Category Archives: Arsenal


Anatomy of Arsenal: Ajax 1970 (part 1)

By Les Crang

In January 1968, Mr.Denis Hill-Wood, our chairman, stated that, if Arsenal qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs cup, he and his colleagues would have to think seriously whether to accept an invitation to play in Europe.

Bob WallArsenal From the heart

When Arsene Wenger talks about 4th place in the Premier League being like a trophy, many of us agree. As a revenue stream via television rights, advertising and tickets, one cannot doubt its importance. But back in the 1960’s things were different. There were no cheap flights or many travelling fans then. Bob Wall explained that the first time Arsenal had played in Europe in 1963 they had played Staevnet of Denmark and lost to R.F.C Liege, writing ‘when we came to work out all our expenses and income, we discovered we had lost money’. So it is ironic, really, that nearly half a decade ago, Arsenal found the idea of going into a European competition questionable.¹

But Bob forgot one important thing about playing in Europe, that many fans have laid at Arsene Wenger table in recent years. Winning a trophy creates a winning mentality and gives the team confidence.

From 1953 until 1970, Arsenal had gone without winning a trophy. A succession of managers had come and gone, prior to Bertie Mee, who would be the manager in 1969-70, Arsenal were piloted by the ex-England skipper Billy Wright. It was said of Wright that he would often come to Highbury and wave his fist at the bust of Herbert Chapman, as his side was always compared to the great man’s sides. Peter Storey said that the stress got to him so badly he was often found passed out in the changing room or couldn’t sometimes watch the match when sober due to nerves and the assistant would have to tell him the score in the changing rooms. Brian Glanville said of him:-

He had neither the guile nor the authority to make things work and he reacted almost childishly to criticism.

To call Arsenal a sleeping giant would be too generous. A comatosed sloth might be nearer the mark.

Anyhow, in 1966 Arsenal had decided on a new manager after sacking Wright. Bertie Mee, the club physio. On being offered the job Mee asked for guarantees if he failed as manager he would get his job back as a the clubs physio. Talk about poisoned chalice.

Mee, although no great coach was a good delegator, signing Dave Sexton and then Don Howe as first team coach. Under Bertie Mee in the seasons prior to 1969-70, Mee had got us to two league cup finals in which we had lost to Leeds United 1-0 (watch Jack Charlton do his usual trick of stepping on the goalkeepers toes to stop them moving for the corner in the lead up to the goal):-

Then Arsenal lost to Third Division Swindon Town 3-1 in 1969 on a quagmire of a pitch:-


For Arsenal captain Frank McLintock it had proved too much for him. Having previously lost two F.A cups finals with Leicester in 1961 (to Spurs) and 1963 (to Manchester United). Losing a further two defeats in the league cup had meant Arsenal reached four cup finals and then lost them all. He had prior to the Swindon final asked to be left out the squad as he felt stale and had discussed leaving the club.

But those defeats were a catalyst to two important things: Frank McLintock had grown fed up with a cup final and, more importantly, Don Howe and Bertie Mee decided to change Frank from a midfield player to a defender, moving George Graham into Frank’s midfield position. Don Howe told Frank this would extend his career. Frank would replace Ian Ure in the centre of defence (thank the lord).

Not everyone was happy with this, as Bob McNab said:-

To say I was not enthusiastic about it would be an understatement. Frank had shown nothing to give any indication he would have the discipline to become a centre-back. But, once you know Frank, you know anything is possible. He became so comfortable.

The change worked and by the end of season 1968-9, Arsenal had ended in fourth position (two places above Spurs) on 56 points (11 behind champions Leeds United) and Arsenal had gained their place in the European fairs cup.

The first four games against foreign competition consisted of some interesting matches, but not interesting opposition. In the first game we played Glentoran and Arsenal won 3-0 at home and then went to Ireland and lost 1-0. The game was remembered in Ireland for one thing. Charlie George getting sent off for swearing at the linesman. Charlie said of the game:-

It was hardly the glamour European tie I had been looking forward to. Worse, I was sent off in the return, not for a heroic challenge that went wrong but for bad mouthing a linesman… A few F’s and C’s went into what was my first senior dismissal. It was stupid, but you do what you do.

We then beat Sporting Lisbon 3-0 on aggregate and then to the Rouen of Belgium, which we beat 1-0 on aggregate. On reaching the quarter-final against Dynamo Bacau for most players this was their first trip to eastern Europe. Frank McLintock said of the visit:-

Our opponents, who were very friendly, just gawped at our clothes as they said their farewells after the match. They seemed petrified when they came to Highbury and we strolled to a 7-1 victory. I felt so sad for them. I think they were overawed and, understandably, wide-eyed from the culture shock they must have felt in London. I hope they at least managed to gorge on fruit during their short stay.

Arsenal had now got to the semi-final, where the could face such luminaries as Inter Milan (who had won two European cups in the 1960’s), Anderlecht from Belgium who had the excellent Paul  Van Himst or Ajax. In the end, they would face the Netherlands team Ajax.

Ajax were a team on the rise, winning 6 out of 8 league trophies from 1965-73. The previous year they had made the European Final, being humiliated 4-1 by AC Milan.

To make matters worst, they also lost the League to Feyenoord, meaning they were ‘relegated’ to the Fairs cup.

Despite those stumbles this was an exciting time to be a Ajax fan. They had already sent a warning through Europe when they beat Liverpool 5-1 in a foggy Amsterdam:-

It left the great Bill Shankly to say:-

I just can’t believe it,” Shankly growled. “They were the most defensive team we’ve ever played.

The Ajax team was being built by maybe one of the greatest foreign managers in Rinus Michels. A man who once said of management :-

Rule one: the coach is always right and rule two: if the coach is wrong, rule one applies automatically.

Michels was a man who gave us total football. In David Winners book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, the author discusses the change in football, also found in the changing environment of the Netherlands. A structuralist architect Aldo Van Eyck said:-

All systems should be familiarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system.

Almost a perfect description of what would be termed ‘total football’. A system where all parts were moving, all players could operate in any position, but a team that was built around Johan Cruyff. One of the finest players to come out of the Netherlands. It is often forgotten they also had Ruud Krol and Gerrie Mühren in the team. Fantastic players.

One hearing we had got Ajax in the semi, Bertie Mee said:-

I feel more comfortable facing Ajax than either Anderlecht or Inter Milan, their football is familiar, not foreign. I’m supremely confident we can play the final.

Jon Sammels thought differently saying:-

Of all the teams in the last four that we wanted to avoid, it was Ajax, They had a young Johann Cruyff, and Dutch football was really on the up. John Radford actually wanted Ajax in the semis because his wife Engel was Dutch. We just wanted to avoid them like the plague. Guess what? We drew Ajax. And to add to the challenge, the first leg was at home, which is another thing we didn’t want.

I wouldn’t say that other fans were so confident against such opposition. Geordie Armstrong said of the game and Cruyff in particular:-

He was a beautifully balanced player. Those in the game realised he was Europe’s rising young star, and our defence needed to be on their toes, as he was an absolute magician. Ajax also had guys like Krol, Keizer and Muhren in their team, so they were a formidable outfit. Their style of play was typically Dutch, where they’d defend deep, and hit back on the counter, and we rose to the challenge.

Prior to the game, The Times said (licence required):-

Arsenal face a true test of the present and the future at Highbury tonight. Having recently reshaped their ideas and turned more to youth in the process, young home-bred players like Kelly and George for example, at the side of Marinello, acquired at considerable expense from Scotland-they should now get an inkling of whether or not they are on the right lines. A two-legged tie against Ajax, of Amsterdam, in the semi-final round of the Fairs Cup is just the sounding board they need.

The reason for this negative approach? Quite simple, if you compared the sides, man for man, especially in the midfield Ajax, on paper were far superior. For example, George Graham was a great midfielder for coming from deep and scoring, but in comparison to Gerrie Muhren, a man described by Mr.Ajax and ex-teammate, Sjaak Swart as ‘technical and always running’, words one could hardly describe the Arsenal team being you could see Arsenal may have problems.  Not to belittle the Mee’s team, but they were a team based on stamina, team ethic and brawn. Though they did have one secret weapon that could play majestic football: Charlie George.

Therefore on the 08.04.70 Arsenal played Ajax at Highbury on a cold night and on a cut up pitch (not a rarity back then, see image below).


The team was :-Bob Wilson, Peter Storey, Frank McLintock, Peter Simpson, Bob McNab, Jon Sammels, Eddie Kelly, John Radford,Charlie George,George Graham, Peter Marinello               Sub:- George Armstrong [replaced Peter Marinello].

For the game in which Arsenal would dominate the importing thing was the inclusion of Peter Marinello. Marinello had come from Hibernians three months previously for £100,000, scoring against Manchester United on his debut. After that it all went downhill for him. But more of that later.

Arsenal started the game on fire, as Mee and assistant Don Howe saw that Ajax could be beaten when they noted that Ajax used a 4-2-4 formation with Vasovic dropping behind the the other defenders and then stepping out to provide a third man in midfield, meaning you could overman the midfield.

Within 16 minutes Arsenal had gone 1-0 up with The Times saying:-

It was Arsenal, however, who drew the blood when George. after two close efforts, shot home low through a crowd from outside the penalty area at the quarter hour.

Ajax then made the biggest mistake. They defended too deep. Mee, seeing the ineffectiveness of Peter Marinello on the wing changed things up and brought on Geordie Armstrong between around the 62 minute mark². I’m sure my hyperbolic description won’t describe things as well as Dave Seager in his soon to be published book Geordie Armstrong On The Wing, but Geordie on the wing changed the game and most likely Peter Marinello’s career of which he said in his biography:-

I should have been thrilled we wiped the floor with Ajax 3-0 in the first leg of the fairs cup semi-final in April, and I would have been, if only i’d been on the pitch on the final whistle. But you can’t keep a good man down, apparently, and they didn’t come any better than Geordie Armstrong, who had worked his way back into favour with the management and came on as a substitute to replace me.

With Ajax sitting back and Geordie and Charlie George tormenting the Ajax team on a heavy pitch at Highbury, with ten minutes left, Geordie put in a cross for Jon Sammels to convert. Three minutes later, the incessant movement meant that was Charlie George was brought down in the box. Up he stood and converted the penalty. 3-0. And that’s how it ended.

After the game, the press were full of praise for Charlie, with Cruyff saying of him ‘George can become as good as Di Stefano’. Charlie says in his biography that he swapped shirts with Cruyff who called him ‘the chairman’ due to the amount of incessant noise he was making on the pitch to the oppositions players and officals.

Although Arsenal lost the return 1-0 they went through 3-1 on aggregate. To face their destiny of a first trophy in 17 years against Anderlecht:

So why choose the semi? Well, the semi-final was against class opposition (one of the top 10 greatest teams one could say). Arsenal had come a long way since Mee took over in 1966. Many people were unsurprised that Arsenal lost to Leeds in the league cup in 1968, but two years later, team spirit had changed. The players were young and hungry. They wanted to win. Also, Howe and Mee had seen where the faults in Ajax stood and overmanned their midfield. They also saw the error of their ways in using Marinello and reverted to the hard working but skillful Geordie Armstrong. But the main difference was Charlie George. A man that had skill and a player that tormented Ajax all night.

Two years later Ajax would face Arsenal again. Would the result be the same though? To be continued.

¹The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup would be a precursor to the UEFA Cup and now the Europa Cup
²Big thanks to Michael_D & Andy Kelly  on the time of substitution.

Image from used for editorial purposes only

Dear Arsene: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Look at what you have unleashed, Arsene: in buying Mesut Özil last summer on deadline day you have given all of us hope that you’ll have another “surprise” waiting for us; by spending more money than we took in for the first time in a decade you have broken the dam of excuses that people used to justify our austerity; and by buying ready made superstars in Özil and Sanchez you have put paid to the notion that Arsenal are a club that “doesn’t buy superstars, we make them.” You have done all that, given us so much of what we begged you to give, and now we want more.

I’m not teaching you anything about British football culture when I say that the “buy buy buy” mentality comes from this patriarchal notion of the landed gentry generously pumping money into the working man’s game. You know that what many fans want is an obscene relationship with a sugar daddy. They want a rich man to come in and sweep them off their feet, to lavish gifts of million-dollar players, to build them new stadiums and playgrounds, and to keep ticket prices artificially low. They want an indecent proposal because you and I both know that wealthy men want something in exchange, you even once said about Monaco “people who are well-off are demanding!”

For decades you have steadfastly refused to play that game. You used mind and not hind to tease us. Selling Anelka and Overmars over the odds and then using the money to rebuild the team in the image of Henry and Pires — selling two good players for more than they were worth and then buying two legendary players for far less than what they were worth. This was the Wenger way.

And that worked back then. But the League changed and so did you. You changed to meet the new challenge half way. I know you’re still in love with the old philosophy and I know your dream is to win the League with a team of Wilsheres plus maybe a few solid buys thrown in – after all Wilshere would make a terrible keeper.

But those days are gone or at least on life support. Even the most steadfast English football fans, the ones who yearn for the days when you could stand at a football ground and sip bovril whilst watching local boys play their hearts out for the shirt — players who would ride the train home with you and have a few pints at the local, even those people have been caught up in the blood lust for expensively priced players shipped in from far off lands. You heard them chant in the stands “spend some mucking funny!” And while I know you don’t subscribe to Twitter or Facebook, you have to be well aware that the pressure from fans to sign marquee names and even really any name, is massive these days.

It was antithetical to your whole philosophy, or at least it seemed antithetical, but you went ahead and spent money last year and I wonder if Cesc and Robin leaving Arsenal the way that they both did was the reason you changed. They were the core of your dream team: two young men raised up through the Arsenal system and perfectly suited to play together in the same team. That’s why Moyes was so single-minded about getting Cesc at Man U. Moyes hasn’t had an original idea in his entire career, most managers haven’t, they just copy you or try to buy your work. That’s why so many of your former players are playing for other Premier League teams now: Adebayor, Sagna, Clichy, Nasri, Cesc, van Persie. They couldn’t make those players but they could come in with bags of money and with offers that the players and you couldn’t refuse.

But Arsene, you changed and you changed us. Özil was a thunderbolt. Spending £40m on one player, when you hadn’t spent a ruddy cent on a player in 10 years broken open the dam. We all knew you had the money, for years we’ve known you had the money, but you were able to keep us guessing. Was it the board who didn’t want to spend? Was it you? Did Arsenal not really have the money? And like little investigative journalists us bloggers and other fans tried to uncover “what was really happening” at Arsenal.

Now all that’s gone. The transfer austerity crowd is down to just a handful of people. If you had bought an Alexis Sanchez type player in 2007-2008 we would have been over the moon — a striker who can play three positions in the Arsenal attack and backup our main striker at the time, Robin van Persie? That would have been met with huge satisfaction. But now, you buy Sanchez, for £30m+, and he’s still the same guy who can do all those things that we all want and yet, we Arsenal fans, we want more. We want another striker and Sanogo, no matter how much you and I see his potential, must be sacrificed to the loan gods. Get us someone, anyone, someone better than Sanogo, is the rallying cry.

It’s hard to argue against the logic because the times have changed and even you have changed. As English football has exploded on to the global market and money has flooded into the coffers of every team, the competition for names is so far beyond what any of us envisioned it would be when we started on the stadium project 10 years ago. Last season the Premier League spent £600m on transfers, this season it’s already topped £800m.

We live in a world where Everton football club, the club which most closely aligned with your previous philosophy of austerity, has spent a record amount of money buying Romelu Lukaku and are paying a huge salary to Samuel Eto’o. We live in a world where even you have spent £100m over the last two seasons. You’ve joined them. You helped break the dam with your own hands.

You’ve changed our expectations and now it’s not enough. We want more. If you buy us another striker and a defensive midfielder and a center back we will want even more. In January someone will be injured and we will demand you buy a cover for him. It’s never going to end and now you’re a part it. So get out there and sign us a Bony, a Welbeck, an unknown brilliant center half content to be backup, and while you’re at it, bang a gong for Gonalons, and sound the trumpets for Carvahlo. 

By spending so much on Chambers, Sanchez, Özil, and Debuchy, you’ve already joined them, Arsene. Your hands were there tearing down the facade of the Premier League. Now finish the job.



Footballistically Speaking #2: Wenger’s Surprise

One of the hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s long career at Arsenal is that he is munificent with his press conferences. Wenger seldom skips out on his duty to answer tedious questions from the press. It’s extraordinary when you think about it in the context of his nearly 18 year career at Arsenal. Imagine how many times he has had to answer the same stupid questions about transfers from every single reporter in England. Every interview, every season, whenever the transfer window is open, he is asked the same two questions: “is Arsenal after (insert player)?” and “is Arsenal close to signing anyone?”

He almost always gives the same answers: “I won’t speak about certain players” and “if we sign anyone you will be the first to know.” Sometimes he varies these answers a bit (“are you after Zigic?” a smile and “No.”) and sometimes he’s coy about whether Arsenal lodged a bid for a player (as he recently was about Balotelli) but usually he has a stock answer for their stock questions. For both press and Wenger this dance must be getting old but reporters keep asking because, like a slot machine, once in a while it pays off with a hint that Arsenal might do something and once in 18 years they hit the proverbial jackpot.

The last jackpot was struck on 1 September 2013. That was the day that Arsene Wenger beat Tottenham both on and off¹ the pitch. Following a hard-fought 1-0 win over Spurs, Arsene met with the Sky Sports reporter and, clearly excited, gave his account of the match. “Their keeper was their best player” is my favorite summation of the game. And then came the inevitable question about the transfer market and Wenger said “Maybe we will have a good surprise for you?” and let loose his trademark wry smile.


From there, he moved on to the BBC reporter who asked similar questions, which he answered in the same way, except this time when it came to the transfer question he answered ”We work very hard (on transfers) that’s why I will plead that you don’t keep me too long for this interview” and again the smile. This prompted the reporter to say “bye bye!” After all, no reporter wants to delay a transfer, transfers are British sports reporters raison d’être.

Incredibly, Wenger then went into the Arsenal media room and answered essentially the same questions again and gave essentially the same answers. The whole incident reminds me of a scene from Red Dwarf where there is a talking toaster who asks the same questions over and over again, subbing in different types of breakfast breads. “Would you like some toast? How about a bagel? A crumpet? Ah, so you’re a waffle man!” And Wenger has done that for 18 years. He’s endured this ritual for 18 years. That’s proof for me of Wenger’s passion for managing Arsenal.

During the presser Arsene got a chance to expound on his previous brief statements to Sky and BBC. He praised his team’s heart and took another swipe at Spurs:

There were aspects to our game that people are not used to seeing from us – that means commitment, desire, defending. Overall, their keeper was their best player, and that shows we had the chances to win comfortably today. This team has lost one game since March in all competitions and you don’t do that with an average spirit.

And then the inevitable question about transfers, this time carrying the accusation heard for years that Wenger is allergic to spending money. He gives his now stock answer about whether he likes to spend (we buy quality), takes another swipe at Spurs who spent £100m, and then reiterates that he may have a surprise for us:

I am not against spending money, but I want to add super quality to our squad. Tottenham got a lot of money for Bale, they have to invest it – I understand that. The need is different for us, we need one or two super players and we will try to add that. We have 24 more hours, so maybe we can surprise you. Maybe not – but I am confident.

The next day, Arsene didn’t just surprise a few reporters, he surprised the world when Arsenal signed Super Quality Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for a club record £42.5m.

Maybe Arsene has a surprise in store for us this week?


¹Selling Bale to Real Madrid greased the skids that brought Özil to Arsenal. Thanks Spurs!