We examine the 1986/87 season, what happened, when and where, the stats and the facts.
With former Millwall manager and 1971 Double winner George Graham at the helm, Arsenal look to a rapid improvement after several years of meandering league finishes and disappointing display in the cups. The Scot quickly jettisons Martin Keown and Tony Woodcock, bringing in young Colchester United winger Perry Groves for a meagre £75,000 outlay. Graham insists on a harrying, pressing approach against opponents, and suggests that his side will hit opponents on the break as often as possible. His first game in charge ends with a 1-0 win over Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United in the season’s opener – the last time for 26 years that a United team facing the Gunners wouldn’t be managed by Alex Ferguson – with Charlie Nicholas scrambling home a late winner. That’s followed by two consecutive defeats against Coventry City and Liverpool. "Turning this club around will take time," George insists.
Although goals from young Tony Adams – now a fixture in the side under Graham – and Irish striker Niall Quinn usher Arsenal to victory against Sheffield Wednesday at the start of the month, the Gunners then endure a miserable run of three goalless draws in the league against Tottenham, Luton and Oxford, before sliding to a 1-0 defeat against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at the end of the month. Charlie Nicholas suffers a deep gash to his shin that will keep him out until Christmas. The sparse 20,676 Highbury crowd boo the team off the pitch after the Oxford game. Graham’s retort? "At least we didn’t lose." One piece of good news: Paul Davis and Niall Quinn grab the goals in the first leg of Arsenal’s 2-0 League Cup victory over Huddersfield, with just 15,000 watching. From little acorns...
The Graham effect finally gathers pace. A freakish goal from Steve Williams at a blustery Goodison Park hands the Gunners all three points, and a week later at Highbury quicksilver attacks led by Groves and Martin Hayes – originally set for a move to Huddersfield – help Arsenal defeat Watford. At the end of the month, goals from Rocastle and a brace from Hayes are enough to see off Chelsea. George Graham insists that the improvement in from “is down to pairings on the pitch: O’Leary and Adams, Anderson and Sansom, Williams and Davis – a team working in unison for the first time in a long time.” Having dispatched Huddersfield 3-1 in the League Cup, Arsenal also negotiate their way past Manchester City. With the Club an estimated £100,000 in debt, the crowds finally creep up above the required break-even figure of 25,000.
The Gunners hit top spot by defeating Charlton 2-0 at a sodden Selhurst Park and racking up their fifth straight win. Although a doughty West Ham side cling on for a goalless draw a week later, the Gunners then go goal crazy and destroy Southampton, Manchester City and Aston Villa, netting 10 goals without reply over the three matches. Martin Hayes remains in fine form, and George Graham touts Tony Adams as a future England skipper. Another win over Charlton sees Arsenal stride confidently into the League Cup quarter-finals. While some journalists tout Arsenal as potential champions, George Graham remains cautious, saying: "The squad is too thin at the moment."
There are no signs of the momentum sliding away from Arsenal, as they defeat QPR 3-1 at Highbury. The goals are netted by Quinn and Hayes (two) but a furious Graham interrogates the defence afterwards for having the temerity to concede a goal. Arsenal then swat Luton aside 3-0 at home, with Quinn, Adams and Hayes doing the damage, and on the Club’s 100th birthday, with many past legends present and correct, Niall Quinn heads the winner as the league leaders grind out a 1-0 win over Southampton. When asked if he would be likely to invest in new talent in the new year, Graham responds: "I’d like to see what this squad can do first. I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction."
The Gunners begin the New Year in fine style, defeating Dave Bassett’s combative Wimbledon 3-1 at home, with the returning Charlie Nicholas netting a double. Three days later an excellent display sees the Gunners beat Tottenham 2-1 at White Hart Lane, with Adams and Davis on target. Then the wheels come off, in the league at least. A tired-looking Arsenal grind out a goalless draw with Coventry at Highbury in front of just 17, 561 (it’s shown live on ITV on a Sunday) and crash to an ill-tempered 2-0 loss at Old Trafford against Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. David Rocastle is sent off after a tangle with Norman Whiteside. There’s better news in the cups, with Reading and Plymouth seen off in the early rounds of the FA Cup, while in the League Cup the Gunners beat Forest (Charlie Nicholas nets a brace) to reach the semi-final, and a double header with arch-rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal’s title chances slip away as they limp to two disappointing draws against Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford. There’s better news in the FA Cup fifth round, as a superlative lob from Nicholas helps his team see off Allan Clarke’s Barnsley. There’s disappointment in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, though. The prolific Clive Allen nets the only goal at Highbury in a match that Tottenham largely dominate. The chances of Arsenal defeating Hoddle, Waddle and co at White Hart Lane a month later appear remote...
A bleak month for Arsenal as far as the league goes. The Gunners fail to win a single game, losing to Chelsea, Liverpool, Watford and Everton, without scoring a single goal in the process. "It’s disappointing, but I still feel that part of the problem is that we’re not yet experienced enough to fight on all three fronts," admits Graham. After a turbulent FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury against Watford, that becomes one front – despite going ahead through Ian Allinson, Arsenal crash out 3-1 to Graham Taylor’s men. Controversially, Niall Quinn appears to impeded in the Watford box with the Gunners trailing 2-1 in the dying seconds, but Watford break away and score, leaving the ground in a state of uproar. But after a seven-year absence Arsenal are back at Wembley thanks to a history-defining two games at White Hart Lane. Trailing 1-0 in the second leg and 2-0 on aggregate after Clive Allen’s goal, Anderson and Quinn strike to level the scores and force a replay. Three days later, despite again falling behind to yet another Allen goal, Ian Allinson squeezes home an equaliser, before David Rocastle seizes on a loose ball and buries his shot under Ray Clemence in the Tottenham goal. “Arsenal are through to Wembley," barks ITV commentator Brian Moore, and Gunners players and fans celebrate long into the night at the Lane.
The green shoots of recovery start to come through in the league as the Gunners revive their fortunes, albeit too late to mount a challenge to champions-elect Everton. Davis and Hayes score the vital goals in a 2-1 defeat of Charlton at home, teenage striker Paul Merson announces his arrival on the scene with a goal in a 2-1 win at Wimbledon and Arsenal hammer Leicester City 4-1 (Martin Hayes grabs another brace) at Highbury. City’s Alan Smith – already aware that he’ll join Graham’s emerging side in the summer – has a quiet game as his Leicester career nears its end. Then on a beautiful April day at Wembley in front of 96,000 fans, Graham’s team land silverware. Despite falling behind to a customary Ian Rush goal, the Gunners don’t lose their collective heads, and fight back through a brace from Charlie Nicholas. The first is a tap-in following a melee from Paul Davis’s free kick, and the second deflects off Liverpool’s Ronnie Whelan following Nicholas’ side-foot shot. "I’m hoping that this will be just the start of Arsenal’s rejuvenation," says a delighted George Graham.
Martin Hayes finishes off the league season in fine style, scoring in the wins against Aston Villa and QPR, and midfielder Graham Rix makes a welcome return from injury at Loftus Road, scoring twice in a 4-1 win. There’s news of another summer signing by Graham – left back Nigel Winterburn will join from Wimbledon in the close season. And so the rebuilding continues...
Final Championship table
|15||West Ham United||42||14||10||18||52||67||52|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||42||13||11||18||48||64||50|