George Swindin’s signing of Newcastle star George Eastham in 1960 for a gigantic £47,500 fee appeared to be a step in the right direction but the problem was that, as the Club’s most high profile signing, a great deal was required of the former Newcastle man.
He recalled: “I wasn’t fully match fit, as I’d been out of football for some time during my dispute with my old club. And as we know, Tottenham were doing rather well too!” Swindin had been linked with a host of big name signings, but all – bar Eastham – failed to materialise. The Club appeared to lack the ambition to win the league again, and Swindin took the blame.
Swindin’s final season in charge typified his time at the Club. He’d pleaded with David Herd before 1961/62 not to go to Manchester United – but Herd explained: “It was impossible to resist the lure of Old Trafford and Matt Busby.” Swindin also became embroiled in a dispute with George Eastham over where exactly his best position in the team was. As Arsenal trudged along, ending up in tenth position, all the early signs of promise three years earlier were rapidly fizzling away.
The Gunners were publicly linked with a move for Bill Wright – the former Wolves and England star – and Swindin realised “… my time was up. I realised it would take someone else to restore winning ways to Arsenal”. At grassroots level, future ‘double’ winners Peter Simpson and George Armstrong were being nurtured, but for now the mere mention of the word ‘double’ led to envious glances across north London to White Hart Lane.
As Swindin’s successor Billy Wright soon discovered, coaching the Gunners during the 1960s could be seriously damaging for your health. Wright arrived at Highbury amidst a fanfare of publicity. The board believed that his appointment would usher in a new era of glory at the Club, and on the face of it his appointment seemed to be an excellent one. Wright had a squeaky clean reputation, and his marriage to Joy from the Beverley Sisters even brought a faint smattering of glamour to the jaded Gunners.
The new boss wasted little time in splashing the cash. Striker Joe Baker, nicknamed the ‘laughing cavalier’, arrived from Torino for a gigantic £70,000. With his Elvis quiff, ready smile and fearless play in and around the box, he instantly became a crowd favourite. Baker scored a classic debut goal at Leyton Orient on his debut and with Eastham alongside him, conventional wisdom held that the Gunners were a team on the move.
They finished seventh in Wright’s first campaign. Baker netted 31 goals that year, but Eastham’s form suffered, and he scored just four in total. “We just kept getting in one another’s way,” Baker later commented. Eastham returned to pre-season training in 1963 to discover Billy Baker as a lone striker instead. Eastham asked for a transfer, but received letters of support from Arsenal fans, who respected his stand in the High Court, where his legal team had overturned the infamous football ‘slavery contract’.
In one of Wright’s few tactical successes, he converted Eastham into an inside right, which allowed the slick and stylish Baker– Eastham partnership to finally flourish. Off the transfer list, and with Alan Skirton – the ‘Highbury Express’ – supplying the bullets, Eastham became a fans’ favourite. He cemented his status by scoring two goals in an incredible 4-4 draw with Spurs at Highbury in 1964, watched by almost 70,000 fans. His form was so good that he won 19 caps in Alf Ramsey’s emerging England side, and writing in the Daily Mirror, Frank Taylor claimed: “George Best aside, Eastham’s soft shoe shuffles mean he is the First Division’s most elegant performer.”
In the meantime, more big names arrived at Highbury. Blonde haired Ian Ure was signed from Dundee for £62,500, a world record fee for a centre half, in order to shore up a leaky defence. Despite a disastrous debut at home to Wolves in 1963, when pacy Wolves forwards nipped around him at will, Ure settled down.
The truth was that Arsenal’s defence in the mid ‘60s just wasn’t good enough. Leicester’s Frank McLintock arrived for £80,000 and, playing originally in midfield, he also took time to settle. “I was a fairly undisciplined player during my early days at Arsenal,” he admitted. “It was partly because the team was struggling badly for form, and I was growing frustrated.” There was a clear undercurrent at the Club. In Ian Ure’s words: “It soon became clear that nice man though he was, Billy wasn’t a good manager. He wasn’t hard enough and he didn’t have the willpower to get the players to work together. Forwards played as forwards, and midfielders played as midfielders. The groups didn’t help one another out. Some players simply played for themselves”.
Ex Arsenal professionals from the era, while not wanting to criticise their colleagues, confirm that cliques, that most corrosive of growths, were spreading. Frank McLintock, in his book That’s The Way The Ball Bounces, confirms that Wright relied far too heavily on “the big names,” and that the team was never an interlocking whole, which is the key to all successful Arsenal sides. Haunted by the ghost of Herbert Chapman, Wright would shake his fist at Chapman’s bust, all too aware that he would never emulate his achievements.
In a bid to rid himself of the Chapman millstone, and stamp his authority on proceedings, Wright supposedly decided to abandon the famous red and white sleeves for the 1966/67 season prior to his dismissal on the eve of the season. For a year or so, Arsenal turned out in all red, for the first time in 50 years. Several years later, Frank McLintock admitted the change had been his idea, but poor old Billy Wright copped the blame anyway. It was hardly fair, but it was all the proof the traditionalists needed. Wright just wasn’t an Arsenal man.
As mid-table finishes, early cup exits and fan protests became the norm, the rapidly dwindling Highbury crowd’s patience was starting to run out…
- In September 1963, Arsenal played their first competitive European match against Danish outfit Staevnet, running out 7-1 winners in Denmark after hat-tricks from Geoff Strong and Joe Baker.
- The Gunners won 9-4 on aggregate On August 22, 1964, Arsenal played Liverpool at Anfield. The highlights of the game were the first to be screened on the BBC’s new football show – Match Of The Day
- In November 1965, several tabloids reported widespread demonstrations in the streets around Highbury before a league match against Everton. The protestors were venting their spleen about Billy Wright’s failure to improve Arsenal’s fortunes