1974: The decline of Arsenal – March and early April

By Tony Attwood

1973/4 is hardly a season to recalled with fun and excitement.  My previous article on the subject took us up to February and has the headline Was this the worth month of Football ever?

That piece ended on 23 February with Birmingham City 3 Arsenal 1.  What happened next was that Arsenal actually improved slightly…

  • 2 March 1974: Southampton (H) 1-0
  • Attendance: 19,210
  • Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Simpson, Kelly, George, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Armstrong.
  • Scorer: Ball

The press headlines suggested that Arsenal had lost any idea they might once have had of how to entertain the crowd, but after a seven match run without a victory, only the purists worried about that.  Kelly, Ball, George, (the same names as always it seems), shone through, but once again Radford and Kennedy were lost in the mire, and neither man had much idea how to turn a poor show into a better one.

If blame was to be shared, it came from the fact that relegation facing Southampton were just as poor, with only Channon looking like a first division professional.   But Arsenal could not really use that as an excuse.  They needed the win and got it, but that should never be enough for Arsenal.  The crowd of 19,210 said what north London thought of it all, and on seeing the reports in the Sunday papers, those who stayed away would have congratulated themselves on their decision.

  • 16 March 1974: Ipswich Town (A) 2-2
  • Attendance: 22,297
  • Wilson, McNab, Nelson, Storey, Simpson, Kelly, George, Brady, Radford, Kennedy, Armstrong.
  • Scorers: Simpson, Kennedy.

Ipswich were preparing for a Uefa Cup quarter final against Leipzig at the time of this game, and so could be excused from not being fully focussed.  But even so they could justifiably say that they did enough to beat Arsenal.  The Gunners got a goal at either end of the game from Kennedy and Simpson, but in between the defending was fairly awful.  Certainly the second Ipswich goal, in which Beatie jumped unchallenged to head in, would never have been seen in days of yore.

But it was a draw, another point to add to the two against Southampton, and with things in the state they were, that was about all Arsenal could hope for.

  • 23 March: Manchester City (H) 2-0
  • Attendance: 25,319
  • Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Simpson, Kelly (Brady), George, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, Armstrong.
  • Scorer: Radford 2.

So it seemed that gradually things were getting better – at least it was three games without defeat,  But the news was emerging that Bob Wilson was going to retire at the end of the season at the tender age of 32 – a tragic loss to the game –  and every keeper under the sun was now being touted as a replacement.

Meanwhile a 2-0 win over Man City who had only won three away games all season was nothing to shout about, and most of the papers didn’t even bother to write up a report on the game.  Their 18 away games and given them 13 goals, and as a result of this match the bottom of the table had some famous names in it…

Pld W D L F A Pts
14 Arsenal 34 11 10 13 38 43 32
15 Stoke City 33 9 13 11 43 40 31
16 Manchester City 33 11 9 13 30 31 31
17 Wolverhampton Wndrs 34 10 11 13 38 43 31
18 Southampton 35 10 11 14 40 56 31
19 West Ham United 35 9 11 15 44 53 29
20 Birmingham City 34 9 9 16 38 55 27
21 Norwich City 35 6 13 16 33 50 25
22 Manchester United 33 6 10 17 25 40 22
  • 30 March 1974: Stoke City (A) 0-0
  • Attendance: 18,532
  • Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Blockley, Kelly (Simpson), Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, George.

This was another point but it was awful. Untidy, disjointed, bereft of all ideas, a small crowd watching what seemed to be small-time football.  Stoke lacked any sense of belief that they could beat Arsenal, and Arsenal just seemed utterly bemused as to how a team full of such proven players could ever be reduced to such a lowly position in the league.   The boost that should have come from last weeks victory (even though also against poor opposition) vanished in the sunshine, and without that there seemed to be nothing left.

Arsenal’s problems were in the heart of the defence – but there is no reason why there should be such difficulties.  And yet, observing them, the rest of the team acted as if they really couldn’t move forward, just in case those behind them let something awful happen.  It was bizarre, it was horrible.  It was not Arsenal.

  • 6 April 1974: West Ham United (H) 0-0
  • Attendance: 37,868
  • Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Blockley, Kelly, Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, George.

The highlight of this match was a battle between one young supporter who ran on the pitch and six burly officers of the law.  As expected the law won.   But it took them a while.

Meanwhile the crowd pondered: how could the likes of Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy and George be on the pitch together and not fashion chances, let alone a goal?  WHU, not too far removed from relegation, were not much better, but at least they only had Brooking and Robson from their roll of honour who they could blame.

Arsenal tried hard in the second half, but it was more keystone cops than skilful football.

One interesting side note came with the suggestion in the Observer’s report that evening TV was turning humdrum games (such as this) into exciting affairs through skilful editing and hyped commentary in order to keep the TV audiences up.  It was quite probably the first time such an accusation was made – and it was undoubtedly true.

  • 13 April 1974: Chelsea (A) 3-1
  • Attendance: 29,152
  • Wilson, Rice, Nelson, Storey, Blockley, Kelly (Simpson), Armstrong, Ball, Radford, Kennedy, George.
  • Scorers: Kennedy 2, Radford.

The difference between the teams was simple.  When Armstrong crossed he found Radford or Kennedy waiting.    When Chelsea tried the same trick – looking for all the world like a team who had never seen it done before – they forgot to put anyone in the middle.

Fortunately Arsenal showed the home team how to do it in the sixth minute.  Radford back-passed to Kelly who centred for Kennedy who headed in the opener.

To be fair Wilkins did try several times to take a shot, but when he did make contact with the ball he never managed to get within 12 yards of the goal.

Swain however did manage to equalise, mostly because as everyone crashed into everyone else he was the only man left standing.  With his feet trapped under a litter of bodies he simply chested the ball in.

A minute later Kelly, Ball and Radford played triangles, Radford finishing it off to restore Arsenal’s lead.  A minute after that Radford put Kennedy through, and despite falling over in the area the striker stuck out a leg, swung it, connected and scored the third.

The league table still looked dire…

Pld W D L F A Pts
1 Leeds United 38 21 13 4 60 29 55
2 Liverpool 37 21 10 6 45 27 52
3 Ipswich Town 39 17 11 11 64 54 45
4 Derby County 39 15 14 10 49 40 44
5 Burnley 38 15 12 11 50 49 42
6 Queens Park Rangers 37 13 15 9 54 44 41
7 Everton 38 15 11 12 49 42 41
8 Stoke City 37 11 15 11 49 41 37
9 Leicester City 36 11 15 10 44 37 37
10 Chelsea 39 12 12 15 56 56 36
11 Wolverhampton Wndrs 38 11 14 13 44 45 36
12 Arsenal 37 12 12 13 41 44 36

Thus having gone with just one win in nine from 26 December 1973 to 23 February 1974 Arsenal had now managed six without defeat from 2 March to 13 April and had crawled up the table a little from the 14th position held after the Birmingham defeat on 23 February.

But the six games had included three draws (two of the goalless) and no one was impressed.  Since the game against Wolverhampton on 4 December when Arsenal had actually scored two (through George and Hornsby) in the next 13 games Arsenal only once scored two – and never once scored more than two.

12th position in the league looked flattering.  There were five games to go, and no one was now seriously saying Arsenal would go down, but it had turned out to be an astonishingly poor season, given that in the previous season Arsenal had been second, and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup.

This season had seen us knocked out in the 4th round of the FA Cup and the 2nd of the League Cup (to Tranmere).  The only positive thought was that it had been a season of rebuilding, but no one really believed that.

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