Category Archives: History

Bertie Mee

Anatomy of Arsenal : Arsenal vs Sunderland 1973 F.A Cup Semi-final. Mee’s Demise*

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.

Leeds1.jpg

Leeds2.jpg

(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.

The team seemed to need something new. We had a new coach from the previous year in Steve Burtenshaw, who had replaced Don Howe. John Radford said of Burtenshaw as coach between 1971-3 :-

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 :-

Bob Wilson, Pat Rice, Jeff Blockley, Peter Simpson, Bob McNab, Peter Storey, Eddie Kelly, George Armstrong, Alan Ball, Charlie George, Ray Kennedy. Substitute was John Radford.

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.

The game started with a howling wind and a vociferous Sunderland supporters. From the outset, Arsenal looked second best. Sunderland forward Vic Halom said:-

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.

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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.

Brian Kidd - Rogue

Rogues Gallery: Brian Kidd

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.

Arsenal have recently signed Danny Welbeck from Manchester United and to many fans, Arsenal always seem to get screwed by United whenever we sign their players or they buy from us. This is often a myth. Many fans will say, look who we sold to United: in the 1960’s we sold David Herd, in the 1980’s we sold Frank Stapleton and Viv Anderson, and recently Robin Van Persie forced a transfer so that he could be the Dutch icing on Sirr Alex Ferguson’s retirement cake. Whereas Arsenal fans will point out, what have we got out of them? Mikaël Samy Silvestre.

But looking back through the history tells a different story: Arsenal have also sold United a defender for £30,000 even though he was injured, and the Gunners have also signed some great players from Manchester United. For example, we signed Jimmy Rimmer in the 70’s and we also signed another player in the 1970’s in a striker called Brian Kidd.

Brian Kidd, like Welbeck, had come from United to Arsenal a winner. But Kidd had won and scored in the 1968 European cup on his 19th birthday:-

Kidd went on to make appearances the following season for England, getting two caps and scoring a goal. Kidd remained at United until the summer of 1974 when Tommy Docherty took over a relegated Manchester United (you did read that correctly). Tommy Docherty was bringing in some new players for his team up front. These included Lou Macari, Gordon Hill and Stuart Pearson took over in his place.

On the 12 June 1974 The Times (licence required) reported:-

Football Brian Kidd, Manchester United’s former England striker, has asked for a few more days to think over the possibility of a transfer to Arsenal. Kidd is understood to be staying with friends in London over the weekend and Arsenal are expecting a definite decision next Monday. Kidd said “It is a fantastic opportunity to join a club like Arsenal, and at 25 I don’t think I could have a better move at this stage of my career”.

At the time Arsenal had been playing Ray Kennedy as our main striker alongside John Radford. Kennedy in the previous season had scored 12 league goals and had not really reached the heights of 1970-1 double season. Ray said when he had found out about Kidd coming he felt he would be joining him upfront, with Arsenal selling Raddy instead. Unfortunately, Bill Shankly made Ray Kennedy his last signing for an English record of £200,000 to Liverpool.

Brian Kidd would make his debut for Bertie Mee’s side away to Leicester. It was an Arsenal side that had won the double 3 years previous yet only Peter Storey, Peter Simpson, Eddie Kelly, George Armstrong, John Radford and Charlie George remained. Liam Brady had come into the side as well. But Jeff Blockley remained. This was the beginning of the end for the double team. Bertie Mee later said to the author of Arsenal in the blood said:-

The side broke up too soon…..There were offers to players to further their careers.

Arsenal won the game 1-0 and Kidd scored on his debut. The season showed that we had signed a good fox in the fox. A poacher of goals.

A defeat to Ipswich in the next game at home, was turned around when Arsenal played Manchester City at home 4-0 with Radford and Kidd scoring two goals apiece. Unfortunately, the season of 1974-5 was one to forget. By the time they played Leeds in October 1974, Arsenal dropped to bottom after a 2-0 defeat. The Times reported:-

Arsenal seem to have more problems than Leeds United. They look up at all the rest now that they have been pushed to the bottom of the First Division by their 2-0 defeat at Elland Road on Saturday. Though they are of sterner stuff than some who have struggled there in recent seasons, they will need more ideas and adventure than they showed in Yorkshire to extricate themselves. Old hands were feeling for old flair and the newer ones, despite their obvious promise, have still to learn to assert themselves. Rimmer, authoritatively alert on his line, preserved Arsenal from a sharper, setback and Kelly, too, had a significant role in restricting Leeds opportunities as they claimed the major share of the match.

For Kidd though the season was a success. Throughout the season, him and Jimmy Rimmer kept us from sinking into being relegated, scoring 19 goals. Arsenal’s last home game would Spurs. A win would make Arsenal safe from relegation. A defeat for Spurs would mean they had to beat Leeds United. Fortunately, Arsenal won the game 1-0 with Kidd scoring the winner:-

Unfortunately Spurs won their last game, coming in at 19th. We were a mere 16th. Moribund was the best way to describe the team. As said previously though, Jimmy Rimmer and Brian Kidd were often the stand out players.

The following season Arsenal were again terrible, signing such poor players as Terry Mancini, a centre half from London, who on his international debut for the Republic of Ireland sang the oppositions national anthem. Again, Kidd’s goals were important, but in 37 games he only scored 11 goals (still top scorer though). Of his  11, 3 goals came in one game against West Ham:-

Off this game, Liam Brady recalls before the match that Mee gave a great speech as they seemed to be nearing relegation, saying:-

By the time he finished countering our accusations of neglect [as a manager], he had earned genuine applause from the players, who, for the first time in many month, felt they had support and someone on their side.

3 games later Kidd played his final game for Arsenal against QPR, with Arsenal losing 2-1. Arsenal came a dismal 17th and Bertie Mee had handed in his resignation.

Brian Kidd though had got homesick for the north. Peter Storey wrote of Brian in his biography:–

I got the impression that Kiddo never wanted to be at Arsenal; in his mind he was still a United player…I wasn’t surprised in the least when Kiddo jumped at the chance to return to Manchester, albeit with City rather than United.

Bertie Mee and the players also felt Kidd never settled, often coming off the pitch playing for Arsenal asking the Manchester United scores. Hardly the best way to endear yourself to a team.

The thing with Kidd, is like Welbeck, he came through the United youth team. Whilst at United they both won things at a young age. They were also both England internationals overlooked for a new manager at United and sold for a reasonable price. Kidd, although only at Highbury for two season, is often a man overlooked. His goals in his two seasons kept us in the top division. Therefore, if you think Arsenal always get short changed in transfers with Manchester United, remember Brian Kidd.

Bertie Mee

Anatomy of Arsenal: Ajax 1972 (Part 2) the slow decline of Bertie Mee

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:-


3 trophies in 2 years, plus two cup finals in the previous years, seemed to have set Bertie Mee  to be the new Herbert Chapman. If only it was so.

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.

Bob Wilson wrote of him:-

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 inclusion of Johan Neeskens had greatly improved the team, with the players pointing out in David Winner book Brilliant Orange wrote how the changes meant:-

[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.

(Big thanks to Dave Seager, Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews, Harry Lemon & Cockney Green Gooner for their assistance.)

¹Krol didn’t slip. Krol (#5) sent the pass to Blankenburg (#12) who pulled a John Terry after bobbling the pass. [Tim]