Iconic moments 11: Arsenal’s first trophy after 17 years of nothing.

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By Tony Attwood

Moments in history can be reduced to single items in record books.  Reading this you are almost certainly an Arsenal supporter and of course know that the club won the European Fairs Cup in 1970.  Maybe you have let slip from the memory the awful fact that the previous season ended with defeat in the League Cup to Swindon Town of Division 3.  What you almost certainly will have missed, unless you were there, is the staggering emotional impact this match had on Arsenal fans.

At the time Arsenal were just showing signs of finally climbing out of the era I have chosen to call The Darkness.

Of course it was not known as that at the time, but it seems a fair description of the era today for The Darkness is the period in which Arsenal were lost.  A period from 1959 to 1968 in which Arsenal won nothing, and did not even finish in the top four of the first division.

Of course Darkness is relative.  Our Darkness was nothing like that of most teams who have to endure relegation.  One thinks perhaps of Manchester United in 1974, Chelsea in 1975, Tottenham in 1977 (when they did actually manage to come bottom of the league) as dark days for those clubs.  But Arsenal live on a higher level and had never been sent down since 1913.  But we showed no sign of winning anything either.

The first signs of dawn were seen in 1967/68 when the club reached the final of the League Cup, losing to Leeds United, having beaten Coventry, Reading, Blackburn, Burnley and Huddersfield en route.  Only two of these teams (Coventry and Burnley) were first division sides at the time, but it was an encouraging run.

We came 9th in 1967/68 and the improvement continued in 1969 when Bertie Mee at long last got the club back into the top four – although still 11 points behind the champions, Leeds.

But there was little by way of celebration because of the sheer awfulness of the defeat to Swindon Town.   In those days the League Cup final was neither on radio nor TV live, and one had to pick up the score as updates from a totally league and FA Cup focussed BBC Light Programme.  Such was the lack of interest that Arsenal had not even entered the competition until 1966/7 – and only then because the League forced them to.

The journey to the Swindon final was very different from the year before.  Sunderland, Liverpool and Blackpool were seen off before a two leg semi against Tottenham.  In the first leg at Highbury, John Radford scored in the last minute to earn a 1-0.  Radford scored again in the return match which ended 1-1.

The thing most people remember about the final was the appalling Wembley pitch which had had a horse show on it a couple of days before.  Perhaps worse, but generally forgotten, eight of the team had flu, and the match the previous weekend had been postponed because of it.

Arsenal had come back to 1-1 after an early setback, but could not get the result and in conditions that suited Swindon, extra time was played out.  The effects of the flu outbreak was clearly seen and we lost 3-1.

The game was played in March, which meant Arsenal had to soldier on in the League, which they did.  Three defeats in the last 12 games game the club fourth, and a place in Europe was secured because Swindon was refused the right to play in Europe through only being a third division team.

And so for the first time since 1963/4 Arsenal played in a top European competition.  In the first round we beat Glentoran 3-0 but lost 0-1 in the second leg with a full team out (not an auspicious start).  Sporting Lisbon went in the second round 0-0 and 3-0.  We drew with Rouen 0-0 and beat them 1-0, followed by Dinamo Bacau of Romania 2-0 and 7-1.  That games was just one year and three days after the Swindon defeat.  How quickly things change!

Ajax were beaten 3-0 and 0-1 in the semi final which led to Anderlecht in the final.  We lost 1-3 in the first leg and won 3-0 in the second.

English clubs had won the cup for the previous two seasons (Leeds and Newcastle) so the event was hardly new for England, but for Arsenal it was a positive end to the worst period in the club’s history since Herbert Chapman became manager.

These days the victory is hardly spoken of except for one or two of my old mates who were there, or who claim to have been there!  What is spoken of is what Bertie Mee and the team did next – but in a telling interview Bob Wilson revealed what was really going on in the club at the time.

The defeat by Swindon had led to newspaper stories about the Shame of Arsenal and Bob said that the defeat added something extra to the team – a total determination to win something.   For the club it was the league that remained important, but for the fans the long, endless period of nothingness was at last over.

That we had come a miserable 12th in the league, finishing behind Tottenham who had made it to 11th, was forgotten.  Arsenal had not won the league since 1953 and not won the cup since 1950 and clearly were never going to this season.

But a total of 17 years without a trophy had ended.  It had been the worst run since Woolwich Arsenal entered the league in 1893 and won nothing until the FA Cup under Chapman in 1930.  That had been 37 years – this was only 17, but it had seemed an eternity.

The breakthrough really was a break through.  Arsenal could win something.  The question was, could Arsenal become the first London team in 10 years to win the league?  Could this be the first Arsenal team in 18 years to win the league?

It is impossible to explain fully the emotions that this winning of the Fairs Cup brought to Arsenal supporters of the day.  The only phrase I can think of, and I think it was one that we used at the time, is the one I just used: “It proves we can win something”.

Because for us young Arsenal fans, Arsenal had won nothing that we could remember.  I was too young to know anything much of the 1953 league victory (although my dad was there and went to many of the games).  So all my supporting life I had supported a big team that won nothing.

Now it was over.  At last we proved it.  Arsenal could win things again.

Let the good times roll.

The full series: The iconic moments that defined Arsenal

The anniversary of Arsenal’s first ever trophy


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