By Les Crang
We were blessed with a backbone of men with character who demanded excellence from others. - Don Howe 1971
Having obtained our first trophy in 17 years when Arsenal had defeated Anderlecht 3-0 at Highbury:-
Giving us a 4-3 win on aggregate, Arsenal the following season went on to win the double, with Arsenal winning 1-0 against Spurs to obtain the league title through a Ray Kennedy goal:-
Then, the following Saturday they won the F.A cup, with Charlie George scoring THAT winning goal:-
In winning the European fairs cup, Arsenal had proven the worth to winning something and also the financial impact of winning the European Fair Cup. Winning a trophy had created a team spirit, especially through the mouthpiece of the team, Frank McLintock. Famously, after the 3-1 defeat away to Anderlecht in the first leg, Frank said in his biography:-
While I was in the shower I started to think about the last quarter of an hour of the match , and saw a way out for us. Kiandula, the Anderlecht centre half, was a good 6” 2’ tall, but he couldn’t head the ball for a free haggis supper. I thought, ‘bloody hell, we can win this’… [I told the team] ‘Get your heads up. I’ll bet anyone we can win this because they can’t defend crosses. We need to get our heads straight, really set out stall out to concentrate and not concede.’
This fighting mentality of the Arsenal team would be tested the following season, with Arsenal winning the double, with not only a winning mentality, but fighting mentality and tactical awareness.
In the season of 1970-71, the fighting mentality can be seen in one game in particular. The game away to Lazio in the fairs cup. In a game that ended 2-2 after Arsenal had been 2-0 up, Arsenal were asked to go for dinner with the Lazio team, after a game in which the Italians had kicked, spat and slapped Arsenal about. In his book Rebels for the Cause: The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club Jon Spurling said:-
With tempers still simmering, players from both side attended a banquet in a plush Roman restaurant. Denis Hill-Wood, Arsenal’s chairman, thanked Lazio for their ‘warm hospitality’ (cue sniggers from the Gunners players) and, as a token of their ‘goodwill’, Lazio officials presented Arsenal players with a set of distinctly girly handbags. Such fashion accessories were trendy among Latino males, but not burly Anglo-Saxon footballers.
Ray Kennedy recalled at the end of the meal, some of the bags were thrown around like frisbees by the Arsenal players. It seemed fairly good-natured, and even the Lazio players laughed at their antics, but when the teams left the restaurant, it was a different story. Immediately, Kennedy was set upon by a couple of italian players and the fight spilled out onto the street, turning into a full scale brawl. George Armstrong was slammed against the side of the bus, and several of his team mates were punched to the floor. In the thick of the action was John Roberts, not the greatest central defender in the world but proving himself to be a decent heavyweight boxer. He defended his colleagues with his life, as did manager Bertie Mee, who according to eyewitnesses ‘had a neat right-hook on him’.
Afterwards, Mee asked the players to keep quiet about the fight. Unfortunately, by the time they returned, the press had been tipped off and the press at the airport. He stood behind the team though, saying to the press:-
I am proud to be the manager of these players… they withstood terrible provocation during the match… I cannot condone fighting but the players all have my sympathy.
With Mee standing up for the players in the press, behind the scene’s Arsenal were being coached and drilled by Don Howe. Don is often regarded as a defensive coach, but by many fans and players of the first double team, a great coach.
If he thought someone had made a silly error he was in their face telling them so. He was tactile when he thought a player had turned the game in the team’s favour, grabbing them and patting them on the back. His pre-match talks were simple and inspirational.
Therefore, the double winning side had obtained their trophies by good coaching from Howe, the support of Mee as the figurehead when problems arose but also being able to utilise the hunger of the older and younger professionals into a winning team. An example of the older player’s hunger is captain Frank McLintock, whose desire to win (and especially to win a Wembley final after 4 attempts) meant his winning Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
An example of the young players can be clearly seen in Ray Kennedy, who after Charlie George got injured on the opening day of the double season, took over as striker. In his biography, said the reason he had his most successful scoring season was due to fear of being dropped for Charlie George.
The double winning team also had an x-factor in the extremely confident and skillful Charlie George, whose reappearance at the end of the season gave Arsenal the extra push over the line.
In many ways the double team should have been the beginning of something great. Unfortunately it was the beginning of the end. Firstly, Don Howe had departed to WBA to become manager. Many, if not all felt this was a major error of judgement in the board allowing him to leave. Mee personally felt that Howe had been underhanded in his action, in that he’d done it whilst Mee was away on holiday and also took two members of staff. Howe was later to say that he had hoped the board might look into him taking over from Mee, but they were not very forthcoming in this and therefore Howe jumped at the chance to be boss at West Brom.
If the coaching was to decline, so was team morale over money and investment. Although Arsenal had won the double, little investment was made over the summer. In fact, money had been paid out to the senior players, as Arsenal ran a scheme where senior players received higher pay for the longevity of their stay at the club. Unfortunately, players like Charlie George and Ray Kennedy received considerably less even though their goals had won them the two trophies. One example of the mismanagement at the time was the transfer of Alan Ball. Peter Storey said of Ball’s transfer:-
The size of his wage packet was a source of jealousy in the dressing room and none of us was impressed when his dad, Alan Ball senior, remarked that: ‘Alan didn’t want to move South [from Everton] but Arsenal guaranteed him £12,500 a year’.
Bad feelings were bubbling up and would soon burst.
Another major sticking point for Arsenal declining was the mutual hatred felt between Bertie Mee and Charlie George. It was said Mee would never stand in front of George in case he was attacked, George found his headmaster approach to him and the team infuriating. George in his biography has exactly nothing positive to say about Mee.
If season 1970-1 had ended with a shout, the beginning of 1971-2 was to begin with a whimper. Having won their first 2 games, Arsenal lost their next three. By November Arsenal had gone to Wolves and been soundly beaten 5-1:-
Something had to change. So Bertie Mee bought himself a nice Christmas present in Alan Ball for a record fee of £220,000 in December 1971. Mee felt he needed Ball for his push in the European cup and possibly F.A cup. Although Ball brought flair and fun to the club he was also not a constructive force. With the senior professionals he was fine, but the younger ones, on finding he was on 10k per annum (double their salary usually) felt they were losing out. Ball being Ball had been told to keep his wages secret from the other players. Unfortunately, Ball was extremely open about his wages and discussing them with the team.
In the European cup, Arsenal had beaten Stromsgodset 7-1 on aggregate in the first round and beaten the Swiss team Grasshoppers 5-0 on aggregate. In the quarter-finals they would face Ajax.
Ajax, had not changed much from the previous two years with much of the same team as Arsenal had played to two years previously. Krol and Cruyff were still there as was Neesken who was signed in 1970. Also, Rinus Michels had turned the team around somewhat from the previous two years. It is often forgotten that Ajax had not been the first Netherlands team to win the European cup, in fact Feyenoord had beaten Celtic in 1970.
Ajax now would go on to prove they were not only the best team in the Netherlands but also in Europe, with their total football style. In 1969-70 Ajax had won the double title in the Netherlands with Cruyff scoring 33 goals in 46 matches. The following year they had won their first European cup, defeating Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley.
[The] ‘pressing’ and the transformation of the defensive offside trap into an offensive instrument instrument – began with Johan Neeskens natural aggression and Vasovics [Ajax libero] tactical acumen……Neeskens [would] chase after them [the opposition], often following them deep into their own half. At first other Ajax defenders stayed back, but at some point during the 1970 season the rest of the defence began to follow. ‘Without studying it, they started to play offside,’ says Haarms. ‘Vasco took one step forward and suddenly it was there. A kind of miracle. Michels saw it and said ‘Yes! This is how we have to do it.’ I don’t remember a specific game, but one minute we were playing the old system and the next the was way was there’. Now Ajax hunted in packs. If Neesken failed to win the ball, the defence would be so far forward that the opposition would be caught offside if they tried to attack.
If Arsenal had lost their tactical nous in Don Howe leaving, then for Ajax it must have been worse when manager Rinus Michels had gone to Barcelona and was replaced by the easier going Ștefan Kovács [Rinus Michels often believed in ‘conflict politics’ to get his players up for a game].
The first game of a two legged tie took place on the 8th of march, 1972 in Amsterdam. Alan Ball was still not able to play as he was not eligible. This meant Peter Marinello came in for him. Hardly a sentence that fill’s many fans with hope. The Arsenal team’s only major change being Sammy Nelson in for Jon Sammels (who had left for Leicester City in the close season). The Times wrote of the game:-
[Headline] Wilson and goal give Arsenal hope
Ajax 2 Arsenal 1 The score represents no self-contained account of this quarter-final round first leg tie in the European Cup between Ajax, the champions of Europe, and Arsenal, the champions of England. The truth is that Arsenal might well have sunk like a stone but for a brave rearguard action and a heroic performance in goal by Wilson. The mastery that Ajax asserted over the Englishmen reminded one very much of the way Barcelona once undid Wolverhampton Wanderers stitch by stitch in this same competition at the end of the 1950s. Now there was a vital difference. Ajax lacked the finish and a cardinal fact to note in all this is the goal scored by Arsenal away from home. This may well come in conclusively before the whole story is finished as away goals decide if the scores are level after both legs. It offers a lifeline to the future as memory is touched by Arsenal’s defeat of Ajax in a semi-final of the Fairs’ Cup two years ago. That, of course, may be irrelevant now, but the goal scored by Kennedy after only 15 minutes always keeps hope alive that things will break better next time. To put it bluntly, Arsenal for the whole of the first half and for large sections of the second looked a stricken, sad team when it came to the basic skills… Most of the night, too, the tall stadium was awash with a cascade of the red and white Ajax banners is the battle unwound on a perfect pitch that looked like a billiard table. Wilson, of course, was the her). In the outfield McLintock and Simpson together assembled Arsenal’s senses and dwindling forces while Armstrong tried to pull together some of the loose threads. But basically it was Cruyff with his captain Keizer who confused and mocked the Arsenal defenders with their subtle and dangerous movements. Cruyff was always in the eye of the storm searching and stimulating. But they overdid it and played into Arsenal’s packed ranks, heavily overcrowded where at times one could scarcely see free space.
Having lost 2-1 away Arsenal were not too concerned having gained an important away goal. Two weeks later Arsenal had the opportunity to overturn the result at Highbury [full game below].
In Chris Anderson’s influential The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong he noted that one weak link can diminish the power of the team saying:-
Football is a team game, but it is one decided by sheer, staggering individual ineptitude. Every team has one player whose presence chills fan’s blood.
If anyone was the weakest link in the Arsenal team, it was John Radfords replacement Peter Marinello. Ball had been a quality player at both Blackpool and Everton and had started well at Arsenal but Marinello was a player bought too early from Hibernians as a 19 year old. To see Marinello’s lack of ability one only need to watch the first minute of the game (above). Ajax, in trying to slow the game down, play an early back pass in which Marinello closes down the ball. Blankenburg bobbles the pass (the pitch was cut up) and Marinello nips the ball away from him. From there he has a one on one with the goalkeeper and takes a fraction of a second too long and scuffs his shot into Stuy’s legs. An early goal would have made all the difference.
Instead 13 minutes later George Graham headed the ball over an advancing Bob Wilson, leaving the keeper in no mans land. 1-0 to Ajax. Arsenal pushed for a goal, but Ajax played deep and played for the counter-attack. Unfortunately, the game ended 1-0 and Arsenal were out of Europe.
The Times report of the game wrote:-
Escaping a dangerous situation in the first minute, when Krol slipped¹ to let in Marinello brought into the Arsenal attack in place of the suspended Radford and applaud their goalkeeper for a point-blank save with his feet; then given a lucky goal themselves when Graham headed a deep cross from the same Krol past Wilson for the match, Ajax last night completed the double over the reigning ‘English champions. So the Dutchmen, top of their national league and unbeaten all season, are now in their third semi-final of the European Cup in four seasons, having won this particular tie by an aggregate of three goals -to one. A straight line was tried at the end of the night, the sum and the answer were given. In spite of all their attack, Arsenal Enally were spread eagled, neither side on this occasion having put anything :like their best foot forward. Indeed, in many ways it was a desolate, untidy and negative match. The goal that Arsenal had sneaked in Amsterdam now proved counterfeit. It counted as nothing. Yet to say again this was a parody of football, knowing the deep skill possessed by Ajax. But having been given that early gift they merely sat on their eggs and knowing the limitations of their enemy let Arsenal come at them minute after minute with the ball slung hope- fully into the air… But Ajax after that gift, clearly were not disposed to over-exert themselves in front and concerted all their reserves at the rear.
The loss at home did not sit well with Bertie Mee. He said after the game:-
I never forgave George for putting through his own goal against Ajax in the European cup, a header from the edge of the area, but that was George.
Peter Storey wrote in his biography of the defeat and George Graham in particular:-
George tried to make light of it afterwards, telling the lads how we should have marked him tighter because we knew what a beast he was in the air. I didn’t think it was amusing. I forced a tight smile; I knew George was self-conscious and was trying to lighten the mood but I hated losing, absolutely loathed it with a passion and I looked around the dressing room for teammates who felt the disappointment as keenly as me.
Sometimes when you are on a roll as a team, you think the good times will never end. We had just missed an opportunity to reach the semi-finals of the European cup, yet certain individuals were behaving as if it wasn’t that big a deal and almost seemed to be saying ‘never mind, we’ll be back again next year.
The next year would actually be 20 years when we would face Benfica.
So where did it go wrong? in many ways we lost because Ajax were a great team, but that is rather simplistic. Arsenal faced Ajax and had opportunities at Highbury, leaving Johan Cruyff to say that they were ‘holding on’ at the end of the game. The loss of John Radford and replacement of Peter Marinello was also a major reason for the defeat. Radford had scored 21 goals in the double winning team. Also, the non availability of Alan Ball was a problem, as along with Charlie George, these two consisted of perhaps our best world class players in the team.
The Ajax team was a great team whose total football meant all players could cover any position on the pitch. As a philosophy and footballing style it meant injuries could be covered by players and that football positions were not set in stone. Unfortunately, at Arsenal players were restricted to their position and Arsenal had a small team – in David Tossell’s excellent Seventy-One Guns: The Year of the First Arsenal Double you learn that Arsenal only used 14 players over a 65 match season. Mee might have been wise to add to the squad. When he did add to the squad, he brought in Alan Ball to play in Europe.
Finally, Don Howe leaving had left the team bereft of ideas and although his replacement Steve Burtenshaw was a good coach, he was never a great coach like Howe and often derided by many of the team. Bertie Mee team would slowly disintegrate but not in season 1971-2. No. It would be the next year and not in Europe. But in the cup.
¹Krol didn’t slip. Krol (#5) sent the pass to Blankenburg (#12) who pulled a John Terry after bobbling the pass. [Tim]