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Arsenal in the 70s, part 1: the re-birth of the club. 1969/70

By Tony Attwood

I’ve already written a brief summary of the Curious story of 1968/9 – in this article I want to do a deeper review of what happened as 1968/9 came to an end, and of the following season, a season that will always be remembered both as the first season in which Arsenal won a European trophy, and also the prelude to something most of us at the time felt we would surely never get to see.

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.

Perhaps fortunately, for much of the period there was no League Cup, and its predecessor competition (see below) was one that ran very much in the background.  Indeed even when the League Cup came in Arsenal opted not to take part.

The however the rules were changed, and all clubs were forced to participate under the same rules as with the League – that is to say, the playing of weakened teams was not allowed.  (That rule of course was changed later).

In their first outing in the League Cup Arsenal had lost to West Ham in the third round, but then in the next two seasons Arsenal got to the finals – both both ended in defeats.  Leeds and Swindon respectively took the trophy.  The latter was seen as an even greater humiliation that the regular defeats in the FA Cup.

Here’s Arsenal’s record in the years since the last trophy win (winning the league in 1952/3.

Season Lge FAC Lge C Europe Rnd Top scorer Goals
1953-54 12th R4 Doug Lishman 18
1954–55 9th R4 Doug Lishman 19
1955–56 5th QF Derek Tapscott 21
1956–57 5th QF Derek Tapscott 27
1957–58 12th R3 David Herd 24
1958–59 3rd R5 David Herd 18
1959–60 13th R3 David Herd 14
1960–61 11th R3 David Herd 30
1961–62 10th R4 Alan Skirton 19
1962–63 7th R5 Joe Baker 31
1963–64 8th R5 Fairs Cup R2 Geoff Strong 31
1964–65 13th R4 Joe Baker 25
1965–66 14th R3 Joe Baker 13
1966–67 7th R5 R3 George Graham 12
1967–68 9th R5 Final George Graham 21
1968–69 4th R5 Final John Radford 19

Bertie Mee had become manager in 1966 and so the two finals were his achievement as was the modest improvement in league position.  Watching the club in those days supporters would surely have failed to understand the notion that “top four is not a trophy”.  It didn’t get Arsenal a cup, true, but it would have been a lot, lot better than what we were being served up, year after year.

Bertie Mee had been reforming the side he had inherited from Billy Wright since he took over the club and as 1968/9 drew to a close he had continued to do this, although some of his changes were only temporary.  For example on 31 March 1969 Jimmy Robertson took over the number 7 shirt from John Radford.  It was not until November of the following season that Radford became the regular centre forward wearing 9 – and about that time Robertson faded from the scene totally.

Bertie Mee’s third season ended with Everton 1 Arsenal 0 on 29 April  Arsenal finishing 4th, the club’s highest place in 10 years – although the Swindon defeat at Wembley on 15 March 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 season ended, on 30 April 1969 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) as the new power in football.

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 been relegated once from the first division.

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.  Although they won the FA Cup three times more and had triumphs with the Uefa Cup and League Cup there were no more league titles for Tottenham from then onwards up to the present day (2015).

It may have been Tottenham’s Golden Age, but it had no comparison with Arsenal’s earlier achievements, and as we now know, Arsenal were about to emulate Tottenham’s proudest moment.

Here is the final league table for 1968/9

Pos Team P W D L F A G Av Pts
1 Leeds United 42 27 13 2 66 26 2.538 67
2 Liverpool 42 25 11 6 63 24 2.625 61
3 Everton 42 21 15 6 77 36 2.139 57
4 Arsenal 42 22 12 8 56 27 2.074 56
5 Chelsea 42 20 10 12 73 53 1.377 50
6 Tottenham Hotspur 42 14 17 11 61 51 1.196 45
7 Southampton 42 16 13 13 57 48 1.188 45
8 West Ham United 42 13 18 11 66 50 1.32 44
9 Newcastle United 42 15 14 13 61 55 1.109 44
10 West Bromwich A 42 16 11 15 64 67 0.955 43
11 Manchester United 42 15 12 15 57 53 1.075 42
12 Ipswich Town 42 15 11 16 59 60 0.983 41
13 Manchester City 42 15 10 17 64 55 1.164 40
14 Burnley 42 15 9 18 55 82 0.671 39
15 Sheffield Wednesday 42 10 16 16 41 54 0.759 36
16 Wolverhampton W 42 10 15 17 41 58 0.707 35
17 Sunderland 42 11 12 19 43 67 0.642 34
18 Nottingham Forest 42 10 13 19 45 57 0.789 33
19 Stoke City 42 9 15 18 40 63 0.635 33
20 Coventry City 42 10 11 21 46 64 0.719 31
21 Leicester City 42 9 12 21 39 68 0.574 30
22 Queens Park Rangers 42 4 10 28 39 95 0.411 18

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.

At the end of the 1968/9 season Arsenal played a series of friendlies using their first team.  The friendlies with Watford were a quite a regular occurrence, I imagine this must have been because Arsenal might have used Watford’s ground for reserve games or had some other arrangement.  Indeed Arsenal played Watford again in the warm up tour at the start of the 1969/70 season.  If you know why there were such games please do tell.

Here are the games, crowds and scorers in brackets.  The crowd for the Iceland game is not recorded.

  • 4 May 1969: Reykjavik 1 Arsenal 3.  (Robertson, Radford, Gould)
  • 8 May 1969: Watford 1 Arsenal 2 (15,229) (George 2)
  • 18 May 1969: Floriana  (Malta) 0 Arsenal 4 (9,000) (Robertson, Court, Gould, Roberts)
  • 20 May 1969: Hibernians (Malta) 0 Arsenal 0 (14,000)

The full first team went on the tour, although there were the home nation’s internationals on 3 May and so Bob McNab joined the party later, only playing in the last two games.  Indeed the game on 3 May 1969 was Bob’s last cap of four for England, but the bulk, and indeed the best part of his career with Arsenal was ahead of him.  

The game on 4 May was the first game with the first team both for Charlie George and for Eddie Kelly.  Charlie George played for Islington Schoolboys before joining Arsenal in May 1966 and turned professional in 1968.   Eddie was born in Glasgow and played for local side Possilpark Depot, before joining Arsenal as an apprentice in July 1966; he turned professional 18 months later.

So the end of season tour over, the players went on their summer break and returned in July to start again.  There were four pre-season games:

  • 16 July 1969: Watford 1 Arsenal 2
  • 26 July 1969: Borussia Dortmund 2 Arsenal 2 (9,500) (Gould, Radford)
  • 30 July 1969: Kaiserslautern 2 Arsenal 2 (15,000) (Radford, George)
  • 2 August 1969: Arsenal 3 Swindon Town 0 (21,498) (Robertson, Gould, Radford)

Swindon at home was an odd choice – and interesting that it should have gained a fairly decent crowd.  Swindon, as we have noted, beat Arsenal 3-1 at Wembley on 15 March, in what is endlessly called “one of the biggest upsets of all time”.  Of course every Arsenal defeat by a lower league is called this, but even so, why invite them back?  Again my history is lacking at this point but if you know, please write in.  The one thing that might be related to this is that Swindon, as a third division team, had won the league cup but could not use it as a way of taking a place in the League Cup (something that had been arranged as part of the deal which forced the clubs that initially did not participate, to join in the competition).

So perhaps Arsenal played this match as a way of compensating Swindon for their loss, but quite why it should be Arsenal that compensated Swindon is hard to say.

The League season as we now know, was for Arsenal not what 1969/70 was all about.  It 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 as we have noted and Everton 3rd, so more was expected.

But in the league it 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 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.

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.

Of course Arsenal didn’t know it at the time but the Fairs Cup was nearing the end of its tenure.  Having been launched in 1955 it only continued until 1971.

It had been dreamed up by Ernst Thommen of Switzerland, Ottorino Barassi from Italy, and the FA general secretary Stanley Rous, all of whom later became senior officials at Fifa, and it was instituted with the aim of replacing the friendly games that were regularly played when cities held trade fairs.  Thus the competition was initially tangled up with the rule that restricted entry to one team per city.  In 1971 it was replaced by the Uefa Cup.

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 on 1 October 1969 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.

On 4 October 1969 as Arsenal lost 0-1 at home to Coventry City 1  Geoff Barnett and John Roberts made their league débuts.  The game came in a run of eight games without a victory, and the crowd was a poor 28,877.  Arsenal were never in danger of relegation, but their position in the table was not what anyone but the hard core crowd would put up with.   Despite, or perhaps because of, his team’s failure in two successive league cup final’s Bertie Mee’s stock was sinking.

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. 32000

With the second leg not held until a month later there was time for Arsenal to slip into another although far less well remembered, competition,  for on 17 November 1969 Arsenal beat Wimbledon 2-0 to win London Challenge Cup.

The London Challenge Cup was a competition that Woolwich Arsenal FC had entered from 1908/9 season (when clubs in general were willing to enter any competition that they were offered) in order to play as many games (and thus take as much money from supporters) as possible.

In its early years the competition ran through four rounds with the semi-final and final being played on neutral grounds.  This changed in 1933 when all rounds were played on the ground of one of the participating teams (the home team being the first drawn from the hat, in the conventional style).

From the start, the competition attracted both Football League and Southern League teams plus leading amateur teams – Arsenal for example playing Bromley in 1909 and Tufnell Park in 1914.

There was an unofficial change in the early 1930s when the first division clubs moved over to playing their reserve teams in the competition.  This change was similar to that which Arsène Wenger introduced with the League Cup many years later – the selection of the players was entirely a matter for the clubs and not a formal matter of policy by the London FA who organised the competition.

However change was afoot, and by 1966/7 it became compulsory for all league clubs to enter the Football League Cup (for as noted above, until that date some clubs, including Arsenal, refused to take part).  The London Challenge Cup was thus of even less significance than before, and it finally ceased with the 1973/4 competition.  It was revived in 1990 for non-league teams, before being discontinued once again ten years later.

Arsenal reached the final of this long-running competition on 16 occasions, winning the competition eleven times, with this win over Wimbledon being their last appearance in the final.

On 26 November Arsenal finally returned to the Fairs Cup, and got to play the second leg of the second round tie.  It ended 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.

On 27 December 1969 Jimmy Robertson played his 46th and final Arsenal game before moving on to Ipswich.  Jimmy was the first man to score for Tottenham against Arsenal and Arsenal against Tottenham.  He had been playing outside right, and his place was immediately taken over by Peter Marinello who signed for Arsenal on 2 January 1970 (although some sources quote a date later in that week). It was the first time Arsenal had paid £100,000 for a player.  

Marinello’s debut came on 10 January and he dutifully scored but it did neither him nor the club much good.  Arsenal lost the match 1-2 away to Manchester United, one of ten consecutive league games for Arsenal without of a win in which they lost four and drew six.  As for Marinello personally, it was his only goal in 14 games.  The general feeling was he simply didn’t deliver what the hype had promised.

And so with the FA Cup having started with a 1-1 home draw with second division Blackpool, and a replay arranged rather unhelpfully for two days after the next Fairs Cup game, Arsenal played Rouen in the second leg of the third  round…

  • 13 January Arsenal 1 Rouen 0  (Sammels)  38018

There was a feeling through the game that Arsenal were on thin ice here, but they survived to make it into round four.

15 January 1970 saw Arsenal defeated away to Blackpool of the second divison in a replay in the 3rd round of the FA Cup 2-3.  It was the last appearance as a player for Terry Neill (who of course later went on to be Arsenal manager).

As always during the course of the year, sad news arrived concerning the passing of at least one Arsenal old boy whose name was cherished.  So it was on 7 February 1970 we heard that Frank Moss had died.   He had moved from being a second division goalkeeper to being one of the top keepers in Arsenal’s history.  He played 137 times in the golden era between 1931 and 1937.

14 February 1970 saw the last senior appearance of Bobby Gould in a 2-2 away draw with Everton.  George and Radford each scored.  Arsenal were poor not not poor enough to make them look like relegation candidates, although that was more to do with the failure of clubs like Ipswich, Southampton, Sunderland and Crystal Palace all of whom seemed quite incapable of making a prolonged effort at climbing out of the relegation zone.

Finally 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 – the and the subsequent triumphs of 1970/1 – showed perhaps more than any other how fast things can change in football.

So what happened to make Arsenal’s fortune change?  Bertie Mee didn’t make a dramatic move but over the next few games McLintock moved into the centre of defence, Simpson returned from injury, and Charlie George, who had been used sporadically, got a long run to the end of the season at number 10.

Looking back at the number of players who played their final Arsenal game around this time it is clear that Bertie Mee knew that he had to make changes – but he made them slowly.  And perhaps the biggest help he got was the lack of injuries sustained in the following season by which time he by and large knew his best team.

On 28 February 1970 we had another last game – the final appearance of David Court.  He had made 175 league appearances for Arsenal and went on to play for Luton Town but returned to Arsenal in 1996 as Assistant Head of Youth Development.

But time moved on and so the Fairs Cup came around once more.

  • 11 March: Dinamo Bacau 0 Arsenal 2  (Sammels Radford) 20,000.  Fairs cup fourth round 1st leg

At last there was a result to warm the hearts of the faithful.  This tie now looked extremely winnable, with the second leg to come at home, and the idea began to arise that the club had been saving itself for these European games.

Two days later the season-long exodus continued as on 13 March  Jimmy Robertson was transferred to Ipswich.  In his two seasons he had started 45 first division games and scored seven goals.

Then, the following day and just three days after the Fairs Cup game, on 14 March, we had Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1.  That made it two wins in a row after the 10 consecutive games without a win, and brought some relief in the league. Sammels and Radford got the goals.

Next up came the Fairs Cup, and what a match that turned out to be…

  • 18 March:  Arsenal 7 Dinamo Bacau 1   (Radford 2, George 2, Sammels 2, Graham) 35,342

Suddenly the season was taking on a much brighter hue.  We were winning in the league again (ok only two games but we were still winning) and now we were slaughtering the opposition in Europe (and yes it was just one match, but even so…)

The positive feelings continued to the weekend as on 21 March Arsenal defeated Southampton at the Dell 0-2.   Sammels and George got the goals.

Then we had Easter weekend, and on 28 March Arsenal 2 Wolverhampton 2, to make it four without defeat after that dreadful run of ten without a win.  Graham got both goals.

Two days later Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 at Highbury to make it four league wins in five.  It seemed like an Easter miracle in itself, the club rising from its death bed.  Of course no one in the press could say such a thing, but the relief around the club was palpable.  Radford and George got the goals.

Naturally the run didn’t last forever an a defeat at Ipswich followed on 31 March as Charlie George scored what was to be his last league goal until 1 February 1971.  During that time Arsenal missed his goal scoring prowess, but not enough to stop a trophy from being taken – at last.

Now it was back to the Fairs Cup.

  • 8 April 1970: Arsenal 3 Ajax 0.  Fairs Cup semi final first leg  (George 2, Sammels)   46,271 came to Highbury
  • 15 April 1970: Arsenal lost the return game to Ajax 0-1 but won overall 3-1 to reach the club’s first European final.  32,000 saw the game.

On 21 April 1970 Sammy Nelson made his international début for N Ireland in the Home Nations game again England.  He went on to play 51 times for the Province, all while with Arsenal except for the last four (when he was with Brighton).

While earlier in the season there were gaps as long as a month between the two legs of a tie, now the matches seemed to appear with indecent haste as we then rushed straight into the final…

  • 22 April 1970: Anderlecht 3 Arsenal 1, Fairs Cup final 1st leg.  Ray Kennedy scored with a late header to bring a glimmer of hope with the away goal.  However so unused was everyone to Arsenal winning any trophy, it was widely thought that Anderlecht would see out the second leg to take the Fairs Cup.   37000 saw the game.

But Frank McLintock had other ideas and he issued a post-match rallying cry at the press conference which raised the belief, and all the positive feelings that had emerged since the end of the 10 match barren run returned.

And so Anderlecht came to Highbury for the second leg six days later.

  • 28 April 1970 Fairs Cup Final; our first Euro trophy and the first Arsenal trophy in 17 years.  Arsenal 3 Anderlecht 0 (4-3 overall). Kelly, Radford and Sammels scored.  51,612 came to the game – although many who were there consider that the figure must have been higher.

The team for this monumental match was

Wilson

Storey McLintock Simpson McNab

Sammels Graham

Armstrong Radford George

Many people put the emphasis on the late goal in the first leg as the key to Arsenal’s first European title, but equally one could say it was Eddie Kelly’s early goal at Highbury which flooded the stadium with belief.

John Radford levelled the aggregate score with a header in the second half but then Mulder reminded Arsenal that Anderlecht was still here by hitting a post.   Finally Jon Sammels got the winner and Anderlecht had nothing left in the tank.

At the final whistle the north bank and clock end emptied as everyone wanted to be on the pitch.  Captain Frank McLintock finally had a trophy to his name and Arsenal had won a cup in Europe and their first trophy aside from the single Charity Shield, since 1953 – a wait of 17 years.

It had indeed been a bleak time for the entire highlights of that 17 year period was the gaining of a single 3rd place in the league once, and being beaten in the league cup final twice, once by Swindon Town.

Overall in that 17 year period we had finished in the league 14th, 13th (twice), 12th (three times), 11th, 10th, 9th (twice), 8th, 7th (twice), 5th (twice), 4th and 3rd.  It was hardly even a run of glorious near misses.  In seven of those seasons we had actually let in more goals than we had scored.  True we had never actually flirted seriously with relegation – we had to wait for Bertie Mee to achieve that – but it was real mid-table mediocrity year after year.

Despite the wild celebrations this wasn’t quite the end of the season, for curiously the last match, played on 2 May 1970 ended Tottenham 1 Arsenal 0.   Arsenal were a disappointing 12th but it is doubtful that any Arsenal fans really noticed. I think we were still celebrating.  

What of course no one knew, and indeed few historians have noted subsequently was that just one year and one day later the self-same game was repeated, and the score was repeated, except in reverse.  But the big difference was that this time Arsenal won the match and the league.

Our goal scoring achievement of just 51 goals was the lowest during the whole long non-trophy era.

In the end Arsenal were just one point away from Tottenham and a long way away from relegation of which there were a few mutterings during the ten match barren spell – but that negative run would have had to continue for quite a bit longer for relegation to have been a real possibility – as noted above the clubs below us saw to that.

Elsewhere in football, as the leagues all finished the second division was particularly notable in that Aston Villa managed to end up being relegated to the Third Division.  What made this so interesting was that just 12 years later Villa won the European Cup.   Also relegated for the first time to the Third Division was Preston North End.

Back in the first division Leeds United had for some time been touted as being the first team that would win the triple: both cups and the league.   In the end they won none of them, leaving pundits suggesting that no team would ever win the triple, and indeed it was highly unlikely that any club would ever repeat Tottenham’s performance of winning the double.  The league, with all the additional European games, was now just too competitive.

At the other end of the table Bradford Park Avenue were voted out of the Football League being replaced by Cambridge United.

And so for most sports writers, and indeed the fans, that was that, other than the small matter of seeing if England could hold onto the World Cup.

But it was still not all over for Arsenal’s players, as they were now committed to a three match post-season tour.  Once again, as with the pre-season tour, it was pretty much the first team throughout, but with a few substitutes used en route.

  • 5 March 1970: Folkestone 0 Arsenal 4 (4000) (Kennedy 2, Rice, Graham)
  • 10 May 1970: Omonia (Cyprus) 3 Arsenal 4 (6000) (Armstrong, George 3).
  • 13 May 1970 Appollon (Cyprus) 0 Arsenal 2 (Marinello, George).

During the rest of the summer there were two transfers out.  First on 3 June  Bobby Gould left and moved to Wolverhampton.  In all he played for ten clubs, but usually only for a short spell in each case.  The 65 league games he had with Arsenal was only exceeded by the 82 he had for Coventry.

Then on 26 June 1970 Terry Neill joined Hull as player manager.  He returned later of course as manager with Arsenal, and won the FA Cup.  He was also at the 2014 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull and interviewed at half time as a man with connections with both sides.  That interview was perhaps not one of his finest moments and revealed a certain negativity and hostility towards Arsenal, perhaps left over from his ultimate departure from the club.

So that was it.  At last, at very long last, a trophy for Arsenal.  And despite the desperate position in the league there was a feeling that having had two defeats in cup finals in the two previous seasons, maybe this was now the moment it was all going to change.

The side had several stalwarts: Radford, Sammels, Simpson and Storey had all played 39 league games each.  Bob Wilson looked a great keeper and would have played more than the 28 league games had he not broken his arm. And Geoff Barnett in his 11 games looked like a fair enough back up keeper.

Charlie George had emerged as a stunning talent and had made 21 starts and seven appearances as the one allowable substitute in games.   His six league goals looked like just the beginning.

Elsewhere Armstrong had only played 17 games but ended the season on a high, and that forward line of Armstrong, Radford and George looked to be the difference between this Arsenal and the Arsenal of previous years.

George Graham too had looked at his best and a fixture in the side – he played 36 league games and scored seven.  McNab looked a powerful season-long full back, playing 37 games and actually scoring two goals, and McLintock gave total stability to midfield.

But on the negative side, if there was something that was in desperate need of an urgent fix it was the goal scoring.  The top two teams scored 72 and 84 goals in the league, Arsenal managed just 51, with several clubs below Arsenal scoring more, and Arsenal managing just 11 more than bottom of the league Sheffield Wednesday.

Marinello had been thought to be part of the answer but although he had gained a run of 14 games near the end of the season, he really had not impressed after his first game.  It looked like a case of a young man being influenced by almost unprecedented levels of hype.

The list of top five scorers in the league shows exactly where the problem was:

  • Radford – 12
  • Sammels – 8
  • Graham – 7
  • George – 6
  • Armstrong – 3

So we wondered, would next season be Charlie George’s great leap forwards?  Or could someone be brought in?   No, was the answer to both, as it turned out.  Charlie sadly missed much of the season with an injury, but also, what we didn’t realise at the time was that we already had our man.  Ray Kennedy started two games and came on twice as a substitute, and scored one goal during the season.  I’m not too sure that many people really noticed him that much.

But we also hoped for a return to fitness of Armstrong.  Two serious injuries had knocked he out of the team, and is was noticeable that we did less without him than with him.  If only he could stay fit…

Thus it was:

  • 12th in the league with a poor scoring record
  • FA Cup: knocked out in the third round by a second division team
  • League Cup: knocked out in the third round by the eventual league champions
  • Fairs Cup: winners!

For the last eight years the league champions had all been from the north:

  • Everton (twice)
  • Leeds Utd
  • Manchester City
  • Manchester Utd (twice)
  • Liverpool (twice)

Every one of those teams finished above Arsenal in the 1969/1970 league season.  Indeed Arsenal weren’t even the top team in London, with Chelsea and Tottenham finishing above us, and perennial strugglers West Ham and Crystal Palace finishing below.

I don’t think, as the season ended, any of us really thought we might make up the gap and challenge for the League title next season.  But retaining the Fairs Cup, or maybe getting our hands on the FA Cup (last won in 1950) or the League Cup (never won by Arsenal) wouldn’t go amiss.

How little we knew.

Coming next in this series: Arsenal in the 70s.  The entry to heaven.

Already published in this series of in-depth season reviews: Herbert Chapman’s first year at Arsenal, analysed as never before.

3 comments to Arsenal in the 70s, part 1: the re-birth of the club. 1969/70

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Thanks for this Tony , a very good and reflective piece . And just before I started to follow the club.A quick catch for me .

  • Patrick Harrington

    Charlie George scored against Everton at the start of 1970-71.

  • Geoff Bartley

    My son has been badgering me to write an article about the fairs cup, the start of modern arsenal, no need, great work tony, i cant beat your incites, just anderlecht hit the post late, and, the away goal rule was only decided last minute, other than that, a fantastic article .
    Do you remember the 4,4 draw with spurs in the 60s, 66 thousand, i think 70 were in highbury for anderlecht, i went with my late dad, east stand, i was 18 and desperate to be on the north bank, on reflection, i saw everything, and never saw the laundry end so packed, thanks for the memories tony

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