9 December: the first mention of the drilled back four who move up together

9 December 1973.   On this day, as far as I can tell, we saw the first-ever mention of an Arsenal back four who were drilled to move forward and back together to catch the opposition offside.

On 8 December Arsenal played Derby County in a mid-week game with a 2.15pm kick off. It was Arsenal’s third consecutive draw and their sixth game in an unbeaten run in the league – it ended Derby County 1 Arsenal 1.  The crowd was 25,161, the goal for Arsenal was an own goal by Derby.

But with both Derby and Arsenal sadly remembering recent past glories as they sank into mid-table gloom such talk as there was after the weekend’s action was of a match at Birmingham which ended in a near riot, with two players being carried off the pitch as a result.  The press however had largely got fed up with football, and most photographers seemed to be employed in taking pictures of cars queuing to get petrol.

As for Arsenal, this was a game where such opportunities that there were (and there were not many) were missed, leaving an own goal (in which Newton, trying to intercept a Radford-Ball exchange merely managed to scoop the ball past his own keeper) and a goal from a Derby corner headed in by McFarland, as the only highlights.

Except there was the one post-match incident the following day.  For the first time, as far as I know, a commentator (Alan Road of the Observer) writing on 9 December 1973, noted that highly drilled precision of Arsenal’s back four, looking, he said, “like guardsmen,” as they “stepped up smartly” to catch Derby off-side.   George Graham had moved on at the end of previous year, but it would be nice to think that he noted this development in an old exercise book, ready to be considered again should he ever move into management….

The reason for the smallness of the gathering was easy to see – the match was played on a Tuesday, kick off 2.15pm. Because of the government restrictions on the use of electricity, no floodlighting was allowed for football matches. Both clubs appealed for the match to be played later in the season but for reasons that never became apparent, the league said no in that imperious manner that it and the FA have so often adopted across the centuries.

Matters were made gloomier by the news that Arsenal had been fined £2000 for making illegal approaches to Phil Parkes and Gerry Francis of QPR.  It is an issue that is hardly mentioned in history books now, and yet it showed something was seriously wrong with the club’s relations with the League and FA.  This was Arsenal, after all, the club that prided itself on doing things properly, managed by a man who constantly spoke against any changes from the old ways of doing things, and who wanted to run the club as a military camp.

The smallness of the crowd got through to the players – as was to be expected given that much of the game was played in silence.  The pace was slow, and when Charlie George (yet again) went off injured after 17 minutes, having already scored, much of what sparkle there was, disappeared.  Just before the interval Parkin tried a shot, it went wayward but Dougan moved in and headed home.

Nine minutes into the second half Hornsby, acting as if Armstrong was his mentor, ran through, and took a shot. McAlle got in the way and it went into the net.  On 67 minutes an attack from Wolverhampton was not cleared and after a considerable amount of to and fro Richards headed in. With no away support in the ground, the silence on the terracing was total.

Who could have imagined that this passing comment about Arsenal’s back four could have become such a theme of journalists in the years to come.  But then, no one has ever accused football journalists in England of being original thinkers.



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100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.

Henry Norris at the Arsenal:  There is a full index to the series here.

Arsenal in the 1930s: The most comprehensive series on the decade ever

Arsenal in the 1970s: Every match and every intrigue reviewed in detail.3 December 1949

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