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GCR Books

17 game unbeaten run and the first trophy in 8 years

By Tony Attwood

In 1979 Arsenal won the FA Cup against Man U in possibly the most famous ending to a final of all time.  Alan Sunderland attained immortality and Terry Neill’s tenure as manager got a cup to polish.

But then life went a bit downhill.

  • 1980: Losing finalists in the FA Cup
  • 1981: Third in the league
  • 1982: Fifth in the league
  • 1983: 10th in the league and two semi-finals
  • 1984: 6th in the league, and Terry Neill is replaced by Don Howe
  • 1985: 7th in the league
  • 1986: 7th in the league and Don Howe is replaced by Steve Burtenshaw
  • 1987: George Graham first season as manager, we rise to 4th in the league and win the League Cup.  It seemed a long time coming.

The league programme did not start well for George Graham in his first season as manager as we only won two of the first eight games.

On the evening of October 27 1986, after a 0-1 defeat to top club Nottm Forest, the table looked more like the end of the Mee era than anything of recent times…

Pd W D L F A G.D. Pts
1 Nottingham Forest 8 6 1 1 23 7 +16 19
2 Norwich City 8 5 2 1 17 11 +6 17
3 Everton 8 4 3 1 13 8 +5 15
4 Coventry City 8 4 3 1 9 4 +5 15
5 Liverpool 8 4 2 2 16 10 +6 14
6 Tottenham Hotspur 8 4 2 2 10 7 +3 14
7 West Ham United 8 4 2 2 14 13 +1 14
8 Sheffield Wednesday 8 3 4 1 13 11 +2 13
9 Wimbledon 8 4 1 3 10 10 0 13
10 Luton Town 8 3 3 2 8 7 +1 12
11 Queens Park Rangers 8 3 2 3 9 11 -2 11
12 Watford 8 3 1 4 10 8 +2 10
13 Southampton 8 3 1 4 17 18 -1 10
14 Oxford United 8 2 4 2 7 10 -3 10
15 Arsenal 8 2 3 3 5 5 0 9
16 Leicester City 8 2 3 3 9 10 -1 9
17 Manchester City 8 1 4 3 5 6 -1 7
18 Chelsea 7 1 3 3 7 13 -6 6
19 Charlton Athletic 8 1 2 5 6 14 -8 5
20 Newcastle United 8 1 2 5 4 13 -9 5
21 Manchester United 7 1 1 5 9 11 -2 4
22 Aston Villa 8 1 1 6 9 23 -14 4

What was really awful was the goals tally – five for, five against.  Indeed in the four games up to and including the Forest match Arsenal had not scored a goal.  We were using Niall Quinn and Charlie Nicholas as the front two.

The first casualty of the disastrous run was Stewart Robson who made it through the first five matches only.  Then out went Graham Rix and Charlie Nicholas, and in came Steve Williams, Perry Groves and Martin Hayes.

These changes didn’t happen all at once, but by match ten the new format was getting established as Arsenal went on a 17 match unbeaten run.

On 4 January 1987 Arsenal beat Tottenham away 2-1 with goals from Tony Adams and Paul Davis with just 37,723 in the stadium.  (Crowds were low at the time throughout football.  Only 17,561 turned up for the next match at Highbury against Coventry, while Wimbledon and Luton were getting under 10,000 for their home games in the top division).

What was particularly exciting was that after that poor start, by the time of the Coventry game Arsenal had reached the top of the league.

Pld W D L F A G.D. Pts
1 Arsenal 24 15 6 3 41 13 +28 51
2 Everton 24 14 5 5 47 20 +27 47
3 Liverpool 24 12 6 6 42 24 +18 42
4 Nottingham Forest 24 11 6 7 46 32 +14 39
5 Luton Town 24 11 6 7 26 23 +3 39
6 Norwich City 24 10 9 5 33 33 0 39
7 Tottenham Hotspur 24 11 5 8 38 29 +9 38
8 Coventry City 23 10 6 7 26 24 +2 36
9 Wimbledon 24 11 2 11 33 32 +1 35
10 West Ham United 24 9 7 8 37 41 -4 34

But it couldn’t last, for the Coventry 0-0 draw was the start of 10 games within a win.  There was however a recovery of sorts at the end of the season as Arsenal won five and lost three of the last eight to finish the league in fourth place and perhaps most tragically of all, one place behind Tottenham.

P W D L F A GD. Pts
1 Everton 42 26 8 8 76 31 +45 86
2 Liverpool 42 23 8 11 72 42 +30 77
3 Tottenham Hotspur 42 21 8 13 68 43 +25 71
4 Arsenal 42 20 10 12 58 35 +23 70
5 Norwich City 42 17 17 8 53 51 +2 68
6 Wimbledon 42 19 9 14 57 50 +7 66
7 Luton Town 42 18 12 12 47 45 +2 66
8 Nottingham Forest 42 18 11 13 64 51 +13 65
9 Watford 42 18 9 15 67 54 +13 63
10 Coventry City 42 17 12 13 50 45 +5 63

At least we did not have the humiliation of ending up lower than Wimbledon and Luton.  Forest, the early leaders slumped to 8th, and Leicester, Man City and Villa were relegated.

Meanwhile in the FA Cup we went out to Watford with a 1-3 home defeat in the sixth round on 14 March 1987.

Which left just one competition: the League Cup.

Round Date Opponent Res Crowd
2 1st leg Sept 23 Huddersfield (h) 2-0 15194
2 2nd leg Oct 7 Huddersfield (a) 1-1 8713
3 Oct 28 Manchester C (h) 3-1 21604
4 Nov 18 Charlton A (h) 2-0 28301
5 Jan 21 Nottingham F (h) 2-0 38617
SF 1st leg Feb 8 Tottenham H (h) 0-1 41306
SF 2nd leg Mar 1 Tottenham H (a) 2-1 37099
SF replay Mar 4 Tottenham H (a) 2-1 41055
F Apr 5 Liverpool 2-1 96000

This was the era of 1-0 down, 2-1 up, which led to the creation of a long-running fanzine of that name.

Arsenal were drawn against Tottenham in the semis as shown above.  For the first game at home Arsenal were without David Rocastle and Viv Anderson and Tottenham won with a goal from Clive Allen goal.    When the same player scored after 16 minutes in the return leg it made Tottenham 2-0 up, and the story is that at half time the announcer on the PA relayed details of how Tottenham fans could order cup final tickets.   I can’t vouch for that, as I didn’t make it to the away game, and it could be just a story, but the fact is that then, amazingly, Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn both scored.  There was extra time, and then a replay, convened on the toss of the coin, at Tottenham (there being no “away goals” rule in the league cup at the time.)

It was a replay in every sense of the word.  Allen scored, and there was just eight minutes to go when Ian Allinson equalised.  David Rocastle got the winner thereafter.  George Graham said, “I hope it’s just the start of a new era for this club.”  And he was right.

The Arsenal team was, John Lukic, Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom, Michael Thomas (Ian Allinson), David O’Leary, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Davis, Niall Quinn, Charlie Nicholas, Martin Hayes.

The final couldn’t really live up to that excitement, and it looked like Arsenal would be out when Ian Rush scored, because “Liverpool never lose when Rush scores”.  I don’t know if that was actually true – or whether it was one of those things that everyone believed just because it was said over and over again by the press, but it certainly wasn’t true on this occasion.

Charlie Nicholas scored both our goals in reply.  Neither were magnificent but the sight of Bob Wilson going bonkers as the goals went in remains a memory and a half.

Because of the behaviour of Liverpool fans two years before, English clubs were banned from Europe, and so Arsenal did not get to test themselves against the continent’s top sides.   Had we done so I don’t think we would have got too far, for this was just the beginning.   But there was so much more to come.

The Anniversary Files now contain over 2500 entries

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2 comments to 17 game unbeaten run and the first trophy in 8 years

  • Edgar

    Love the history…Its great to know what happened and the road to your current status..Love it big. Gunners forever…

  • I will never forget that run. As a gunners fan I would leave work go to the public library to read and then photocopy the arsenal stories since I lived in the Caribbean and British newspapers were not available readily. One article read “Arsenal covered with a cloak of invincibility” (or very close) as the Times writer gushed about Graham’s young team and raved about Davis, Rocastle, Williams and Hayes. It was really the start of an exciting period with that amazing three match semi-final and a win over mighty Liverpool.
    Under Graham the Gunners got better and better and played exciting attacking football and success started to breed success with this talented young side gelling well and improving.

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