A defeat, yes, but what an occasion.
It was Arsenal's first taste of the European Cup after the 1971 Double triumph. And if Stroemsgodset and Grasshoppers were the appetisers, Ajax provided a mouth-watering main course. The Dutch giants had lost 3-0 at Highbury two years ealier in the Fairs Cup Semi-Finals, but they were a different proposition now. Indeed, Holland's finest were the defending European champions.
Ajax arrived in north London with a 2-1 first-leg advantage and a stellar cast of internationals including Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer and, of course, Johan Cruyff. It was the ultimate test for England's finest.
A 1-0 win would be enough to take Arsenal past their illustrious opponents and into the last four after Ray Kennedy's away goal in Holland. But they had to do without their suspended centre forward John Radford. In came Peter Marinello as Bertie Mee looked to attack Ajax on both flanks.
Marinello, handed a rare chance to live up to his big reputation, almost gave Arsenal the perfect start in their opening attack but the young Scot missed the target. It proved costly.
The Highbury crowd, led by a raucous North Bank, roared their team on. The atmosphere echoed that of the 1970 Fairs Cup Final when Arsenal fought back from a first-leg deficit to beat Anderlecht. But this time the crowd's contribution was to no avail.
An Arsenal player did score the only goal of the game but, unfortunately for the hosts, George Graham found his own net after 14 minutes. Ajax, inspired by Cruyff, prevailed 1-0 on the night. They went on to beat Internazionale in the Final and completed a hat-trick of European Cup triumphs the following season.
At the time it seemed Mee's side would soon have another chance to prove themselves against the very best in Europe. Instead, Arsenal had to wait 20 years for another crack at the 'cup with the big ears' when Graham, the scorer of that vital own goal against Ajax, had graduated from midfield general to manager.
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