Red letter Days

Book Review – Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club by Jon Spurling

It’s the Arsenal way. They have a sudden burst of success, then seem to rein everything in and become overly cautious and conservative, like they want to start again from a blank canvas. Willie Young in Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal

I have recently been talking to Jon Spurling on twitter about his new book Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club and if it was ok to review the book. The book was released on Kindle on the 23rd of September and hardback on the 9th of October.¹ For those who do not know Jon Spurling, he’s a long suffering fan and author of four Arsenal books. The two most well-known being Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N.5 and Rebels for the Cause: The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club. He has also written my personal favourite, as it is my era All Guns Blazing – Arsenal in the 1980s and Top Guns – Arsenal in the 1990s. All books I would seriously recommend.

Red Letter Days gains its title from a headline in the Islington Gazette in 1933 after Arsenal’s infamous FA Cup defeat to Walsall. The book, similar to Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N.5 and Rebels for the Cause: The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club, looks at the history of Arsenal. In many ways it could have been just a rehash of these two books. Thankfully, it is not.

Jon looks at areas not covered much in the other books. For example, one of the best chapters is one looking at Charlie Buchan, a player who joined in the mid 1920’s for 3 years and helped change Arsenal defensive style to the famous W M layout after a 7-0 defeat to Newcastle. As with many of the chapters, Jon has used extensively from some new research and books, especially as even in the foreword he cites the importance of the excellent work Andy Kelly, Mark Andrew and Tony Attwood have done on their three books Woolwich Arsenal FC: 1893-1915 The club that changed football, The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal and Making the Arsenal plus the website The Arsenal History are rightfully lauded in the book. Also Andy and Mark are exceedingly nice guys when I have met them.

Spurling discusses managers that rarely get mentioned such as Jack Crayston and George Swindin in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Spurling also discusses the important changes Arsenal brought into the side via the coaching staff in the 1960’s, when first Ron Greenwood, then Dave Sexton and finally Don Howe coached the team whilst Billy Wright and Bertie Mee were managing the club.

In reviewing the book, one is quickly struck, as ever, by Spurling’s research. It is all well and good going through the biographies, but the amount of newspapers he quotes are fairly extensive and give the book a greater historical insight. It is also interesting the people that Spurling has spoken to in the past who have since passed away (Bertie Mee stands out) and even tape recordings of such thirties legends asTed Drake and George Male give the book real resonance with the past of Arsenal.

The book obviously discusses important matches that have been discussed in his other books and others such as Amy Lawrence’s Proud to Say That Name: Arsenal Dream Team, Gunners’ Glory: 14 Milestones in Arsenal’s History or Jason Cowley’s The Last Game: Love, Death and Football looking at some of the famous victories that Arsenal have had. He also looks at our many painful defeats, like the semi-final defeat to Sunderland in 1973:-

Or the 50th game against Manchester United in 2004:-

As with all of Jon’s books it is the small details and anecdotal stuff that add to the enjoyment of the book. For example, the sandwich that was thrown at Kenny Dalglish in the late 1980s by Arsenal fans. Then thrown back by Dalglish at the fans are amusing. (and something that would not be allowed to happen today).

I was also reminded how close Bruce Rioch came to getting us to the Littlewoods cup final, when Arsenal drew 2-2 at home and then 0-0 away with Nigel Winterburn hitting the bar in the last minute and therefore losing on away goals. If we had made the final (against a sterile Leeds who Villa defeated 3-0), would Arsene Wenger have joined us? The Rioch piece is really a find in the book. He is often overlooked and Airbrushed out of Arsenal history.

I think the book is great, not because Jon is an ardent fan. He is. It’s not because it is well researched. They always are. It’s more that Jon can see that Arsenal are not without faults and openly discusses them (see opening quote for example). Too many books on sport romanticise our addictions to our team or superstars, but Spurling does not. He is willing to discuss how stroppy the early noughties team was. Or how Bertie Mee should never have wasted money on players such as Alan BallPeter Marinello and Jeff Blockley and how it was similar to the waste in George Graham’s final 3 signings of Chris Kiwomya, Glenn Helder and John Hartson. Spurling is more than willing to point out some of the foibles our Arsenal legends have as well.

The book is a cracking read and really worth the money, covering Henry Norris up to our glorious FA Cup victory against Hull in May:-

I would have liked more on the dire early 1980’s but that is a minor point. It’s a great book on Arsenal and one worthy of any fans collection. Overall, 9.5/10.

¹There are two different links provided, one for the Kindle version and one for the hardcover version. For my USA readers the Kindle version is the only one available ($9.99). For the UK readers, all versions are available (Hardcover £18.99). In the interest of full disclosure, 7amkickoff makes a tiny commission off all books sold through Amazon. – Tim.

history

Match Day Photo of the Month #2: History, Class, Tradition

I’ve been studying Kung Fu since last December. Not that I have any intention of fighting anybody.

Just the opposite, in fact.

I wanted to learn how to defend myself so that I never have to. It’s all about the Qi, you see. If it gets strong enough, people can sense it. They won’t mess with you. They can just tell you can handle your business.

My town, Taos, is full of crazies. The Wild West has always drawn outlaws, rebels, and malcontents. It’s the place to start over again, and those types of folks have a nasty habit of running out of opportunities elsewhere.

Not to mention the fact that our local culture was mostly developed by the children of Conquistadors. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but those fuckers were among the craziest, most violent and bloodthirsty men to walk the Earth.

So I decided it was wise to develop the kind of mental and physical strength that sends the right kind of message. You may be bigger, stronger and crazier than I am, says the Qi, but I’m not afraid of you.

For all the agonizing and whining that’s come in the days since one more loss to Chelsea, I’ve been in the minority in my takeaway from the game. Sure, we got beat. Yes, we all expected it. But they didn’t kick our ass this time, and they didn’t intimidate anyone on that pitch.

Least of all Arsene Wenger.

When he got up in Mourinho’s grill, and then pushed him right in the chest, I yelled and screamed at the television as if he could hear me 5000 miles away, via Satellite. It was genius. He stood up to the bully, and proved he had some stones after all.

There was another telling moment, a bit later on, which many of you might have missed. Midway through the game, before killer Costa scored the killer goal, someone tumbled an Arsenal player on the sidelines. It was not a foul; nothing more than a throw in. (I believe it was Ivanovic, but wouldn’t swear to it.) As Kieran Gibbs walked by to grab the ball, he threw his shoulder into the Big Serb, and chipped him off his line.

It was a half a second, but I rewinded it three times. How cool was that? It said, sure, you could kick my ass without trying too hard, but I’m here, I’m not scared, and you have to deal with it.

Will that injection of spunk be enough to chase down Chelsea for the league this year? Highly doubtful. Almost impossible, if we’re honest with ourselves. But that’s not the point.

Arsenal proved something on Sunday. They have more mettle than they used to. They’re not as flimsy as a sheet of cheap, copy paper. They’ve won a trophy, spent some money, and with all that youth, these guys believe they’re in-it-to-win-it over the next half-decade.

If you can’t see that as genuine improvement over last year’s pantsing, you’re not looking hard enough. This team needed a bit of fire, and anger, to match what we already have in spades.

Class.

It’s a powerful word anywhere you are, but I suspect more so in England. Here in America, our legends are about how anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Making it means getting stinking rich.

But over there, unless I’m completely mistaken, even if you mint a Billion, you’re not going to become an Aristocrat. Class is permanent. Isn’t that what that banner at the Emirates says? It’s probably meant as a positive affirmation, but always strikes me as a little sinister.

Arsene Wenger is a classy guy. Jose Mourinho is not. Positive football, negative football. Yin and Yang. Earth and Sky. Ancient philosophies were built upon the concept.

And for every Arsenal, you have to have a Spurs. 17 years in a row, finishing ahead of Tottenham, is it? That is a crazy number. It means we’re in their heads. Doing to them, more or less, what that evil little prick Jose Mourinho does to us.

History. Class. Tradition. That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s embedded in our love of sports, and why, despite how much I enjoy following this team, some of you will find me tiresome. I’ve only been a fan for 3.25 seasons. Not long enough to have suffered properly.

A Johnny-come-lately, if you will.

history

I’m guessing Chris Gillman has been a fan for a while, though. He’s got good seats, lower level. And he sent in this well-composed shot from the North London Derby last month. The game in which we could have lost, should have won, and settled for a point. (Here in America, we always say a tie (draw) is like kissing your sister. Does that phrase not resonate properly?)

Now, I can firmly declare this is definitely the best photo I received from the month of September. It is unquestionably the Match Day Photo of the Month.

It’s also the only photograph I received last month. Winner, by default. (Not to deny Chris his props. Notice how your eye keeps going back to that banner. History. Class. Tradition.)

We all love our favorite blogs. It’s part of how we self-identify. To you, I’m just some new guy who showed up last month, and I’m sure some of you thought I was Tim until you read my name at the end. Fair enough.

But I’m a pretty-well-respected writer about photography, and an accomplished photographer to boot. I normally get paid to write, but am doing this, gratis, because I love this blog too, and wanted to be a part of the community.

Which is to say, if you like this feature at all, send in some photos this month. They don’t have to be taken at the stadium. It could be you farting on your couch, or playing with your dog, or kicking the ball around with your mates. Or, God forbid, kissing your sister.

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.

bobwilson.jpg

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.