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.
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.
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.