17 December 1969: when we started to wake up that something was happening.

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On this day in the third round of the Fairs Cup Arsenal drew 0-0 draw in the first match, away to Rouen in front 12,093. Hardly anyone noticed.  Yet in the next 18 months we won three trophies.

To give a bit of context we might take a look at the way Arsenal’s seasons had gone since winning the league in 1953.  Not only was the club’s run in terms of league positions awful compared with both earlier times and the modern day, so were the exits from the FA Cup.  Northampton Town (1958), Rotherham Utd (1960) and Peterborough Utd (1965) had all successfully seen off Arsenal in the FA cup during this era.

Bertie Mee’s third season ended with Arsenal finishing 4th, the club’s highest place in 10 years – although the Swindon defeat at Wembley on 15 March in the League Cup final is the match most people remember and the event that serves as a dominant marker for the year for many supporters.

The day after the 1968/9 season ended, John Roberts signed from Northampton Town for £35,000 – one of the players who would go on to win a league championship medal (although he did not play in the 1971 cup final.)

But few people were talking about Arsenal in those days.  In 1968/9 Leeds had won the League for the first time in their history, finishing six points ahead of Liverpool. Having beaten Arsenal in the 1968 League Cup Final they were being described in the press (which had begun to suggest that London football teams would never win the league or cup again because the players were too soft as a result of being in London) as the new power in football.  They were, as ever, utterly wrong.  As always they never apologised for such a lunatic prediction.

In the Fairs Cup Newcastle United won their first, and indeed only, European trophy.    It was their last trophy until they won the league in 1993 – by which time they had renewed their acquaintance with the second division for a while.

As for Tottenham, although their history could not match Arsenal’s, and although their league position had slipped a little, in recent times they had achieved more attention than Arsenal.  To some degree their achievements merited this in the 1960s, for they had won the Double in 1961, retaining the FA Cup the following year, when they also got to the semi-final of the European Cup, winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1963 and taking the FA Cup again in 1967.

But the suggestion made in a few quarters during the decade that Tottenham were the golden team of London as Arsenal were in the 1930s was a ludicrous exaggeration, and indeed as the final league table for 1969 shows by the end of the decade Arsenal had regained the upper hand in the league (just), and indeed the following season Tottenham slipped to 11th in the league and went out in the fourth round of the FA Cup and the second round of the League cup.   Liverpool, Arsenal and Southampton entered the Fairs Cup under the rule that said that only one club per city could enter while Newcastle came back in as holders.

Manchester United got to the semi-final of the European Cup but finished 11th in the league as can be seen.  Manchester City won the FA Cup.

One other snippet of gossip in the 1968/9 season that some still remember was Tommy Docherty managing three clubs in six weeks: Rotherham, QPR and Aston Villa. It was that sort of time.

The full first-team went on the tour at the end of the 196/89 season, although there were the home nation’s internationals on 3 May.  Arsenal’s tour game in Iceland on 4 May was the first game with the first team both for Charlie George and Eddie Kelly.

The 1969/70 League season started poorly with a 0-1 home defeat to Everton, and the crowd of 44,364 must have been sorely disappointed.  Arsenal had finished 4th previous season so more was expected.

But in the league “more” was never delivered.  Arsenal scored more than three goals only twice in league games (on November 1 and 8) and ended up 12th – the worst since 1966 when the club finished 14th and went out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle.

By the time the Uefa Cup started Arsenal had played eight league games, had scored just six goals and had won two of the matches. (This might all sound a little familiar!)  This period saw the last game for Ian Ure in 1-1 draw with Leeds.  He had played 168 league matches for Arsenal, before moving on to Manchester Utd to whom he was sold on 21 August for £80,000.  He later played for St Mirren.  With Arsenal having developed the Terry Neill /Frank McLintock combination at centre half it was clear Ian Ure wasn’t going to get many more games.

Yet the eighth match league match of the season – a 0-0 home draw with Sheffield United – attracted just 28,605.  All the initial excitement had gone.

Then came the Fairs Cup, the first European adventure since 1963/4 when the club went out in the second round of the same competition losing to Standard Liege.

The first round in 1969/70 saw these results…

  • 9 September 1969: Arsenal 3 Glentoran 0  (Graham 2, Gould)  (24292)
  • 29 September 1969: Glentoran 1 Arsenal 0 (13000).

Following an injury to Bob Wilson in which he broke his arm, 16 September saw the debut for goalkeeper Malcolm Webster at home against Tottenham.  Arsenal lost 3-2 and after conceding eight in three matches Webster was dropped in favour of Geoff Barnett who signed from Everton for £35,000.

Thus gradually the team was changing and on 29 September 1969 Ray Kennedy made his first appearance.  As an apprentice he had been rejected by Sir Stanley Matthews at Port Vale, had returned dispirited to the north-east, and had played amateur football while he worked in a sweet factory… before being spotted two years later by an Arsenal scout.

But we were still losing league matches (a home defeat to Coventry 0-1 was particularly dire, as was the crowd of 28,877.   On 25 October 1969 Sammy Nelson joined the list of débutantes in a 0-0 draw with Ipswich.  He went on to play 245 league games for the club plus 10 appearances as a sub, and scored 10 league goals.

Then mercifully we had a break from the league games with the second round of the Fairs Cup. 29 October 1969: Sporting Lisbon 0 Arsenal 0. Temperatures were not raised. But in the return match we won Arsenal 3 Sporting Lisbon 0. George Graham got two, Radford the third, and an improved crowd of 35,253 came to join in the fun.

The competition carried on into the winter and the third round again saw a 0-0 draw in the first leg as Arsenal went to Rouen on 17 December and played in front 12,093. So there we are, on this day, it was just another game in an era when Arsenal were really not doing much. Today it is forgotten, as I guess for most people was the arrival with much pomp and fanfare of Marinello, who was supposed to herald the new super Arsenal attack.  He got one goal in his first 14 games.

On 21 February Derby 3 Arsenal 2 marked the 10th game without a win.  At the time no one knew if the run would go any further, but it didn’t and instead was followed by one defeat in the next seven games.  A complete turn around.   Indeed this pivotal moment. More Fairs Cup games came and went until suddenly on 18 March:  Arsenal 7 Dinamo Bacau 1 (Radford 2, George 2, Sammels 2, Graham), 35,342 in the ground.

I often wonder when it was that we woke up to the fact that something was happening.  The goalless draw in the Fairs Cup, our second in quick succession, was just another dull game.  The media made nothing of it.  It wasn’t on TV.  Were Arsenal going anywhere?  I doubt if at that time anyone thought so.

And certainly, on hearing of another goalless draw in the Fair Cup, did anyone expect three trophies in the next 18 months. Which perhaps makes it worth remembering. Seeing the future based on this week’s result is not always as easy as it looks.



For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.

The Arsenal History Society is part of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association – a body which gives positive support to the club, and has regular meetings with directors and senior officials of the club to represent the views of its members to the club.  You can read more about AISA on its website.


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.

One Reply to “17 December 1969: when we started to wake up that something was happening.”

  1. Thankyou for this interesting reminiscence . That season was very frustrating . In October we suddenly thrashed Palace away 5-1 and the next week Derby 4-0 and then went on that awful run . The home leg with Rouen was dire ( Sammels scored in the last minute), we went out of the Cup to Blackpool and I remember us being thrashed at home by Chelsea.
    I used to go most weeks and what really rejuvenated the team was the introduction of Eddie Kelly in midfield who made a massive impact.
    Charlie George was maturing as a player but Eddie gave us a massive dynamism that we saw in the Double season as well.A very underrated player .

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