Arsenal in the 70s Part 17 – the summer of 76. New manager. New superstar.

By Tony Attwood

The 1975/6 season marked the end of the Mee reign, as we considered in the previous article in this Arsenal in the 70s series.

Mee ended his tenure as manager with three defeats,

  • 17 April: Ipswich Town (H) 1-2
  • 19 April: Queen’s Park Rangers (A) 1-2
  • 24 April: Manchester City (A) 1-3

which was exactly the reverse of his start 10 years earlier which had begun with three victories in August 1966.

Matters had slipped a very long way from the heady days of Seasons 3 to 7 in Mee’s reign.  Whoever came to take over the club would need to start with a fair amount of rebuilding at Arsenal, to overcome and set aside the disasters of the previous three years.

But more than that, new standards were being set at Liverpool, who had already handed over to Bob Paisley and he had won the league for the club in his first season as manager – although Liverpool had been pushed all the way by QPR.

And rather oddly, having copied the name of one section of the Woolwich Arsenal ground (“The Kop”) for their own ground they now set about copying the “boot room” approach that Arsenal had laid down two generations before, (and Arsenal had been left behind) by making a lot of noise about their own natural line of managerial inheritance.

But at Arsenal any sort of legacy as there might have been had Mee left in 1973, had now vanished.  The structure of the club had been dismantled but to no benefit except perhaps balancing the books.   Since winning the double Arsenal had won no more trophies and in the league they had come 5th, 2nd, 10th, 16th, and 17th.

Don Howe had long since left, and although a team containing Rimmer, Rice, Brady, Stapleton and O’Leary, supported by the players reaching the end of their tenure such as Ball and Armstrong, had a lot going for it, thus far it had not proved to be enough.

On 19 April Brian Kidd played his last game, and on 24 April Terry Mancini did likewise. Double-winning captain Frank McLintock had been sold to QPR for £25,000 in 1973 and went on to play 127 league games for QPR over four years – and had come very close to winning the league once more in Mee’s last season at Arsenal.

Then, on 23 June 1976 Terry Neill resigned as Tottenham manager.  At the time such an early departure (after just two years) at Tottenham was unusual, but since then only four of the club’s 24 subsequent managers have lasted longer.

He had missed relegation for Tottenham by just one point in his first season, but taken the club to mid-table respectability in his second.  But less that sounds a decent result – the fact is that the team Neill had taken over had itself been a fairly decent mid-table team.  It was Neill who took them down to the depths, and then brought them back up to mid-table.

Terry Neill subsequently claimed in newspaper interview that he got the job at Arsenal on 1 July although most accounts tend to put the date of his appointment on 9 July with Tottenham’s assistant manager Wilf Dixon joining him on 14 July   Neill later described Dixon as “my best friend” and also told the press that his first act was to draw up a list of players he wanted.  He put Malcolm Macdonald at the top of the page.

But the question must be asked did Arsenal look at any other possible manager?  Indeed did they offer the job to anyone else?

Given that Mee had announced he was leaving in March one might expect that the club had plenty of chance to look around.

Neill was, of course, an ex-Arsenal player, making 241 league appearances between 1959 and 1970.  He had been player-manager at Hull, and part time manager of N Ireland for some of the same period, before managing Tottenham between 1974 and 1976.

The question however remains, what on earth were the board doing, handing the club over to such an inexperienced man?

The suspicion must be that they were looking back to the Chapman dynasty – the period in which Chapman was succeeded by Shaw, Allison and Whittaker.  Each had been at the club since 1925, and each won the league.  In fact the three long term appointments (that is, excluding Shaw, who took over upon Chapman’s sudden passing, and seemingly did not want to be manager beyond the half year he took the role for) all won the league twice, and the FA Cup once.

But seeing Neil in this setting is a romantic view, surely nothing more.   Yes he had been a player at the club, but then so had many other people.  Crayston was a player and he didn’t make it work as a manager.  Likewise Swindin.  Billy Wright was a great player, although obviously not with Arsenal, but he most certainly didn’t make it work either.

Indeed if a lesson is to be learned from Arsenal’s manager history the most obvious one is that Arsenal should have been looking for very moderate players like… Chapman, Allison and Whittaker.  Or a very experienced manager from elsewhere – after all they had a lot of time between 22  March (or earlier, for 22 March was just the date the Mee’s decision to leave was made public) and the start of the next season.

Even if Arsenal were in talks with Neill which led to Neill resigning as Tottenham manager on 23 June that still gave the board over two months to talk to others before approaching Neill.  And subsequent revelations made it seem likely that they did.

In early August two names emerged as the men Arsenal had approached.  First Miljan Miljanic and then second Terry Venables, who both seemingly said “no”.   I don’t think Miljanic said anything about the issue, but Venables did talk, saying he turned the opportunity down as he wanted to stay with Crystal Palace.

Venables had been a player with Palace for two years and had clearly been trained up to take over there as manager (he only played a handful of games in those two years) exactly at the same time as the Arsenal job came up.   He had no official managerial experience, so it would have been a wild jump in the dark for Arsenal to take him – but Venables certainly claimed he had been approached by Arsenal.

Miljanic on the other hand was massively experienced.  He had won La Liga in both his years at the club as manager, and the Copa del Rey in 1974/5, but that experience meant he had no particular reason to leave.  Indeed Real Madrid wanted him to stay given that he had brought them back to league winning form after a couple of years without.

So Miljanic continued for one more year at Real Madrid, and then went on, for a third time, to manage Yugoslavia.  And Arsenal got Neill, with his list of players who he wanted to sign.


And that signing happened on 29 July 1976 as Malcolm Macdonald signed from Newcastle for £333,333.33 (the odd figure arising because Arsenal offered “one third of a million not a penny more” according to Macdonald’s autobiography).   It is often written that he made his debut v Grasshoppers in a friendly but our records show him scoring in a game against Notts County ten days before.  And he scored.

As for the fee – if Macdonald effectively added 10,000 to the gate for each home match Arsenal played and delivered one extra round in the FA Cup, the club would have recouped the fee in one season.  Given that Arsenal’s average home league attendance in the final Mee season had sunk to 26,945 (the lowest since 1929/30 when it was 26,690) raising the average gate was thought to be not that difficult.

Macdonald had played 187 games for Newcastle scoring 95 goals in the league, having previously scored 49 in 88 games for Luton Town.  He looked like the perfect one goal in two games man to play alongside Frank Stapleton who had joined as an apprentice in 1972 and made his first league appearance in 1975.

In fact the notion of Macdonald and Stapleton proved to be one of the things that the club got very right indeed.  The pair scored 46 goals between them in 1976/77.

As for the crowds, they certainly went up – to an average of 32,671 in 1976/7 and then 35,446 in 1977/8.  When added to the cup runs of that second year (an FA Cup final and League Cup semi-final) the investment looked well worth making on financial terms alone.

Thus the stage was set for the new season with the new manager and the new big signing.

But there were two other changes afoot, for the League announced that goal difference was to be used to separate the clubs finishing level on points.  The aim was to encourage more goals (the goal average system giving a benefit to the team that scored fewer goals).  However an interesting by-product was that people could see instantly the difference between two teams on the same number of points – as long as they could subtract one whole number from another.

It also ensured that there would be no more silly mistakes as with the one which placed Arsenal 6th in 1915 rather than 5th – something that was not noticed until many years later, even though there was much pouring over the 1915 league table during the election of the club to the first division in 1919.

Second, red and yellow cards were introduced for the first time in English football.

And it is perhaps interesting to pause and note just how long it took the League to get around to this idea.  The idea had arisen after a lot of confusion as to who was booked during the England v Argentina game of the 1966 World Cup Finals.  Ken Aston the referee at the heart of the mix-up subsequently proposed the idea of having a yellow card for caution and red for a dismissal (based on European traffic lights) and this was introduced into the next World Cup in 1970, but not into the League until 1976/7.

Back with Arsenal, in the run up to the league starting, Macdonald made it clear that he was not leaving Newcastle quietly, and on 31 July various papers published interviews with Macdonald saying that he had been carrying Newcastle for years and needed a team of which he would be the icing on the cake.  Which was an interesting viewpoint given that Newcastle had finished higher up the league than Arsenal for the last two seasons.

The pre-season friendlies

Arsenal, having played no friendlies at the end of the previous campaign had managed to get together a pre-season game at Highbury followed by a tour of Switzerland and Yugoslavia – despite the uncertainty over who would be the new manager.

  • 30 July 1976: Arsenal 2 Notts C 0 (Ross, Macdonald)

There are no reports I can find of this game, and I suspect it was behind closed doors.

Then on 4 August Fulham were reported as trying to get Bob Wilson to come out of retirement but Bob said that he was more tempted by the coaching side of football – which gave us a clue as to what would happen next.

Then, even before the tour could get going on 10 August Eddie Kelly left the Arsenal training camp with a hamstring injury as the papers vamped up Macdonald’s single handed remodelling of Arsenal.

  • 10 August 1976: Grasshoppers 0 Arsenal 3 (Brady, Macdonald 2)

The reports were all about Macdonald who once again scored, but in the post match report of the Grasshoppers game Neill said, “he should have had more” than the two goals he got.  The first goal was a Ball to Macdonald inch perfect pass, and for the second Macdonald robbed a defender on the edge of the area.  There was also perfect work by Brady two minutes from time for his goal, and Stapleton also came close to scoring, having turned in a most promising performance.

  • 13 August 1976: Rijeka (Yugoslavia) 2 Arsenal 2 (Ross, Brady)

The press, perhaps feeling that while Switzerland was a nice place to visit to take in a game, didn’t fancy Yugoslavia, and so reporting of the match was thin on the ground, but such mention as there was suggested Brady once again looked to be growing in stature year by year, putting on an excellent display.

The link above leads to a review of that game based around a local newspaper report.

And thus it was done.  There was a new manager in place, a new star player, and a new season to be had.   And of one thing we could be fairly certain.  It was unlikely to be worse than the season that had ended just three and a half months before.

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