By Tony Attwood
By the time Arsenal played Derby in the league on 12 February1972 Arsenal knew that they would be playing Derby again in the 5th round of the FA cup, having seen off Swindon and Reading in the two previous rounds and the draw having been made. What they didn’t know was that it would be over a month before the tie was sorted, and by that time their chances of winning the league and European Cup would be hanging by threads. Not gone, but needing a lot of extra work.
In many ways it was the period between this league game against Derby, and the final match of the 5th round tie that defined Arsenal’s season. Fighting on two fronts had just about been possible in 1970/1, and for a while the dream had been alive of making it happen twice. But by the end of this period it was clear it was unlikely to happen again.
Here are the details of that month of football from 1972.
- 12 February 1972 – Arsenal 2 Derby 0
- Football League Division 1; Attendance: 52,055
It was considered a hard draw, as Derby were looking ready to remove Arsenal’s crown, and both side geared up for this first part of the battle – the league match.
As a result each team gave the game everything from the first to the last. The pitch was a muddy mess following heavy rain, but neither side looked for excuses. If a pass went astray, the players re-grouped and worked forward again.
For Arsenal, Ball and Armstrong shone through, George and Kennedy were endlessly determined, Graham eternally probing. George hit the post with a header, as both sides continued to push forward until in the second minute of injury time in the first half Graham found George unmarked two yards from goal. George headed in.
Both sides pressed in the second half. Armstrong hit the bar with a looping cross-shot, George had a left foot shot tipped over. Then with six minutes to go Ball took the ball in the area, and waltzed round the keeper only to be pulled down. He took the penalty himself and made it 2-0.
Unbeaten in 11 in the League the feeling was that Arsenal were on the move once again.
- February 19 1972; Ipswich Town 0 Arsenal 1
- Football League Division 1; Attendance: 28,657
But first there were more league matters to get out of the way in terms of Ipswich. Arsenal scored on six minutes as McLintock moved forward on the right, put in a deep probing cross and George headed in with a brilliant goal.
From then on Arsenal’s intent was to hold onto the lead, and this they did sometimes efficiently, sometimes beautifully, in the face of a fairly poor attack which made the mistake of trying to play through the middle. Simpson and McLintock were not to be moved.
That Arsenal scored no more was as much due to Kennedy continued a poor run of form, while Graham and Ball looked as if the game against Derby had used up all their inventiveness. Overall Ipswich looked an inexperienced side, and Arsenal looked like a team doing just enough to see them off.
There was however a moment’s humour at the end when Hunter took a free kick three times. The first time George was judged to be too close. The same the second time, and George was booked. The third time he stood in the self-same spot, and the game was allowed to continue. A farce indeed.
- February 26 1972; Derby County 2 Arsenal 2
- FA Cup 5th round; Attendance: 39,622
Derby entered this match determined to recover from the defeat two weeks earlier. The mud was far worse than for the league match at Highbury (a bog was an apt description), the tackles fiercer, the rule-breaking more extensive, and the referee totally out of his depth for this type of battle. It was exhilarating (each side scoring their second in the last 11 minutes) and so tough that strong men in the crowd went white with shock.
Well, not quite, but you get the idea.
Derby literally took the fight to Arsenal with O’Hare at one stage punching and kicking Graham repeatedly. As players tried to pull O’Hare off, the referee checked with the linesman and then spoke to Gemmill and Simpson. He was that out of his depth.
Four minutes before the break Nelson crossed, Robson’s clearance hit his goalkeeper, it went to George and he volleyed in superbly. Derby equalised through a penalty given for a foul by Simpson. With 11 minutes left Ball found George in acres of space, and Charlie duly scored. Derby launched one final attack at the end as everyone crowded into the Arsenal area and managed to squeeze the ball home.
- February 29 1972; Arsenal 0 Derby County 0 (after extra time)
- FA Cup 5th round replay; Attendance: 63,077
If the supporters expected another battle, they didn’t get it, probably because no one had any energy left from the game three days earlier. They did see over 50 free kicks, but the fouls looked for all the world as if the players were going through the motions, rather than launching wholesale assaults.
The ground although nothing like today’s standards, was much better than Derby’s mud heap, and the players were able to keep their footing and play football. Wilson hardly had a save to make while for Derby Gemmill ran the show but McLintock and Simpson were as always resolute.
Arsenal could have won the game several times over at the start of the second half as both George and Ball shot wide from clear chances. 17 minutes from the end Radford came on, but it made no difference and there was no breakthrough.
- March 4 1972; Manchester City 2 Arsenal 0
- Football League Division 1; Attendance: 44,213
And so with the cup issue unresolved, we returned to the league. For half an hour it looked like Arsenal could win the game with Ball and George combining brilliantly. Radford and Ball missed by inches, and it looked positive for Arsenal, until that is the 35th minute. Wilson having done one of his trade mark magnificent dives to pick the ball from the feet of Lee, threw the ball to Rice standing in the penalty area. The ball bounced up and hit Rice on the arm, and the referee gave a penalty. Arsenal protested, Lee scored.
After this the referee came down hard on players – handing out five bookings in the first half alone (McLintock and Graham for Arsenal, three for Man City).
It took the stuffing out of Arsenal who began to show the effects of the epic battles with Derby, and it was no surprise that all the second half belonged to City. Lee finally shot from outside the area, the ball ricocheted around the defence, leaving Lee free to sprint forward and knock the ball home.
- March 8 1972; Ajax (Netherlands) 2 Arsenal 1
- European Cup Round 3 (1st leg); Attendance: 63,000
In the run-up to the game McLintock had collected his MBE from Buckingham Palace, and he played a blinder of a game, holding Arsenal together. The outstanding Bob Wilson was even more outstanding than usual.
Graham, Armstrong, Simpson and Storey were magnificent and Arsenal left knowing they had only been beaten by a debatable penalty (in which van Dijk went down in a group of players, seemingly more because he lost his footing rather than anyone pushing him) and a goal diverted past Wilson by Simpson on 26 minutes. Charlie George had the best chance in the second half as his shot went just wide with the keeper stranded.
But the deeper truth was that Ajax showed the benefit of not having to face the sort of battles Arsenal were forced to endure each week in the first division and the multiple replays in the Cup. Arsenal’s triumph was to hold the score to 1-1 in a first half in which Arsenal had two goal attempts to Ajax’s 17.
- March 11 1972; Newcastle United 2 Arsenal 0
- Football League Division 1; Attendance: 31,920
After the league defeat at Man City Arsenal needed to return to winning ways. The fact that they did not almost certainly marked the end of their attempt to retain the League trophy. Arsenal looked tired from their recent defeats, their trip to the Netherlands, and from the thought of yet another battle against Derby in two days’ time, and it took them over 20 minutes to launch even a single attack.
Newcastle should have noticed sooner that only Armstrong looked lively for Arsenal, and it took them until the second half to up the pressure. With George retiring to be replaced by Batson, Ball needed to step up and take control. He tried, but missed two great chances, while Newcastle started to hammer the Arsenal goal.
Only Wilson, as ever, was truly on form and with Kennedy continuing to look off the pace and Ball missing when it was easier to score, Newcastle broke in the 70th minute and Macdonald scored from 10 yards. The second came in the third minute of injury time as Arsenal pushed forward for an equaliser. Simpson was disposed, and with Arsenal caught forward Smith ran on to tuck the ball way..
- March 13 1972; Arsenal 1 Derby County 0 (at Leicester City)
- FA Cup 5th round second replay; Attendance: 36,534
After five minute McGovern, attempted a back pass from the half way line. The ball landed near Kennedy who chose this moment to show his form had returned. One nil to the Arsenal and Arsenal then focussed on keeping the defence in order. Gemill, Hinton and Hector did what they could but Arsenal took it all, either retreating totally into the area, or coolly playing the ball out and waiting for Derby to attack them again.
This was the Arsenal of last season, cool and commanding, assured and certain, held together by McLintock, with Graham and Armstrong filling in the gaps where ever they occurred.
Arsenal looked quite happy for Derby to have most of the ball, waiting instead of the occasional break. Clough tried one of his famous tactical switches which involved removing McGovern and pushing McFarland into attack, and it did result in their best effort – but effort was all it was. Arsenal were through.