Arsenal in the 70s part 18: July to Dec 1976. Neill takes control

By Tony Attwood

On 21 August 1976 Malcolm Macdonald made his league début in Terry Neill’s first game as manager, against newly promoted Bristol City.

Mee had ended his final season with this line up:

Rimmer, Rice, Nelson, Ross, Mancini, Powling, Armstrong, Ball, Stapleton, Cropley, Brady.

Neill began his new regime with

Rimmer, Rice, Nelson, Ross, O’Leary, Simpson, Ball, Armstrong, Macdonald, Radford, Cropley (Storey).

It was a scorching hot day in north London and 65 years since Bristol City had last been in the first division, and this was considered an ideal start for Arsenal’s new manager.  Nothing too strenuous, just a quick picking off of the West Country folk, who were certain for relegation.  Macdonald had promised that he would score and the fact that Arsenal took a while to get going and that it was 0-0 at half time didn’t seem to worry too many, although there were some mutterings about when Arsenal would actually get going.

There were also some mutterings about the line up as well.  No Brady (he was ill), no Stapleton.  Radford did not look at all right.  Nor did Cropley.

And 20 minutes into the second half when Bristol City did score, it was felt that this shock would surely now wake up Arsenal.

But the problem was that Rimmer was the best player for Arsenal, and he had to rely on the woodwork coming twice to his rescue.

At the end the 41,082 (including me in my usual position at the Clock End) started to wonder if this would be another season like the last and the one before that, and the… struggling to ensure first division survival.

That Liam Brady had tonsillitis didn’t help, but the total lack of flair and adventurousness surely couldn’t just be down to him.    As the Times said, “Football is a team game, and Arsenal are not a team.”   And I think most of us probably went along with that.

For those who took in the away games however, relief was close at hand as on 25 August Arsenal beat Norwich 1-3 at Carrow Road with 26,769 in the crowd.  Stapleton and Brady came in for Radford and Cropley and the difference was obvious.   The fact that Macdonald and Stapleton were on the score sheet made the result all the more acceptable.

In fact it became even more joyous as following a slight slip by Macdonald in the second minute the Norwich fans opened with, “What a waste of money.”  In the fifth minute Macdonald’s shot was parried by the keeper and Nelson moved in to head home.   The perfect riposte.

What caused the difference was not just the change of two personnel, but also a change of plan in which Macdonald was ordered to go looking for the ball rather than just wait for it, and he did so, indicating to Armstrong exactly where he wanted to pass planted.  Armstrong obliged and off went the shot and Arsenal were two up.

Nine minutes from time Martin Peters got one for Norwich but almost immediately Stapleton came back for the third.  The Norwich manager said “we gave away joke goals” but no one else saw the funny side apart from the local journalist, anxious to ensure that he was still going to get his complimentary tickets for the next match.

CrackerMack was the headline in the national press, and the consensus was that if Arsenal could keep this up it would be a fine season.  The first game was a blip, it seemed.  Now down to business.  How fast opinion could can change.

The month ended with a second away game on 28 August 1976, the result being Sunderland 2 Arsenal 2 with 41,211 in Roker Park.   Brady and Stapleton were still there along with Macdonald and it was starting to look good.

However as fast as the press build up, they knock down and after this match the headline news was that Norwich wanted to sign Armstrong – in fact they had joined the “race for Armstrong” – a phrase used by journalists even then when making up whatever they want to fill space.

True Armstrong had said he was determined to leave even though he was a team regular.  Notts County offered £20,000 for him.  Arsenal weren’t interested.

Back in the game, where he was mentioned in reports, Macdonald was “scintillating” and “superb” as Arsenal twice took the lead, one from Macdonald and once from Ross.  All that was needed was a defence that could hold that lead.   Arsenal were 11th, but there was real promise.

The month ended with an unusually early entry into the world of the league cup welcoming Carlisle to Highbury to repay the bit of rough and tumble in 1973.  The first team turned out once again and the on 31 August dutifully won 3-2 in front of 21,550, Ross again popping up on the scoresheet (this time with two) and Macdonald very satisfactorily getting the third.

Macdonald was quoted in the press as apologising for the first home game of the season and saying he would make it up to them. And the feeling was that yes indeed he was making it up to the fans and that this revised team was working.   He had just scored his third goal in four, and as Arsenal scored three in under half an hour as we began to see the wonderful combination of Mac’s finishing and Brady’s accurate passes.

And Brady too was evolving further than might have been thought before.  At one point he combined with Armstrong and then delivered a stunning 30 yard shot. A minute later Brady shot again, this time it was parried and Ross burst in.  Carlisle did get two back which was worrying, but didn’t look like winning and Arsenal finally eased up as it was clear Macdonald was injured.  He said he would be fine for the next game.

Thus after one month the table looked like this

On 2 September 1976 Eddie Kelly, having missed the pre-season tour with his injury was sold to QPR.  He had played 222 times for Arsenal including 175 in the first division.  He stayed one year at QPR and then was signed by Frank McLintock at Leicester, leaving after three seasons as they were relegated and then re-promoted as champions.

The first league league match of September was a goalless draw at Highbury on the 4th against Manchester City.  35,132 turned up – not the highest ever number but not bad considering what the figures had been the season before.  The team was much as before, with Cropley on the bench.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a good game – and ended goalless.  The only stars on show in fact were the two goalkeepers and Liam Brady (described in the press as “an inspiration”).  The problem was that that Macdonald was indeed carrying an injury, and Stapleton was described in the press “still raw” – meaning that he didn’t have that ability to read the old tricks of old defenders.

As a result the City plan for defending even from the kick off could not be overcome. This approach was excused by Bill Taylor, the assistant manager, on the grounds that “If we were defensive it was because players were not experienced enough to adjust.”   But so willing were the press to accept such a version of events that they added in commentaries about how last year it was Man C’s away performance that had let them down and that this was an improvement.  If it was an improvement we were glad we only had to see them play away once a season.

Arsenal most certainly should have had a penalty in the second half, for a deliberate hand ball, but nothing was being given, and the appeals were in vain.

Ahead of the next match – away to West Ham – the press were full of the news that Arsenal were going to buy Reading’s Robin Friday.  They didn’t, but Friday did go to Cardiff soon after.  However his eccentric lifestyle and sudden disappearances eventually got him the sack.  He later became an asphalter and decorator but was unable to settle in any form of regular life, and having served time in prison he ultimately died aged just 38.  An undoubted talent, but absolutely without the self-discipline needed, and tragically, it seems, without anyone who could guide him and help him through the strange world of a being a talented footballer.

For Arsenal however matters perked up a bit for the game on 11 September ended as a  2-0 away victory at the Boleyn Ground in front of 32,415.  Cropley came back into the team as Macdonald was rested to try and help him get over his injury.

Arsenal were excellent, with Ross and Stapleton getting the goals, but Ball was the star, and everyone suddenly got very excited not least because it was said that Ball’s contract was up at the end of the season.  Ball said he had two more years at the top level, and on this basis no one would argue.

As for WHU, the statement used was that they were “lacking in confidence” which just about sums it up, but shouldn’t take away the quality of the whole Arsenal team.

Overall the only person who we were not too certain about was Cropley who seemed to have lost his flair and drive.  And it turned out that Neill agreed.  This was Cropley’s final performance and he was transferred the following month to Aston Villa.

On 18 September it was Arsenal 3 Everton 1 with Macdonald restored to the team and 34,076 in the crowd.

Everton took the lead following a Ross slip in defence, and then played the “what we have we hold” game, until the fouling and niggling approach got so bad that when Brady was kicked to the ground once too often, everyone surrounded everyone else, which if you come to think of it is quite hard to do.  The referee just let them get on with it until they all looked around wondering where he was.  He then suggested the game might restart and it did.

Arsenal equalised straight after half-time from Brady and took the lead shortly after via Macdonalod with Stapleton belting in the third near the end.

Macdonald made a big fuss after the match when one of the Everton defenders tried to suggest that he had scored the second Arsenal goal as an o.g. and Macdonald had no right to claim it.  It seemed an awfully curious things to do!

Much more to the point was the fact that Arsenal were playing with confidence, poise and style, something utterly missing last year.

Up next was the League Cup away to Blackpool, which given the style and performance of the last two games everyone expected Arsenal to sail through, but on 21 September it ended Blackpool 1 Arsenal 1.

Arsenal played the full regular first team in front of the 18,983 crowd but the key elements in the affair were the torrential rain and the state of the pitch.  Armstrong scored direct from a corner and in off a puddle – probably the first recorded assist from settled water on the ground.  Indeed the game really should never have been played, and would not be played in 21st century football, but Arsenal had travelled to the north west, the crowd had paid their money, so on it went.

After Armstrong’s fanciful goal everyone else tried the same trick – with the Blackpool forwards (who were obviously fairly used to this sort of situation), using the increasingly large no-go areas of the pitch to their advantage.

Eventually one of them (no one was quite sure who since by then they were all covered in mud) shot from 35 yards, got the puddle-non-bounce right and the ball slid in passed Rimmer.

To make it all even more bizarre throughout the game the sounds of the rehearsal of the 1970’s TV show “It’s a Knockout” could be heard across the ground.  It just made the farce complete.

Macdonald came very close at the end but his shot stuck in the puddle instead of skimming it and going in.  Clearly more practice of these basic techniques was needed, although some wondered why Mac was playing in such a game, as he was still not 100%.

On 23 September Terry Mancini was granted a free transfer to Aldershot.  His transfer to Arsenal from QPR had come as a surprise but he had helped shore up the team for a while, and clearly was never intended as a long term player.

On 25 September we could have gone top with a win, but we lost, again, to Ipswich Town this time 3-1 away in front of  25,505.  All our stars were out on show, but even our goal was scored by Ipswich.

“Confident: It’s the new Ipswich” bellowed the back page headline in the Express, and with Arsenal two down in half an hour they had every right to be.  Arsenal might have made something of the game by getting a quick riposte to the second Ipswich goal but no one could find their way through.

True it was an O’Leary error that led to the first goal but the fact was the young David showed what a magnificent prospect he was and what a superb player he would become in the years before him.  No youngster gets away with no mistakes ever.

Alan Ball couldn’t find a way into the game, Ipswich had two men on Macdonald, one by his side and one behind in case he turned the other way and no matter how many times there was a coming together of bodies the ref would do nothing.

With ten minutes left and the score still 2-0 Nelson hit a shot which hit a defender and beat the keeper and it looked for a moment as if Arsenal might then have a chance but Whymark won a suspicious penalty, and the result for Ipswich was secured.

On 28 September Blackpool were given their second chance at water polo, and how upset they must have been at seeing a pitch at Highbury with grass and no rain falling from on high.

Thus this time the flood was not rain but Arsenal rampaging forwards.  The only other sound was of heavy breathing from the Blackpool XI man defence standing close together trying to keep them out.  And it worked giving the 27,195 present endless Arsenal attacks to watch but ultimately a goalless draw.

After the game Terry Neill said he thought Arsenal had just broken the world record for crosses and shots, but although Macdonald, Brady and Stapleton could have had four each, the fact is that an eleven man defence in the penalty area is a fairly effective way of stopping anything.  It doesn’t provide any football, but it stops the other side scoring.

Hatton and Hart were booked, Bentley should have been sent off but just got a finger wagging, and so the one chance Arsenal had (by having three Blackpool defenders sent off) was lost.

If Arsenal were at fault it was in not recognising the whole-team-defence plan from the off, and finding a way to play it, perhaps by lobbing a ball in from on high, and then having all five forwards rush in to try and get it and push it into the net.  That of course would be rugby, and playing the ball on the ground is normally best, but with 11 bodies in the area there was no way that would work.

At the end of the month the table had some interesting points.  Arsenal were clearly doing better than in the latter years under Mee, but Tottenham having replaced Neill with Keith Burkinshaw were once again struggling in the lower part of the league.  Leeds having had a run from 1968 to 1974 in which they were never out of the top three,winning the league twice and coming second three times, were in a decline that would see them relegated in 1982.  Bristol City having beaten Arsenal on the opening day had managed a second win, but had also added three draws and so sat mid-table.

West Ham were also sinking and would slip even sooner into Division 2 – in 1978. But perhaps the biggest surprise was Middlesbrough who having got promoted in 1974 were second.

Football returned to Highbury for the first weekend in October and 39,442 turned up to see Arsenal 3 QPR 2.

Despite having been the London team to beat in recent years, QPR looked disorganised, although to be fair to Rangers they were disrupted by Phil Parkes going off with concussion.  The crazy thing was he had stayed on the pitch after the first knock, when anyone with the remotest bit of sense would have taken him off at once.  But sense and football in the 1970s… no perhaps not.  So the poor guy didn’t get to leave the picth until the second half.

But then Nelson too had to go off after some fearsome tackling which maybe the QPR players regretted when they noted that Arsenal’s sub was Storey.

The other event of note was a goal from McLintock, now aged 36 who for all the world looked as if he had been waiting for this moment since his bust up with Bertie Mee caused him to leave.

But overall it was Stapleton who put on the show scoring the winner from the perfect Brady free kick.

Then for the third time of asking it was Blackpool at home in the League Cup and finally Arsenal won 2-0 on 5 October, in front of 26,791 who clearly thought it couldn’t be as bad as the last two games.

With Macdonald looking increasingly off colour, and Storey in for Nelson, plus Howard continuing to deputise alongside O’Leary, it was Stapleton who turned up to give Arsenal the lead and finally get the message through to Blackpool that they could not go on playing as an XI man defensive wall throughout every game.

A second from O’Leary finally wrapped it all up – and there couldn’t have been anyone who wasn’t thankful it was all over.   But the press would have none of Blackpool’s non-football, instead focussing on the fact that Macdonald had scored three in ten when he had promised 25 a season.

After the match Terry Neill was perhaps not at his most helpful as he declared “Macdonald was rubbish,” before going on to point out that the man was still playing with an injury, which left wiser heads asking, “why?” especially as this had been going on for weeks now.

Meanwhile younger players continued to emerge.  On 9 October with the league on hold for the internationals, and N Ireland crying foul because it didn’t apply to their players Arsenal and Tottenham played out game in front of 19,456 – in Peter Simpson’s Testimonial.  Steve Gatting made his first appearance for the club as a sub.

Tottenham won 2-1 with Macdonald getting Arsenal’s goal.  Two days later on 11 October 1976 John Devine signed as a professional.

But the old guard moved on as well, and 16 October  saw the last game for John Radford v Stoke City at Highbury which Arsenal won 2-0 with a crowd of  28,745.

This win had a number of the newspaper pundits thinking, “could Arsenal really pull themselves back together, and challenge the north?”   The strident positive play was noted, and although the score was only 2-0 it was felt that indeed it could have been so much more.  Although the crowd was poor, that too, the media thought, would change shortly with more of this type of fair.

Overall, for once, the media was talking Arsenal up not least because having scored a goal in the friendly against Tottenham Macdonald scored another in this game.   Rice scored the second.

Indeed this day was quite a day for re-thinking what was going on in the world as the 1975 champions Derby County belatedly recorded their first League win of the season when they thrashed an awful Tottenham Hotspur side 8–2 at the Baseball Ground.  For Arsenal fans it was rather a fine weekend.

And indeed the excitement was not over as on 18 October 1976: Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe handed in his resignation, saying that he believes a new manager will give the club a better chance of First Division survival.

But although well above Sunderland in the league the Arsenal team was not by any means as fully functional as the press might have had us believe, as on 20 October Arsenal were defeated 5-1 away to Aston Villa.  Worse, it was the start of a three successive defeat run in which Arsenal scored three but let in 11.

The crowd was 33,860 and the Arsenal team of Rimmer, Rice, Storey, Ross, O’Leary, Howard, Ball, Brady, Macdonald, Stapleton, Armstrong was by no means deficient in talent.

Ball actually put Arsenal in front, from a Macdonald cross, Stapleton being the decoy, but then that was it.  Everything Villa touched turned into a goal, and the press instantly forgot what they had been saying about Arsenal, except to copy it out and say it instead about Aston Villa.

All Arsenal could do was point out the other years in which big defeats had simply spurred them on to greater success.

And it seemed this might be the case with the next game – after all it was only against Leciester.  Although to be fair it was a Leicester who found themselves near the top of the league.  Except once again Arsenal fell apart and on 23 October it was Leicester 4 Arsenal 1 with 19,351 in the crowd.

Stapleton got the goal and all the big names were there up front – Ball, Brady, Macdonald, Stapleton, Armstrong, but…

In response to the two successive defeats the Daily Mirror ran the story on the monday that Macdonald had “been threatened with the axe.”  “He has to work harder and show more aggression or he is out of the team,” said Neill adding, “Maybe I have been too easy with them.”   But quite why this conversation was going on no one who thought about football could work out.  After all Arsenal had just conceded nine in two games, and even a fully functional Macdonald could hardly be have expected to get ten.  And besides the manager had admitted to repeatedly playing the player when he was injured.

As with the previous game Arsenal went in front on six minutes, but Leicester came into the game at once and within the hour theey were 3-1 up.  With three minutes to go it was finished when Brady handled in the penalty area and Leicester duly finished matters off – although most of the Arsenal fans had left the ground long before.

The general view was that Arsenal were “annihilated,” and probably most Arsenal fans agreed.

There was however a moment’s relief on 26 October as Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 at home in the League Cup with 52,285 in attendance, Ross and Stapleton getting the goals.

But despite the enthusiasm of the crowd it had to be remembered that this was a youthful Chelsea of the second division.  And Arsenal were given a boost when Chelsea’s Bason was carried off on the quarter hour with a double fracture of the right shin following a collision with Sammy Nelson.  Nelson went to apologise to the Chelsea team after the game.  Eddie McCreadie admitted there was nothing to apologise for.

All three goals were scored in a 10 minute spell in the second half, with Arsenal’s winner coming just one minute after the kick off following Chelsea’s equaliser.  From the re-start the ball was knocked back to Pat Rice who put in a long loping cross to Stapleton who headed it in.

There was one more league match to get through before the month ended – but it was an away defeat to the declining Leeds United by 2-1 with 33,556 in Elland Road.

Not only was Arsenal’s recent league form poor, worse they had only won four in the last 30 visits to Leeds.  Even the fact that Peter Lorrimer went off in the 17th minute with an injury didn’t help the cause.

After the first Leeds goal Arsenal could have got an equaliser from Macdonald but he looked like he wasn’t sure how to do it any more, and the chance was lost.  There was nastiness, there were bookings, but above all there was Cherry and McQueen pounding forward and Arsenal just didn’t look able to do anything.  For much of the game Leeds were happy to hold their lead, and wait for that one moment which we all felt was all they needed.  They found it and Matthews goal at the end was always too little far too late.

So far Macdonald had only scored four league goals and although Arsenal were subsequently aided by his growth in confidence in the new team (he ended the season with 25 as joint top scorer in the league) at the time it was started to feel like something of a mistake.

Arsenal had won two and lost four of the last six.  Even Norwich in 18th had a better record in that period of games.

But all bad runs come to an end one way or another and so it was after a fairly awful October Arsenal had a decent November, starting with a 4-0 home victory over Birmingham City on 6 November.  The crowd had shrunk back to the levels of Bertie Mee’s latter years but with Nelson back in defence and Simpson and O’Leary re-established at centre back, things looked very different.  Indeed even Macdonald scored, albeit with a penalty.

Of course it didn’t change the view that we seemed to have changed Mee for our third choice manager without actually making any real improvement, but we were stuck with it for now and at least it was a win.

And once again Arsenal were undoubtedly aided by an change in personnel – this time with Gary Jones being sent off on 37 minutes when he fouled Stapleton.  He’d already been booked, and seemed to have with him an I Spy Book of Fouls, as it looked as if he was going for the world record.

The penalty itself was not without incident.  With Ball, the regular penalty taker, not on the pitch because of injury it looked for all the world as if no one quite knew who should take the shot – something that most certainly did not reflect well on Neill’s management tactics.  Then with Brady and Ross having a row over who was going to take it, Macdonald nicked the ball from both of them and set himself up to take the kick.

In the second half Nelson and Ross added to the score.  But most attention came with the managerial interview afterwards in which the Bimringham manager Willie Bell said he would appeal the sending off, as the ref had let so many fouls go before, it was ludicrous to give that one.  It was a novel approach, and one that, not surprisingly, did not actually result in the sending off being rescinded.

But although Arsenal’s win got some attention in the media it was Ipswich Town’s move up to second in the First Division with a 7–0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur’s 5–3 defeat at struggling West Ham United that got the headlines.  Of Tottenham, Frank McGhee, pompously proclaimed in the Daily Mirror as “the voice of sport”, wrote the headline “So Pathetic”.  He was referring to Tottenham, and for once his pomposity could be excused.

With England achieving nothing in world football since the 1966 world cup, matches were now stopped in order to allow the internationals to take place.   Arsenal use the time to fix up two friendlies

  • 12 November A’Naser  1 Arsenal 3 (Mathews, Macdonald, Radford)
  • 15 November Dubai National Civil Service 0 Arsenal 3. (Macdonald, Rostron 2)

Arsenal returned to England to find that on 17 November 1976 England suffered a set-back in their attempt to reach the World Cup Finals being beaten 2–0 by Italy in Rome and thus the interruption to events looked to be for nought.

Indeed Arsenal were not too worried about such matters as up next was Liverpool at Highbury, and not surprisingly the crowds returned, 45,016 being in the ground for the 1-1 draw.

With home form being all that there was saving Arsenal there was hope of one more win before the side had to go out on the road again, but they had to settle for the draw.   The aforementioned columnist McGhee, who had occupied himself in the interim being rude about England following their defeat to Italy, loved the game, not least because he counted 30+ major goalmouth events.

It was football at 100 miles an hour, he proclaimed, with wild shooting, wild tackling and by and large the wild west with just the six shooters missing.  He really was getting very worked up and predicted that Liverpool would win the title again.

Armstrong scored the opener on nine minutes which made Liverpool’s players scratch their heads like three year olds complaing “no, I always win!”

And to be fair, Arsenal were helped by a referee who against all the prevailing ethos of the time, actually tried to make Liverpool play by the rules, twice giving fouls against Clemence for taking more than four steps with the ball.     Liverpool’s equaliser came in the last minute – their alternative ploy when scoring first doesn’t work.  Stapleton was already winding down in the centre circle with the ball when he was robbed, and Liverpool rushed through.  A sad end, but a fun game.

23 November saw the return match of the earlier friendly against Tottenham, this time at White Hart Lane, which Arsenal lost 2-3, Nelson and Macdonald scoring the goals in front of 28582.

And still the turmoil in the league wouldn’t go away as two days later, and hardly 18 months after winning the First Division title, Derby County manager Dave Mackay resigned with Derby just a point off the bottom of the table.

Mackay was the second manager (Clough the first) to resign after winning the league with the club, and there was talk of Clough being reappointed but in reality there was no chance.  The problem looked to be with the directors, as Clough subsequently made perfectly clear to anyone who was willing to listen.

With November being so much of an improvement over October no one really wanted it to end, but end it had to and it did  with another victory on the 27th – a 2-1 away win over Coventry, with 18,313 in the ground.

Macdonald scored in 14 seconds to suggest that maybe things were getting back on track to end the terrible away record of the club.  But Macdonald couldn’t let it go without blaming everyone else for his lack of goal scoring.  He called Arsenal “politically correct” as opposed to Newcastle where anything could happen and often would, and also blamed the fact that he hadn’t yet moved and was still living in a hotel as being very disturbing.

But much more to the point than all the excuses was the fact that Arsenal fell away in the second half and could easily have slipped back to a draw, or even another away defeat had Stapleton not added a second to settle the nerves.

And thus Arsenal were once again London’s top club, but given the state of the other teams from the capital this wasn’t saying much.

And yet, and yet… it couldn’t last and December 1 saw a 2-1 away defeat to QPR in the league cup, with 27,621 in Loftus Road.

Stapleton put Arsenal in front, Alan Ball missed a penalty, and true Arsenal did show some stamina and aggression thereafter throwing everything at Rangers, but once they had edged in front they put 100% effort into simply holding on. Twice it was Stan Bowles who split the very square Arsenal defence and once behind Arsenal did pile on the pressure – but to no further avail.  Overall it was a great game for the neutral, but Arsenal knew they needed to find a way to hold enthusiastic home teams at bay.

Still, next up was another home match – and with added spice because it was Mac’s old team – Newcastle.  34,053 turned up, and unbelievable as it sounds, on 4 December Arsenal won 5-3 was Mac getting the hattrick, Ross and Stapleton supplying the extras.

It had taken a long while to get there, but Arsenal were sixth as a result – and we all knew it was too late, even though it was just December – but it was still a good feeling after the horrors of the past two seasons.

In fact Macdonald summed it up afterwards saying, “give Arsenal a year”.   The trouble was we’d been giving Arsenal a year since the decline from second position in the league, but for just one day, we’d go with it.

So the excuses moved on.  A young and exciting team, yes.  A team that can get thumped away from home.  But a team that could score five at home.  At last.  Macdonald spoke about Arsenal getting into Europe, but he, and everyone else knew that one of the main contributory factors had been the Newcastle manager Gorden Lee mistakenly making negative comments about Macdonald before the game.

And Arsenal knew there was still work to do.  From 4-1 up with the game won, Arsenal let it slip to 4-3, and only the final goal on 88 minutes, from … Macdonald, finally resolved the issue.

The next match, on 15 December, was another away trip – but at least this time it was to troubled Derby.  However Arsenal couldn’t take advantage of the club’s parlous position, and it ended in a goalless draw, 24,016 in the ground.

Terry Neill obviously felt that the gung-ho tactics used against Newcastle would not work here, and so a new and rather Un-Arsenal approach was used: let’s kick Derek Hales on his debut .  It gained Arsenal a point, but whether it is quite the way Arsenal should play is another matter.

Storey, Macdonald and Nelson were booked for the offences, and Hales must have wondered what had happened to him.  He’d played 129 times for Charlton and scored 72, but this was clearly not what he had expected.  Indeed he only lasted this season, playing 23 times and scoring four, before moving on to West Ham where things picked up (10 in 24) and then back to Charlton where it all happened again (76 in 191).  He then moved into teaching, from which I imagine he has now retired.  I wonder if he ever thinks back to this day at Derby.

One other reminder of the way things once were:  Sammy Nelson was booked for obstruction taking him past 20 points and meaning he would miss the next game.

Still, that was the away game out of the way for another could of weeks, and Arsenal could return to winning ways at Highbury was a 3-1 win over Manchester United on 18 December with a very decent pre-Xmas crowd of 39,572 turning up at Highbury.

Macdonald’s two goals showed he really had overcome his earlier blip, and the goals from Brady was the icing on the cake.  Indeed even the Sunday papers were in effusive mood and Tommy Docherty, Man U’s manager, was quoted as saying Arsenal were a “very good side” who would “make the top five for sure.”

Simpson, Storey and Rice played like they would have to play no more games for a month,  but to be fair to Man U there was also the early injury to Brian Greenhoff whose removal from the game certainly made life easier for Arsenal.  But overall it left everyone talking about the fact that Mac was back.

As for Man U, the fact was that they did pull the game back to 1-1 and it could have meant a retreat for Arsenal especially as the goal was such an individual effort from McIlroy, who seemed to dance past the entire Arsenal team, and then take out some of them on again, just for the hell of it.

But Arsenal came back, Ross was superb, Macdonald wanted to show that the last game was not a fluke, and Arsenal’s fine home form continued.

Christmas came and went and on 27 December Arsenal went to Tottenham Hotspur to play out a 2-2 draw with 47,751 in the Lane.

Macdonald showed he really was back in the mood (presumably having moved out of his hotel) getting both goals while for Tottenham, Willie Young (already serving a ban for life from playing for Scotland) was sent off for persistently fouling Stapleton.  Brady passed to Macdonald to score from the free kick awarded as Young was dismissed.

Macdonald’s goals put Arsenal two up before a punch-up broke out on the pitch and it proved to be the signal to allow Tottenham to recover.  Armstrong (who missed the game) repeated his mantra from earlier in the season that he no longer wanted to play at Arsenal while the press returned to the  theme that some of the goals Macdonald said he had scored, he hadn’t.  It was all a bit silly.

And so the year ended with a somewhat nicer table than we had been used to for some time…

The series continues.  Here’s the story so far…


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