Until Arsenal won the FA Cup again in 2014 – and repeated the feat twice more in the next three years – there was a tedious media obsession with the club’s lack of silverware since 2005. The nine-year ‘trophy drought’ had come to define the Gunners within the pages of lazy journalism. Drought? That was not so much an arid desert as a soggy marshland of near misses compared with the 17 years of under-achievement from 1953 to 1970, when Arsenal not only failed to win a trophy but scarcely even threatened to.
And, having been born in 1951, I dwelt in that success-starved wilderness throughout my childhood and teenage years, along with the rest of my Gooner generation.
I was thoroughly educated by my Dad about the club’s rich history before I’d even started school, been taken to Highbury for the first time as a five-year-old, and two years later was shown round the marble halls by 1930s legend George Male long before official stadium tours had even been thought of. I also had genuine heroes like Jack Kelsey and George Eastham.
But disappointment was a constant companion while all around me others were being shamelessly seduced by Tottenham’s glamorous Double winners; or jumping aboard the bandwagons of suddenly fashionable Chelsea, the Busby Babes and their post-Munich successors or the North’s new upstarts, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and Don Revie’s Leeds.
My loyalty to the Gunners was iron-clad and utterly non-negotiable; but it was frustrating and frequently heart-breaking to be an Arsenal fan. Reaching but losing successive League Cup finals in 1968 and 1969 seemed only to deepen the longing while mocking the commitment.
However, something gloriously incongruous happened as I approached my 19th birthday. Despite a typically inconsistent League campaign, on 28th April 1970 Arsenal won the InterCities Fairs Cup. The exhilaration of finally breaking that trophy duck was almost surreal. But I had no inkling of the annus mirabilis waiting round the corner. And neither the vision nor the bravado to guess what would happen next as I prepared to head north for three years at Sheffield University.
Beating the likes of Glentoran, Rouen and Dinamo Bacau was one thing. Proving ourselves domestically in the old First Division was the real acid test. Surely we weren’t ready to conquer that particular Everest yet? After all, the Gunners had finished 12th the previous season, which some might describe as the epitome of mid-table mediocrity, Fairs Cup or not.And the club had stayed out of the transfer market all summer.
But with that trophy now on the sideboard, expectation – although still dwarfed by hope – was a tad higher than usual as the 1970-71 season kicked off. It was tempered by the absence through long-term injuries of Peter Simpson and Jon Sammels, key members of Bertie Mee’s 17-man squad. Those two were quickly joined on the sidelines by Charlie George, Arsenal’s newest, brashest star, who broke his ankle in the act of scoring as the team secured a creditable 2-2 draw away to reigning champions Everton on the opening day.
Mee and his assistant Don Howe responded to these deprivations with what proved to be a mixture of wisdom and imagination. The loss of George meant raw Ray Kennedy, two days younger than me, would necessarily be given an extended run in the team. In central defence John Roberts, equally raw, was slotted in alongside skipper Frank McLintock. Sammels’ berth was filled by Peter Storey. It seemed a gamble: could right-back Storey play in midfield with Eddie Kelly, a promising but still inexperienced operator? The switch allows another tyro, Pat Rice, to come in at right-back.
The new line-up’s mettle was quickly tested. Manchester United were comfortably thrashed 4-0. Leeds United, much tougher opposition in every sense, were held to a goalless draw in a gutsy Highbury display. Admittedly the team lost 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, but we hadn’t beaten Chelsea home or away in seven attempts so it was hardly an unforeseen crisis.
And set against that defeat was a 2-0 win over Spurs and victories against Huddersfield, Burnley and West Brom. The 6-2 debagging of Albion was sandwiched between two games against Lazio in defence of the Fairs Cup. The match in Rome finished 2-2 but gained notoriety for a street brawl when Arsenal players were attacked by their Lazio counterparts after a reception at a restaurant. It was said that the incident worked wonders for team bonding. And Lazio were eliminated in the return with no trouble at all. The omens were looking promising indeed.
That was when karma struck. I’d left home for Sheffield and on my first weekend in Yorkshire Arsenal were hammered 5-0 by Stoke City at the Victoria Ground. Maybe we’d been deluding ourselves – though Stoke had also inflicted the only defeat that pace-setters Leeds had so far suffered. It was certainly a brutal wake-up call for Gunners fans. Yet two days later Ipswich were summarily dismissed 4-0 in a Highbury League Cup replay. Bouncing back like that was unfamiliar – and highly encouraging.
On a personal level the rest of that week was exciting: new surroundings, lifestyle, friends. In 1970, though, fellow Arsenal fans were rarer in Sheffield than a cat at Crufts; I never encountered another Gooner all the time I was there. But it didn’t matter. I was suddenly meeting people from all over the country and the banter of inter-fan rivalry was a stimulant. Geordies, Brummies, Scousers, Mancs all gleefully assured me that Stoke had already burst Arsenal’s bubble; that we were history. We would see.
On the Saturday Arsenal were hosting Nottingham Forest. I was at Bramall Lane taking in my first Steel City derby. United beat Wednesday 3-2, and inspired by Tony Currie would gain promotion to the top-flight at the end of the season. But it was a distraction – I was preoccupied trying to glean updates from Highbury. Arsenal beat Forest 4-0, with Kennedyscoring a hat-trick. That evening I went with an attractive girl I’d just met to see Free, the band currently top of the charts with ‘Alright Now’. It certainly was.
In fact it could get much better. Student life was fitting me like a favourite pair of jeans, and although there was a surprise League Cup exit at the hands of Crystal Palace, Arsenal didn’t lose again in the League before Christmas. Everton (4-0), Coventry (3-1), Derby (2-0), Blackpool (1-0), Ipswich (1-0), Liverpool (2-0), Manchester City (2-0), Wolves (2-1),Manchester United (3-1) – the wins just kept coming.
The only disappointment was in mid-November when I went down to London to stay with my brother, who’d got us tickets for the home game against Palace. Amid that bounty of victories, we could only draw 1-1. Palace again; they were becoming troublesome, unless it was me jinxing the team. A week later the unassuming but outstanding Simpson returned at number 6. It was tough on Roberts, who had scarcely put a foot wrong but would get only one more game that season. Joining Simpson back in the side was Sammels. A clever, elegant midfielder, he’d been one of our best players in Mee’s first few seasons as manager, and totally committed to the cause. But for reasons I never understood, some of the fans had turned against him. Over the next few months, he would become marginalised by the barrackers’ corrosive negativity.
January arrived, and with it the FA Cup. Away to Yeovil was an accident waiting to happen on past form, but Arsenal took the famous slope in their stride and won 3-0. Then West Ham came to Highbury and left empty-handed. It was all still looking remarkably good. After spending the festive season at home with the family it was back to Sheffield for me, and a new term. And time for karma to administer another slap.
Arsenal were at Huddersfield, within easy travelling distance of Sheffield. Another three points beckoned, but amid much controversy the Terriers won 2-1, our first League reverse since September. Then Liverpool beat us 2-0 at Anfield. It was suddenly uncomfortable, especially with the ever menacing Leeds setting a fierce pace at the top. But there was a silver lining: Charlie George returned from his ankle injury at the end of January. A spiky, combustible mixture of attitude and artistry, he brought an edge to the team just when it was needed. And made us hugely disliked by non-Gooners.
He certainly made an impact in the FA Cup, scoring the opener in a replayed fourth round tie against Portsmouth, then hitting both, spectacularly, in the Maine Road mud as the Gunners despatched Manchester City 2-1, before heading home the winner in a quarter-final replay at home to Leicester. He also scored against Ipswich in the League, but it was an unconvincing Arsenal performance. I was at the City Ground with a Nottingham-based friend watching Forest and Burnley toil ineffectually. Over the tannoy came the half-time scores from elsewhere. At Highbury Arsenal were 3-0 up. Yet it finished 3-2; careless.
A week later I was at the Baseball Ground; my Dad and brother had come up to Sheffield for a weekend of beer and football with me. The beer was fine, especially at student union bar prices; the football was not. Brian Clough’s Derby boasted Colin Todd, newly acquired from Sunderland for the then astronomical fee of £170,000. They were impressive, and beat lacklustre Arsenal 2-0. To their shame, some of the travelling fans made Sammels the scapegoat as the team failed to spark, nudging him closer to the exit door. It was depressing, the gloom deepened by a Leeds victory that afternoon that put them seven points ahead of us. With only two points for a win it was a gap that appeared unbridgeable on the journey back from Derby.
Yet that midweek Arsenal achieved an emphatic, rousing 3-0 win at Molineux, and followed it up with a 2-0 win at Crystal Palace, substitute Sammels getting on the scoresheet for the last time in his bitter-sweet season.
By now the Fairs Cup campaign had come out of hibernation. A 2-1 victory over Cologne in the home leg didn’t sound quite enough, given the Germans’ away goal, but at least we’d have a head start over there. Suddenly it was Easter, and I was back home, with the chance to see Arsenal take on Blackpool at Highbury. A Storey goal was enough for a 1-0 win, though it was hardly vintage fare. The Cologne return was as awkward as I’d feared: they won 1-0, a penalty, and went through on the away goals rule.
Arsenal’s focus was now exclusively on the League and FA Cup, and Mee urged his players to seize their moment and make history. It nearly went pear-shaped at Hillsborough a few days later, though. Stoke (them again) took a two-goal lead in the FA Cup semi-final. But Storey pulled one back with a venomous drive, then remained ice cool to beat Gordon Banks from the penalty spot in the dying seconds. The context of the equaliser meant the force was with Arsenal in the replay, which we won 2-0. Next up it was Chelsea at home, their record against us daunting. But Kennedy got both in an invigorating 2-0 win.
Successive victories against Coventry, Southampton and Forest swiftly followed, and inroads were being made into Leeds’ lead. Then I had to travel to Weymouth for a university field trip on the day all hell was let loose at Elland Road when the referee allowed a West Brom goal to stand, with virtually the whole of Yorkshire adamant that he shouldn’t have. Revie and his players were apoplectic; some of their fans protested on the pitch. The FA were not amused, and later hit Leeds with sanctions. They lost 2-1, Albion’s first away win for 16 months. In North London Arsenal, having edged a 1-0 victory over Newcastle with a George
cracker, went top of the table on goal average and prepared for the next game.
That was Burnley at home; a George penalty settled it. My brother was managing to get in to most home games, and sending me the programmes and a first-hand match report. The momentum was definitely building towards a climax. But now it was our turn to be frustrated by West Brom, who pegged us back to a 2-2 draw. Leeds beat Southampton 3-0 the same day. Next up was the big one – second versus first at Elland Road.
I travelled up the M1 with two or three student mates, who were neutral, and we stood on the lower terrace where the giant Lowfields Stand now looms, hemmed in by Leeds fans. With reckless abandon I yelled myself hoarse for Arsenal, attracting stares of hostile intent and several uncomplimentary observations from the locals. Remarkably, nobody hit me; they probably assumed I was simply insane. On the pitch we held Leeds for 90 minutes, but in injury time Jack Charlton scored. The Arsenal players were convinced it was offside and pressured referee Norman Burtenshaw to disallow it. He didn’t. We’d lost 0-1. Now I knew for sure I was a jinx. We’d only lost six times in the League that season, and three of those had been among the five games I’d been able to get to in person.
Leeds were now a point ahead and, on the following Saturday had a comfortable home game against Forest. They duly won it 2-0. Arsenal faced Stoke at Highbury and won 1-0 with a late Kelly goal. But Leeds had completed their fixtures. The goal averages of the two sides were now virtually identical. It meant that two days later Arsenal had to win their crucial remaining game in hand or draw it 0-0. A score-draw would give the title to Leeds. And who were the opponents in that remaining game? Bitter neighbours Spurs.
I was glued to a transistor radio in my room at a student hall of residence in Sheffield. There were no other Arsenal fans around to share the emotion with. In North London, by contrast, there were 51,992 fans crammed inside White Hart Lane and about the same number locked outside unable to get in. My brother was one of those unlucky ones.
The League title – something I’d dreamed about for as long as I could remember – was now within touching distance, and there was nothing I could do to influence it. Within the next 90 minutes my little world would either fall apart or soar into another stratosphere. Spurs were the only club to have won the Double in the 20th century up to that point. There was no way our bitter rivals would not fight to the final whistle to stop Arsenal having the chance to emulate their feat by winning the League championship in their backyard.
Listening to the radio was agonising, trying to picture things but seeing nothing. I paced the room relentlessly, running through the full spectrum of emotions. It was a fierce, totally committed local derby with so much riding on it. But no goals yet. That was good in so far as a goalless draw would make Arsenal champions on goal average. But it was also bad, because we wanted to win the match and win the League with more points than anyone else. But if we scored, and they equalised, Leeds would be champions. It was tense; and intense.
There were just two minutes remaining when George Armstrong crossed and Kennedy (still two days younger than me) headed the winner off the underside of the bar. The sound I emitted at that point was primal, barely human – yet at the same time utterly, raggedly, rapturously human. For the first time since 1953, Arsenal were League champions. Howgood that sounded.
I wasn’t an in-your-face, gloatingly arrogant winner. Just a proud one. In those innocent days before the marketing men had identified the potential profits to be made selling replica shirts, you couldn’t buy a shirt like the players wore, with the cannon crest on the chest. But I did have an Arsenal-style shirt, red with white sleeves and neck. I wore it to the bar that night, and to lectures for the next several days. I also wore a permanent grin.
On the Friday of that week I headed south to watch the small matter of Arsenal play Liverpool in the FA Cup final, with my Dad and brother. More tension. Extra-time. Steve Heighway scoring against us. George Graham – or was it Eddie Kelly? – equalising. Then John Radford to Charlie George… “He can hit ‘em”, as Brian Moore memorably said. And Charlie did, powerfully and perfectly. It flew into the net. Charlie was on his back, arms outstretched. Arsenal were FA Cup winners. That sounded good too. In fact Arsenal were Double winners. That sounded even better. Actually it sounded unbelievable. But it was true, and I’d lived through it. Football supporting doesn’t get much better than that.
Graham Lister is the author of Never Mind The Gunners: The Ultimate Arsenal Quiz Book (2013, £6.99) and its sequel, Never Mind The Gunners 2: Another Ultimate Arsenal Quiz Book (2017, £7.99), both published by The History Press and available from all good bookshops and online.