By Les Crang
If you were only going to win two games in the season, they had to be the two against Arsenal. There was no way you would do anything less than go out and die against the Gunners. Crossing over to Highbury I found the attitude just as strong. Pat Jennings
When you look back over the years of Arsenal in the 1970’s it begins well, slumps in the middle and improves in the later years . Lets not forget in the 1960’s we had won nothing, although we had made two league cup finals (losing to Leeds and Swindon). Moribund would be the best word to use for Arsenal. After Arsenal had won the double in 1971, Arsenal had gone into decline, with us finish 16th in Bertie Mee’s last season in 1975-6. The time for change was needed.
In 1977, Arsenal had signed a new manager in Terry Neill and he had come from Spurs as their manager. As important as Terry was the reintroduction of Don Howe as the coach. Don Howe had famously left the club at the end of the 1970-71 team to become manager of West Bromwich Albion. Prior to his departure, Arsenal skipper Frank McLintock showed how highly he was regarded when he ‘released a statement, purporting to be from all the players, expressing concern that the directors would even consider letting Howe leave the club.’ Howe’s attempts at management ended in failure, but as a coach he was regarded very highly by the double winning team. His reintroduction at Arsenal led one of Arsenal’s all time greats (in my opinion) to say of him (Liam Brady):-
He is the type of coach who will discuss a particular tactic with his players for age, then remind them that all the best devised plans in the game can be, and will be, wrecked by one stroke of individual genius.
And when he says that, you know that he has found the simple way of telling you how magical football can be.
Howe’s return is often overlooked, but his coming back as coach was one of Neill’s biggest signings.
The season of 1976-7 had no trophies and mid table whilst Spurs were relegated. In the following two of Arsenal’s new signings Alan Hudson and Malcolm Macdonald had helped push us to the F.A cup final, where we had disappointing lost 1-0 to Ipswich Town:-
We had also come fifth and made it into Europe for the first time since the season of 1971-72 in the UEFA cup. We had also made the Semi-final of the league cup, losing out to Liverpool. Arsenal seemed to be on the rise. On the negative side, Spurs had been promoted back to the First Division (but not as champions, but third behind Bolton and Southampton, winning only on goal difference from Brighton and Hove Albion) .
Neill had also signed some other players though and if there is anything better than beating Spurs it’s buying their players. We had started with my favourite goalkeeper big Pat Jennings for a mere £40,000. Then we signed their centre half big Willie Young in march 1977, even though he was reviled for taking out Frank Stapleton in his last North London Derby. After a disastrous debut against Ipswich, Willie said of one fan:-
An irate Arsenal fan appeared from nowhere and began hurling verbal abuse at him. ‘This guy started calling me all sorts: a prick; a Scottish wanker. “Why don’t you fuck off back to Spurs, you useless bastard?” he asked.’ Lesser men may have been intimidated, but the fighter in Young rose to the surface. ‘I had my family with me, and there was no way I was going to be spoken to in that way. So I told him that if he didn’t bugger off, I’d throttle him. The guy backed off and scarpered. Although I’d proved my point, I realised I had a massive job on my hands to win over the Arsenal fans.’
Three weeks later, as Arsenal prepared to take on Spurs, Young’s form hadn’t noticeably improved. The Islington Gazette predicted that Young would be ‘rested for the match, in order to give him time to adapt to the rigours of life at Highbury’. Yet when the Arsenal team trotted on to the pitch at 2.55, Young was there. The reaction from both sets of fans can best be described as ‘unique’. ‘I was the first player to be booed by both sets of fans at a north London derby,’
At full-back (or centre defence and midfield) was another ex spurs player by the name of Steve Walford. The other full back was the great servant and captain Pat Rice.
Alongside big Willie was a young Irish centre half by the name of David O’leary (voted 14th in the all time great list of Arsenal players), who had a gangly stance and was nicknamed ‘spider’. A player often overlooked as a defender with technique and capabilities. Terry Neill said of the defensive partnership :-
On the deck, David’s pace would sort out most problems, but if anything was in the air Willie would clear the danger.
In the midfield we had David Price, Graham Rix, Liam Brady and Steve Gatting. David Price had been a youth player. What is often forgotten about the 1970-1 double winning team was that Arsenal’s youth team won the cup, with Price in the team. In Robert Exley article The Unforgettable… Whatsisname : Unsung Arsenal heroes wrote:-
Though Price was often overshadowed by the sweet skills of Brady and Rix……my father assures me that he was a talent grossly underrated by Neill.
Price was also a hard working midfielder.
Steve Gatting, was the ultimate utility player, best remembered as being Mike Gatting younger brother. Meanwhile, Graham Rix was:-
Perhaps an inside-left rather than a natural wing……lacking an essential change of pace, but his left foot was a precise and productive figure.
As for Liam Brady. Well, what can you say. Brian Glanville wrote of him :-
The splendid left-footed player, a supreme strategist and at times goalscorer as well, had been coming to Highbury in his school holidays from the age of 13, having been discovered felicitously by the Gunners Welsh scout, who happened to be visiting Dublin. Brady began out on the left wing, where he fared well enough, but it was when he moved subsequently to his natural position of inside-left that one would see the best of him, a playmaker in the Arsenal tradition exemplified by Alex James.
We had also signed a midfielder from Wolves by the name of Alan Sunderland for £220,000. Sunderland would later be converted to striker, when it became clear that Malcolm MacDonald’s injured knee kept recurring and would eventually curtail his career at 29. Supporting up front was a young republic of Ireland striker called Frank Stapleton who ‘had come through the youth ranks with O’leary and Brady and made it to the first team in 1975. He was never a prolific scorer, but his ability in the air and on the ground provided constant menace to the opposition and he would invariably create as many goals as he scored.’
The season of 1978-9 had started fairly well and prior to the North London derby on December 23rd 1978, Arsenal had lost 3 games and were fourth and just a mere four points behind leaders Liverpool. Arsenal had already scored five prior to the derby, in a 5-1 victory over QPR in September (they would Also put five past Chelsea in March). Prior to the match Arsenal had beaten Derby 2-0 at home, whilst Spurs had lost 2-0 at Old Trafford, The match prior to Christmas was what every Arsenal fan wanted for Christmas. A real spanking of Spurs at White Hart lane (see below).
A often heard cliche about away matches is ‘score early to silence the crowd’. Well, Alan Sunderland would score after a mere 43 seconds, when, with Arsenal pressing, the Spurs player Pratt, belted the ball back from the Arsenal half back to his goalkeeper. Alan Sunderland ran on to the ball and with his second touch smashed it past Kendall from just inside the box. Although Kendall got a touch the ball hit the underside of the bar to roll in. 1-0 to the Arsenal. On twenty minutes Willie Young fell unceremoniously on his arse (not a rare site), Spurs permed Striker Colin Lee lashed it wide from a difficult angle.
Having missed the equalising goal, Alan Sunderland attacked down the Spurs right, trying to get pass Lee. Whilst barged to the floor, Sunderland attacked the ball (and Lee’s shins). Lee lost the plot and pushed Sunderland’s face to the ground, with the linesman having to part them. No booking and a free kick to Spurs. We’d got under their skin and not even 30 minutes on the clock. Spurs reverted to type and after Arsenal had cleared a cross, Osvaldo Ardiles took out Sunderland on the attack. At last Ardiles was booked.
In the 38th minute Arsenal again pressed in the middle of the park and Liam Brady, from virtually the left wing put a flighted ball 35 yards over the Spurs defence. Again, Sunderland controlled with his chest, fainted right and moved past the defender on his left. Again, Kendall got a hand to the ball and the ball cannoned off the underside of the bar. In it went. Before half time Spurs ‘fine’ captain left his foot in on Steve Gatting and a melee of player caused a minor ruckus. No booking and Perryman feigning he had been stamped on. As one fan remembered it ‘At half-time the players left the field to a raucous chorus of “Alan, Alan Sunderland” from the Park Lane.’
Early in the second half Sunderland got his head on to a corner and smashed the ball on top the bar. Arsenal were totally in command now. On 11 minutes 8 seconds of the youtube video, Rix gets the ball outside the box. Moves inside, ghosting past 3 Spurs defenders and chipping a ball to the back post, where David Price bullets a header downwards, only for Kendall to just get it.
Then, it happens. You just watch a master class from Liam Brady. After Rix charges down a Hoddle attack, Rix releases Brady on the left wing and two Spurs running backwards to slow Brady down. Brady charges past the defenders chips a similar ball to Rix’s earlier but slightly higher and with Frank Stapleton at the back stick to head home a ball only a foot off the ground. 3-0. As another blogger wrote:-
By this point, the Arsenal fans were singing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way! Oh what fun it is to see The Arsenal win away!”
Then came ‘the’ goal. Liam Brady took the ball off Taylor about ten yards outside the box and advanced a little and hit a curler into the corner (see below):-
Brady later said of the goal:-
I scored one of the best goals of my career, bending the ball with the outside of my left foot from the left-hand side of the area.
Then, with a few minutes left Pat Jennings booted skywards with Stapleton knocking on for Sunderland to complete only the second hat trick scored by an Arsenal player (the other being Ted Drake. 5-0 to Arsenal. That was the full time score.
So why is this as a defining match? Well, ironically the 1978-9 ended with us winning a trophy. The 1978-9 team had lost some of the more ‘temperamental’ players in Alan Hudson and Malcolm Macdonald. Though Willie Young would still be there to cause as much anguish to Terry Neill as possible. The game also proved a few other things. One being we were too inconsistent to win the league. For example, the next game we lost 2-1 at Highbury to WBA and ended up in 7th position with Spurs finishing 11th. But we also proved we were a good cup team, as was proved in the ‘5 minute final’ in may of 1979.
Also, it proved that we needed a great coach in Don Howe and what a player Liam Brady was. In his biography though Brady is highly critical of the manager Terry Neill and his lack of quality and depth in the team. Neill had insinuated he could have brought players like Johan Neeskens:-
Amongst other players. Instead of signing a world class player, like he should, Neill signed the highly proficient Brian Talbot. A good player with a good engine but not an exciting player to say the least. No wonder Brady became disillusioned in Arsenal lack of wanting to win the league, leaving in 1980 with Stapleton leaving a year later.
Five years later Arsenal’s decline was complete when Spurs would beat us 5-0 at the lane. But that game on the 23 December 1978 was a game of what could have been. Arsenal had a team that could have gone on to great things, with Brady running the midfield and Stapleton heading them in. It was a chance Terry Neill should have taken.