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GCR Books

Arsenal in the 70s: Part 11: July-Dec 73, as the world falls apart.

 

 

By Tony Attwood

This page has been modified to correct the report of the Barcelona game.

Before this season started, the question was, could Arsenal get back to their best?

The club had appeared in cup finals for five consecutive years, as well as being runners up last year.  Could this be the year for that the disappointments of losing the cup final and coming second in the league could be set aside, and another trophy added to the trophy room.

In terms of Arsenal, the dominance of Bertie Mee over the playing side of the club continued, although there was a little light appearing, as Ken Friar who had been with the club since the age of 12, became Company Secretary, a post that he held for ten years before becoming MD of Arsenal.

The pre-season started on 1 July 1973 with Richie Powling signing signed as a professional.  He made occasional appearances until 1975/6 when he played 29 games.  But the arrival of Willie Young in the centre, combined with awful luck regarding injuries curtailed his career.

Later than month, on 23 July 1973 Liam Brady signed as a pro for Arsenal.  He went on to make 235 appearances scoring 43 goals.  Sadly he joined the team just as a serious decline set in, and left in 1980 for Juventus.  His one trophy with the club was the 1979 FA Cup.

But July was also the time of a departure as on 26 July 1973 after all the hope and hype Peter Marinello was sold to Portsmouth for £80,000, having never reached the potential he was believed to have.

The following day on 27 July John Matthews joined as an apprentice.  He became a professional in 1973 and then made his first appearance in the league in the opening match of the 1975/6 season.  

Sadly, before the season began the club recorded the passing on of Freddie Cox, aged just 52, on 7 August.  He won the cup with Arsenal in 1950.  After retiring from playing he returned as a manager, winning promotion with Gillingham.  After working with Bournemouth he retired from football in 1970.

Arsenal began the new season with a two game tour of Norway.  The results did not raise much excitement among those who found the scores buried deep in the late editions of the papers.

  • 11 August: Brann 0 Arsenal 2 (Ball, Radford)
  • 14 August: Frigg 1 Arsenal 0

These two games were followed by the short-lived notion of an FA Cup play off for third place…

  • 18 August Arsenal 1 Wolverhampton 3 (Hornsby)

Finally continuing the long association of Arsenal and Rangers (who at this time still owned shares in Arsenal), there was a friendly reviving the institution started by Herbert Chapman as the Game of Champions.  This time the match celebrated Rangers’ centenary.

And so the season proper began on 25 August with Arsenal 3 Manchester United 0, in front of a very satisfactory crowd of 51,501.

The Arsenal team was

Wilson, Rice, McNab, Price, Blockley, Simpson, Armstrong, Ball, Radford (Hornsby), Kennedy, George.

What is interesting is that Wilson, Rice, McNab, Simpson, Armstrong, Radford, Kennedy and George had all played 17 or more games in the league campaign of the Double season.  So nearly three quarters of the team was the same in 1973 as 1970.

Arsenal were stunning, but Man U (who had finished 18th in the league in the season before) were awful.  Even United’s manager Tommy Docherty admitted his club had problems, and that Arsenal could have scored eight.  Still he also thought that Man U could have got three, which suggests his vision was slightly impaired.

He was more on target in saying that “you have to win the ball before you start winning games” and that was indeed Manchester’s problem.  With only George Graham and Alex Stepney making a game of it Arsenal’s ploy was simple.  Kennedy and Radford pushed up while Charlie George was given the freedom to left, right, or even ahead of the main two.  Indeed so effective was this that the press suggested that on the basis of this performance Arsenal were back on the road to league success.

Kennedy scored on 90 seconds, made the second for Radford, and the third for Ball.  Price was the other highlight.  He looked like he had been playing next to Ball for forever.

Sadly we were all brought down to earth the following Tuesday when Arsenal played the team we had beaten into third place last season.   This time round it ended Arsenal 1 Leeds Utd 2, 47,429 in the crowd.  Price dropped to the bench to make way for Storey.  

After 65 seconds Radford’s 35 yard throw was back headed by Blockley.  It hit McQueen, rebounded to Blockley and he shot fiercely into the goal.  But thereafter Arsenal missed chance after chance, Leeds weathered the storm, and by the end they had even given up their traditional habit of committing a foul each time the opposition had the ball.

Radford almost scored at the very start of the second half but his miss by a matter of inches proved costly, and within minutes Leeds equalised. Lorrimer blasted a free kick straight through the wall and between Wilson’s hands.   Matters continued: McQueen blocked Radford in a manner that everyone saw as a foul save the ref, George missed a sitter and finally Madely took a shot which bounced off two defenders and into the net.

From then on Leeds shut up shop, and Arsenal had no way back.

League tables after just two games were not published in the 1970s, but had they been, on this occasion it would have shown Arsenal in 10th.

Only one of the bottom seven at that moment was eventually relegated.

On 28 August  John Matthews moved from being an apprentice to being a professional.  He made his debut one year later, and went on to play in 45 league games before leaving in 1978.

September opened with an away draw, 1-1 at Newcastle Utd in front of 28,697, Charlie George getting the goal. Radford dropping out of the team.

 

Brian Chambers, who came on as a sub suggested to the press afterwards that Arsenal were lucky to get a point, but the truth was that without Macdonald and Tudor Newcastle’s threat up front was limited, and Arsenal should have got more from the game.  

Bob Wilson was beaten by a fine shot in the 3rd minute from McDermott, but after that he returned to his earlier form.

Four minutes after the Newcastle goal, Charlie George hit a sensational strike from 25 yards to equal the scoring – and that was that.  The press still believed Arsenal would be one of the strongest challengers for the season, but one win, one draw and one defeat was not quite what everyone was hoping for.

And then, on 4 September we had what seemed to be the obligatory big defeat near the start of each season: Sheffield United 5 Arsenal 0.  The crowd was 27,839.

It had been 0-5 against Stoke in 1970, 1-5 against Wolves in 1971, 0-5 vs Derby in 1972.  The only thing to be said was, better give it over with sooner rather than later.

Tony Currie was the architect, and he even sat on the ball, as Alan Ball had done 21 months before at Bramall Lane.  United got four in the first 17 minutes, which meant it was all over with the game hardly begun. But at least it didn’t get worse during the following 53 minutes, until Sheffield got their fifth on the hour.

Indeed for Sheffield, everything they touched went in.  For Arsenal everything they tried either hit the post or found McAllister making save after save as he played the game of his life.

It was, in short, a freak result and a freak match – but it meant that for four seasons in a row Arsenal had had a horror match (five if one counts the final game of last season). 

Now the theory was that this would be the wake up call Arsenal needed.  After all, after the defeat to Stoke in the Double season Arsenal had gone on a 14 match unbeaten run.

But sadly it didn’t work out that way as on 8 September the result was in many ways worse: Arsenal 0 Leicester City 2.  The fact that only 28,558 turned up showed that some fans were already getting the feel of what was coming.

As for Leicester, managed by ex-Arsenal man Jimmy Bloomfield, they could hardly believe their luck at not only avoiding an all-out Arsenal assault, but actually winning the game.

It should never have been so, for Charlie George played a stunning game, running endlessly, piercing the defence with amazing passes, shooting on sight…But after McAllister in the last game Arsenal were now up against Shilton at his best.

Alan Ball, who was booked for questioning a linesman’s decision, claimed that referee Clive Thomas had a vendetta against him – noting that the ref had booked him four times in three years.  Several other players from different clubs took up the theme in interviews, but the issue was then let pass by the press who collaborated in not engaging in any serious questioning of referees’ ability.

Eddie Kelly also got himself in trouble for throwing his shirt down when he was substituted.  Some of the more excitable gentlemen of the press suggested that the club had declared he would never play for Arsenal again.  Arsenal said no such thing, and Kelly actually played 35 games in the season.

Things were now getting serious and so it was with much relief that Arsenal beat Sheffield Utd 1-0 on 11 September.  The crowd was 29,434, with Kennedy getting the goal.

But the fact that it took them 80 minutes to score suggested the nerves were still showing within the team.  As it was, Armstrong took a corner, Ball headed on and Kennedy jabbed it home.  You could touch the relief in the stadium.  Alan Ball, not one to miss a trick, sat on the ball and pretended to do up his shoelaces.

Eddie Kelly took the opportunity to point out to the press how wrong they had been last time around – he walked onto the pitch with his shirt off, and then proceeded to put it on.  Everyone got the joke (except the press who were outraged by what they called “petulance”).

As for Sheffield they quickly realised what they were up against and drew everyone back behind the ball, believing that frustrating Arsenal could be a way to grab a point.  It nearly worked – until ten minutes from the end.

Suddenly the mood had changed and on 15 September the result reflected this with the match ending Norwich City 0 Arsenal 4, 29,278 in attendance.

Kelly retained his place in the team, McNab, George, Ball (penalty) and Kennedy getting the goals.

Bobby Campbell replaced Steve Burtenshaw (who had gone to Sheffield Wednesday just days before) as first team coach, and Arsenal welcomed the ex-QPR coach by getting back to the form that was seen in the opening match. Confidence returned by the bucketload, but it was one of those games where the referee lost control early on, by not punishing initial “just to let you know I’m here” tackles that defenders like to hand out.  When he did get going Armstrong and McNab went into the book for offences that were only just worthy of a free kick.

With what was undoubtedly a sense of irony, Charlie George, back from injury, scored the first, and then went around acting as peacemaker, telling anyone who might be listening to calm down.  You could see the smirk on his face from the other end of the ground.

Arsenal then made it three wins in a row on 22 September beating Stoke City 2-1 at Highbury.  The crowd crept above the 30,000 mark, reaching 30,578, Ball and Radford getting the goals

The Match of the Day producers’ desire to show anyone but Arsenal was seen in full relief in the highlights of this match, as much of the time allocated to the report was spent reviewing Geoff Hurst’s pass which set up the equaliser.  Anyone turning on half way through the programme must have thought it was a tribute show to the only man to score a hattrick in a world cup final (as we were told over and over again).  It was a fine pass, but Radford’s goal in the third minute was an absolute stunner of a shot, as was his pass to Alan Ball for the winner, and both deserved as much coverage.

TV notwithstanding there were significant positive signs in this game as the midfield began to reassert itself and look like a coherent unit willing and able to supply the forward line with the ammunition needed to see off defence minded teams.  The only sadness was yet another injury to Charlie George which took him from the pitch in the second half.

Charlie was however available for the final game of the month, on 29 September.  However he was substituted before the end, and the game ended Everton 1 Arsenal 0, 31,359 in the crowd.

Alan Ball claimed that this was the worst game he had ever played in, and that he had a stiff neck from watching the ball pass through the clouds for much of the game.  In short Everton experimented with an early version of the approach that later made Wimbledon famous.

Unfortunately Charlie got yet another knock and had to leave the pitch early, which deprived Arsenal of their wild card. It also left them quite unsure of how to cope with this industrial approach to football.

With the defence uncertain of where or when the ball might land from its high trajectory, Bob Wilson found himself the more active of the two keepers.  The goal itself came from McLaughlin, his first in English football, but that was not really the central point.  What really mattered was that such a style of playing proved successful.  

It was not long before others followed suit.  And to think Arsenal had started the previous season with lofty talk about playing the Ajax style of Total Football.

As at the end of August, Arsenal were winning as many as they were losing.  Instead of a revival back to the standards of 1970 to 1972 they were now back to the sort of results that had peppered the Swindon and Wright era.

And if that defeat to Everton were not enough to remind us of Arsenal’s frailty on 2 October in the second round of the League Cup the result was an appalling Arsenal 0 Tranmere Rovers 1.

The crowd of 20,337, must have expected a feast of goals against the middle-ranking Division 3 side, especially when Arsenal put out its first team:

Wilson, Rice, McNab, Storey, Blockley, Simpson, Armstrong, Ball (Chambers), Radford, Kennedy, Kelly.

The league cup had hardly been Arsenal’s favourite competition what with Swindon and the like but this was a low point, even by Arsenal’s own low standards in the competition.  

Arsenal were arrogant for half an hour, stroking the ball around, waiting for huge gaps to open up in a naive defence, but it never happened.  Tranmere player-managed by Ron Yeats of Liverpool scored on the half hour and after that there was no way back.  

That Tranmere used the “energetic” tackle as a tactic was to be expected – that is what third division sides do – and since these were third division players lots of the tackles were late – that too is to be expected.  As for the Tranmere defence the notion of playing the ball out of defence has never been part of the game, and the crowd saw exactly where Everton had got their new tactic from.

Worse still, Ball went off with a twisted knee – something that threatened to keep him out for a while.

4 October 1973 Wilf Rostron signed a professional contract with Arsenal and played 17 games with the club between this date and 1977, when he moved to Sunderland.  He later played in Watford’s most successful side in 1982, but his impact on Arsenal was small, at a time when Arsenal desperately needed a huge impact.

That only 23,915 turned up for the home league game on 6 October against Birmingham, showed what the fans thought.  That Arsenal won just 1-0 suggested they were right.

But those who were there had a treat (although perhaps they didn’t know it).  It was Liam Brady made his first appearance for Arsenal as a substitute for Blockley, and such was his impact and the impression he had already made in training games and reserve matches that the talk was that he would be retained for next week’s game against Tottenham.

Even the jaded and biased pressmen knew something special was on the horizon, as the Express ran the banner headline across its back page, “Liam can set Arsenal free”, with three separate pictures of him in action.  It was one of the most celebrated first-appearances of all time.

Liam (a “17 year old cheeky leprechaun”) (a “bundle of rags in a shirt and shorts that were two sizes too big for him”) came on after 17 minutes   Afterwards Bobby Campbell said, “I call that left foot of his “The Claw”. He could unlock a prison cell door with it.”

It was (of course) Brady who set up Arsenal’s winning move with a cross field pass to Armstrong who passed to Radford who passed to Kennedy who (of course) scored.  It just had to be.

And indeed Brady got his first start in a league game the following week away to Tottenham.  41,855 turned up at White Hart Lane to see Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-0.

Arsenal never got into their stride, mostly because Martin Peters, ahead of the midweek internationals, chose this occasion to play one of the games of his life. He took the game by the scruff of the neck and ran it, prompting Chivers to score the killer goal in the 89th minute after Arsenal had held firm, waiting for the chance to hit Tottenham on the break for an equaliser that in truth they deserved.  

With Ball and Blockley both out with their legs in plaster Arsenal patched together a side, but it was devastated by further injuries during the game to Radford (hamstring) and George (ankle).

The star of Arsenal’s show was Wilson, but he had no chance with either goal. 

On the following Monday, 15 October, English football was hit by a sensation, as Brian Clough and Peter Taylor left Derby County following a dispute with the club’s directors.

Derby had won the league in 1972 and Clough and Taylor had shown what they were made of, and this episode was the start of a life-long tirade by Clough against club chairmen and directors.  The Derby fans were mutinous.

Two days later England, whom the press had confidently predicted would win the 1974 world cup, failed to qualify for the competition after a 1-1 draw with Poland.

The next day, 16 October Arsenal played Barcelona away… and lost 0-1.  The game was arranged for the benefit of Johan Cruyff who had transferred to Barcelona, but at this time was not registered to play for the club.  Barcelona wanted to find suitable opposition to play against a week before his league debut, and obviously none of the major Spanish teams would help out a rival, so they approached Arsenal to play a friendly.

Arsenal agreed, providing Barcelona would play a re-match at Highbury in March the following year, for George Armstrong’s testimonial.  Barcelona had won the league in 1960, but not since, and were trying to build a new team to overtake Real Madrid.  In the intervening years they had mostly come second or third, but had on two occasions dropped to sixth – hence the bringing in of Cruyff.

But this did not mean that the Spanish League was more balanced at that time than it is now.  In those years without Barcelona winning the title, Real Madrid had won the league nine times, Atlético Madrid three times and Valencia once.

Back in the England and back in the first division, life was more prosaic as on 20 October Arsenal drew 1-1 with Ipswich at Highbury, the crowd of 28,344 showing that the fans were still not convinced. Batson having come on as a sub in the Tottenham game, kept his place, deposing Brady.

But with the injury list growing Arsenal could not find the old drive and panache needed to break down a defence minded Ipswich – although there was pride to be had in the fact that nine of the Arsenal starting 11 were lads who joined the club from school.  

Ipswich took an early lead and then retreated into the 11 man defence formation that was becoming a regular sight at Highbury.  But Arsenal kept looking and Armstrong (who took 10 corners in the second half alone) combined with Simpson 8 minutes from time to get the equaliser that was the least they deserved.

The problem was however that without Ball, Arsenal struggled to find the way to unlock the packed defence.  A certain young Irishman might have been able to do it, but he was back in the reserves.

On  23 October Dave Mackay resigned as Nottingham Forest manager, and went back to his old club Derby.  At the time of course no one quite knew what that might mean in the long run.

Meanwhile Arsenal were still trying to get themselves back together but a 0-2 away defeat at QPR on 27 October in front of 29,115 showed that things were certainly not right at Arsenal.  This time Batson was joined by Powling.

It was billed as the battle to see who was top dog in London, and the result was hailed as Arsenal’s latest flop.  Even the reserves were now in 19th in the Combination having mustered only nine goals from 11 games.  From where would the relief come?

Arsenal played with a 4-4-2, soon to become fashionable, but at this time derided by press and TV as hopelessly defensive,   In fact there were only 14 goals in 10 first division games – and the general consensus was that this was the fault of Alf Ramsey’s England tactics which was probably right.

With Francis and Bowles shining for QPR, and Arsenal again patching together a team amidst the injuries, it was surprising Arsenal held on for 55 minutes, but then after QPR took the lead Arsenal never looked likely to find a way back. 

On the same day 27 October 1973Gordon Rahere Hoare died.  In his football career he had played for 13 clubs and won a gold medal playing for England in the 1912 Olympics.  I don’t think anyone at Arsenal commemorated him – but that was how the club had got back then.

And so now my habit thus far of printing the top 10 of the league table must be abandoned, for otherwise I would be omitting Arsenal.

On 1 November 1973 the Brian Clough saga which had gripped the headlines on both the front and page of the papers returned to football after accepting an offer to take charge of Brighton & Hove Albion of the third division.  It was beyond any doubt Clough’s way of telling Derby County’s directors what he thought of them.

3 November saw Arsenal’s poor league season continue with a 0-2 home defeat to Liverpool, with a crowd of 39,837.   Powling played in mid-field, there was no room for Brady, and Batson was the sub.  

The gossip however was about Tommy Smith, who having been dropped from the Liverpool team, walked out of his side’s hotel, and missed the match.  Shankley in his last season as Liverpool manager, was apparently not amused.

Smith’s omission came because Liverpool, who had not won away all season, changed their format, as Shankley moved Hughes from midfield into Smith’s position at the back.  It worked.  

From Arsenal’s perspective it was another poor defeat, and not scoring with both Radford and Kennedy on display was not good news. This was now 3 defeats and a draw in the last four.  It was not a happy time to be at Highbury.

So insignificant had Arsenal now become in the greater scheme of things that most of the Sunday and Monday papers failed to cover the game.

On 5 November Arsenal played a friendly away to Portsmouth and lost 2-1 Radford getting the goal.   The match was to commemorate Portsmouth’s 75th season in the Football League.  8859 turned up.

However there was a slight upturn against Manchester City on 10 November as Arsenal won 2-1 at Maine Road with 31,041 in attendance.  This time the squad included Hornsby, who duly rewarded his appearance by scoring.  Kelly go the other.

But in reality this was a terrible Man City team and only two things they tried in this game went right.  They managed to kick off as per the laws of football,  and on 82 minutes Lee took a perfect free kick from 25 yards out and scored.

Otherwise it was comic-book stuff.  Ball returned for Arsenal for the first time in five matches, and although clearly only half fit he ran the game.  The Arsenal back four were utterly in control throughout with really breaking sweat.

On 10 minutes Kelly went for a jog forwards.  The entire City team retreated in horror at the audacity of the move and 20 yards out, feeling he’d had enough of this sort of thing, Kelly took a shot, and scored.  City looked at each other as if to ask, “is he allowed to do that?” and after due consultation found that he was.  For the second Armstrong took a corner, McNab headed on, Ball took a swipe and Hornsby prodded home.

It was a good victory, but everyone knew it would rarely be this easy again.  

And so it proved on 17 November with a goalless home draw against Chelsea. 38,677 came to Highbury for the London derby, with Hornsby keeping his place as the one new face among the old men.

On 20 November Arsenal played another away mid-season friendly, this time against Mechelen of Belgium.  I’m sorry to say I can’t find any reason for this game being organised at this time.  But we do know it was a 2-2 draw with Hornsby getting both goals.

Maybe it was to give the players a break from the deteriorating conditions at home, but this was a time of the UK in crisis.  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 mine, 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 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.

As a result there were no evening games, and saturday matches kicked off at 2.15pm.  This was a novelty for a November game at Highbury, and was combined with Arsenal seeming to think that the previous week’s result meant that they could win without thinking, and without inspiration.  They tried it again against Chelsea on 17 November at Highbury, and the result was an unwatchable game.  True there was entertainment in the first 10 minutes as a Ball-Rice-George-Ball combination ended with a shot that didn’t do justice to the build up.  Then Chelsea tried the same, ending with a Britton shot that went wide.

Later Hornsby ran free, but forgot to power into his shot.  Armstrong ran forever, as always, and George had a couple of shots, and a move just on half time involving himself as instigator and finisher, with Hornsby, Kennedy and Kelly filling in between, but as the second half revealed nothing else happened. They could have kicked off at 3pm and played the second half in the dark – no one would have minded.

This fiasco was followed by another London derby on 24 November: West Ham United, away.  Arsenal won 3-1 with 28,287 in the crowd, and Hornsby keeping Radford out of the team.

Ball got two and Charlie George the third but in truth it was the awfulness of West Ham rather than the silky qualities of Arsenal which gained this victory on a desperately windy day that made ball control almost impossible.  West Ham fans shouted “Greenwood out” and the Upton Park manager of 13 years was not helped either by the fact that they had won only one game in 17, or by the fact that despite the conditions all three Arsenal goals were stunners.  

George scored the first, a curling shot from 25 yards, having taken a free kick from Kelly, but the West Ham reply (which saw the ball bizarrely held up in the swirling wind and deceiving every player on the pitch as it dropped into the goal) was pure fortune.

In the second half Arsenal went over to the counter attack, and Ball got the second after Armstrong had galloped away, and put in the perfect cross to his feet.  In the 88th minute Kennedy ran to the touchline, squared for Ball whose shot had not even entered the net before the West Ham defence started arguing among themselves as to who should have marking the little man.

That Leeds (who had not won the league since 1969) were having a remarkable season could not be denied.  Arsenal had improved a little, but although it was fun to see Chelsea in 13th, Tottenham 16th, and West Ham 21st the fact is Arsenal were now the second team in London – behind QPR.

On 1 December Arsenal played out a 2-2 draw with Coventry at Highbury in front of just 22,340.  The team was now Arsenal’s standard line up: Wilson, Rice, McNab, Storey, Simpson, Kelly (Nelson), Ball, George, Hornsby, Kennedy, Armstrong.

But the scorers were unexpected: Hornsby, who was clearly making an impression and Nelson.

And amazingly, given the awfulness of the recent Chelsea game, this game was so enjoyable that the teams got a rousing round of applause and cheering on the final whistle, even though the result was not as required.

Two stars emerged: Nelson and Wilson, the former near the start of his career, the latter nearing the end.

The pitch was unplayable, with one end thawed out and the other (protected by the shade of the North Bank stand) a frozen waste.  Even the kick off was held up for three minutes as players, having seen which end they were defending, decided to change their boots, and then put on other boots to replace the other boots.  The ref was patient.

No one could keep their feet, and in such conditions Cartwright’s decision to shoot at his colleague Alderson and then see where the ball might end up was as good a ploy as any. It went in the net.  For the second Cross stuck out his stomach to edge the ball home.  At least stomachs tend to stay where wanted, which is more than could be said for feet.

Two down, Arsenal took a long hard look at matters and decided the only solution was a straight run through the middle, not for any tactical reasons, but rather because the route was shorter and there was less chance of falling over. Hornsby got the first just before half time running on to a Nelson pass.  For the second Kennedy, his route forward blocked, rolled the ball back to Nelson who simply belted it straight into the net.  After that everyone focussed on not breaking a leg, but the crowd were satisfied.

Then came a sight not seen since the days of Billy Wright – fewer than 20,000 in Highbury for a first team match.   It happened on 4 December and the game ended Arsenal 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2.  The crowd was 13,482.

The reason for the smallness of the gathering was easy to see – the match was played on a Tuesday, kick off 2.15pm (because of the government restrictions).

Both clubs appealed for the match to be played later in the season but for reasons that never became apparent the league said no.  

Matters were made gloomier by the news that Arsenal had been fined £2000 for making illegal approaches to two Phil Parkes and Gerry Francis of QPR.  It is an issue that is hardly mentioned in history books now, and yet it showed something was seriously wrong at the club.  This was Arsenal, after all, the club that prided itself on doing things properly, managed by a man who constantly spoke against any changes from the old ways of doing things.

The smallness of the crowd got through to the players – as was to be expected given that much of the game was played in silence.  The pace was slow, and when George (yet again) went off injured after 17 minutes, having already scored, much of what sparkle there was, disappeared.  Just before the interval Parkin tried a shot, it went wayward but Dougan moved in and headed home.  

Nine minutes into the second half Hornsby, acting as if Armstrong was his mentor, ran through, and took a shot. McAlle got in the way and it went into the net.  On 67 minutes an attack from Wolverhampton was not cleared and after a considerable amount of to and fro Richards headed in. With no away support in the ground, the silence on the terracing was total.

Then, the game on 8 December was Arsenal’s third consecutive draw and their sixth unbeaten in the league – it ended Derby County 1 Arsenal 1.  The crowd as 25,161, the goal for Arsenal was an own goal by Derby.

But with both Derby and Arsenal sadly remembering recent past glories as they sank into mid-table gloom all the talk after the weekend’s action was of a match at Birmingham which ended in a near riot, with two players being carried off the pitch as a result.  The press however had largely got fed up with football, and most photographers seemed to be employed in taking pictures of cars queuing to get petrol.  

As for Arsenal this was a game where such opportunities that there were (and there  were not many) were missed, leaving an own goal (in which Newton, trying to intercept a Radford-Ball exchange merely managed to scoop the ball past his own keeper) and a goal from a Derby corner headed in by McFarland were the only highlights.

Except perhaps one.  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 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 all good things come to an end, even if the good thing is merely a run of six unbeaten of which only two games were victories, and on 15 December the results was Burnley 1-2 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 their 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 – notorious in the sexist pre-internet era as a time when men were dragged kicking and screaming on Christmas shopping expeditions by their wives.

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.  If his good lady wife was watching she might well have been tempted to wonder if he would have enough fingers left to be able to carve the Christmas turkey – but seemingly he did.

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.

A Christmas reminiscent of A Christmas Carol  came and went and Arsenal played an away fixture at Southampton on Boxing Day.  It ended 1-1 and 24,133 turned up.

With the newspapers now restricting their size because of a paper shortage, despite being excused from the electricity regulations, this game hardly got a mention.  But there was another Bob Wilson super-show which included (among other things) the saving of a Mick Channon penalty two minutes from time.  Blockley had clearly fouled Channon, and Channon got up to hit the penalty perfectly.  Wilson, having judged from the run up exactly where the ball was going to go, saved it.

McNab had gone down with the flu just before the match, and Kelly went out with knee ligament damage in the first half.  Stokes scored for Southampton running onto a Terry Paine pass, and it stayed that way until the 76th minute when Bennett failed to clear properly, two other defenders got in each other’s way as they tried to head the ball out, and Ball accepted the gift.

It meant that Southampton had now gone six years without beating Arsenal – but then given the aspirations of each club, that was surely how it should be.

On 29 December Arsenal had their final game of the year, this time at Leicester City where they lost 0-2 in front of 25,860.

With McNab, Kelly and George all missing Arsenal rearranged themselves once again and with Kennedy having only scored four goals all season, the prognostications were grim, and got grimmer.  Ball and Hornsby had fine shots saved, but Kennedy and Radford both looked lost, gloomy, and wondering whatever happened to the Double team.

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.

Who knows if he really meant it?  Maybe he was just trying to avoid talking about the game.  But in effect he was talking about the disastrous way he had run the club since the Double season – failing to bring through enough youngsters, getting rid of players too soon, antagonising players or just cutting them adrift, instead of nurturing them, failing to bring in solid decent players who would be good cover if anyone was injured.

And perhaps most notably, he was wrong in every single prediction.  There was no superleague, no contraction of the first division, no part-time third and fourth division, no decline into regional leagues.   Indeed freedom of contract regulations treated players as human beings, and over time gave them the same rights as everyone else.  Professionalism, rather than contract expanded into non-league football.  The leagues, rather than become more regional, became less regional with a national 5th tier emerging, and regional football starting in the 6th tier, not the third as Mee prophesied.

I suspect more than anything else, Mee’s appalling negativity came from a political vision in which he could only see ruin for a country in which working men and their trade unions were able to influence events concerning their pay.  Mee, it seemed, belonged to an earlier era, where men from wealthy families, and men of discipline, ruled in the best interests of everyone else.

My own view is that the football authorities were concerned by the prospect of player power, as they saw it, while they found themselves under attack from a media which accused coaches and managers of removing the inspiration and inherent talent out of the game.  This would have been felt particularly keenly by Mee who had promised that Arsenal would adopt the new Dutch Total Football model, but within a couple of months were doing the opposite.

During this first half of the season a 10 man FA committee (average age 70) was set up to examine a report on the future of football that had been completed four years before.  (Nothing like treating football with some sort of urgency).   Attendances continued to decline.  Boxing day crowds were down by 25% compared with 1971.

At the year’s end Leeds United were still unbeaten in the league, and eight points ahead of their nearest rivals.   Meanwhile only goal average kept Man U out of the relegation zone.  Arsenal ended the year closer to relegation than to winning the league.

Coming next: 1974 January to June.

Already published:

2 comments to Arsenal in the 70s: Part 11: July-Dec 73, as the world falls apart.

  • Patrick Harrington

    I’m confused about when John Matthews made his debut. At the top of the article you say it was at the start of the 1975-6 season and then further down you say it was a year after turning professional in August 1973 which would make it 1974.

    When did he make his debut?

  • His first league appearances were in 1974/5 – sorry I’ve made a mistake in this and will try and sort it out. Thanks for letting me know

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