20 November 1971: The double champions slip towards the lower parts of the table



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By Tony Attwood

After an up and down start to the1971/72 season, and with Arsenal 8th in the table and nine points off the leaders, Arsenal entered November 1971 trying to recover the great form of 1970/71 in which they had unexpectedly won the Double.

By 3 November Arsenal had climbed back to sixth in the league after a very dodgy start which had included three consecutive league defeats in August.  On that date Arsenal also progressed in the European Cup beating Grasshopper 5-0.  But then things went wrong.

On 6 November league action returned and Arsenal took some positives out of the match for the trip to Anfield, but the result did nothing to help Arsenal’s position: Liverpool 3 Arsenal 2 in front of 46,929

Having themselves just been knocked out of Europe, Liverpool came to this game looking to prove themselves and were aided in their industry by a referee who might perhaps be called “friendly” in his leanings towards the home team, although there are other words that could be used.

Even when the ref did stir himself to book Lawler (his second booking in three weeks) Shankley felt moved to respond with typical sarcasm, “You can tell he’s a bad one… he swore once.. about six years ago”).  It was a typical Liverpool ploy at the time, helping deflect any criticism through managerial sarcasm.   Shankley was the favourite of the media, and the papers reported every word he uttered with devotion.

Arsenal took the lead through Kennedy after five minutes but Hughes equalised for the home side on 41 minutes.  Arsenal seemed happy to keep things at 1-1 until Callaghan showed a moment’s brilliance on 53 minutes with the sort of elegant lob that no keeper can ever deal with.

Smith then slipped in his own area and scored an own goal to balance the scores once again until four minutes from time when Liverpool took almost the whole team forward to pack the area, allowing  Hughes to score the winner.

That might have been thought to be bad enough for the Champions, but on 8 November we had Sheffield United 2 Arsenal 0.  At least it wasn’t a league match but the Football League Cup 4th round replay.  The attendance was 35,461, but, we were able to think, Arsenal didn’t like the league cup with those horrible messy finals, so perhaps it just cleared the way to an assault on one of the three remaining competitions.

Yet Arsenal didn’t see it that way and their frustrations were shown in the booking of Roberts and George.  Wilson saved Arsenal with one of his trade mark dives at the feet of an onrushing player (Woodward in this case) and the Gunner’s defence tightened up to deny United space.

But it was United who went close with Reece thumping the ball over the bar from two yards.  Then on 22 minutes, clearly offside, Reece crossed the ball for Woodward who tapped it in.

Arsenal responded by pushing George further forwards but Reece, realising that his luck had returned kept up the pressure.  After 63 minute a Roberts clearance went straight to Currie, who passed to Reece who shot past Wilson.  Seemingly Stoke had passed the mantle of being Arsenal’s voodoo team to Sheffield United.

There was hope that with the league cup out of the way Arsenal would now find their proper form in the league especially in playing one of the new pretenders, Manchester City.  But on November 13 it was not to be and the result was  Arsenal 1 Manchester City 2 with 47,443 in Highbury.

Nothing much happened in this game until halfway through the second half.   Nelson wandered through the City offside trap, and much to everyone’s surprise, scored the opening goal.

It looked like the opportunity for Arsenal to get over the recent defeats to Sheffield and Liverpool, and for them to regain lost confidence.  However the goal galvanised the visitors and it was they who took the initiative for the first time in the match, as Arsenal showed that they really had lost the power to see out games, which was taken for granted through much of last season.

Radford did come to life later on, and George’s passing became more intelligent but a rare poor header from McLintock let Mellor through to beat Wilson in a one-on-one.  Then Bell edged on a centre for Lee to pass to Bell who slid the ball home.  Arsenal had no reply and looked like a team that had stopped believing in themselves.  Arsenal 1 Man City 2.

But at least Arsenal had not suffered the humiliation of the Stoke City type from the previous season.  Except that on November 20 it happened, with Wolverhampton Wanders 5 Arsenal 1.  Only 28,851 turned up at Molineux – and they were probably wondering at halftime why they bothered, as it appeared that Arsenal might cast aside their run of three consecutive defeats and get something out of this match, for they were 1-0 up from a goal by Kennedy.

But what happened in the second half was partially good football from Wolverhampton, partially an outsmarting of Arsenal tactically, and partially an imploding of Arsenal’s communal psychology.

Arsenal opened the second half with a determination to keep the score at 1-0.  But Wolverhampton had seen the Man City and Sheffield tactics, and immediately started moving the ball around very quickly, making it impossible for Arsenal to slow the game as their current style demanded.

As the quick equaliser was followed by Wolves’ second, Arsenal heads dropped, and apart from McLintock the team seemed to have little appetite left for the game.  In the end it was a rout.  Bertie Mee told the press that he would be making changes.  “About time too,” was the sanitised version of the reply.

Arsenal, the double champions of last season, were now 11th in the league and were closer to the foot of the table than the top.


Team P W D L F A Pts
1 Manchester United 18 12 4 2 38 20 28
2 Derby County 18 9 7 2 31 13 25
3 Manchester City 18 10 5 3 32 17 25
4 Leeds United 18 10 3 5 25 17 23
5 Sheffield United 18 10 3 5 28 21 23
6 Liverpool 18 9 4 5 26 20 22
7 Tottenham Hotspur 17 8 5 4 35 23 21
8 Chelsea 18 7 5 6 26 24 19
9 Wolverhampton Wanderers 18 7 5 6 29 27 19
10 Stoke City 18 8 3 7 19 19 19
11 Arsenal 17 9 0 8 26 23 18
12 Ipswich Town 18 5 8 5 16 16 18
13 West Ham United 18 6 5 7 19 18 17
14 Coventry City 18 5 7 6 21 28 17
15 Everton 18 6 3 9 21 20 15
16 Leicester City 18 5 5 8 20 24 15
17 Southampton 18 6 3 9 23 38 15
18 Huddersfield Town 19 5 3 11 15 28 13
19 Newcastle United 18 4 4 10 17 28 12
20 Nottingham Forest 19 3 5 11 24 38 11
21 West Bromwich Albion 18 3 5 10 12 21 11
22 Crystal Palace 18 3 4 11 13 33 10

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