By Les Crang
If Terry Neill had brought back the good times between 1977-1980 in reaching 4 major finals (plus a league cup semi-final), the next few years were barren ones. Worst than that, they were years when Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham Hotspurs were good. Spurs back to back FA Cup Final wins of 1981 and 1982. Worse still than Tottenham winning the FA Cup twice was losing in the third round of the FA Cup to them in 1981, with The Times (license required) saying:-
The Indian sign which Arsenal had over their nearest and fiercest rivals in the late 1970s has been completely broken. Last season wins by Tottenham against Arsenal in the League Cup and League indicated that the tide had turned and Saturday’s deserved victory by the FA Cup holders at a wet White Hart Lane confirmed the fact.
So why the decline? Firstly, we had lost Liam Brady in 1980 to Juventus, while the following year we had lost Frank Stapleton in an acrimonious transfer to Manchester United in 1981. The combined fee for these important players was a mere £1,500,000. Arsenal had also lost the experience of Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and Willie Young, whilst Stapleton’s replacement Paul Vaessen had suffered a major knee injury, which he would never recover from.
Although, we had qualified for Europe in 1981 and 1982, both had ended in ignominy. In 1981 we lost to a Belgian team of part-timers to Winterslag. In 1982, Arsenal would be humiliated by Spartak Moscow. After having been 2-0 up in Russia, Arsenal lost 3-2 and in the home leg they would lose 5-2. Spartak were a wonderful team, with perhaps one of the finest goalkeepers of the 1980’s in Rinat Dasayev, who Jonathan Wilson described as :-
The Yashin of the eighties and is probably second only to him in the pantheon of Russian goalkeeping.
Arsenal’s utter annihilation by Spartak meant that they could even substitute the great goalkeeper when only one sub was allowed. A fan Mike Marsh said of the game:-
The Russians had been absolutely terrific. In all my years of watching football, I have never seen such a powerful display of technical football, we were just not at the races. In fact it was worse than that, on that night, we joined ‘soccer anonymous’. I’ll never forget the faces of the likes of Sansom, Hollins & Talbot, white as sheets after the mauling they had just endured. I never like to see us beaten, but it was an education for all who witnessed it.
Out of Europe by September, 8-4 on aggregate. Arsenal would not be in Europe for another 8 years. If you looked at the side you could see why. Amy Lawrence in her recent book Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season said that Tony Adams used to say for a great team ‘you needed seven [excellent players]’. Well, for Arsenal I could count three, maybe four. These would be the mercurial and lazy striker Tony Woodcock, the centre half David O’leary and full back Kenny Sansom. Also, there was the improving youngster in the background called Stewart Robson (may be not the most popular man at Arsenal in recent times).
As for the other players. Well, Pat Jennings was a good goalkeeper but not at his best, Graham Rix had a great World Cup in Spain but never really reached that form on a regular basis. Paul Davis was improving and Brian Talbot was becoming like Mikel Arteta ( slow, but always trying). The others? Paul Vaessen was in his last season, carrying an injury he incurred in 1980. Lee Chapman, a replacement for Frank Stapleton was commonly regarded as one of Terry Neill’s worst signings. Sharing striking duties with him was John Hawley, perhaps his second worst signing. Other team members? A Scottish keeper George Wood, a player who could not displace Alan Rough as international goalkeeper. Chris Whyte as cover at the back was ok, but never a great defender. Peter Nicholas had come into replace Liam Brady was really a poor bruiser minus Brady’s range of passing. John Hollins and Alan Sunderland, like Talbot were getting slower with age.
Other teams though had spent, especially Manchester United. Their new manager Ron Atkinson had bought Remi Moses and Bryan Robson from West Brom. He had also brought in the elegant midfielder Arnold Muhren from Ipswich Town. More importantly though, Ron Atkinson had signed Frank Stapleton for a derisory sum of £900,000 from Arsenal. All these players would have an impact on Arsenal semi-finals against United.
Having started the season in relegation form, Arsenal did not win their first game until fifth game away to Coventry. In a season in which we would end up 10th in the league, it was often a season best forgotten. Except in the Domestic Cup competitions.
Our run to the Milk Cup had included some impressive results. The stand out result being the 3-0 defeat of an improving Howard Kendall Everton team, in which Alan Sunderland scored a hat-trick. By the time Arsenal played the quarter-final, in which we had acquired Vladimir Petrovic from Red Star Belgrade. Tony Woodcock said of him after his debut against Swansea:-
[That] he did enough to suggest that he will give us to suggest that he will give us the quality we have been lacking in midfield [he joined in January 1983].
In the Quarter-final, Arsenal played Sheffield Wednesday, winning 1-0, via a Petrovic cross for Woodcock to hook it in. In the Semi-final Arsenal would face either Burnley, Liverpool or Manchester United. Burnley would have been preferable (even though they had beaten Spurs in the previous round). Unfortunately, over two legs, Arsenal would face Manchester United.
A first leg game at Highbury was unfortunately a dreadful night for Arsenal, ending in a 4-2 defeat:-
Tony Woodcock said ‘The pitch was all against us. It was frozen hard – impossible to play on really.’
Arsenal were done over by quite a few things. The main one being that from the scouts watching United had failed badly in checking for any weaknesses. In the 1979 Arsenal manager Terry Neill had sent George Male to watch Manchester United prior to the Cup Final. Male noticed that if you attacked Arthur Albiston as a full back and crossed deep, Gary Bailey was prone to be caught out at the back post and looked how that went:-
In 1983 Arsenal used Wilf Dixon to check United out. In the first game Woodcock said:-
Before the United game, though, he told Kenny, ‘You don’t have to worry about Steve Coppell – he’s gone. His legs have gone, he can’t run any more.’ Coppell was possibly their best player in the first game.
On a cold night in February, Arsenal went down 4-0 down at home, with Peter Nicholas and Tony Woodcock getting consolations. Worst still, Frank Stapleton, on his return to Highbury and being barracked continually, scored twice, flicking two fingers to the Highbury crowd on the second goal, as way of celebration.
The game also carried an aggressive undertone with The Times (license required) saying :-
United had marred their display by allowing their natural exuberance to spill over. It was soon checked by the referee who booked Bryan Robson for baulking Petrovic and added the names of Duxbury and Moses both for felling Nicholas.
Moses actions would have repercussions, but more of that later.
In the second leg Arsenal went to Old Trafford. Tony Woodcock made a relevant point in saying:-
We didn’t get the early chance, but it finally came in the second half. Chris Whyte got up for his header. He should perhaps have done better, because he was close in, but thumped it and it bounced away off the post. Five minutes later they broke away [and scored].
It got a bit nasty…Noddy Talbot was butted in the face by Moses.
Arsenal lost 2-1 (6-3 on aggregate defeat). Raphael Meade scored our last minute consolation.
Arsenal were still in the FA cup though. We had a fairly easy run, up to the Quarters, when we would meet Aston Villa at Highbury. Arsenal won 2-0 with Vladimir Petrovic getting a cracking second and having a fantastic game.
In the draw, Arsenal could face Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday or Manchester United. Unfortunately, it was United again and not relegation bound Brighton.
Prior to the game, Arsenal had a Derby at Spurs. if anything could be worst than this result then I doubt I can remember it. The score was Spurs 5 Arsenal 0. The Guardian reported on the hapless display:-
Often as not Brazil, Falco and Archibald merely had to queue up in predatory fashion to await the next mistake.
Terry Neill would be under extreme pressure to win the Semi-final which took place on the 16/04/83 at Villa Park :-
Having taken to the pitch Arsenal had a great first half taken a 1-0 lead via Tony Woodcock (although it was more a counter-attack). The Times (licence required) wrote:-
The tenacity of Stewart Robson triumphed over the combined challenge of Bailey and Albiston, Petrovic eventually cleared up the middle and Woodcock finished it at the near post.
Unfortunately, by the second half the game changed. In an era when only one substitute per team was allowed, Arsenal had to withdraw their star player Stewart Robson. His replacement? Lee Chapman. A man so one footed, he struggled to stand on the other leg. The reason for Chapman coming on? You guessed it. Remi Moses. In the second half United took over the game, scoring twice via Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside. Arsenal had missed out on a second final.
Why? Well we were pretty poor to be honest. We often lacked… wait for it… a centre half and defensive midfielder. Sound familiar? We had a world class centre-half in David O’Leary, but his partners? Chris Whyte and Stewart Robson? Whyte was ok, but never Arsenal class, whilst Robson was more a midfielder who could cover in defence (a Nacho Monreal in modern parlance then?) Arsenal would go out and buy Tommy Caton in December 1983, the cover was poor.
Our Defensive midfielder? Peter Nicholas. I have never been a Nicholas fan. Nicholas was supposed to be our midfield general. But in comparison to Peter Reid at Everton? Graeme Souness at Liverpool? Or Remi Moses at Manchester United. Nicholas was none of these.
In attack we had Lee Chapman as our other option to cover Alan Sunderland or Tony Woodcock. Lee Chapman was a god awful player. He cost us £600,000 from Stoke. A better option would have been Cyrille Regis perhaps from West Bromwich Albion. Tall target man, with International pedigree, good control and great work ethic. All things Chapman did not have. He would have been in the £1,000,000 plus mark, but certainly worth it in the long run. Again, Arsenal trying to get a bargain rather than pay a little bit extra.
The two semi-final defeats underlined a poor team. All season, Arsenal seemed to get worse. After one game against Nottingham Forest a 0-0 draw, The Times (licence required) wrote:-
The final whistle came as a merciful release in a match which numbed the senses. It was difficult to believe that two first division teams were on view at Highbury on Saturday. The most elementary skills were missing and the lack of effort must have disturbed the respective managers. At least Arsenal’s Terry Neill had the courtesy to apologize for his side’s part in a pathetic 90 minutes.
How True. Terry Neill was under pressure now. Heavy pressure. Prior to the FA Cup semi-final, rumours had circulated that Terry Venables had been approached for the Arsenal job.
So was their anything to come out of the season to make you smile? Well, in a league fixture against Manchester United prior to the Cup final, Arsenal won 3-0. But the best part? And for this, I will be kind to Peter Nicholas, the following happened:-
Just to illustrate the growing dislike between the two sides, Peter Nicholas made a desperate bid for cult hero status. With Remi Moses about five yards away from him, Nicholas hurled himself to the ground, clutching his face, as a posse of Arsenal players pointed accusingly at Moses. The stunned Manc was sent off, which meant he would miss the FA Cup Final.
At least we could smile at that (Moses had this coming all season to be frank). The rest of the season was best forgotten along with the dreadful green away kit that brought us a mere two wins when we wore it. Could things get worse under Terry Neill? Oh yes. They certainly could.