“I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen to us in 1971, certainly not me,” admitted former Gunners coach Don Howe, “but when you examine what was in place at the Club by 1970, it was our time. Everything clicked.”
Arsenal entered the brave new technicolor age with the Fairs Cup under their belt, and a quiet confidence that they could challenge Don Revie’s Leeds, Harry Catterick’s Everton and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool for the top prizes. At the heart of it was a siege mentality amongst the squad which had been engendered firstly by the vicious tabloid headlines aimed at the team after the League Cup Final defeat to Swindon, and the giddy sense of achievement the players felt after the Fairs Cup was secured.
Plenty of players have spoken of the team spirit which was evident throughout the ‘double’ season, but captain Frank McLintock is most succinct of all: “We would fight and die for each other – and you saw this throughout the 70/71 season.”
On the eve of the campaign, Bertie Mee told the Evening Standard that the Club had a “magnificent blend of players. We have a fine, tight defence who work as a unit. Frank McLintock marshals them superbly. Our midfield sticks tight to the opposition, and Peter Storey is highly effective at snuffing out possible threats. And up front we have an excellent old fashioned centre forward – John Radford – and the youthful exuberance of young Charlie George. Some of our critics say we are functional, but I would point out that Charlie (George) and George (Graham) would lighten up any sides with their skills.”
On the opening day of the season, George broke his ankle when he collided with Toffees ‘keeper Gordon West, and the Gunners escaped with a 2-2 draw. Some suggested that George’s injury destroyed any chance the Gunners had of lifting silverware, but into the mix came Ray Kennedy, whose late header away at Anderlecht a few months earlier gave notice of his enormous potential.
It wasn’t quite how Bertie Mee planned it, but the sheer physical presence of Radford and Kennedy up front lent Arsenal a physical, muscular threat in the opposition’s box, and would prove crucial throughout the season.
Although Leeds quickly raced to the top of the league, Arsenal served notice of their intentions by putting Manchester United and Tottenham to the sword at Highbury early in the season. Radford’s hat-trick and Bob Wilson’s famous save at the feet of George Best visibly lifted everyone’s confidence against the Red Devils, and George Armstrong’s double strike against Spurs sent another gargantuan crowd home happy after a North London derby.
Ironically, it was a 5-0 thrashing at Stoke which proved to be the first of the season’s great turning points. Bob Wilson recalled: “Bertie told us (and we knew it) that we’d let ourselves down in the game, and that it was unthinkable it could happen again. It was almost like a ‘Swindon’ moment and we vowed to learn from the experience, and move on. We did.”
There followed a 14-game unbeaten game in the league, before defeats at Liverpool and Huddersfield appeared to have derailed Arsenal’s (seemingly) slim hopes of lifting the First Division trophy.
By the New Year, Arsenal were just about clinging onto Leeds’ coat tails, and with the FA Cup now underway, the games came thick and fast. “I’m sure we were drained a lot of the time,” explained McLintock, “but you didn’t really have time to think, and it was such a whirlwind that you just kept looking forward to the next game.” The Gunners cruised past Yeovil, and edged out Portsmouth in the Cup, before Charlie George announced his return to fitness with an excellent double at highflying Man City in the fifth round. His celebration (flopping down on his back in the Maine Road mud) after his second goal proved to be a portent of things to come, and the freshness and verve which he brought to Arsenal’s attack would prove crucial in the New Year.
On March 27, Mee’s side were six points behind Leeds with two games in hand, and just eight to play. At 4.45pm on that Saturday, Arsenal found themselves 2-0 down to Stoke City in their FA Cup Semi- Final at Hillsborough. Seemingly down and out, they summoned up the reserves to remain calm in the face of almost certain defeat, and snatched a draw. Arsenal pulled a goal back from a Peter Storey volley, and then in injury time won a penalty after Stoke’s John Mahoney handled the ball on the line. In a ‘face-off’ with the world’s number one goal ‘keeper Gordon Banks, Storey lived up to his ‘Cold Eyes’ nickname, and slotted the ball home. The Gunners comfortably won the replay at Villa Park, and reached their first FA Cup Final in 19 years.
In the league, they’d begun to close the gap on Leeds (who’d infamously lost at home to struggling WBA after a highly controversial goal) and started to grind out precious 1-0 wins. Even after losing at Elland Road in late April, Arsenal knew that with three wins the ‘double’ would be theirs.
First of all, the Gunners edged out Stoke thanks to Eddie Kelly’s late goal, before the title showdown with Spurs at White Hart Lane. Goal average could have decided the title had the Gunners drawn, but Ray Kennedy’s title clinching header, with thousands locked out of the ground, sparked wild scenes of jubilation amongst Gunners fans inside the ground. Five days later, on a baking north London day, Arsenal went into battle with Liverpool at Wembley. Liverpool took the lead in extra time after Steve Heighway beat Bob Wilson at his near post.
The Gunners fought back, and Eddie Kelly toe poked the ball past Ray Clemence for an equaliser. Destiny lay at the feet of the exhausted Charlie George, and after a passing interchange with John Radford, he blasted his shot into Liverpool’s net to make it 2-1, and then indulged himself with his famous celebration.
“There were those who said we lacked flair and quality,” admitted Mee, “but we had other qualities, including team spirit and togetherness which were superb.” “I’m not sure I realised the enormity of what we’d achieved,” said George later. “Some of the younger players thought that this would happen every year.”
- Only three of the regular team that season – McNab, McLintock and Graham – had cost a fee. The £100,000 signing from Hibs – Peter Marinello – could only manage one full game
- Eddie Kelly’s FA Cup Final goal was initially credited to George Graham before ITV cameras from behind the goal proved that Arsenal’s equaliser belonged to Kelly
- The infamous brawl between Lazio and Arsenal players in Rome sparked wild claims by Italians of revenge in the Highbury return. In fact, it turned out to be a rather tame 2-0 win for the Gunners