Arsenal in the 70s, part 8 – the lessons learned and the lessons ignored 1967-73

By Tony Attwood

When Tottenham Hotspur achieved what all commentators of the era had believed to be the impossible – the League and FA Cup Double – in 1961, they maintained their position of prominence by winning the FA Cup again the following year, while slipping to third in the League.

In the next season (1962/3) they came second in the league, six points behind the winners but won the Cup Winners’ Cup.  After that their record in the league was 4th, 6th, 8th, 3rd, and only in that year of 1966/7 did they gain further silverware with another FA Cup win.  It was their golden era.

What this showed was that although winning the Double was a truly monumental feat and could be a springboard to success, that subsequent success was not guaranteed.

Tottenham’s failure to go on and dominate English football was perhaps a warning sign, a sign that flashed very brightly when Arsenal slipped down the league in the year after the Double, and were defeated in the FA Cup final.

However after the barren years from 1953 to 1968 a run of five Cup Finals in five years was certainly a huge improvement, even if only two of the finals were won, and there was the torment of the defeat to Swindon.  It was easy to see the five Finals as evidence enough that this was the new Arsenal.

Of course now with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the decline was already not far away, for in 1974  Arsenal finished 10th in the league and in 1975 were tipped for relegation for a while before ending up 16th.

So how could a club slip from five consecutive cup finals, followed by a year finishing second in the league and reaching another semi-final, to 16th two years after that run of six years.  As I chart the club’s progress through the 70s I want to try and find some answers to that.

The first analysis I want to try to understand why 1968 to 1973 didn’t leave a longer legacy comes from the number of players used in the league season by season.

Season Total players 5 games or less Notes
1960/1 27 9  11th in the league
1961/2 24 5  10th in the league
1962/3 23 5  Billy Wright manager
1963/4 24 5
1964/5 24 5
1965/6 22 4  14th in league
1966/7 22 2 Bertie Mee manager
1967/8 18 2 League Cup Final
1968/9 16 1 League Cup Final
1969/70 23 4 Fairs Cup winners
1970/71 16 2 The Double
1971/72 19 4 FA Cup Final

Players brought on as a substitute are not counted, not least because this only happened from 1966/7 onwards.

Now what strikes me is the amazing consistency in the number of players used throughout the sixties, with a general decline until a sudden drop in Mee’s second year.  Of course the match isn’t perfect, and one would hardly expect it to be.  But we clearly can see a move from an era of around 24 players with five playing five games or less down to the 16 to 19 level in four seasons out of five.

This means players get used to being together, and the system, but includes dangers.  Each players plays more games, newcomers get less of a chance to break in, so there is less cover, and the low number begins to seem normal, so the drive for new players either from the youth ranks or from other clubs is forgotten.  Plus with the extra games and tension of going a long way in a Cup there comes extra strain.  And what you don’t ever want is for a top player to be injured and for the club to be forced to bring in a rookie who has hardly played a game – because so few players are used.

The arrival of both the league cup and substitutes did give Arsenal a chance to try out a few new players but this was not widely used, and so it left the club vulnerable to the effect of a spate of injuries.

It might however be argued that the change is not huge.   The average number of players used in a season from 1960/1 to 1966/7 (the years without a trophy or a final) was 23.71.  The average number of players used per year during the five years of the finals and the Double, was 18.4.

In percentage terms however, in the years of the finals, Arsenal used around 22% fewer players.  That is a big drop.

So the danger then is, that if the success begins to fall away, this lower number of players means fewer players gaining experience, ready to take over if things go badly, or there is a sudden upturn in injuries.

I’ve sought to look at this is by comparing the players from 1967/8 (the first League Cup final) with 1969/70 (Fairs Cup) and 1971/2 (the year after the double, and the second consecutive FA Cup final).

To keep the chart fairly simple I’ve only included players who played 10+ games in at least one of these seasons, and only counted league starts.

Player 1967/8 1969/70 1971/2 1973/4
Addison 10
Armstrong 42  17  41 40
Court 15  18
Furnell 29
Gould 15
Graham 38 36 39
Johnston 17
McLintock 38 30 37
McNab 30 37 20 23
Neill 38 17
Radford 39 39 34 32
Sammels 34  36
Simpson 40  39 32 34
Storey 39  39 29 41
Ure 21
Wilson 13  28 37 41
 Barnett 11
George 9 20 28
Kelly 14 22 35
Marinello 14 4
Roberts 11 21
Robertson 27
Ball 18 36
Kennedy 37 42
Nelson 24 18
Blockley 26
Rice 41

The eight players in red could be called stalwarts across this successful five year period but by 1973 they were inevitably starting to drift away.

However the longevity of this group was wonderful – but there was also a danger, in that they were so established that they started to block the progress of up and coming players, and they reduced the possibility of bringing in a player who is just establishing himself elsewhere who can now develop.  Worse as they started to move away, it felt to some degree as if a key element had been removed from the team and the pressure on any replacement was huge.

Let us now consider the transfers in and around 1972.  The club had had nearly five years of comparative success, unheard of for years.  So what new players were emerging in ’72 – and who was coming to the end?

This is where it starts to look a bit worrying

  • Brendon Batson, came in but got just a handful of games.
  • Frank Stapleton signed as a youngster.
  • Jeff Blockley was signed as a central defender
  • We lost John Roberts, Frank McLintock  and George Graham

We can also see Marinello who had been a great hope, never delivered and moved away.  So two stalwarts and a solid occasional out, and in 1971 one star player (Alan Ball) in.

Restricting ourselves to just the Double year and the year after we can see that there were problems with both defence and attack.  And just to see how this is actually quite an indicator of what was going on in the club, I have sneaked in 1972/3 even though we haven’t gone through that season yet.

The points total that dropped significantly between 1971 and 1972 rebounded, but I think the issue can be more readily seen in the goals for and against.  The goals for goes down, the goals against goes up.

So, we were lacking in anyone new other than Alan Ball coming in who could replace those who were coming to an end of their time at Arsenal, and we were not addressing the problem of declining goals for and growing goals against.

Second I have had a look at the crowds.

We perhaps sometimes imagine that every match in the Double year was packed out, and that at the end of Billy Wright’s tenure it was about 5000 for each match, but this is not the case.  And in looking at this table one might remember that by 1986 the average crowd was down to 23,000.  The crowd at Arsenal was never guaranteed.

Year Av crowd
1973 40.246
1972 40.500
1971 43.776
1970 35.758
1969 38.423
1968 31.896
1967 31.773
1966 29.036
1965 31.327
1964 34.793
1963 32.288
1962 34.447

Arsenal could rely on crowds of around 31,000 on average even when things were going poorly.  When the good times came they might get 10,000 more on average through the gate.

So the extra money was coming in – not just from the 10,000 more people at each game, but from the extra games in Europe and the longer cup runs.

The conclusion seems to be: the money was there, the players needed replacing, but replacement wasn’t arranged on a suitably large scale.   And the most likely explanation for that seems to me to have been that the club became seduced by the notion of much smaller numbers of players being used, and the fact that the stalwarts would go on forever.

2 Replies to “Arsenal in the 70s, part 8 – the lessons learned and the lessons ignored 1967-73”

  1. “What this showed was that although winning the Double was a truly monumental feat and could be a springboard to success, that subsequent success was not guaranteed.”

    That’s somewhat disingenuous. They won 7 trophies in 13 seasons.

    And how was Frank Stapleton “emerging” in 1972? He was a 16 year old apprentice that was years away from his first team debut.

    There’s more to football than comparing the number of players used from one season to the next. Here’s a tip. Read the autobiographies of the players that played during the period. They all come to the same conclusion.

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