This here is a stone cold fact: if I write a 200 word, horribly researched, factually incorrect, article on an Arsenal transfer target, I will get 10,000 hits and at least 50 comments; if I write a 1000 word, well researched, thoughtful article on Arsenal history which ties in nicely with what is going on at the club right now, I will get 3,000 hits and 5 comments. Those who don’t know their history, it seems, are not only doomed to repeat it, but also spitefully refuse to learn it.
One of our regular readers sent me three Arsenal programmes from three consecutive home matches between 17 November and 4 December 1979. In each, Arsenal played Everton and Liverpool in the League and Swindon Town in the League Cup quarter final. These programmes are timely as some of the themes within are repeated to this very day and these programmes can give us a sense of perspective.
Things were very different for Arsenal supporters in 1979 as The Arsenal kicked off that season in a celebratory mood, having beaten Manchester United to the FA Cup in what is easily one of the most famous cup finals of all time. You see, 35 years ago this May, Arsenal beat Manchester United 3-2 in what is often called the “five minute final”.
As a result of the FA Cup win, the club were playing in Europe and these two facts (cup winners and European football) are sprinkled liberally throughout all three programmes.
In the first, against Everton on 17 November 1979, Arsenal were still flying high after the 4-3 aggregate win over Madgeburg in the European Cup Winners Cup competition and the talk was all about Arsenal dealing with the rigors of twice-weekly football both in Europe and domestically.
Terry Neill’s interview in the feature “the week’s personality” was especially telling. Arsenal had been rocked by injury prior to the match against Madgeburg and the interviewer asked Neill about how he planned to cope with playing twice weekly. Neill’s response was
Well, let me put Europe into perspective first of all. There’s no point talking about tedious journeys and the games being hard and tough. We desperately want to be in Europe – the players want to be in Europe.
…we know that the way some Europeans play the games are going to be hard and perhaps physical, and that we are going there mid-week with a League game on the Saturday, but if that is what we want – and we do – then we learn to live with it. Don’t let us be complaining about success.
1978-1980 marked a return for Arsenal to Europe after six years, so it was natural for Neill to want to put everything into this competition. Meanwhile, the team were lion hungry to prove themselves on the international stage.
This is a far cry from the routine boredom and even angst many current Arsenal fans have come to greet Arsenal’s Champions League record under Arsene Wenger. Wenger, knowing his history and the importance of European football to the club (both the current and potential future players and not just the bottom line as is so often spouted), has fought tooth and nail against bigger spending rivals to keep Arsenal in the Champions League. I’m fairly certain that 18 years in Europe is one of the greatest achievements in sport. And I say that knowing that Arsenal have been one of the weakest teams in that competition for three years.
Arsenal had a great run in the ECWC in 1979/1980, beating the Old Grey Lady, Juventus, 2-1 on aggregate including a brilliant header from a young powerful forward named Paul Vaessen. Only to go on to lose on penalties (4-5) in the final to Valencia.
Winning the FA Cup six months earlier seemed to give the Arsenal a bit of swagger throughout the club and after brushing Everton aside 2-0 and with just three points difference between Arsenal and Liverpool it was billed as a big occasion between two clubs who like to play football.
If there is one team that doesn’t come to Highbury… looking for a draw, it is Liverpool, and if you get beaten by Liverpool then you can be sure that they will have beaten you on football skill…. we still reckon this is the team we have got to beat if we are going to win the Championship.
Consider that last sentence again. Liverpool were the Manchester United of that era. Between 1970 and 1990 they would win 11 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 4 European Cups (Champions League now), 2 UEFA Cups, and the UEFA Supercup. It is this era of Liverpool that makes their fans so unbearable and lest you think that “plastic fans” is something new to the modern era, there is even an advertisement in the Arsenal programme for “The Liverpool Supporters’ Club London Branch”.
Incredible to think, then, that Arsenal were talking about the title. But that’s the power of winning a trophy, it just adds a feeling that you’re on to something bigger and better. This season, Arsenal have one hand on the FA Cup this season with Wigan and either Hull or Sheffield United standing in our way. And for the same reasons as above, Arsenal simply must win this trophy.
Many folks point to Arsene Wenger’s cup record since 2005, in which he has reached three finals and has faltered three times, and say that it is a feature of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal that they tend to crumble when faced with stiff opposition. But if you look at Arsenal’s record in cup finals during this period, and even during the fêted George Graham era, there have been many spectacular failures.
The third program in this series is a foreshadowing of one of those great cup defeats: a home match against Swindon Town in the League Cup. Recapping the 0-0 draw against Liverpool, the programme took on the lickspittles of fleet street who, even back in the 1970′s had a soft spot for Liverpool and, proclaimed that “Liverpool put Arsenal in their place.”
Since it was a match which we might have won, just as much as Liverpool might have won it, it is difficult to see how we were put in our place.
And Arsenal, class club that we are, dedicated an entire column to Swindon and let them have their say. They bragged about giving Arsenal a real game and playing their way. In the end, Arsenal would end up knocked out of the League Cup by Swindon, though only after drawing 0-0 at Highbury and getting beaten 4-3 on the replay.
In fact, a hallmark of Terry Neill’s tenure at Arsenal is that his teams would get knocked out by clubs he “shouldn’t” lose to or get to the finals only to lose. He lost the 1978 FA Cup Final, the League cup here to Swindon, the 1980 ECWC final to Valencia, the 1980 FA Cup final to 2nd division West Ham, and reached his nadir in 1983 when Arsenal were knocked out of the League Cup by 3rd division Walsall. That loss, along with Arsenal’s 16th place on the table, prompted Peter Hill-Wood to fire Terry Neill.
Arsene Wenger has reached three finals since winning the FA Cup in 2005 and lost all three — the Champions League Final against Barcelona in 2006, the League Cup final against Chelsea in 2007, and the League Cup final against Birmingham in 2011. With Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup and facing Championship side Wigan, some people are already invoking memories of Walsall and Neill. Those comparisons seem a bit of a stretch. Wigan is not Walsall, Arsenal in 4th place is not the same as Arsenal in 16th, and Terry Neill won just one trophy in his tenure at Arsenal whilst Arsene Wenger has won eleven and we simply cannot discount Wenger’s record securing Champions League football.
Whether you agree with me on the significance and similarities/dissimilarities to the current Arsenal team I wanted to thank Patrick for sending me these gems of Arsenal history and this post is that thanks. Everything about those programmes brought a huge smile to my face, from the simplicity of the program itself (16 pages) to the fact that you could buy a replica kit (in time for Christmas) for £11.80 but they only came in sizes up to 40″ chest (modern medium).
The one thing we can all agree on is that this was a simpler time. Tickets for the East Lower tier were £2.50 and you applied for them by sending a letter to the club up to a month in advance with cash and a self-addressed stamped envelope. Frank Stapleton and the FA Cup were used to promote the new “Arsenal Annual” and a photo was snapped of the two of them, with the FA Cup raised on a cardboard box — probably the box that the Annual came in from the printers.
There was no slick media production and product placement just “hey Frank, stand over there.”
And if you were the adventurous sort you could join the Arsenal Travel Club and take a trip to Nottingham Forest for the match day experience, taking either the train or the coach, for the princely sum of £5-6. Match ticket included.
That is roughly £25 in today’s money.
And it will never be that way again.