By Tony Attwood
So, we won the League and the Cup in 1971; an amazing achievement. Which raises the question: why did it happen then, and why was it that we didn’t go on and build on that amazing achievement?
First off, in the Double season we had amazing luck with injuries. Of course some injuries can be prevented by not rushing players back onto the pitch, by not taking risks with players, and by getting the training right. But even so, we were lucky.
For if players don’t get injured very often, then when a player is injured there is the ability to take time, get the player fit slowly, and not attempt to rush him back. Players who are injured get all the time they need.
However when a team faces a lot of injuries, there is every temptation to push a player into the team, because the manager is running short of players. Likewise if results go against the team, there is always the temptation to tinker with it. If by and large you are doing all right, you leave the team alone.
Thus we see the positive and negative feedback loops. If the club gets few injuries, then anyone injured can take his time, and so is less likely to get injured again. Few injuries leads to fewer injuries. And we had very few injuries, and so used a squad of 16, with one of that squad playing one game from the start (Marinello) and one playing two (the young Sammy Nelson), and so that effect told on the results. The big injuries they did have – such as Charlie George – did not result in him being rushed back, because the team was doing so well.
Here’s the team for the first league game of the season
- Wilson, Rice, McNab, Kelly, McLintock, Roberts, Armstrong, Storey, Radford, George (Marinello), Graham.
And for the last
- Wilson, Rice, McNab, Kelly, McLintock, Simpson, Armstrong, Graham, Radford, Kennedy, George.
Forty one games later, and two changes
Second, Arsenal had decent reserves when they needed them.
Indeed Kennedy, Simpson and Sammels were more than decent reserves – they were all quality players, and they were the only three who were needed to take over from the XI who played on the opening day of the season. Kennedy in fact turned out to be one of the top stars of the season – easy to forget that he wasn’t picked for the first game.
But this lack of injuries and constancy of form could not go on forever. So we needed to prepare, during this season, for the future in which injuries and loss of form would return to their normal levels.
Of course while it was all going so well we didn’t want to bring in anyone who would replace a member of the existing XI; of course not. But we needed to think of the future. We needed
a) to bring in three or four players who would build themselves up in the reserves ready to play in the first team in the near future.
b) to bring in one new first team player, to put others under pressure. Marinello was clearly not going to make it and if he had been worth buying then a replacement was worth buying.
c) to be bringing in more players who might be ready in two years time.
d) to be blooding the youngsters and possible new players in the pre-season games.
Third, Mee had no qualms about dropping Marinello. He was the star signing, the record signing, and yet he couldn’t deliver. So was dropped. That was a good move and we have seen too many star signings who don’t deliver being kept in the team in the hope they will come good and justify the purchase.
Now the thought might have been that having him in the reserves, might have sorted him out, but it didn’t and ultimately he was sold. Mee dealt with it all very quickly. Again a good move.
Fourth, the growth period had worked well.
From being a club that never challenged for any trophy we had had two league cup final defeats, the Fairs Cup win, and then the double. A tremendous build up – it all worked perfectly. Though no one ever welcomes a cup final defeat, those experiences helped the players to add to their hunger, in some cases to mature, to take on the psychological attributes of players who expect to win, win, and win again.
Fifth we had an amazingly solid defences.
The two full backs, the centre half and the keeper all played 40 or more of the 42 league games. A rarity in the league, and we made the most of it.
Sixth there was the welcoming back of the trusted servant to a full season.
Armstrong returned and played his way through the season as if he had never been away. Hard to remember he had played just 17 in a very in and out season the year before.
Seventh, although Charlie George’s return in the Fairs Cup was a false dawn.
When he came back in the league he was absolutely ready to show the team what they had been missing. And interestingly, it seemed that while the rest of the league had got used to playing Arsenal without him, no one was quite ready to adjust to playing Arsenal with George. He didn’t return to the league side straight away, and it didn’t matter. We were still doing very well.
Eighth, both teams were chasing doubles.
Just at the crucial moment of Arsenal fighting the challenge of Leeds, not only did Arsenal have an FA Cup final to consider but Leeds had a Fairs Cup final to consider – they were thinking of a Double of their own. Both teams stumbled occasionally during the season, but at the final moment when it all mattered it was Leeds that slipped back.
Had Leeds only had the League to focus on, maybe those stumbles would have been a little less on their part. They had already gone out of the FA Cup in a huge upset, as noted in the article on the second half of the season, but they had the Fairs Cup, and their semi-finals against Liverpool were huge games for them.
Ninth, the referee’s behaviour in the Leeds Arsenal game was an utter outrage, and everyone knew it.
Arsenal could have reacted by saying, “we can’t beat a referee like that” but instead reacted with “right, now we’ll show them”.
The psychology of the team is as important as the psychology of the individual. Before this, at the league cup game against Luton, both Alec Stock and David Court were talking up a Luton win, and as ex-Arsenal men their views were given a lot of coverage. In the event Arsenal had none of it.
Arsenal stood up to every psychological challenge and this probably all went back to the very first game of the season which was called “trench warfare” and “football but not as we know it”. Indeed the biggest talking point in most of the press on that opening day was that Arsenal conceded 13 free kicks in the first half of the first match. The implication of much of the commentary was that Arsenal were playing the Champions, and if this was how they were going to compete with the best no one would come and watch.
And so throughout it was all of us against the press
And from this position we can see the final point: that the behaviour of the press towards Arsenal led to an even greater positive belief in Arsenal’s ultimate triumph. Indeed, the “us against the world” vision came to be shared by the crowd and the players. The bizarre antics of the chairman of Yeovil didn’t hurt the direction things were going in and nor did anything else the press could throw at us. A punch up in a restaurant? The club responded with a public rebuke of the local newspaper. That’s how it used to be in the days of Sir Henry Norris, in the days of Chapman, and in the days of Tom Whittaker. For one last moment, the club stood up to the scribblers and told them where to stick their biros.
And put all those ten points together, that’s why we won the league. We weren’t just better, there were other factors too.
S0 what stopped Arsenal going on and having a 10 or even 20 year period of success, rather than ending the run and going into decline after the the Fairs Cup, the League and the FA Cup?
The first thing the club needed to do to ensure the success would continue, was to be preparing for coming years when the injury-free run came to an end. As we can see through the course of the year, Arsenal didn’t do this, there were no more signings not even of players who could play in the Football Combination for a while.
Second, with Marinello ditched they should have bought the next star player in the summer of 1971 to replace him – again, a player who was on the up, who had made his name outside the 1st Division and who hopefully was ready to sign. This didn’t happen until later, and when it happened it was already too late, and quite possibly the wrong man.
Third, no club wins something every season, so we also needed to be ready to move for players who would not expect to win something every year, and who could be part of the next build up, while retaining the players who could keep us near to the top. But we didn’t.
Fourth Don Howe left. He wanted to be a manager, and so would have gone anyway, but one can’t help feeling that Mee was so autocratic, Howe just wanted to get out of his shadow.
So that was it: add more up and coming players who would be ready for the next season, promote one or two youngsters, prepare for injuries, keep Don Howe.
But we failed on every point, and we didn’t win anything the next year, although to be fair we were runners’ up, once in the cup and once in the league, in the next two seasons.
The series will continue shortly.
- 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
The Untold Books