1976/77 Terry Neill’s first season as manager and Arsenal’s worst run of defeats.
William John Terence Neill, to give him his full name, was born 8 May 1942 in Belfast and in December 1959 joined Arsenal’s youth side from Bangor for a fee of £2500, playing his first game one year later on 23 December 1960 against Sheffield W.
He played 14 games that season, battling for the number 4 or 5 shirt with Sneddon, Docherty and Mel Charles (dropping back from centre forward). The arrival of Laurie Brown added more competition but as early as August 19 1961 Neill was playing in the opening match of the season.
This was management the Billy Wright way so players moved in and out of favour and in and out of position and it was not until 1965/66 that Neill became a regular playing 39 games. It was coincidentally Wright’s last season. By 1970 when Terry Neill left Arsenal he had played 240 games in the league and once as a sub (275 in league and cups), scoring eight goals in the league and two in cups. He also played as a sub in the League Cup Final against Leeds.
While with Arsenal he became chair of the PFA and then moved to Hull City in 1967 for £40,000 in June 1970, where he became their player manager, and played 103 league games for them before retiring.
He then became manager of N Ireland and Tottenham (for two years) almost managing to take the club to relegation. When he became Arsenal manager in 1976 he was the youngest manager in the history of the club.
But things did not start well, although to be fair the club was in a bad state. The Arsenal that had won the Fairs Cup, were runners up in the League Cup twice, were Double Winners of 1971 and Cup Finalists of 1972 were knocked out of the FA Cup in the 5th round in 1975, the League Cup in the second round and came 16th in the league.
In 1976 the situation was worse: dismissed in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, 2nd round of the League Cup and 17th in the league.
Things started reasonably enough, given the poor state of the team, with five wins, two draws and two defeats in the first nine games. After the 2-0 home victory over Stoke the table looked like this
|5||West Bromwich Albion||10||4||3||3||16||11||+5||11|
Not only were Arsenal in fourth but the gap to the top was one goal and one point. And we had a game in hand. Win that and we were top of the league. It was quite a turn around.
But it was a false dawn for on 20 October 1976 we had the result of Aston Villa 5 Arsenal 1, followed by Leicester 4 Arsenal 1 and Leeds 2 Arsenal 1, three defeats in a row which knocked us back.
November 6 saw an improvement with a 4-0 home win over Birmingham and a ten match undefeated run of five wins and five draws, including in them 12 goals for Macdonald (these including hat tricks against Birmingham and Newcastle).
By January 15 1977 the table looked like this…
|9||West Bromwich Albion||21||7||8||6||29||25||+4||22|
The gap to the top was bigger, and it looked unlikely that Liverpool would slip up enough to let Arsenal make up that difference, but compared with the last few seasons, this was good news.
Yet disaster lurked. 15 January 1977, Arsenal 1 Norwich 0, was the last league win until April. In the 11 match run without a win Arsenal went 7 defeats in a row and four consecutive matches without a goal. It was the worst run in the club’s history, as far as I can tell, with both Chapman and Knighton suffering six defeats in a row, but not seven. Indeed even in the relegation season of 1912/13 Arsenal did not suffer seven defeats in a row in the league.
In this run of seven consecutive defeats Arsenal scored six goals (3 from Macdonald) and let in 17. By March 8 1977 the crowd for the 1-2 home defeat to WBA had sunk to 19,517. The table after the March 12 defeat away to QPR looked like this
|8||West Bromwich Albion||29||11||9||9||39||37||+2||31|
The reason for the collapse cannot really be blamed on mass injuries – although it is certainly worth noting that David O’Leary was injured in the 12 February game v Manchester City and was substituted. He returned for the first victory, on April 2.
Of all the other regular first teamers only Armstrong missed a string of these matches – four games in all. Alan Ball was missing but he had been missing since mid-December. So, if we do want to put the blame for the run on a player absence it would be David O’Leary. Peter Simpson was also missing for the last four of the sequence, but did play in the first three – and ultimately Willy Young came in and played in the sixth defeat.
The first recovery match was a 1-1 away draw with Stoke on March 23 1977, and then to everyone’s relief on 2 April 1977 Arsenal beat Leicester 3-0 at home in front of 23,013.
Extraordinarily Arsenal then won six of the seven games starting with that Leicester victory losing only 2-0 away to table topping Liverpool. In fact in the run of games starting with the draw with Stoke (the game that ended the run of defeats) Arsenal played 11, won 6, lost 2 and drew 3, recovering a little in the league to end up 8th.
The Cups however offered no relief , Arsenal going out in the 5th round of the FA Cup and 5th round of the league cup.
Thus Neill had taken Arsenal from Mee’s 17th position to 8th and had flirted early on with something much better, but in the end had fallen away with that unwanted record of the worst run in Arsenal’s history.
The Anniversary Files now contain over 2500 entries
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal