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February 1974: was this the worst month of football ever?

By Tony Attwood

1973/4 was a season and a half.  An oil crisis and a miner’s strike led to the abandonment of floodlighting, early kick offs and declining attendances.  There were calls for a mid-winter break, desperation over the failure to qualify for the world cup, and early exits from European competitions.

Brian Clough took over at Brighton who promptly lost 4-0 to Walton and Hersham (an amateur team).  Qualified coaches were accused to removing the inspiration and inherent talent out of the game, and a 10 man FA committee (average age 70) was set up to examine a report on the future of football that was completed four years before.  (Hmmm sounds familiar)

Attendances continued to decline.  Boxing day crowds were down by 25% compared with 1971.

And if the season was bad, February 1974 was worse.  We lost three and drew one.   If you want to read on you might like a stiff drink first, because it doesn’t make good reading.

When Arsenal fans speak of wanting their Arsenal back, I sure hope they don’t mean this.   (And remember just three years earlier we had won the Double).

As a preamble we had lost on 30 January 1974 to Aston Villa in the FA Cup at Villa Park 0-2 after an earlier 1-1 draw at Highbury.

On 2 February 1974 we played Burnley at home.  The crowd was 20,789.

On paper, the team looked ok:

Wilson, Rice, Storey, Kelly, Blockley, Simpson, Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Brady.

And Arsenal’s public response to the Cup exit was to say their were aiming for a Uefa cup spot, and with Brady now playing his third game there was a thought that maybe this could be possible.  The lad (it was agreed) certainly had talent and the game looked like delivering a step in the right direction in the 17th minute through a goal from Ball.  They should have had more – and had they managed it, morale as well as points would be been enhanced.

But Burnley unexpectedly decided to take the game to the Gunners for the last two minutes.  With half the tiny crowd already battling for a place on the Piccadilly Line Waldron ran 10 yards with the ball (something not previously seen in the game) passed to Fletcher whose shot hit Storey, bounced between three defenders and entered the net.

So a 1-1 draw and on to 5 February 1974: : Leeds United away.   We lost 1-3 in front of another low crowd: 26,778

The team was Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Blockley, Simpson, Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Brady and again the scorer was Ball.

In fact, for a moment it looked good, as, undefeated in 28 games Leeds were shocked when Arsenal took the lead and then looked ready to defend the goal for the rest of the game.

Arsenal’s goal on 26 minutes came from a Rice/Brady interchange, which left Ball free and able to volley home, and it looked for a long time as if they could have had more.

Indeed the ploy of deep defence and sudden counters worked as Leeds huffed and puffed but failed to blow the Arsenal house down…  until on 64 minutes Simpson slipped and played the ball into his own net while attempting to intercept a Leeds cross and pass it back to Wilson.

It was a tragedy not just for Arsenal but also for Simpson who had been having a fine game up to that point alongside Blockley,

Arsenal had no chance to re-establish their composure, and the result was a total of three goals in five minutes as Leeds suddenly found their belief and Arsenal lost all of theirs.

All this did not set things up well for the third game of the month:  16 February 1974 against Tottenham Hotspur at Highbury.

Even for Tottenham the attendance was just 38,804.   The team was Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Simpson, Kelly, Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Brady.

There was still no George, but he played in the reserves and his return was heralded for the following week.  But this game made it utterly clear that this could not be at the expense of Brady, who was by far the best man on the pitch.

Brady was compared in some quarters with George Best, although thankfully not in terms of lifestyle, but level heads continued to point out how young the lad was, and how he had a desperate need of support around him.

Tottenham scored through McGrath on 18 minutes, and thereafter Arsenal threw everything they could at the home team, but to no avail.  Kelly shone throughout, but of the men whom Arsenal needed to make the breakthrough (Ball, Radford, Kennedy) there was not a sign save on the team sheet.

And so, just when we thought this could not get worse, this dreadful month of football drew to an end on 23 February 1974 with Birmingham City 3 Arsenal 1 in front of 29,822.   The team sheet showed…

Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Simpson, Kelly, George, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Brady.

Whisper it cautiously but with this defeat Arsenal signalled that they could be ready to join Man U in a relegation scrap. Howard Kendall made his home debut and at first he looked unable to sort out what was going on as Arsenal took both command of the game and the lead through a Ball Radford Kennedy move which saw the latter score from 15 yards out.

But then Arsenal fell apart – although why is a mystery.  Gallagher scored after no one bothered to mark him.  Hynd then cleared his penalty area with a hoof upfield.  Storey was the only man near the ball when it returned to earth, but he was outmuscled (!) and Hatton got the second.  In the 64th minute Francis got the third, and Arsenal looked lost and worried.  The only light at the end of the tunnel was once again the performance of Brady – but it looked like a very long tunnel.

The league table then looked like this:

Pld W D L F A Pts
1 Leeds United 35 20 12 3 57 26 52
2 Liverpool 33 20 8 5 41 23 48
3 Derby County 35 14 13 8 45 33 41
4 Queens Park Rangers 33 12 14 7 50 41 38
5 Ipswich Town 35 14 10 11 56 52 38
6 Everton 34 13 10 11 41 38 36
7 Burnley 33 13 10 10 43 40 36
8 Leicester City 34 11 13 10 41 34 35
9 Sheffield United 34 12 10 12 40 40 34
10 Chelsea 35 11 11 13 52 49 33
11 Tottenham Hotspur 33 11 11 11 36 42 33
12 Coventry City 36 13 7 16 38 46 33
13 Newcastle United 32 12 8 12 41 35 32
14 Arsenal 34 11 10 13 38 43 32
15 Stoke City 33 9 13 11 43 40 31
16 Manchester City 33 11 9 13 30 31 31
17 Wolverhampton Wndrs 34 10 11 13 38 43 31
18 Southampton 35 10 11 14 40 56 31
19 West Ham United 35 9 11 15 44 53 29
20 Birmingham City 34 9 9 16 38 55 27
21 Norwich City 35 6 13 16 33 50 25
22 Manchester United 33 6 10 17 25 40 22

The end of Arsenal could be nigh.

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