"Italy stars beaten by Arsenal Reserves"

On the evening of November 26, 1958, 51,000 packed into Highbury to see the Gunners take on the mighty Juventus on their first ever appearance in London. The match was eagerly awaited, not just because the Old Lady were the reigning champions of Italy, but because of the return to British soil of Gentle Giant, John Charles.

It may have been the first time that Juve's players - Charles apart - had set foot at Highbury, but several of the Turin club's senior officials had been there before, and recently. On April 6, 1957, they had been the guests of the Arsenal board to watch Leeds United defeated 2-1. The result was of little concern to them. They were there to spy on Charles, then a United player. And a behind-the-scenes meeting at Highbury after the game, where Juve made their interest known to the Welshman, set in motion the transfer described at the time as 'football's most fantastic fairytale'.

18 months later at Highbury, with Gianni Agnelli, the famous Fiat magnate and Juve owner looking on from the directors' box, Charles wasted little time in showing just why he had been worth the effort, heading the Italians in front after just five minutes.

This though was not to be his night. It belonged instead to a couple of teenage unknowns in red and white. All in all this was to be a remarkable performance by Arsenal. Not just because several key absences - Vic Groves, Gerry Ward and David Herd among them - meant they fielded a team full of youngsters and reserves. Incredibly, two of their players were playing their second match in a day! In the afternoon goalkeeper Jack Kelsey and winger Danny Clapton had lined up on opposite sides, as Wales held England 2-2 in a fiercely fought home international at Villa Park. Kelsey had by all accounts performed heroics for Wales.

On the final whistle, at 4.45pm, they did a quick change before making a 100 mile train journey south for the late kick-off against Juventus. They made it with seconds to spare, as the car which picked them up from Euston got a flat tyre. The Arsenal pair would have been joined by fellow Gunner, Dave Bowen, had the Welsh captain not dislocated a shoulder in a blood and guts performance against the English.

And Arsenal managed a performance of no less passion that evening. Having given Juve an early lead, Charles found himself completely shackled for the rest of the game, with Kelsey, once more, in inspired form. Instead it was the home team who discovered their cutting edge. The equaliser was scored on the half hour mark by a 19 year-old army recruit called John Barnwell, now chairman of the Football Managers' Association, then a teenage unknown.

When substitute Ray Goulden - son of England legend Len - emerged for the second-half, there were mutterings of confusion. He was making his first ever senior appearance, and few fans knew who he was. Within eight minutes of the restart they did, as he fired Arsenal in front. The coup de grace was delivered 14 minutes from time, as Clapton, given a chance to catch his breath on the bench, came on to chip a perfect ball to Jimmy Bloomfield who hammered home to make the final score Arsenal 3 Juventus 1.

"Italy stars beaten by Arsenal reserves" proclaimed the next day's headlines. It was no exaggeration.

'It Happened At Highbury' is written by Dan Brennan, the author of The Official Arsenal Miscellany. The latest edition of the miscellany is now available in all good book shops.

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28 Mar 2006