By Tony Attwood
Arsenal had finished the previous season with disappointment – slipping to 5th when for a while second place was on offer, and being beaten by a very poor Ipswich team in the Cup Final and losing in the semi-final of the League Cup to a dour defensive Liverpool.
It was these disappointments rather than the improvements that Neill had brought to the club following the near-relegation at the end of Mee’s reign that were remembered as the club gathered together once more for another campaign.
As noted at the end of the last article, on 5 July 1978 Paul Barron joined from Plymouth as cover for Pat Jennings and went on to play eight games before moving on to Crystal Palace. In all he played over 400 games before retiring and becoming a coach in the USA.
He played his first Arsenal game on 28 July when he came on as a sub for Pat Jennings in the second of Arsenal’s second summer warm up match.
The Pre-season friendlies
26 July 1978: Kaiserslautern 3 Arsenal 0
I don’t have a report of this match, but the team was most certainly our regular first team although with no Macdonald – who didn’t play any of the first three friendlies.
Perhaps the best one can assume is that the players were not quite ready for the new season while the German side, preparing for an earlier season start (to compensate for their mid-winter break), had already played a couple of other pre-season matches. It is also interesting that despite this being the first game back, Neill forced the starting XI to play all 90 minutes. Quite an unusual turn of events for the first friendly of the new season.
The team was
Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Price, O’Leary, Young, Rix, Brady, Sunderland, Matthews.
Matters improved a little two days later when on 28 July the result was Borussia Dortmund 0 Arsenal 1, Graham Rix getting the goal. The team was virtually the same as for the first game, although for the first time Paul Barron played as he came on as a substitute in the second half for Pat Jennings.
Arsenal then moved on to the Netherlands for a game against PSV on 5 August, which they lost 2-0.
Returning to the UK Arsenal then took on Celtic in Glasgow on 8 August and won 3-0, Stapleton getting one goal, and the other two being own goals. Finally there was a 1-1 home draw with Crystal Palace, Stapleton scoring on 12 August. On the same day Nottingham Forest beat FA Cup holders Ipswich 5-0 showing just how poor that Ipswich team actually was.
Then on 16 August 1978 John Matthews was sold to Sheffield United. He had played 43 league games for Arsenal but went on to over 100 games for Sheffield Utd before moving on to Mansfield.
The League season
And so the season began – this time with a 2-2 home draw with Leeds; 42,057 being in the crowd. The team was
Jennings, Devine, Nelson, Price (Kosmina), O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Macdonald, Stapleton, Harvey.
For John Kosmina who came on as a sub it was his first and last game for Arsenal. He had transferred from Adelaide City earlier in the year and the following season left to play for West Adelaide Hellas.
Arsenal started their season being a goal down in 30 minutes, but then Brady took control, and floated in a cross that simply invited Leeds to change codes and explore the finer points of rugby. Brady himself took the penalty and everyone awoke from their summer slumbers.
Ten minutes later he was at it again with a 25 yard scorcher to match the weather. To be fair Leeds deserved their final goal as Currie opened up the defence and Cherry scored. But Arsenal were without Rix and Rice and Hudson, so it was possible to feel something good might come of the season with the return of the missing two, and maybe another purchase.
For the next game on 22 August, Rice returned in defence, but there was still no Rix and so Walford came in as number 11. Jennings was also out. The game ended Manchester City 1 Arsenal 1 with Macdonald getting his first of the season. 39,506 were in the crowd.
The fact that Arsenal rescued a point was mainly due to a desire never to give up, while Man City considered this a point lost. Price, Rice and O’Leary determined to make up for the loss of Brady, Rix and Jennings, and the mistakes that Man City made from the start gave Arsenal hope and made the home crowd worried.
With Barron making his first league appearance for the club, the plan was clearly to give him maximum protection, and if that meant a 5-5-0 formation, so be it. It frustrated City, just as the goal 15 seconds before half time did, Stapleton shooting hard, and the keeper’s failure to hold the ball allowing Macdonald to tap home. City equalised on the hour, and that was that although Sunderland had a fine chance to wrap it all up with just minutes to go at the end.
For the next match on 26 August Brady returned but there was still no Jennings and no Rix, and the outcome was Everton 1 Arsenal 0, with 41,179 in the crowd.
Everton had one tactic. To get the ball to the feet of Mike Pejic, their left back. His instruction, to which he stuck continuously, was to hoof the ball up the field into the path or directly to the feet of Walsh and Latchford. He tried the tactic something like 130 times during the game and it worked… twice.
Arsenal could easily have won this game had they taken up the notion of playing the alternative “on the ground” tactic, but so brainwashed did the visitors become that they joined in the long ball game. Everton’s goal came when Willie Young, having broken up an attack, back heeled to Darracott who passed to Thomas who scored. And that was that.
Things thus were not going too well in the League, with two draws and a defeat, and 15 players already used, when 29 August brought an away game with Rotherham United in the League Cup. In front of 10,481 Arsenal lost 3-1. But in retrospect that was hardly the issue.
As was the norm at the time, Arsenal put out their complete first team: Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Price, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Macdonald, Stapleton, Rix, Rix thus making his first appearance of the season.
Rotherham of the third division were expected to get a hammering – especially after finding themselves a goal down in seven minutes as Macdonald took the ball out wide, drew the defence with him and then passed to Stapleton to tap in.
But Rotherham had beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup in 1960 and were full of bravado about doing it again, especially as, just like Blackpool two seasons before, the rain poured down and the surface made normal football impossible.
Being more used to such playing conditions, and willing to take every risk imaginable the home side then scored twice around the half hour mark, adding one more on the hour, to take the tie. All three goals were diving headers, with players putting their heads dangerously close to opposition boots in a way that they would never do in regular league games. Indeed such was their enthusiasm it could have been more had not Jennings been at his best.
But the basic commentary does not tell the full story, for during this game, Macdonald got the knee injury that effectively ended his career. At the time it seemed innocuous – and indeed he wasn’t even substituted. And as we’ll see he did make two comebacks for Arsenal, but both were very short lived even though on his final performance on 14 May against Chelsea, he scored Arsenal’s only goal of the game. But he never returned after that.
Malcolm Macdonald did have a short period in Sweden after leaving Arsenal, but realised he could not continue, and so retired from playing aged just 29, having never won a major honour. He was on the losing side in three cup finals, and because of his injury was not part of the Arsenal cup winning side in this season. After a period in football management his life became very troubled, but he did eventually recover.
In all he played 84 league games for Arsenal scoring 42 goals – the perfect 1 in 2 ratio.
Malcolm’s departure from the team led to Stapleton taking over the number nine shirt with Walford, Gatting and Price all getting a chance at number 10, and indeed it was not until the 1983/4 season that Arsenal once again had a regular pairing at 9 and 10 with Woodcock and Nicholas playing.
But back to the summer of 1978… August with Arsenal’s position in the league looking rather unpromising, although Tottenham, having climbed back to the first division, having come third in the second division in 1977/8 were also clearly finding it hard to get going.
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With no Macdonald, Arsenal needed a new front line for September – and as it would later emerge, for the whole season. For the visit of QPR on 2 September they chose a front line of Sunderland, Walford, Stapleton, Rix with Brady and Price feeding the balls through to them.
And it worked a dream the result being Arsenal 5 QPR 1 with 33,883 at Highbury and the goals coming from Stapleton (2), Rix (2) and Brady.
Geoffrey Green of the Times likened this game to a boxing match with a heavyweight facing a featherweight, while Steve Burtenshaw, the QPR manager, knew that another season fighting relegation was on the cards even with Bowles and Francis in the team.
Meanwhile the word was out that Brady was looking to move on – and he took the opportunity to show case his extraordinary skills; comparisons being made with Alex James. The game was quickly over as QPR conceded three early goals – including a thirty yard bender from Liam himself.
As for the final goal Brady beat four men who had clearly been told to close him down at all costs, crossed to Stapleton and headed it home. Brady was the star of the day, and the dread of him leaving was palpable.
The day was made even more enjoyable as the news came in that not only had Arsenal scored five in London, Tottenham had let in seven at Liverpool – without reply. It made for a jolly evening.
But jollifications can only last a certain while and the following weekend it was back to earth with a very big bump as Arsenal lost 2-1 away to Nottingham Forest on 9 September, with 28,124 in the ground.
What made it all the more disappointing was that Forest were certainly not the team they had been when winning the league title, and they had not won a game all season before this one.
That they won was due, as so often with Clough, to a well-organised defence which sought to dominate the match. Arsenal, building on last week’s win, gave Brady all the room he needed to run the show, and he got matters going on six minutes with a 30 yard free kick to Stapleton who volleyed home.
But in the second half Forest managed to squeeze all the life out of the match, and finally got the most dubious of penalties and their resultant goal gave them additional confidence, grit and determination Bower scored the winner on 73 minutes after a three man moved by passed the entire Arsenal defence. It was far from pretty and deeply frustrating for Arsenal.
The game also marked the third and final league appearance of Jimmy Harvey when he came on as a sub for O’Leary, although he did get a start in the next match. He moved on to Hereford in March 1980.
With the news about Macdonald suggesting he would be out for a considerable period Arsenal were looking to find a way around the problem of having only one of their two prime strikers on the pitch, and for the game on 13 September at home to Lokomotive Leipzig of East Germany in the Uefa Cup the played Sunderland, Stapleton, and Rix up front.
This was Arsenal’s first European match for eight years (although the attendance was only 34,183) and for most of the match it looked like they could go out of the competition in the first round for their seemed very few chances of them scoring. But then three goals in the last 15 minutes (including two from Stapleton in the space of one minute and ending with a goal from Sunderland) made the game feel secure.
Indeed there could have been more – Brady and Sunderland hitting the woodwork prior to the goal fest starting, despite a solid nine man defence that the East Germans spread across the pitch. Even though it was not his finest game Brady was the string puller from Arsenal, and he was involved in all three goals.
While the worries about Brady and Macdonald continued there was a boost with the first appearance as a sub of Steve Gatting. He retained his place throughout much of the 1978-79 season notching up 19 league starts and coming on twice as a sub in league games.
Thus the lineup was being forced into changes match by match and on the 16 September for the 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers at Highbury it read…
Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Price, Walford, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Heeley, Rix, with an attendance of 31,120.
Lest the modern day reader thinks that negative play started in the 21st century with the likes of Bolton’s bus parking approach under Allerdyce, this game showed that not only is the “tactic” much older but that the prime practitioners have always been… Bolton. One player from the visitors played upfield, the rest were the defence marshalled in two rows.
In the first half Brady was pulled, pushed, kicked and even on occasion punched – and so in the second half Brady and Rix tried swapping their positions to avoid the thugs. Heeley showed he might just make it, if only he had more muscle or more weight generally, or an ability to sidestep the lunges and dodge the pushes and punches – without which it was predicted he would find it hard – especially against teams like this and utterly forgettable games like this.
But Stapleton scored, and Arsenal got the points, and the horrors of the Bolton tactics were forgotten – at least for a while.
Arsenal were clearly in need of some new players, but for the moment the awarding of a new contract to Chris Whyte on 22 September was all that was on offer. There was still the expectation that Macdonald would come back.
The day following Whyte’s new contract signing Arsenal took on Manchester United at home. It ended 1-1 in front of 45,393.
This was the second game with Stapleton playing in the number 9 shirt with Walford moving to the number 10 shirt (although in this game he was replaced by substitute Heeley). The rest of the team however was developing a very regular feel, as this line up list for the game shows…
Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Price, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Walford (Heeley), Rix.
Man U came for a point, and got it despite giving Brady more room than he had had in any game thus far in the season. Taking his opportunity Brady moved centre stage and put on a display of perfect long passes which bemused the square United defence.
When Coppell finally got the ball on the edge of the Arsenal area he looked so surprised he miskicked. Jennings was good at guessing where the ball would go in such circumstances, and 99% of the time he got it right. But even he could not be expected to anticipate such a mistake, and with Jennings going the wrong way the ball trickled across the line.
Seven minutes later Price smashed in the ball from a Young header. Man U retreated into defence, and they got their much sought after point.
Having won the first leg of their Uefa Cup tie Arsenal then travelled to East Germany and took a few risks in bringing in the youngsters. On the bench were Paul Vaessen and Walford (Vaessen would not make his league debut until the very end of the season) while Devine, who had so far started just two league matches, was given a place in the opening XI.
And the lineup worked, with the result on 27 September being Lokomotive Leipzig 1 Arsenal 4 with 22,000 in attendance. Stapleton (2), Brady, Sunderland got the goals for Arsenal’s biggest Uefa Cup winning margin.
The game opened with worries about whether Arsenal would sit back, thinking the 3-0 from the first leg would be enough, But all doubts were cast aside when after 20 minutes Brady scored with a penalty. Sunderland got the second after 50 minutes, before Stapleton headed in two more – only to forget for a second that he had gone to the other end of the pitch to help out the defence: he almost smiled at his own foolishness in heading in for the opposition.
But he need have had no worry as to any embarrassment. By the time of his faux pas most of the crowd had left anyway, while Arsenal were being talked of as being among the favourites for the competition.
However much of that talk was overshadowed by a goalless draw at Anfield, which meant the holders of the European Cup were knocked out by Nottingham Forest in the first round. Clough looked unbearably smug.
The month ended with a win on 30 September in the north east, the score being Middlesbrough 2 Arsenal 3, but only 14,404 in the crowd. For this game Devine kept his place with Walford moving to the bench (and ultimately coming on for Devine).
And indeed everyone was pleased to seem him for just four minutes from the end, with the score 2-2 Arsenal got a breakaway. Instead of settling for a draw, four Arsenal men rushed forwards throwing all caution to the wind, and forgetting the exertions of mid-week. Steve Walford, recently of Tottenham, headed in, and Arsenal had won.
David Price put in a superb performance, scoring one and being involved in the other two, with O’Leary also getting on the scoresheet. True, there were worries about how this cavalier attitude led to the conceding of two goals, but it was certainly fun. Not easy on the nerves, but fun.
Thus the table took on a slightly more encouraging hue from that which we had seen at the end of August. But the accent was on the word “slightly”.
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Thus Arsenal started October recognising that they had only won three league games in eight, had been knocked out of the League Cup by a third division team, and had lost their charismatic top scorer. They still needed to work out a way to cope with Macdonald’s absence, and better utilise the undoubted talent that they had on the pitch.
But the next win was not to come – at least not yet – as Arsenal drew 1-1 with Aston Villa at Highbury, with 34,537 looking on. At least the line up was now looking to have stabilised, being Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Price, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Walford, Rix
It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and despite the modest start and the loss of Macdonald Arsenal were still expected to give Villa a drubbing, despite the fact that Villa were only slightly below Arsenal in the table. But it was that lack of Macdonald that bothered them. True Arsenal had still scored two more than Everton who were in second place. And Villa had seven first team players out injured and had only won one of their last six. So Arsenal’s day it should have been.
Such thoughts were re-doubled when Brady found that the Villa tactics involved leaving him completely on his own, although it still took 20 minutes for Arsenal to score. Rix and Sunderland decided to play a game by themselves and after passing the ball back and forth for a while Rix ventured to put it in the net.
Brady tried a 25 yard chip, but ex-Arsenal man Rimmer was keen to show what the home side were missing. With Arsenal’s frustration rising Villa made a rare sally out of their half and Gregory scored on 82 minutes to gain a point they never deserved.
But if Arsenal could not beat Villa, surely (it was felt) they would beat Wolverhampton one week later, and yet, even worse that the Villa match on 14 October the result was Wolverhampton 1 Arsenal 0, 19,664 in the crowd.
The team stayed much the same, save for the sub who was Kevin Stead, another player that Neill had signed from Tottenham. He did in fact come on as sub for Sunderland, but his career at Arsenal was not to be, as he only played one other game, again during this season before leaving for Oxford City in 1979.
In a sense Stead’s fate symbolised Arsenal this season with a constant array of “maybe” players coming into the team. Devine, Harvey, Vaessen, Kosima, Heeley, Stead, and later in the season McDermott, Brignall… these names came and went with only Walford looking like he might be there for the long haul.
We were starting to wonder if it could it really be that hard to find a player who could fit in with the team – but the reality was that everyone was thinking not of the team as it was now, but of the team as it would be with the dominating presence of Macdonald in it.
After the match Don Howe was man enough to praise Wolves battling approach to the game – which was a tough thing to do given that within the opening minutes Arsenal could and should have been two up.
Walford beat half the defence but allowed a tackle to take the ball from him as he was about to score, and Stapleton missed a shot so easy that half the crowd thought they could have scored with it. Even when Wolves scored on 54 minutes there still seemed every chance that Arsenal would recover. Brady was on-song as ever but everyone else seemed to be thinking of Yugoslavia. Injuries to Sunderland and Walford added to the bad news.
However there was no putting off the next round of the Uefa Cup in Yugoslavia, and on 18 October it resulted in Hajduk Split 2 Arsenal 1. The capacity crowd of 25,000 looking on. Heeley and Kosmina were called up to fill in the gaps left by Sunderland and Walford.
Arsenal were not at their best (showing once again that if you start to “save yourself” in one game – as they were accused of doing at Wolverhampton – in anticipation of the next, it is hard to pick up the pace again). The papers shouted the (hardly original) “Lucky Arsenal” line but in truth Pat Jennings was out of this world, and Brady’s goal made the second leg look none too difficult.
However it was also the fact that it was these two players who combined to give Hajduk Split their first goal with a back pass going very wrong. But Brady’s goal was a masterpiece, the ball received from a corner and hit through a crowd of players via the only gap in a goal line hugging defence. Given the lack of Sunderland it was a good result all round.
But then at last on 21 October Arsenal did get another victory beating Southampton 1-0 at Highbury with a crowd of 33,074.
The nature of the problems facing Arsenal now can be seen by looking at the team: Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Stead, Gatting, Young, Brady, Heeley, Stapleton, Walford, Rix. The chances are that unless you are an aficionado of Arsenal at this time you might not remember three or four of these players. For Stead it was his second and last game.
Brady scored three minutes from the end in what was frankly a poor game made infinitely worse by the referee who clearly believed that his pay was directly related to the number of times he could blow the whistle (although perversely completely being unable to find his whistle following Waldron’s clear push on Stapleton in the area).
Arsenal lacked O’Leary and Price (both injured in Yugoslavia) and still without Sunderland and Macdonald, and it was unfair to expect such inexperienced professionals as Stead, Gatting and Heeley to get a grip of the game without more old hands to help them.
And yet Arsenal did take the points. Southampton for their part put their faith in marking Brady with the delicate (I use the word ironically) skills of Andruszewski Ultimately Brady rushed upfield far faster than his shadow could follow to tap home a rebound from a saved Stapleton shot. Justice was only partially done.
The final game of October was against Bristol City. In their first season back in the first division City had beaten Arsenal home and away. In second season Arsenal had returned the compliment. Now Bristol and Arsenal were equal pegging in the first division table, and no one was quite sure which way this season’s games would go.
It fact it was Arsenal’s turn to dominate, and they won 3-1 at Ashton Gate on 28 October, 27,016 in the ground. Walford, Gatting and Heeley were still in the team, representing the youngsters, but it was the established names who ran the show with two goals from Brady and one from Stapleton, set up of course by Brady.
Indeed, one had to keep checking that there was only one Liam Brady on the pitch, for there could have been ten given the way he played, probing, pushing forwards, coaxing, lobbing, passing on the ground, 30 yard passes, 5 yard passes… The only thing he didn’t do was put on the goalkeepers gloves.
Liam was undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that the City keeper, Shaw, looked to be in awe of him, so much so that when he was given simple shots to save from other members of the Arsenal team (who popped up occasionally just to make sure they didn’t get their pay docked) he seemed to be looking around to see where Brady was.
Thus it was with the first goal. Stapleton gave it to Brady, who went left, right, and just to prove he could, left and right again and then shot from outside the area. So overwhelmed was Shaw by the skill that he forgot to dive until far too late. 1-0 to The Arsenal.
On 26 minutes Brady passed to Brady who dutifully passed back to Brady before the maestro gave Stapleton a chance and he nodded home.
In the second half O’Leary went off with a groin strain (yet another injury!) but it made no odds, for on the hour Hunter fouled Brady in the box (and to be fair there was nothing else he could have done) and Brady scored. There should have been more, but Gatting and Stapleton looked like men who didn’t want to take the limelight off the star turn.
No one was going to say that Arsenal were setting the league alight, but at least we could reflect on three wins and two draws in the last six.
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November began with the return match against Hajduk Split in the Uefa Cup – Arsenal having lost the first away leg 2-1.
41,812 came to Highbury to see what was becoming the regular team (including Gatting and Heeley but with the irregulars – Kosima and Vaessen – on the bench).
The result was a 1-0 win (the goal from Young) and that was enough to get Arsenal through to the last 16 – thanks to that all important away goal. But it was a nervous affair, with the goal only coming in the last four minutes.
Unlike the first leg where the hero was Jennings here he had nothing to do except celebrate with everyone else when Young scored at the death. But the match had a bad note, with Brady sent off 14 minutes from time along with Krsticevic who had fouled the Arsenal star from the first minute to the moment they were both dismissed.
The visitors clearly had no interest in any score other than 0-0 – which would have taken them through and their methodology was obvious – stop Brady at all costs. Arsenal did have chances – most notably when Stapleton hit the bar but then up stepped Willie Young.
Even then the action wasn’t finished as Muzinic was despatched for arguing with the linesman. Arsenal won, and the only issue left unresolved was how many games Brady would be banned for in Europe.
The following weekend, on 4 November, Arsenal were at home again, this time anxious to give Ipswich Town some payback for last May at Wembley, and they dutifully did just that, winning 4-1 in front of 35,269 fans.
And slowly the old team was coming together, for now the only missing person was Macdonald (replaced by Gatting).
Very oddly Arsenal missed an open goal in the first minute, went 0-1 down on 11 minutes , and could have gone 0-2 down on 15 had Mariner not missed a clear chance.
But then Arsenal awoke, Nelson ran the wing, crossed and Stapleton headed home. On the half hour Arsenal repeated the move on the other side. Rice crossed and Stapleton glanced it in. For the third Tibbett miss-hit a back pass, Sunderland took it and turned it back for Nelson to score into an unguarded net.
On 75 minutes Arsenal got a penalty after one foul too many on Brady. Liam took the kick himself but the goalkeeper grabbed his 30 seconds of fame and saved it. Thinking this was the way to go Muhren brought down Rice on the edge of the box. Brady curled in a free kick, around the defence around the goalkeeper and to the on rushing Stapleton who had no problem making it four.
All of a sudden people started talking about the fact that Arsenal had just won three in a row! Could they possible make it four against a Leeds team that had settled into mid-table obscurity after their in the five years of fame in the first half of the decade?
The answer was yes, and on 11 November the score was Leeds United 0 Arsenal 1, with 33,961 watching on in Elland Road. For once Arsenal could name an unchanged team and Gatting not only scored his first ever first division goal, he also scored the winner.
True, Ray Hankin thought he had scored an equaliser, only for a linesman to rule the player offside. It was in all honesty far too close for anyone else to call, but the linesman’s decision meant Steve Gatting’s masterly goal gave Arsenal the points – and heaps of praise from Terry Neil for the build up.
Leeds had had their chances – but Pat Rice chose this day to make one of his best performances ever, blocking and tackling wherever and whenever needed. Brady was sublime, and with the certain knowledge that the defence was on its game, the midfield and forwards explored every blade of grass, creating until the goal came tackling back to hold onto the lead.
Of course the endless stream of wins (and at this time four in a row seemed like an endless stream) had to end, but at least it didn’t end in defeat as Arsenal drew 2-2 with high flying Everton at Highbury, 39,801 recorded in the crowd.
And once again the papers could do nothing but praise Brady over and over and over again. Everton used resourceless teamwork to try and bring Liam, and through that the game, under control, and the fact that they managed to get a 2-2 draw out of the occasion shows that they were not far off from achieving all their aims.
But Liam’s inch perfect reverse 45 yard pass had the journalists debating with each other who they might compare the master to. Johnny Haynes was mentioned but in truth Haynes was never this good.
Quite naturally Brady scored both Arsenal’s goals – one from the penalty spot after Wood and brought down Stapleton. In later eras he would have been sent off, but the 1970s were more lenient and even a hatchet job on both legs was more likely to guide a wagging finger than anything firmer.
The penalty made it 1-1, and it looked like Arsenal could win the game when Brady took on half the Everton team, beat them all, went round the keeper and slotted the ball home. But it was not to be when Dobson turned in Thomas corner, but at least it was a draw. Earlier in the season it could well have been a defeat.
If Arsenal’s away support had expected a bit of, if not globe trotting, then at least some jaunty trips to different countries in the continent they were disappointed for 22 November took them back to Yugoslavia where it ended Red Star Belgrade 1 Arsenal 0.
Everyone knew the competition was now getting serious, and the attendance of 51,000 only emphasised the fact. Brady was of course missing, following his sending off, and he was replaced by Heeley.
That was considered a major setback, but such had been the improvement in the form of Gatting that his absence due to a hamstring pull the day before the game was also a matter for concern. So all things considered a 1-0 defeat was probably not too bad a deal.
For Red Star Petrovic shone, but the rest reflected the fading past glories, not a team with hope for the future. It was Petrovic who floated in a Brady-like centre that had the Arsenal defence at sixes and sevens allowing Blagojevic to squeeze the ball in from close range.
We expected the worst, but it never came and Jennings became a calm spectator as the home fans grew increasingly anxious. Arsenal piled on the pressure but the Red Star keeper (revealing again the falsity of the media’s belief that foreigners are congenitally unable to deal with high balls) remained firm.
November had one more league game for Arsenal, and the club approached the fixture on 25 November with a certain calmness away to Coventry City who were by and large level pegging with Arsenal in the league. That the match ended 1-1 allowed Arsenal to reflect on a run of six unbeaten in the league, but even so, there were many who felt disappointed that it wasn’t another win.
26,786 took their place in Highfield Road to watch the regular Arsenal line up and that there was disappointment in the result came as much as anything else from the fact that the press had started to make comparisons with the 1970/1 team. That (it was claimed) was built around George (which it wasn’t since he was out injured for over half the season). Now this team was built around Brady (which was fairly obvious for anyone to see so it wasn’t much of a revelation).
In torrential rain which made it hard to see the other side of the pitch, let alone direct a pass to it, Arsenal took control from the off while Coventry in the immortal words of Rob Hughes of the Sunday Times lived “as dangerously as a chain smoking petrol pump attendant.” (Remember them?)
Coventry went on the attack at the start of the second half but a quick Arsenal break with a Rix and Gatting one-two allowed Stapleton to flick in from 10 yards.
Nine minutes from time a speculative punt from 25 yards which moved around in the wind and rain confused Jennings and gave Coventry a point they had not once looked like getting.
As a result Arsenal were fifth, nine points behind the leaders with one game in hand – not something that should lead anyone to think of championship winning form. But this was an improvement – and best of all, the club was coping without Macdonald.
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But if there was talk of an Arsenal renaissance then December opened with the test of that idea, for on 2 December Arsenal faced Liverpool.
51,902 people turned up at Highbury and Arsenal won 1-0.
After the game, Bob Paisley, manager of supposedly superior Liverpool launched a tirade against the referee for having the temerity of booking Souness.
But in truth, if anyone was entitled to make such a comment it was Terry Neil. The ref booked Brady, O’Leary and Young but it was Souness who started the fight and should have gone off after Thompson went down having tackled Stapleton.
The other post-match criticism was perhaps more interesting and less expected – for perhaps the first time the papers questioned why TV had edited out a number of the more rumbustious tackles from Liverpool. Arsenal were unhappy with their visitors tactics, but the result was perfect as the good run continued.
This moment, quickly forgotten in the hurly burly of the season, was genuinely extraordinary, for it reflected something that many supporters had been feeling for some time – and it followed on an earlier comment in the Observer in April 1974 that evening TV was turning humdrum games (such as this) into exciting affairs through skilful editing and hyped commentary in order to keep the TV audiences up. It was quite probably the first time such an accusation was made – and it was undoubtedly true.
Quite where this newspaper awareness of TV’s power to manipulate the reality of football went is not clear, but certainly by the 21st century it was all left behind as the press (or what was left of it) not only supported the parody of reality that the TV editors chose to deliver they started to invent their own, being more interested in what half a dozen people who were probably not at the game said on Twitter, rather than the fact that those present at the match would often see an utterly different game from the one delivered to the TV audience.
But the reality was that Arsenal had beaten the runaway league leaders who until this point had been scoring over 3.5 goals a game, and stopped them scoring for the first time in the season. It felt very good to be an Arsenal supporter at that moment.
Sadly the buoyant feelings from the Liverpool game only had a few days to last as the return leg with Red Star Belgrade on 6 December ended in a 1-1 draw, thus forcing Arsenal out of the competition.
Indeed it was not only a matter of great hope for fans that Arsenal would go through, there was great excitement that Macdonald was on the bench – and did indeed come on for Rix.
But without Brady (still suspended), the team’s heart was missing.
Arsenal were patient, patient and patient, and then failed at the last as Red Star got their all-important equaliser with just two minutes to go. More annoying was that Arsenal were then playing with only 10 men, Mark Heeley having been assaulted by Milosavljevic and looking seriously injured. By the time Kosima on as the sub Red Star had scored and Arsenal were going out.
For Arsenal however it was not all bad news – O’Leary continued to shine both as a centre half and when marauding forward and it genuinely looked as if with Macdonald had recovered from his cartilage operation. Oh what games fate plays upon us all.
What was needed after the disappointment of an exit from the Uefa Cup was a) a league win and b) further indication that Macdonald was on the way back. Sadly on 9 December we got neither. The result was Norwich City 0 Arsenal 0, the crowd was 20,165 and there was no sign of Super Mac either on the bench or on the pitch.
In the era of complaining about the offside law John Bond was one of the main complainants, and his rushing around after Kevin Reeves had put the ball in the net while Keith Robson was clearly in an offside position, undoubtedly encouraged some supporters to run onto the pitch and approach the ref, while many others threw cushions in the ref’s general direction.
Bond, it seemed, did not know that the offside law related to everyone in the team, not just the man with the ball. Bond’s son, on the Norwich team did a post-match “something must be done” speech, seemingly to deflect attention from the fact that the home side had failed to score from a penalty – Jennings saving brilliantly, while Arsenal were denied a clear-cut penalty of their own.
And everyone ignored the fact that after such disgraceful scenes the ground should have been closed down, while many should have been arrested for public order offences. But perhaps the law was different in Norfolk.
Eventually however recovery came with the next game on 16 December as Arsenal beat Derby County 2-0 at Highbury. The crowd however was the typically poor pre-Xmas attendance of just 26,943.
Arsenal could have scored more in the second half, with Brady on his best form, running the show and Stapleton on fire. But it was McKellar in the Derby goal who kept the score reasonable.
For the first goal Brady produced a defence splitting pass, Price ran onto it, took it round the keeper and scored. For the second O’Leary turned himself in a right winger, passed to Brady who passed brilliantly to Stapleton who scored off the post. Afterwards Derby manager Tommy Docherty did his standard “we’ve got a lot of injuries” speech and bemoaned the lack of centre halves available on the market.
And then came the big day – the day still remembered at matches in the pre-match film at Arsenal Stadium. 23 December 1978 to be exact. Tottenham Hotspur 0 Arsenal 5.
42,273 people were in the crowd, but I wasn’t. My first child was expected at any moment and so I didn’t go. Catherine actually tricked us all and turned up on 29 December. Kids eh?
The team for this most memorable of affairs was Jennings, Rice, Walford, Price, O’Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Gatting, Rix. The scorers were Sunderland 3, Brady, Stapleton. John Motson did the commentary which has become almost as famous as the goal: “Look at that, oh look at that! What a goal by Brady!”
The Arsenal defence was perfect, Brady was in his prime, the finishing was leathal and Tottenham were awful. After 37 seconds Pratt gave the ball to Sunderland who scored. Ardiles was warned by the ref for being rather silly (or perhaps for being too foreign, it was hard to tell), and Sunderland scored his second from a perfect Brady pass on 38 minutes. Stapleton knocked in the third, and then Brady got “that” goal from 25 yards. Eight minutes from time Sunderland decided to beat all of the Tottenham defence on his own, before scoring his third. Those Tottenham fans who were still present gave up on the match and started to abuse their own manager, as the Arsenal faithful sang Jingle Bells, and no one noticed that Macdonald still wasn’t even on the bench.
It was a great moment; I’m sorry I missed it, but I now not only have a perfect daughter, but also four grandchildren by her.
And I can always watch the film.
Of course the euphoria was overwhelming, which is probably why on Boxing Day, Arsenal returned to home territory and duly lost 1-2 to WBA. The 40,055 who turned up for a repeat performance of the Tottenham game, were not amused.
After such a victory at Tottenham, surely this home match would be a doddle. But instead after six minutes Arsenal were 2-0 down to goals from Robson and Brown, and it was clear that Arsenal had approached the game in completely the wrong frame of mind.
Indeed it was not until the second half that Arsenal awoke and West Brom played a totally defensive game, knowing for sure that they weren’t going to score again. Brady scored from the spot after being brought down by Batson, and took control of the whole game. Five shots were cleared off the line, but the equaliser would not go in. The warning was clear: never think back to the previous match.
Arsenal recovered however to end the year on a brighter note on 30 December beating Birmingham City 3-1 at home, with an attendance of 27,877.
The first half of what should have been an easy victory for Arsenal was poor, but they took the lead when Sunderland headed back a Rice free kick for Stapleton to blast home. In the second half Rice got his first of the season, from all of 30 yards out, and Sunderland made it 3-1 after 72 minutes with a header in of Brady’s free kick.
Birmingham’s goal came from a penalty after Walford hand-balled, but they never looked like achieving even a draw, and they had now not won at Arsenal for over 20 years.
Amazingly Arsenal were not only fourth, but only four points behind Liverpool (who had two defeats in the last four games, but did have a game in hand). Neither Birmingham nor Chelsea at the bottom had won any of their last six.
|3||West Bromwich Albion||20||13||5||2||43||18||+25||31|
|19||Queens Park Rangers||21||4||7||10||18||30||-12||15|
There was one very dark cloud on the horizon however. It became very clear that Macdonald was not coming back any time soon.
The story of the season continues in the next article.
- 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
- Arsenal in the 70s part 4: What went so right in 1971, and why did it go wrong?
- Arsenal in the 70s part 5: After the double, double doubts.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 6: The winter of blossoming hope. Nov 71 to Jan 72.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 7: Revival and defeat. Feb 72 to June 72
- Arsenal in the 70s part 8: The lessons learned and the lessons ignored. 1967/73
- Arsenal in the 70s part 9: July to Dec 1972. Indiscipline and invasions.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 10: Being screwed by the league and the prelude to decline
- Arsenal in the 70s part 11: July to Dec 73, the world falls apart and Arsenal sinks.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 12: Jan to June 74. Farewell Bob, hello Liam.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 13: July to Dec 74. Flirting with relegation.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 14: Jan to June 1975 – trying to send Tottenham down
- Arsenal in the 70s part 15. When we thought it couldn’t get worse… July to Dec 1975
- Arsenal in the 70s part 16. Jan to June 1976: the end of Mee
- Arsenal in the 70s part 17: The summer of 76. New manager. New superstar.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 18: July to Dec 1976. Neill takes control
- Arsenal in the 70s part 19: Jan to June 77. Arsenal’s worst ever run. Jimmy Hill stoops low.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 20: July to Dec 77. Signs of recovery.
- Arsenal in the 70s part 21: Jan to June 78. A cup final.
Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace.
By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson
Arsenal: The Long Sleep is the definitive detailed account of the seventeen seasons immediately after the record seventh Football League championship win in 1953.
There are full details of this volume, which is available worldwide as a paperback, and via Amazon on Kindle on the Arsenal Books page where there is also a link to sample pages from the book, and details of the other Arsenal books that we have published.