Stapleton.

It was, as you might expect, Arsenal’s biggest league cup win and for all the world it looked as if, after two draws in a row Arsenal had suddenly had enough.  Sunderland got a hat trick (the first two goals being on three and eleven minutes) and the score was all the more remarkable as Leeds were beaten in London for the first time in 12 games.

Jimmy Adamson of Leeds said, “Frankly, they were magic and we were rubbish.  The score was a reflection of the game.”   What made the event particularly exciting for those who were there was that even after being three up and having the game safe Arsenal kept on.

Rice and Nelson spent more time up front than defending.  Rix and Brady managed the game from midfield.   Paul Hart fouled Stapleton for the first of the penalty, and by the time the second went in nine minutes from time Leeds were begging the ref to blow for the end of the game.

Of course the press did their best to ignore the result, some ludicrously claiming that the result came in too late for them to cover it, but they didn’t miss the next day’s affair in which Manchester City signed Steve Daley from Wolverhampton for a British record fee of £1,437,500.

Arsenal however were still full of their mid-week achievements by the following weekend, but sadly they turned out to be too full of it, as the league cup excitement simply couldn’t transfer itself to the league.  Arsenal lost 3-2 at Derby County on 8 September, a mere 16,429 bothering to pay to see the game.

The team was the same and with Derby having scored only one goal so far and being 2-0 down at half time, everyone probably thought it was all over.

And then Derby scored three.  Collin Addison came onto the pitch after the third of Derby’s goals, clearly an offence, but no one seemed in the mood to tick him off.  Arsenal’s goals came from Stapleton and Sunderland, but it was clear that the midfield were still living the dream from mid-week and the first half and they got duly punished for simply not paying attention.

Then on 8 September the national transfer record fee was broken for the second time in four days when Wolverhampton Wanderers used the money they had just received and paid Aston Villa almost £1,500,000 for Andy Gray.  People started to look at Arsenal to see if they were going to respond.  After all there was still no big purchase to replace Macdonald, but the club was still not stirring.

Instead of 11 September the result was Fulham 2 Arsenal 2 in Ted Drake’s Testimonial.  A match which saw Paul Davis’ first appearance for Arsenal. It ended 2-2.

On 14 December 1935 Ted Drake had scored all seven goals for Arsenal in a game against Villa.  He played under Chapman, of course, but Chapman missed the game through illness, and Allison had the job of phoning his boss at the end of the game.  He later reported that he had told the great man the score, but nothing more, but the manager had wanted details.   “Who scored?” he demanded, to which Allison replied simply “Drake.”

Ted Drake scored 124 goals in 167 games for Arsenal.  On retiring from playing he managed Chelsea and took them to their one and only league championship before the Abramovich era.  Later he became reserve team manager, director, and ultimately life president of Fulham.

The game was played on an evening given over to international matches, and so the Arsenal squad was depleted, but it not only gave a chance for Davis to get a game, but also for Vaessen who scored from 25 yards and hit woodwork in the first half, while Steve Gatting impressed with a second half goal.  Even Peter Marinello turned out for Fulham.  Ted was given £5000.

15 September saw Arsenal back at Highbury, and fortunately back to winning ways, beating Middlesbrough 2-0, with a middle-of-the-range crowd of 30,341, the full first team doing the honours.

Brady was in the mood to be brilliant, while Sunderland and Stapleton looked as if they had been playing together as strikers for ever.  Suddenly they seemed to have a complete knowledge of where each other was at any moment of the game and it was right that each should score, making it seven to Sunderland and five to Stapleton.  Neill said it was good but he wanted the players to be more lethal.

But Brady had decided to be the perfect player in each part of the field so there wasn’t much left for everyone else to do except score the goals.  And at least for the benefit of the crowd Middlesbrough didn’t play the 10 man defensive game.  That was why Brady had the space, and why Borough lost, but at least it was within the spirit of the game, which was becoming something of a rarity.

Four days later on 19 September the press were suddenly reminded that Arsenal were back in Europe, playing of course in the Cup Winners’ Cup, the first match being a home game against Fenerbahce of Turkey, and once more the score was 2-0.  The crowd however was up slightly from Saturday, at 34,973.  And once more the regular first team was on show, only this time Stapleton didn’t get a goal – his role being taken over, for a moment or two at least, by Young.  Sunderland of course got the other.

Arsenal knew what to expect in the return leg Turkey, so were desperate to win well at home.  In the 29th minute O’Leary’s cross was headed back at the far post by Stapleton and Sunderland volley in.   Willie Young got the second with his head-in the 88th minute and the general consensus was that ought to be enough.

As for Brady, he took a penalty just on half time after Stapleton was brought down but the Fenerbahce keeper saved by moving long before the kick was taken.  The ref looked like he contemplated ordering a re-kick but then thought of his home, his family and his long term career and thought better of it.  Or perhaps not.

Elsewhere Sunderland hit the woodwork twice. David O’Leary tried to shake hands with his opposite number and was pushed away in such a manner that had it happened during the game it would have been an Arsenal free kick.   It was that sort of affair.

Unfortunately at this time Arsenal were not experienced at rotating the squad when they had Europe in midweek and the league at the weekend, and so on 22 September the game against the Villa showed Arsenal with all the signs of going through the motions.  It ended 0-0, 27,277 in attendance.

Barron played in goal for Arsenal and Jimmy Rimmer, Arsenal’s Player of the Year in 1975 and in 1976 kept Arsenal at bay despite constant attack.  Barron had few saves to make.

And thus Rimmer dominated the post match conference by talking about himself and suggesting he did not want to leave Villa.  And how he had signed a new contract.  “I hope to spend the rest of my career here,” he announced just to make it quite clear.   He at least gave Villa a spot of peace after Doug Ellis had demanded the resignation of three fellow directors.

But to be fair, Rimmer had a great game, Sunderland and Stapleton were off form although even so Arsenal were all over the opposition with shot after shot.  Neill said, “We weren’t so dominant after the interval.  But our attitude was spot on.”

On 25 September Arsenal returned to the league cup and there was again talk of the drubbing of Leeds, but this time the home support of 37,348, had to be satisfied with the 2-1 win over Southampton.

In effect it was the pure, total and absolute genius of Liam Brady seven minutes from time that took Arsenal through to the fourth round. He collected a throw in from Rice, by-passed a defender (it happened too quickly to see who) swivelled, and sent in a low drive from the edge of the penalty area.  Not only did the “One Liam Brady” chant go up, it continued as the ground slowly emptied and could be heard again in the streets around the ground as everyone queued for the tube.

That goal put the icing on the first half’s main event when three minutes before half time Nicholl fouled Hollins, Brady took the free kick, sent the ball to the far post and Stapleton headed in.  Two minutes later a Holmes cross found Williams and he qualised with a shot over the keeper.  Walford replaced O’Leary and was solid against all that could be thrown for the rest of the game.

The month concluded however with the icing being taken very much off the cake as Arsenal lost at home on 29 September with the score Arsenal 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3, 41,844 in attendance.

O’Leary was out of contention, replaced by Walford, but otherwise it was the regular team.

After the match there was a widespread consensus that there is nothing quite as distasteful as a self-satisfied Andy Grey boasting.  Having scored two he told the Daily Mirror, “I’m not really trying yet”.  And later added, just to rub it in, “I’m not fit yet.”

Yes it was true that Young and Walford couldn’t work out how to handle him, but Grey’s assertion that Arsenal defenders “don’t like running much” was so silly it would have embarrassed anyone with more than a modicum of intelligence.  All three Wolverhampton goals were gifts, as compared to Arsenal’s goals – from Hollins (who hit the bar from 30 yards) and from Stapleton, which were the result of hard work.  But a defeat is a defeat and it never feels good.

The table at the month’s end looked strange with newly promoted Palace top, last season’s champions in 9th, Palace being followed by Southampton and Norwich who had finished the previous season 14th and 16th.

The return match with Fenerbahce took place on 3 October and ended as a goalless draw, O’Leary thankfully returning to the side.

The whole affair was ludicrous.  Imagine, Istanbul on a rainy morning.  Thousands of Fenerbahce fans shouting abuse in front of Arsenal’s hotel.  Fans ambushing Arsenal’s coach as the players tried to visit to the ground for morning training.    Then imagine Istanbul on a rainy night.  Armed troops facing the crowd.  Riot police protecting the dug out.

As a result Arsenal played it so cool it was boring.  A goal, they knew, would spark trouble, and the safety of the team was paramount.  There were a few shots (thankfully of the footballing rather than the military kind), and a few saves.  When there was mob intervention the home side rotated having one lie on the floor while the others chased the supposed perpetrators around the pitch.  Arsenal retained self control and everyone got out alive.

Meanwhile on for the second year running the supposed masters of the European game, Liverpool were again knocked out early on, this time 4–2 on aggregate by Dinamo Tbilisi.

Next on 6 October Arsenal had another home match – this time a 0-0 draw with Manchester City.  34,688 came along.

Rix and Hollins did their best  – and indeed Hollins was the star, working hard throughout and no longer the oddity of a purchase that he had when he first came.  Allison on the other hand praised Rix and said he should be in the England squad.   The fact that these were the highlights of the press conference shows that no one had anything much to say about a game.  True, there can be very exciting 0-0 draws in which both teams attack and defend like terriers throughout.  This was not one of them.

However matters picked up as on 9 October Arsenal played the team that had been a thorn in their side for so much of the decade, Ipswich Town, and beat them 2-1 at Portman Road in front of 22,527.

Rice missed the game, with Walford standing in but it was Rix and Brady who between them composed, orchestrated and performed a magical two man ballet.  When they were not involved it could all be rather silly – as when the Ipswich keeper cleared only for the ball to hit the ref on the back. Inadvertantly the ref passed to Hollins who passed to Sunderland who chipped the keeper.

For the second Stapleton sent Rix through with the defence absent without leave.  It was Stapleton who this time chipped the keeper from 20 yards.  Brazil scored for the home team in the last minute, but by then the ground was almost empty save for the Arsenal away support.

The Bolton away game on 13 October was the 11th league game of the season and the difficult reality was that Arsenal had only won three of the previous ten, and matters didn’t improve much with a 0-0 away draw at Bolton in front of 17,032.

The team was the full-blown regular first team but Bolton did what Manchester City, Aston Villa had all done and done before them – stopped Arsenal playing, and so get a goalless draw.

Brady was man-marked throughout with a second man as backup should he ever escape.  Even the manager Ian Greaves admitted, “I would love to entertain but life is not easy.”  Nor was profitability, and this was Bolton’s lowest gate of the season, with those who stayed away feeling they had made the right choice.  The only thing to cheer was when Bolton thought they had scored but it was offside.

Arsenal’s best attack came with Jennings kicked the ball the entire length of the field and it almost went in at the other end.  Stapleton and Sunderland tried long range shots, and Bolton tried to nick it at the last but Arsenal held firm.

So now 11 gone, only three wins and three goalless draws.  Surely things would get better in a home game against Stoke…  But no.   Instead we got another goalless draw on 20 October.   31,591 came through the turnstiles and watched the regulars once again, but to no avail.

Stoke had clearly watched Bolton and came to Highbury with an eleven man defence: a keeper, five defender, and five midfielders.  Thus three of Arsenal’s last four league games had ended goalless and that showed the tactic worked – indeed the fear was that more clubs would follow this route.  Smothering football was here, and it looked like it was here to stay.

Willie Young nearly scored by his header was cleared off the line by Ray Evans.    Neill said, “we must be saving it for Wednesday”.  Everyone hoped so.

Wednesday was 24 October the home CWC tie against Magdeburg.  Arsenal won 2-1 with 34,575.   One hidden advantage of the “go for goalless” approach was that the number of injuries declined since no one was rushing around too much, the defence being far too tightly packed for that, so yet again we had the same first team line up: Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Talbot, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Hollins, Rix.

But although there were the goals a 2-1 win was deemed nothing like enough by the press who bemoaned the number of near misses  Willie Young and Alan Sunderland got the goals and the match was preluded as always with press chatter about how useless foreign goalkeepers are with high balls.  But this keeper was 6’6” tall so the amount of jumping he had to do was limited.

It looked hopeful at the start as Young scored on three minutes after Rix sent in a free kick following a foul on Stapleton.  Streich was the star of the visitors’ side and half way through the first half he took a pass, went around Young and only just failed to score.

On 56 minutes Pommerenke took a free kick which hit the wall, bounced back and allowed him to score second time around.  From here on the German side created ever more chances until for Arsenal’s second, Rix shot on 60 minutes and Sunderland tapped in the rebound.

So it seemed Arsenal could score after all – and on 27 October as Bristol City tried to repeat what Bolton, Stoke, Man C, Man U, and Aston Villa had done, Arsenal found a way through and got a 1-0 away victory with a crowd of 23,029.  Smothering Football but with a breakthrough.

“Brilliant Brady” shouted the Express in the aftermath of the game and indeed they were spot on.  City set out to cancel his skills out by fair means or foul, but ultimately they failed – although they tried everything en route.

Then with Smothering Football having failed, for the last 25 minutes after Arsenal scored Bristol C tried something else – an impression of the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue… well, themselves.  They ran, they pushed, they tried and they even shot a couple of times, but to no avail.  The Arsenal goal came on 65 minutes with Sunderland getting it at the second attempt.   Hollins took a shot, Sunderland followed up and tapped in the rebound from the keeper.  Terry Neill told everyone who would listen that this was the best Arsenal in years.  Maybe so… but most fans were waiting for more, preferably with fewer 0-0 draws.

And so it was that instead of more goals what they got was… another goalless draw, this time away to Brighton in the league cup on 30 October, 25,231 in the Goldstone Ground.

Arsenal played the regular first team as was the habit in the league cup at this time, although Gatting came on for Rice part way through.

Perhaps because of the way Arsenal dealt with Brighton in the season opener, there was a little skirmish between fans before the start, but nothing that could not be easily dealt with by the ageing stewards watched with some amusement by their somewhat younger mates in the police.

As for the game it was the goalie what done it.  Graham Moseley performed miracles and showed bravery all night to keep Arsenal out, saving three times from Brady alone.

But when Pat Rice went off with a knee injury the fans began to wonder how many more things were going to go wrong this season.  Arsenal tried to use the high wind and driving rain and mounted wave after wave of attack.  But when there was a miss in the 8th minute after a brilliant Rix cross gave half the Arsenal team a chance to score, we began to wonder.  Brighton had one shot, from thirty yards, and one header from Chivers.  But mostly it was Arsenal with Brady playing as if the 0-0 score was a personal insult.

October thus ended with Arsenal still in all competitions, although the Cup Winners’ Cup continuation was looking (at least to the press) a questionable pursuit.

Curiously there were five teams on 15 points above Arsenal and five on 13 one point below Arsenal – it all went to show that if just two of those goalless draws had seen an Arsenal shot go in, the table would have looked a lot nicer.

But it was clear, the goal scoring was a problem.  No Macdonald, fewer goals. Only seven teams had scored fewer, and that showed that something had to be done to break down the 10 man defences that had delivered Smothering Football.

Arsenal however had a chance to sort matters out as they now had Brighton at home in a league match (while still of course waiting for the league cup replay) on 3 November.  The reds won it 3-0, with a decent crowd of  34,400.  Rice was still missing, replaced by Devine, and Gatting came on for Sunderland.  Otherwise once again it was the first team.

Don Howe said Graham Rix should play for England, but most of the fans were more concerned about the number of games he was already having to play for Arsenal.  But here he was the start of the show against the bottom of the table club.

Certainly whereas Brady and Rix had failed to find a mixture to their similar talents early on in Rix’ development, now they could do it without a second thought, making the idea of Brady’s forthcoming departure all the sadder.  “Rix and Brady are world class,” said our Don, referring in part to the Rix goal on 58 minutes from 30 yards at a remarkable pace.  Brady also got one from the penalty spot and made the third for Sunderland but in scoring Sunderland pulled a hamstring – hence his departure.

7 November saw the away return leg to the German regional capital of Magdeburg – a game which the press had confidently predicted would be hopeless for Arsenal because of the paucity of the first leg lead.   Worse, the injuries were coming thick and fast,  Rice and Sunderland being the latest missing men, but their numbers would be added to.

22,000 crammed into the stadium in expectation and in a thrilling game Arsenal got a 2-2 draw and thus continuation in the competition.

But progress came at a cost. John Hollins and Sammy Nelson were added to an injury list already including David Price and Liam Brady.     On a bumpy pitch the East Germans looked like they had combined Communist lack of flexibility with Italian if-it-moves-kick-it philosophy, as a result of which Hollins went off after 27 minutes and needed nine stitches, as the cut almost went to the tendon.

Quite why Arsenal managed to be awarded a weak referee and a tough opponent is not clear although there were murmurings, but because this was long before the days when match fixing was revealed to be prevalent in some countries, questions of odd behaviour by the man in black were not raised.

Price, despite being on the transfer list played brilliantly in the midfield and took the first goal.  Streich hid the woodwork at the start of the second half  and then scored from a very dubious decision on 59 minutes after Devine was said to have brought down Mewes.  On 84 minutes Rix got past two leg-flailing defenders and put Brady through to score.  But three minutes from time Stahmann forced the ball through for their second – but thankfully even without the thought of away goals, it wasn’t enough.

Thus with Arsenal scoring in Europe and the League it was thought that the next match against Crystal Palace was winnable.   But it was not to be, Arsenal going down 0-1 in south east London, with 42,887 watching on 10 November.

The team was starting to look quite different, Sunderland, Rice and Hollins all missing.  As a result the line up was…

Jennings, Devine (Walford), Nelson, Talbot, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Gatting, Stapleton, Price, Rix.

Quite why at the end of this game anyone wanted to vote Peter Nicholas man-of-the-match is hard to say, but that’s what they did.  Yes he won the game for Palace but he by and large did so illegally,  O’Leary and Brady were both hurt from his less than standard-practice challenges.  Several players, most notably Price, felt Nicholas’ elbow.

Of course Nicholas gave a press conference to say that he couldn’t understand why people labelled him a hard man – but then he was hardly likely to say the opposite.

Palace started to put the talk around that they were going to emulate Forest in winning the second and the first division in consecutive seasons.  Quite possibly they could, but we all knew football would be the loser if they did.

Next up it was… Brighton, for the third time in two weeks, and with the goals having returned, (at least until the Palace game) there was hope.  And that hope was fulfilled with Arsenal beating the south coast team at home in the league cup by the same score as was achieved away in the league on the first day of the season.

30,351 came along and Neill decided once more to bring in his currently talked about star youngster – 19 year old Vaessen.  He repaid his manager’s faith by getting two, as did Stapleton.  Devine played in Rice’s position,  Price played in midfield and Vaessen, Stapleton and Rix went goal searching.

As Brighton tried to get the hang of the home team’s strategy, Arsenal scored in four minutes through Vaessen.  Rix and Brady realised there was fun to be had and Vaessen suggested he wanted to be involved.  For the second just on half time Devine turned Brady’s corner into a long centre for Stapleton to head in.   In the second half Vaessen headed in while Devine made bending the ball to the near post his main activity and as a result Vaessen scored a second.  Two for the experienced man, two for the young man.  All quite satisfactory.

And satisfaction now continued on 17 November as Arsenal, once more at Highbury, beat Everton 2-0 with a crowd of 33,450.  Vaessen kept his place, as did Devine and Price.

Arsenal tried new tactics, matching Everton’s buzzing around without going anywhere while relying on the keeper to mop up any shots that came in.  This approach continued until Devine, looking fed up with all the nothingness headed the ball forwards to Stapleton who volleyed home.  Everton looked puzzled, like men who could not find such a manoeuvre on the agreed script.  Then Brady, fearing he might for once not be the key man in the team produced an astonishing killer pass for Stapleton to finish the match off.  Everton suggested they’d let it rest at two, and Arsenal seemed to agree.

But just when it was all going so well, the curse of the 0-0 returned, this time in a home game against Liverpool on 24 November.   55,546 in the crowd expected more.  But it wasn’t Smothering Football.

To say that this match could have ended 3-3 instead of 0-0 sounds ludicrous especially when the first half wasn’t very good, and especially since Arsenal did not have Brady, and Souness and Kennedy for Liverpool looked off form.    But it was the quality of Clemence and Jennings that stopped there being goals, such that when Stapleton turned and shot, Clemence was almost expected to make a wonderful save.   Rix also came close after more brilliance from Stapleton.   The pace kept up almost to the last, and it really was hard to accept that the game ended 0-0.

The month ended with a home friendly against Celtic on 28 November which Arsenal won 2-0, 42,149 coming along.  Rimmer, Ball, Best and Cropley all turned out to pay their respects. Cropley and Hornsby getting the goals.

And this is a curious match, because it is not shown on the official complete Arsenal record of games against Celtic, so I am struggling to know why it was played.  More info if I get it – but if you know, please tell.

The month ended with Arsenal still four points behind the leaders but in fourth instead of eighth.

December began with an away game against the one time champions and now favourites of Europe, Nottingham Forest, which ended 1-1 on the 1st of the month, 27,925 in the crowd.   Devine, Walford, Price and Gatting all continued in the team despite failing to make the line up for the opening of the season.

But even with Brady out injured Arsenal still had three Irish players on the field (Stapleton, O’Leary and Devine), and the latter was a notable inclusion since Rice was declared fit and ready to play (although subsequent selections suggest this was not the case).  Stapleton’s goal was a joy – Price took the corner, Rix knocked he ball on, and Stapleton swept it on.  O’Leary now looked like he had played in the team forever (which in fact was what it felt he did do) and it was hard to remember that this was just his fourth season, as he seemed to keep Birtles and Francis in his pocket on his own.

Indeed Arsenal should have won, and the last minute equaliser from Forest was a cruel blow to a team that had played particularly well.

On 4 December there was a return to the league cup with a game against Arsenal’s nemesis of 1969: Swindon Town.  It ended 1-1, with a very encouraging crowd of 38,024, showing how seriously the League Cup was now being taken.

The team remained as before, but Hollins made his return as a sub, coming on for Price.

Arsenal went ahead in 10 minutes with Sunderland looping a header into the box.  He rounded the keeper but not the defender.  It was an obvious penalty and Sunderland scored.

But then Swindon awoke with Kamara pushing and prodding for openings, unleashing fierce shots and on the stroke of half time Rowland moved between Price and Jennings.  It didn’t go in, but it looked ominous.

Stapleton scored only to have a foul given against him for an earlier infringement.  Shortly after, what looked like a perfect lob just went over.  Then at the death Mayes took a corner, and Tucker nodded past Jennings with only five minutes to go.

More normal service however was resumed on 8 December with the visit of Coventry City to Highbury, and a pleasing 3-1 victory, although with a lower attendance of 27,563.  Brady was back, re-established in the team, but there was still no Rice or Young.

Arsenal had had trouble scoring at Highbury – only getting two goals against Middlesbrough and Everton and three against Brighton, in the league.  But then along came Coventry and Arsenal managed to get up to three, although with a more clinical strike force they could have had six.  (Although in fact as 1979-80 played out in the league Arsenal never once repeated the four they got on the opening day).

It was clear that Arsenal could not realistically expect to catch Liverpool, but the second and third teams in the league would still get into Europe.  And they had enough interest in the league cup, CWC and another season in the FA Cup, so continuation in Europe was something to play for.   If only they could score some goals.

Arsenal looked balanced and well drilled with Brady and Rix supreme artists as the side played 4-4-2, alternating with 4-2-4, but once again without Macdonald high scores never really looked likely.  Midway through the first half Brady played a free kick sideways, Stapleton scored a rebound from Hollins shot.  Within seconds Sundlerland half volled a Stapleton flick.  Within seconds of that Coventry got one back, but that was all they had.  O’Leary knocked in a corner, and Arsenal took up a stance which for all the world looked like the team saying, “don’t be so impertinent again”.

The result set up matters well to deal with the impish upstarts that were Swindon Town, currently languishing half way down the third division table.  But upstarts they had been in 1969 and upstarts they still were, for on 11 December the result was Swindon Town 4 Arsenal 3.  Arsenal were again bounced out of the League Cup, with 21,795 looking in, mostly in delight.

And to be clear, this was not Arsenal taking it easy and giving the experienced players a rest, for the side that played was, Jennings, Devine, Walford, Talbot, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Hollins, Rix.

Arsenal came back from 2-0 down only to go 3-1 down, and then to come back again to 3-3 and force extra time with two from Brady and one from Talbot. To rub salt in the wounds some reports suggested that two of Arsenal’s goals were own goals from Swindon, but that was going too far and in fact the problem was the other way round.  Two of Swindon’s goals were own goals from Arsenal, Walford and Hollins both conceding under pressure.

Overall Arsenal looked like a team that was not mentally well prepared for this game and was still thinking of League, FA Cup and Cup winners’ Cup games to come.  Brady was hustled and hassled although Arsenal never gave up and kept pressing to the end.  And indeed it looked close to the end that it would be 3-3, but for Swindon this was another cup final.  For Arsenal there were bigger fish to fry just a few weeks away.

Thus Swindon went through and went on to beat Wolverhampton (of the first division) 2-1 in the first leg of the semi-finals before losing 3-1 in the second leg.  Wolverhampton beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the final and took a place in Europe.

But for Arsenal it was now back to the league, and on 15 December there was an away game with West Bromwich Albion which ended 2-2 in front of 18,280.  Arsenal continued without Young and Rice, thus using the team that had been defeated by Swindon, but we were now at the stage in which an Arsenal match could not come and go without discussion of who would replace Brady – who it now seemed would leave at the end of the season.

West Brom didn’t quite know if they were struggling to avoid relegation or, as last year, thinking they might make it into Europe.  The problem was the general compression of the table, and with the number of relegation slots having been extended to three in 1973/4.

After the disasters of mid-week Arsenal found themselves once more a goal down and this despite Albion’s cautiousness  But seven minutes after going one down Arsenal recovered, and Nelson got beyond Batson, who was looking the other way, to accept the pass from Devine and tap in.  Three minutes on Trewick put Albion ahead again from a free kick.  Arsenal came back at once with Rix centring to Stapleton to head in.

It is fair to say that as Christmas approached, with stories of Brady leaving, and the memory of Swindon still fresh, Arsenal’s fans seriously wanted signs that this was not going to be another period of slippage, and due to this, and because of the tradition of low crowds just before Christmas, only 18.869 turned up on 21 December to see the 1-1 home draw with Norwich City.

And those who didn’t turn up probably thought they were the lucky ones, for this was a disappointment and a half in the snow.

Arsenal were well on top, scored first and were by and large discarding decent changes just for the hell of it.  Even when Nelson was injured after 11 minutes and McDermott came on it still looked set fair for an Arsenal win.  Norwich had one shot in the first half and Jennings struggled to keep warm.

For an hour as the snow fell Rix and Brady ran the event endlessly tempting comrades in the forward line ever further up the pitch.  For Norwich Peters made a couple of half decent passes but that was it.

Eventually a shot from Sunderland was blocked, and Stapleton forced the ball home.    Then Mendham shot up at the other end and Bond tapped in the rebound and that really was it.

But still, next up was Tottenham, and talk of Tottenham at Christmas led inevitably to Christmas 1978, with the 5-1 win.   This year the game was at Highbury on Boxing Day, the score was 1-0 to Arsenal and 44,560 turned up.  My daughter whose birth had prevented my watching the famous victory one year before, was having her first Christmas and preparing for her first birthday, and I, recognising the duties of fatherhood, and once more missed the derby.

Of course, even if one is not there, every victory over Tottenham is sweet, but the reports say that the match was fairly awful and scrappy in blustery conditions.  Brady and Rix could perform miracles, but ultimately even the wind could defeat them.  On 15 minutes however Rix did by-pass the collected Tottenham defence.  Two Tottenham players tried to clear, got in each other’s way and Sunderland picked up the pieces.

At the end Keith Burkinshaw said, “if only we could score some goals.”  Indeed yes, and for most people there this was a north London derby to get away from as quickly as possible to find somewhere warm, and out of the wind.

There was however another piece of news on that Boxing Day.  With both Sheffield clubs now in the third division, the fixture list brought them together on this day.  Wednesday beat United 4-0, in front of a bigger crowd than turned up at Highbury.

But that was not quite it for the 70s, as the football year ended on 29 December with Manchester United beating Arsenal 3-0, with 54,295 in Old Trafford.

Man U were speedy, skilfully and better able to work on a pitch utterly unsuitable for football, and liable to injure anyone who did not take it cautiously.  United showed they knew all about the pitch and how to play it, and so won.

McQueen headed in the first.  Jordan and Young faced up to each other.  Devine could not find a way to stop Coppell; it was not going Arsenal’s way.

For the second Wilkins sent Thomas clear, Thomas shot, Jennings palmed it out, Jordon tapped in.  Rix tried to take up the Brady role but became exasperated by his team mates’ desire to put personal safety first.  The ref gave a penalty for an innocuous tackle by Devine.  McIlroy got the third, and O’Leary left on a stretcher.

Arsenal ended the year fourth, but eight points behind the leaders, and with a massively inferior goal difference.  Third had to be the target, and that meant scoring a few more goals.

The Arsenal in the 70s series concludes with the next article with the second half of the 1979/80 season.

Current series: Arsenal in the 70s.

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