With Arsenal fans and players still giddy from the ‘double’ success, the Club was dealt a hammer blow in July 1971 with the news that first team coach Don Howe wanted to leave the Gunners and take over as manager at his former club West Bromwich Albion.
History proves that the move suited neither club, and at Highbury, players were dismayed at the turn of events. “Don was really the architect behind our ‘double’ success,” explained captain Frank McLintock, “and it never felt quite the same after he left.”
In ‘71/72, the defending champions ended the campaign in fifth place, six points behind champions Derby County. They had the honour of playing in their first European Cup campaign, and defeated Stromgodset and Grasshoppers before losing to Ajax in the quarter-finals. Defeated 3-1 by Johan Cruyff’s team on aggregate, the Gunners’ only realistic shot at glory came in the FA Cup.
Swindon, Reading, Derby and Orient were edged out before Mee’s men were once again paired against Stoke in the semi final. After drawing the first game 1-1 reserve goalkeeper Geoff Barnett, deputising for the injured Bob Wilson, helped see Arsenal through in the replay. The final against Leeds was a tight affair, and was settled when Allan Clarke scored after 53 minutes.
Alan Ball, Arsenal’s record £220,000 signing from Everton, left Wembley emptyhanded, and Charlie George, whose heroics landed the ‘double’ the season before, crashed a shot against the underside of the bar in the dying seconds. It was a case of, ‘what might have been?’ and the Gunners had narrowly failed to recapture the glory of 12 months earlier.
Arsenal came close to claiming another League and Cup ‘double’ in ‘72/73, but ended up with nothing. They finished runners up to Liverpool after going seven matches unbeaten at the start of the campaign, and were always there or thereabouts at the top of the table. In February, they went to Anfield and beat Bill Shankly’s men 2-0 on a cabbage patch pitch, but by now injuries and loss of form was starting to affect the team’s progress.
Charlie George, by now rarely seeing eye to eye with Mee, was in and out of the team, and like Eddie Kelly was on and off the transfer list. John Radford and Ray Kennedy also had spells on the treatment table. With an eye to the future, Mee brought in Coventry central defender Jeff Blockley for £200,000 in October ‘72.
It may be unfair on Blockley, but many Arsenal players from the time claim this was Mee’s biggest mistake, because it was clear that he was signed to replace McLintock in the not too distant future. “To us, Frank was still our leader, and an inspirational figure,” explained full-back Bob McNab, “and Blockley coming in suggested that Frank’s days were numbered. I don’t know whether it was nerves, or what it was, but Blockley was never good enough for Arsenal.”
In December 1972, George Graham departed to Manchester United for £120,000 (“He’s like Gunter Netzer,” claimed United boss Tommy Docherty). Yet for all the unease, the Gunners did come so close...
Only three points separated them from Liverpool at the end of the season, and going into the FA Cup Semi-Final against Second Division Sunderland at Hillsborough, Mee’s men must have been confident that they were on for a third consecutive FA Cup Final. But with a nervous looking Blockley replacing the injured McLintock, this was the Mackems’ day, and goals from Vic Halom and Billy Hughes took Bob Stokoe’s men to Wembley. Charlie George’s late effort counted for nothing. It was to be a pivotal moment – for all the wrong reasons – in Arsenal’s history, and in the close season, McLintock left for QPR.
Bertie Mee, who looked on as McLintock skippered QPR with great success over the next couple of years, confessed to having made a grave error of judgement (Blockley only stayed at Arsenal for 18 months), and Arsenal’s fortunes began to slide. In ‘73/74, they began the season in fine style, by hammering Man United 3-0 at Highbury in front of over 50,000, but ended the season in tenth, some 20 points behind champions Leeds.
In the cups, the story was similarly depressing, as Tranmere won at Highbury in the League Cup, and Aston Villa saw off the Gunners in the FA Cup. On the bright side, there were several new faces emerging on the scene, including that of Liam Brady, who made his debut as a substitute in the match against Birmingham in October 1973, and Irish apprentices Frank Stapleton and David O’Leary continued to make strides in the youth team.
But for now, Gunners fans could be forgiven for wondering how the great ‘double’ side had failed to make even more of an impact in the early 1970s. Bob Wilson retired, and another key part of the jigsaw, Ray Kennedy, was allowed to depart to Liverpool. In so doing, he became Bill Shankly’s last major signing for the Club.
Bertie Mee freshened up his forward line by signing Man United’s Brian Kidd for £110,000 in the summer of 1974, but he and John Radford never effectively dovetailed, despite Kidd netting an excellent 19 goals in his first full season at Highbury in ‘74/75. In October of that season, Arsenal actually found themselves bottom, but Kidd’s goal enabled the Gunners to pull clear, and eventually crawl into 16th place. It wasn’t what the crowd had been used to, and attendances regularly crashed to around the 20,000 mark.
As well as gradually introducing the “London Irish” generation, Mee also spotted a bargain in QPR’s Terry Mancini, whom he signed for just £20,000. “Ordinarily, I’d never have been considered an Arsenal player,” admits Mancini, “but that was how things were going at the Club at the time. They needed players who were willing to get stuck in and fight for the Club.”
The 1975 FA Cup competition appeared to offer salvation for the Gunners, but Second Division West Ham stunned Mee’s men by winning 2-0 at Highbury, thanks to two Alan Taylor goals, and in the process Arsenal lost their first ever home FA Cup tie to a London club.
It was an unsettling and depressing experience after the heroics of just four years earlier, but Arsenal’s guns would still be booming by the end of the decade.
- In September 1972, during Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Highbury, BBC commentator Jimmy Hill took over from the injured linesman
- Arsenal have only ever played one league game at Carlisle United, and it ended in a 2-1 defeat in December 1974
- Arsenal officially finished fourth in the FA Cup in 1973, after losing the third / fourth place play off to Wolves 2-1, with Brian Hornsby scoring the Gunners’ only goal