1981 Arsenal pre season: the pressure of expectation overwhelms.

By Tony Attwood

Towards the end of the old season…

On 11 March 1981 Peter Nicholas signed for Arsenal from Crystal Palace for £400,000.  He never really made the impact hoped for and after just 60 league matches he returned to Palace, before moving on to Luton, Aberdeen, Chelsea and Watford.   He made his first appearance on 21 March in a 1-1 draw with Norwich.  It was the start of a nine match unbeaten run to the end of the season within which Arsenal won seven.

Indeed on 28 March 1981, Arsenal 1 Liverpool 0 was the start of an eight match run to the end of the season in which Arsenal won seven.  Alan Sunderland scored.

On 25 April Wolverhampton 1 Arsenal 2 made it six wins and two draws in the last eight games as Arsenal headed for a final position of 3rd – the club’s best league finish since 1972.

And finally 2 May 1981 Arsenal 2 Villa 0 made it 7 wins and 2 draws in the last nine games as Arsenal finish 3rd – Neill’s best finish.  Young and McDermott scored in front of 57,472.  The end of the match was marred by a mass pitch invasion by Villa fans, but no action was taken by the League or FA against either club.  Arsenal thus qualified for the Uefa Cup.

Pos Club P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Aston Villa 42 26 8 8 72 40 +32 60
2 Ipswich Town 42 23 10 9 77 43 +34 56
3 Arsenal 42 19 15 8 61 45 +16 53
4 West Bromwich Albion 42 20 12 10 60 42 +18 52

Post season game

Arsenal rounded off their season with one post-season match on 9 May 1981: Arsenal 3 Eastern Athletic Association (Hong Kong) 0.  It was the last game for Frank Stapleton.  After 223 league games he signed for Man U – a move that was not surprisingly, poorly received by Arsenal supporters, especially in the light of our end of season performance.

Pre season games

  • 5 August 1981: AIK Stockholm 0 Arsenal 0 (last game for Sammy Nelson)
  • 16 August 1981 Olympiacos (Greece) 2 Arsenal 3 (Devine, Sunderland, Davis) (last game for Steve Gatting)
  • 20 August 1981: Juventus 2 Arsenal 2 (Talbot 2)
  • 22 August 1981: Portsmouth 0 Arsenal 1 (Nicholas)

Summer and autumn transfers.

31 July 1981:  Colin Hill signed professional terms, having played for Hillingdon Borough before moving to Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1977.  He made his debut in April 1983.

After the AIK Stockholm game on 5 August Sammy Nelson was displaced by Kenny Sansom, and moved on to Brighton, having played 339 league games and scoring 12 goals.  Steve Gatting moved to Balso righton for whom he played over 300 league games before finishing his playing career at Charlton.

21 August 1981.  Frank Stapleton transferred to Manchester United for a ludicrous tribunal price of £900,000.  He had played 225 games for Arsenal and went on to play 223 league games for Man U, but the tribunal never explained its decision.

The start of the 1981 season

This was the season in which three points for a win and one for a draw replaced the old two for a win and one for a draw.   There was much excitement in the press as the papers hired their own “statisticians” (ie men who wrote for newspapers and were capable of multiplication) to work out how the old season would have ended if the new system had been in place then.

On 9 September 1981 away from Arsenal, in an environment in which the media continued to believe that some England had the automatic right not just to be in the world cup finals but also win the world cup on a regular basis, the country suffered a shock 2–1 defeat away to Norway in a qualifier for the World Cup – a result which had a Norwegian journalist Bjørge Lillelien did his “Your boys took a hell of a beating” commentary which became internationally famous.  Sadly Bjørge died in 1987 aged 60 from cancer.

Back with Arsenal 16 September 1981 saw first appearance and first goal for Raphael Meade in the opening match of the Uefa Cup in which Arsenal safely moved through against Panathinaikos 3-0 on aggregate.    The club was however knocked out in the second round by Winterslag of Belgium on 3 November.

In the league the season began on August 29 with a 0-1 home defeat to Stoke and Arsenal only won one game in the first five, scoring just 3 goals.  By the ninth game Arsenal had won three drawn three and lost four.  However six consecutive wins as the winter freeze set in, improved Arsenal’s position.

An old stalwart later said his farewells as on 24 October 1981 in a match that ended Ipswich 2 Arsenal 1, Willie Young bade farewell to the club.

December 1981 and January 1982 contained the coldest and severest winter weather ever recorded in the UK since 1890 and the snowiest since 1878,

From the Pre-season files


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