The low point of the Billy Wright era arrived when his Arsenal team faced Leeds United in the final home league game of the 1965/1966 season.
Only 4,554, Arsenal’s record lowest home attendance, turned up. Youth team graduates including John Radford, George Armstrong, and Peter Storey were breaking into the first team, but Arsenal were struggling badly, and finished just four points outside relegation. Something needed to be done, urgently. With the country still wallowing in World Cup winning bliss, Wright and his star performer George Eastham (who signed for Stoke City) had both departed Highbury.
On June 20, 1966, Arsenal’s physiotherapist and trainer Bertie Mee took over as acting manager in place of Wright. Arsenal players including Frank McLintock admitted they felt fairly underwhelmed by Mee’s elevation to the top job, but during his first season in charge, the Gunners finished a creditable seventh in the league, and more stars of Arsenal’s future, including Bob McNab and George Graham arrived from Huddersfield and Chelsea respectively.
Mee was able to start fusing his new signings with the emerging youngsters, which now also included Peter Simpson. Goalkeeper Bob Wilson, still battling with Jim Furnell to make the number one position his own, explained: “Bertie could be pompous at times. But as players, we still respected him. He would remind us that we were playing for a club which demanded and expected the best, and we rose to the challenge.”
Frank McLintock recalled: “Bertie wasn’t great at coaching. But he was forward thinking, in appointing top coaches like Dave Sexton and Don Howe and allowed them to get on with the job.”
In the late ‘60s, after a 16 year absence, Mee finally led the Gunners back to Wembley, and two League Cup Finals. The Gunners lost both games, but the lessons learned by Mee and his team were invaluable. The final against Leeds in 1968 was dour and dirty. Leeds won their first trophy of the Revie era, in a physical encounter which often threatened to boil over, courtesy of Terry Cooper’s disputed volley.
Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter jostled and barged Furnell, impeding his vision and attempting to knock him off balance, as Cooper took aim and fired his shot into the top corner of the net.
Arsenal’s midfield enforcer Peter Storey noticed how the Yorkshire side put “contacts” out on the opposition, and successfully gave as good as he got throughout the match. Bertie Mee realised that if the Club were to be successful, a backbone of steel was required.
A year later, Arsenal were back to face Swindon. The Gunners were hot favourites to land the trophy against a team two layers beneath them in the league pyramid, but for all sorts of reasons, including a diabolical playing surface, and a flu bug which had swept through the squad, this wouldn’t be their day.
Initially, Arsenal began brightly, and had chance after chance, but Town’s ‘keeper Peter Downsborough made some brilliant stops. The Wiltshire side took the lead after a mix up between ‘keeper Bob Wilson and defender Ian Ure. As time ticked on, Arsenal grew wearier, but with just four minutes of full time left, Bobby Gould touched home to equalise. It still wasn’t meant to be, and Swindon’s Don Rogers scored twice in extra time to win it for the Third Division side.
The initial reaction from the players was one of total shock. Skipper Frank McLintock remained inconsolable for several days, and his mood was hardly improved when the next day, one newspaper headline read: “Arsenal, The Shame Of London.”
He later recalled: “The team could have easily lost heart and declined after losing that final. Bertie and Don could have decided enough was enough, and sold off many of the players from that losing team. But instead, we regrouped, and vowed that never, ever again, would we read headlines like ‘The Shame of London.’”
The core of the squad remained intact, and after finishing a promising fourth in 1969, could at least look forward to playing in the Fairs Cup. After disposing of Glentoran, Sporting Lisbon, FC Rouen and Dinamo Bacau in earlier rounds, they made headlines by thrashing Ajax 3-0 at Highbury in the first leg of the semi final, and losing by just a single goal in the return.
Arsenal now faced crack Belgian outfit Anderlecht in a two legged final. Seventeen painfully long years had passed since Arsenal lifted a trophy, and in front of a hostile Belgian crowd, who whistled every time an Arsenal player touched the ball, the Gunners were destroyed by Dutch star Jan Mulder during the first leg. “He taught us a new kind of football that night,” confessed George Armstrong. “We learnt that if you gave guys like that too much room in games, they’d kill you.” Anderlecht won 3-1, after Kennedy’s late header gave the team – in the Daily Mirror’s words – a “Ray Of Hope” for the second leg. But that was about all.
A week later, 57,000 roaring fans flocked to the return leg, in what turned out to be arguably the greatest Highbury night of them all. Arsenal exploded into life on the half hour mark. From a Sammels pass, Eddie Kelly sidestepped his marker, and smashed an unstoppable shot past Anderlecht keeper Jean-Marie Trappeniers. In the 17th minute, the crowd’s non stop chanting finally paid dividends as a mud splattered John Radford headed in a George Armstrong cross. Two minutes later, Jon Sammels blasted home a third to bring Arsenal to within touching distance of the trophy. The referee blew his whistle after four minutes of injury time. Arsenal had landed their first trophy since 1953.
The scenes in the aftermath were astounding. For Bob Wilson, the memories of that evening remain as fresh as ever: “The final whistle brought an outpouring – a release. All that pent up frustration in the fans and players was gone in flash. If you think about some of the older members of the crowd, they had seen the great sides of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and finally the slumbering giant had awoken. All the crowd – it seemed – came over the barriers at the final whistle, and the police knew that it was a friendly pitch invasion. So they turned a blind eye. I was determined to do the lap of hour, because it had been such a journey, and we were all so fed up with being runners up. We believed this could be the start of something massive for Arsenal.”
So it proved. The 1970-71 season would prove to be one of the most dramatic and remarkable in the Gunners’ history.
- Frank McLintock’s geeing up of the Highbury crowd during the Fairs Cup Final was described by George Armstrong as “...maybe the most decisive intervention by any Arsenal captain.”
- Charlie George’s masterful performance against Ajax at Highbury in the Fairs Cup Semi Final prompted a young Johann Cruyff to describe him as “...a world star of the future.”
- Jon Sammels described the moment he scored the third goal of the Fairs Cup Final as “...mind blowing. A surge of electricity went right through me.”