By Les Crang
If you can accept losing, you can’t win. - Vince Lombardi
After Losing to Ajax in 1972, the season slowly seemed to unravel. Arsenal had proceeded well in the F.A cup and looked in line to win back to back cup finals. Unfortunately, disaster seemed to strike Arsenal in the semi-final against Stoke (a repeat of the previous years) in which Arsenal would draw the first game 1-1 with Geordie Armstrong getting the Arsenal goal. With 30 minutes to go Arsenal’s The Times reported (licence required):-
Fate took a sudden hand. Wilson, misjudging a….free kick from Bloor, fell heavily to crumple his left knee. Struggling painfully on one leg he collapsed twice in dire trouble. Easy to be wise after the event. but he should have been replaced at that point. By the time he eventually limped from the scene, handing over to Radford in goal with Kennedy brought on as substitute, it was too late. By then, with 25 minutes to go, Stoke were level, reprieved, magically refreshed and searching eagerly for a dramatic victory… But with Wilson hobbling off his line and the powerful Smith challenging, there was the wretched Simpson in a dither to slice the ball into his net. It was symptomatic of the panic that suddenly began to spread through the whole Arsenal defence like some prairie fire.
Wilson would be out for the semi-final replay and season. His replacement would be Geoff Barnett. In an Article on the online gooner he was described thus (after Arsenal had lost a cup game to Stoke 3-1 in 2009):-
Cowardly – that was our performance, Almunia should never wear an Arsenal shirt again. He was always our Geoff Barnett to Bob Wilson but yesterday he made Malcolm Webster look like Lev Yashin (Who? Ask your dad)
Arsenal won the Semi-final 2-1 with goals from John Radford and Charlie George. Arsenal were through to a fifth final in 5 years. In many ways a good thing. Unfortunately, Arsenal would be facing Leeds United. For younger supporters, Arsenal’s rivalry with Manchester United and to a lesser extent Chelsea has been a thing that has often unified us [well, occasionally]. But in the 1960s-70s most team wanted to defeat Leeds United. A team genuinely despised for their dirty tactics.
(Big thanks to https://twitter.com/cockneygreen65 for the images)
Players such as Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton and John Giles were all excellent players, but they were a dirty team. Hated by fans universally, there losing titles and European cup finals and semi-finals.
An example of Leeds aggression can be seen with Francis Lee and Billy Bremner go toe to toe:-
Arsenal had already lost to Leeds in a cup final in 1968 when Leeds used their usual ploy at corners. Stand on the keepers toes (usually Jack Charlton). Making it impossible to get to a cross.
Bob Wilson had sorted out this problem when he played Leeds, would push the opposition players, especially Charlton, saying ‘I’ll handle him’. If you faced Leeds you needed aggression. Unfortunately, Wilson was someone who would be missed from the team. Wilson, would not be the only player missing from the previous years F.A cup win. Ray Kennedy, the double winning top scorers was dropped to the substitute bench, while World Cup winner Alan Ball played his first (and only) Cup final.
The cup final of 1972 was against Leeds with the weather dreadful as was the game. Alan Clarke scoring the winner. Arsenal’s closest to a goal was when Charlie George hit the post.
Arsenal had come 5th in the league, meaning we were not in Europe either. Worse still Arsenal had won the UEFA cup final against Wolverhampton Wanderers (the first all England final in Europe) 3-2 on Aggregate. The decline had most certainly set in.
It was a big blow to the players when Don Howe went, the momentum of winning things was there, but Steve hadn’t got a strong personality like Don. Nothing was going to crack up inside a year, but little things started to creep in.
Arsenal, having failed to get into Europe, losing a cup final and making the Quarters of the cup would be seen as success by some. But Bertie made what is regarded by many fans as his biggest fault. He started to break up the double team. Already after the double, Jon Sammels had left. The following close season John Roberts, a utility defender had left and worst, George Graham had departed for Manchester United.
So Bertie had started to change the coaches and the personnel in quick succession. You’d be foolish to change the tactic you would think? Not for Bertie Mee though. After the defeat to Ajax in 1972, Mee thought he would follow suit for season 1972-3 and play in the Ajax style. Prior to the season beginning Mee was heard to say:-
A wind of change is blowing through the game, Ajax and West Germany have proved you can entertain and get results.
Therefore Arsenal went Dutch and went 7 games unbeaten, leading Peter Bratt of the Sun to say :-
I saw enough here to convince me that the new style Gunners really can lead English soccer out of the dark age.
Alan Ball added of the experiment:-
It was like the pressure had been lifted. More was now channelled through me, and we injected some pace in the team…….But I knew that many of the players weren’t comfortable and I realised quickly that if this this was going to be a long-term sea change, then Bertie would have to buy in newer, fresher players who could fit in with the system.
Unfortunately in November, Arsenal were thumped 5-0 by Derby County:-
Arsenal then reverted back to type, with Arsenal returning to a pressing game.
Prior to the Derby game though, Mee had spent £200,000 on a defender called Jeff Blockley. Jeff Blockley had been brought in to replace club captain, Frank McLintock. As most of the team backed Frank, Blockley signing on a playing front meant a change to the team. Also, Frank McLintock is often seen as a colossus within the club, both by players and fans. In his biography, Frank questioned Mee buying Blockley and had a serious fall out in a game before Stoke. Other team members were critical of the new replacement of Frank. Bob Mcnab said of the period when discussing Frank’s reinstatement back into the team:-
[Bob to Bertie] He has fought and died for you and now you expect him to take it lying down. You know Frank better than that.
Frank himself said of a game at Birmingham, where he was unceremoniously dropped by Mee at Birmingham, telling him before departing. Prior to the game, chairman Dennis Hill-Wood why he wasn’t changed with Frank responding ‘You’d better ask that little bas@$%^ over there [pointing to Mee].’
Read any of the biographies of the 1970-1 team, all concur that McLintock bled Arsenal and was a great captain and player.
Also, another thing that irritated Arsenal players on Blockley’s arrival was financial. Bob McNab had already complained in 1970-1 of money he was paid and put in a transfer request. Youngsters Ray Kennedy, Eddie Kelly and Charlie George. With the arrival of Alan Ball the year before and informing the players he was on 10k per year had already upset many in the team. Ball recalled:-
The squad had been together so long that when a newcomer arrived, they weren’t always welcomed with open arms. I found that. When Jeff came, there was speculation about the money he was on, and his signing-on fee, and I did get the feeling that because of the players’ loyalty to Frank, it was never going to be easy for him.
After the 5-0 defeat Arsenal played Leeds, winning 2-1, Arsenal then went on a 15 match unbeaten run, taking on Liverpool at the top. Arsenal went to Anfield in February and won 2-0 [check Radfords goal]:-
The F.A cup seemed to be bringing Arsenal some success, with them beating Chelsea in the quarter-final and facing second division Sunderland. Win and Arsenal would be in their third consecutive final. Better still, they would face Leeds United for the third time in three years.
Peter Storey in his biography said of the game:-
Nobody outside wearside could have expected us to lose to Sunderland in the semi-final at Hillsborough. They were nothing more than a middle-to-average sort of second division side.
The semi-final took place at Hillsborough, the scene of Arsenal’s famous comeback against Stoke two years previously.
The team for the game was as follows :-
This game would be much more different. Firstly, Arsenal had reverted to using the pressing game or as the press termed them ‘bertie’s bores’. Also, Frank McLintock who had previously been in the team as Blockley had been out the team for 6 weeks was injured. Blockley had reported prior to the game that he was fit to play. History would say otherwise.
I quickly saw that Blockley wasn’t on his game. As a striker, you have to exploit every weakness you can in your opponent. I could sense his hesitancy. I could tell he was nervous.
Having weathered the storm for the first 25 minutes Blockley took centre stage for a tremendous cock up. Bob Wilson said of Blockley role in Sunderland’s first goal:-
‘It was a ridiculous opening goal and Jeff Blockley totally underhit the pass. Once we felt there were jitters down the middle of our defence we were vulnerable. We felt vulnerable and we were vulnerable.’
The Times wrote of Blockley display [paywall]:-
All of Arsenal’s failings and most of Sunderland’s achievements were channeled into Blockley’s domain in the centre of defence. He was never equal to the responsibility and one must say that had McLintock been available to captain and comfort Arsenal, Sunderland might not have been able to sustain such an inspiring quantity of progressive football.
Arsenal and Blockley responded meekly to the onslaught that Sunderland brought in the first half excluding a Geordie Armstrong deflected and well saved by Jim Montgomery.
Arsenal went in at half-time 1-0 down. On reaching the changing room, one could see what was missing when they got there when Bob Wilson said:-
We were used to Frank cajoling, but he wasn’t there. In the double year, Don Howe would have had his say too, but he’d gone too. We missed the impact of half-time bollocking. The leadership we’d been used to was lacking.
In the second half, Arsenal came out with Blockley still in the team but certainly not improved. In the 56 minute he was replaced by John Radford. A couple minutes later Bill Hughes header lofted over both Bob Wilson and Peter Storey.
Arsenal did get one back through Charlie George with 5 minutes to go. Arsenal tried to push forward but with no luck. Said a distressed Blockley [after the 2-1 defeat] ‘I wasn’t fully fit and I was probably wrong in offering to play.’ Too little, too late.
Coming off the pitch to a crescendo of Sunderland fans singing, Arsenal learnt that Liverpool had lost at home to Birmingham and could still win the league. We also learnt Leeds had defeated Wolves in the other semi-final. Arsenal missed out on a revenge match with Leeds.
The season petered out as Arsenal drew the next 3 games, virtually handing Liverpool the league. As if to underline how much we dropped by the end of the season, then lost 6-1 at Elland Road in the final game of the season. The Times wrote:-
Perhaps Arsenal made things easier for them as they were without Rice and George, both suspended, and they took the opportunity of blooding two young players, 18-year-old Brian Hornsby and David Price, 17, giving both 45 minutes. Both however, found the going very difficult although so, too did much more experienced players like Ball, Blockley and McNab.
The only good news on Arsenal losing to Sunderland? Sunderland defeating Leeds in the final 1-0:-
Could things get worse? Coming second and making a cup semi-final would be good in most seasons. Unfortunately, Spurs had won the league cup and therefore two trophies in two seasons. Robert Exley pointed out the effect this had on Arsenal:-
Despite coming second in the league, they were denied a place in Europe to League Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Cup as only one club per English City was permitted entry. This rule had previously been enforced by UEFA with regard to the days when the competition was referred to as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. UEFA ditched the rule when rebranding the trophy as the UEFA Cup in 1971; however, the Football League still retained the criteria of one club per city for qualification for the 1973/74 season.
So where did it all go wrong? Well, let us start with the players. The younger one’s such as Eddie Kelly and Ray Kennedy were already annoyed at their poor pay and disgruntled. With their growing hunger for money, grew a growing waistline as they turned to chips and beer. The older players were also disgruntled, especially with the new players like Jeff Blockley and Alan Ball coming in on improved contracts. Another problem with this team was Bertie Mee breaking the double team up too quickly. His treatment of Frank McLintock has often been pointed out as the turning point of Mee’s decline. Frank was slower, but he was still way better than the universally derided Jeff Blockley. More than a few fans have said that losing Frank was a stupid decision by Mee. These are people like Gary Lawrence, Dave Seager, Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews, Harry Lemon and especially Peter Nelson (heaven forbid anyone saying anything against Frank when Pete’s around).
Another reason for the decline was the coaching. The loss of Don Howe meant Arsenal lost a coach who would inform players of how crap they were and how to change it. Burtenshaw was a nice guy, but with ‘personalities’ like Peter Storey and Bob McNab, niceties were hardly going to improve them.
Jon Spurling also points out another important reason for Bertie Mee’s and Arsenal’s decline. One that would be copied by George Graham twenty years later in his transfer business. Mee had bought well before winning anything (Bob McNab and George Graham for example). After winning things though Mee had bought Peter Marinello, Alan Ball and Jeff Blockley at a cost of nearly £1,000,000. Mee was quite open when he later described Blockley ‘as my worst signing’. None of them actually fitted Arsenal’s pressing game. They could have, but the whole team would have needed overhauling at considerable expense. This expense would need Arsenal in Europe to improve their revenue stream. By 1972 Arsenal had stopped making it to Europe and the next three seasons would end 10th, 16th and 17th. Arsenal were about to enter a period of serious decline.