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3 May 1971: Arsenal won the league at WHL (for the first time)

By Tony Attwood

3 May is quite a day in the history of Arsenal for it was the day that Royal Arsenal transformed itself into Woolwich Arsenal.  It meant being able to enter the Football League (the League insisted on clubs being limited companies, and limited companies cannot have a name that suggests royal approval – hence the new company and new club).  It also meant a new ground – moving from the Invicta (where the landlord wanted to double the rent) across the road to the Manor.

It is also the day on which 105 years to the day after the formation of Woolwich Arsenal, and 27 years to the day after the winning the league as part of the first double, Arsenal beat Everton 4-0 and won the League in game 36 of the second Double season. Adams scored his most famous goal on 89 minutes in front of the north bank as Arsenal secured 10 successive wins, a new Premier League record.  Arsène Wenger became the first foreign manager to win the English league, with an unbeaten run of 18 games starting on Boxing Day.   Even the commentary of the Arsenal v Everton game became famous as Martin Tyler said, “That sums it all up” as Tony Adams scored and turned to the crowd, arms out wide. 

Here I want to focus on the third of the three great 3 May events – winning the league at White Hart Lane for the first time and I want to go back a little to give the full picture.

The title battle was between Leeds and Arsenal and I want to pick it up on 24 April 1971 when both Arsenal and Leeds played each other.  Leeds beat Southampton 3-0 at Elland Road while Arsenal drew 2-2 with West Brom (who had recently beaten Leeds) at the Hawthorns.  McLintock, now in a fine run of goalscoring form, got yet another goal, the other was an own goal.  It was also the last game for Jon Sammels appearing as a substitute for Pat Rice.

And so everything was poised for the meeting of Leeds and Arsenal on 26 April.  The league table now had looked like this…

With a game in hand everything was in Arsenal’s favour.  Indeed Arsenal had five wins and a draw in their last six while Leeds had two defeats, two wins, and two draws.  Leeds had already been beaten three times at home in the league, so the omens seemed all to point Arsenal’s way.  Even if a win could not be achieved, a draw would do.

And a draw it looked likely to be on 26 April with the teams locked at 0-0 on 90 minutes.

But then with Jackie Charlton clearly offside he took the ball and shot in injury time.  The shot hit the post, ran along the line as Charlton ran into McNab, clearly fouling him to prevent him from clearing the ball, and the ball went in.  With Arsenal players outraged both by the off-side and the foul on McNab the police came onto the pitch and led the ref away.

The newspapers had a field day about the players’ lack of discipline, but as usual no one would mention the fact that either the referee was stunningly incompetent or else there was something darker going on.

Arsenal still had the title in their grasp, being one point behind Leeds with one game in hand but it felt like a horrible omen.

On 1 May 1971 Arsenal played Stoke and beat them 1-0, with Eddie Kelly, who had come on as a substitute for Storey, scoring only his second goal of the season.  55,011 came to the game.  Leeds meanwhile beat Nottingham Forest 2-0.

The results left Arsenal one point behind Leeds with one game in hand and a goal average of 0.01 goals better than Leeds.   A 0-0 draw or an Arsenal win in the final match would win the League, but not a scoring draw.

Although Leeds could only sit and watch, they had their own issues to consider – for a 0-0 draw with Liverpool on April 28, two days after the notorious defeat of Arsenal, had taken Leeds through to the Fairs Cup final, which was to be played over two legs on May 28 and June 3.

In another of those coincidences that seemed to bedeck this season the final league match against Tottenham came exactly 19 years to the day after another very famous game – the 1952 cup final.  The omen however was not good for this match – Arsenal’s last cup final until 1971 was lost 0-1 to Newcastle.

And so, as everyone knows, on 3 May 1971, Arsenal beat Tottenham 0-1 at White Hart Lane to win the league, with Kennedy scoring two minutes from time heading in an Armstrong cross.  In fact the goal was irrelevant, for a 0-0 draw would have also given Arsenal the title.  Had Tottenham equalised however Leeds would have won the league.

One other matter that is sometimes forgotten except by those who were there is that this was not an all ticket match, even though the date had been set some time ahead.  Quite why it wasn’t all ticket, when it was clear from the end of March onwards that Arsenal might well either be winning the league or celebrating having already won the league, has never been revealed.  But the lack of care and consideration for supporters that was the foundation of the way football was run in the 1960s and 1970s probably meant that even if anyone did think, they didn’t bother to act.  Why should they?  We were football fans.   At best of no consequence.  At worst the scum of the earth.

Because of the lack of all-ticket arrangements at Tottenham, it is believed that although officially there were some 51,992 in the ground, there was probably another 25,000 or so who got in unofficially as entrances were swamped and sometimes broken by fans demanding to get in.  Even then there could have been another 50,000 outside.  Queuing to get in had started at around 6am.

The game also just about stopped traffic in most of north London.  Not just at the Tottenham ground but on the North Circular Road, the Great Cambridge Road, Finsbury Park, across Southgate….  Very little moved from around noon onwards.

In the ground there was a serious crush and it was remarkable that there were not more serious casualties beyond the 18 people who were reported as treated in hospital.   The Arsenal team bus was blocked and the referee too had to abandon his car and get a police escort into the ground.  What happened to his car is not recorded.

Tickets for the stands were being exchanged by touts for up to about £75 or one cup final ticket (this was 1971 and we’ve had a lot of inflation since then!).  27 people were arrested for carrying offensive weapons, insulting behaviour or assault.

In true Liverpool fashion Bill Shanklv added his congratulations to Arsenal but then utterly spoiled his sportsmanship by then saying that Arsenal would not have it so easy against Liverpool in the cup final at the end of the week. How little he knew either of good manners, decency, reasonable polite behaviour, or just how determined Arsenal were.

But Liverpool themselves were smarting from having lost in the Fairs Cup semi-final to Leeds, and coming 14 points behind the eventual winners.  Indeed such was the gap that Leeds and Arsenal had carved out at the top of the league as they chased each other through the season that Manchester United in 8th place in the league were nearer a relegation spot than winning the league.  It was getting to be like the Spanish League.

As for Ray Kennedy – in what is also sometimes forgotten was his first full season in the League – here was a player whose entire experience before this season was a couple of league games the season before, two appearances as a substitute in league matches and an appearance as a sub in the first leg of the previous year’s Fairs Cup Final.

Yet in 1970/1 he played 41 of the 42 league games and was top scorer with 19 league goals.

Arsenal had won their first league title since 1953 and won the league with just one point less than the record breaking 66 points achieved in 1931 when Herbert Chapman won Arsenal the league for the first time ever playing the same number of games.


This article is part of the series Arsenal in the 70s, which records each and every game, and every major event concerning Arsenal during the whole decade.

The full index of the whole series can be found at Arsenal in the 70s

We have also published the series Arsenal in the 30s   and with a different theme Arsenal in the summer looking at what Arsenal has done, when not playing league and cup games.

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