By Tony Attwood
To read about the free Arsenal video collection and about the Arsenal History Society, please see the note at the foot of this article.
The speed of Arsenal’s collapse after the 1971 double is something often ignored by those of us who remember the events. But it was real enough.
In the following seasons we came 5th, 2nd 10th, 16th, 17th and there really was talk of relegation.
And life away from football wasn’t that great either.
From the middle of 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers’ members had been on a work-to-rule to get better conditions and higher pay. With the balance of trade (cost of imports against income from exports) declining by the day, coal stocks slowly dwindled. Then in October 1973 members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) plus Egypt and Syria proclaimed an oil embargo. Oil prices rose, and this drove up the price of coal.
The UK government introduced a range of measures to cope with the situation including requiring football clubs not to use floodlights – along with requiring companies only to use electricity for three days a week, not allowing companies to employ people on overtime, and forcing the two TV networks (BBC and ITV) to stop programmes at 10.30. The BBC responded by running Monty Python as their final show on some evenings – a nice touch.
But there are always things of interest for the historian. For example, for the first time 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, still in his playing days, had moved on at the end of last 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….
But despite this on 15 December we lost 1-2 away to Burnley with 13,200 in the ground.
Radford could have had a hatrick in the first half, but not only did he miss, he also slid off a pitch made of mud and hit a concrete wall, clearly injuring himself in the process. But by then Arsenal were 1-0 up, Wilson having punted the ball upfield, and to everyone’s utter astonishment it actually bounced up on hitting the ground rather than getting swallowed in mud. Radford was the first to react and scored a fine goal. But after the wall incident, he was far from all right for the rest of the game.
Ball and Simpson were the only two able to deal properly with conditions that prohibited all conventional football and in the 62nd minute Burnley equalised. Worse, 16 minutes later they got the winner. Unfortunately by then the light was so bad (what with there being no floodlights) that no one was sure who had scored until the players came off the pitch to report matters. But by then most of the crowd had gone home anyway, fearful of getting lost in Burnley’s Victorian streets without lighting.
Arsenal did however get back to winning ways on 22 December with a 1-0 home win over Everton, 19,886 making their way to Highbury on the last saturday before Christmas.
It was, to say the least, a poor game, which for 60 minutes looked as if it would end fittingly in a 0-0 draw. Wilson made one save, (one of those where he rushed out to the edge of the area to get the ball before the oncoming forward) and that was it. Otherwise, Kelly aside, Arsenal did not impress. The Guardian likened the side to a draught-horse. But that endeavour was better than Everton who remarkably had one shot, which hit the emblem on the top of the North Bank stand, as a result of which the ball got a puncture. It was a major incident in the game.
And then out of nothing Ball passed to Rice who sent a 50 yard inch perfect cross to Armstrong. He chipped to Kennedy who nodded it to Ball who volley home. Brilliant. If only there had been more of the same.
With the newspapers now restricting their size because of a paper shortage, despite being excused from the electricity regulations, Arsenal matches hardly got a mention. And the problems continued through to the last game of the year on 29 at Leicester City where Arsenal lost 0-2 in front of 25,860.
Afterwards Bertie Mee said that having cut the fourth team in order to save costs when he became manager (which could be defined as his biggest single mistake – for it clearly contributed to the decline in the club in the post-Double season), he was now about to reduce Arsenal to two teams, with a maximum of 19 professionals between them. And, he said, three of those who were left would be under 19.
Mee blamed this on the expected freedom of contract regulations, an “inevitable” European superleague and a first division of 16 or 18 clubs. His bleak vision also included a third and fourth division made up of part-timers playing in regional leagues.
Fortunately, he was wrong in every single prediction. Even more fortunately, Arsenal eventually decided they had had enough of the man who had had a couple of seasons of success, and then went downhill fast.
And the man who had promised that Arsenal would adopt the new Dutch Total Football model, but within a couple of months were doing the opposite.
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.
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.