Although the Gunners had lost three out of the four cup finals they had played in between 1978 to 1980, the fighting spirit and respect they had gained across Europe for the defeat of Juventus in Turin confirmed the status of Terry Neill’s side.
Yet despite the heroics of the previous campaign, the fact remained that Arsenal would not be competing in Europe for the 1980/81 season and they would have to make do without the talismanic Liam Brady. The midfielder had signed for Juventus for a paltry £500,000, when the Gunners had been talking of raking in £1.5 million if the Irishman signed for Manchester United. Maybe it was better that Brady was out of sight – if not out of mind – and within days of Brady’s departure, Neill moved for QPR’s exciting young striker Clive Allen, bringing him in for a whopping £1.2 million.
The conspiracy theories still rumble as to why Allen never kicked a ball in a full game for Arsenal (Neill maintains that Allen, Sunderland and Stapleton up front was akin to a “traffic jam”), but before the season even began, Allen was on his way to Crystal Palace, and full-back Kenny Sansom came in the other direction. It was all slightly bizarre, but Sansom remained a key player for the Gunners for the best part of a decade, and fellow Palace midfielder Peter Nicholas was given the unenviable task of trying to fill the void Brady left.
Ironically, given the gloom and doom enveloping N5 after Brady’s departure, the team responded well in the league, finishing third - their highest position in eight years. There was a memorable final league home game that season, with Arsenal defeating Aston Villa 2-0 in front of over 57,000 fans, on the day the Midlands outfit were crowned champions. Yet the team crashed out of the early rounds of the domestic cups and rumours began circulating that Frank Stapleton, top scorer that season with 16 goals, wanted out. In the close season, Arsenal fans’ worst fears were realised when he departed to Manchester United for £900,000.
The sense of disappointment was palpable, especially when no big-name replacements were brought in to replace Arsenal’s departing striker. Neill placed his faith in a new crop of young Gunners – including Paul Davis, Chris Whyte, and Raphael Meade – and hoped that they would have the same impact that the Brady/Stapleton breed of starlets had had eight years earlier. But it was tough on Neill’s ‘new breed’.
Young striker and current Reading boss Brian McDermott explained: “We often felt the crowd’s frustration, and we knew that they were disappointed with how things were going. Neill said (about Brady’s and Stapleton’s departure): ‘How do you replace the irreplaceable?’ and I guess he had a point. But it made life very hard for those of us who were still at Highbury.”
Neill’s youngsters finished a creditable fifth in 1981/82 but struggled in the league the following year, tailing off in 10th position as Liverpool won yet another league title in Bob Paisley’s final season in charge. The nadir was reached when Tottenham routed Arsenal 5-0 at White Hart Lane, and Frank Stapleton returned to Highbury to haunt his former colleagues with a brace as United won 4-2 in the first leg of the Milk Cup semi-final to run out 6-3 winners on aggregate. United also beat the Gunners 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park.
With crowds falling below the 20,000 mark, the team was struggling to move forward. Neill freely admitted that Arsenal were treading water, and even apologised to the supporters in the final league match of the ‘82/83 season at home to Sunderland. This was despite Neill bringing Cologne forward Tony Woodcock, and Red Star Belgrade playmaker Vladimir Petrovic to Highbury.
Woodcock, although inconsistent, added a touch of class to proceedings but the mercurial Yugoslav, despite some flashes of brilliance, struggled to find his feet in the hurly burly world of ‘80s football. In the 1983 close season, Neill took the plunge and for £650,000, signed Celtic starlet Charlie Nicholas, beating off competition from United and Liverpool in the process. The media glare on the 21 year-old was intense, and Nicholas, struggling with an ankle injury, didn’t net a home goal until December - although he did display his penchant for the big occasion by scoring against Tottenham on three separate occasions that season.
Neill’s Arsenal side was ludicrously inconsistent, perfectly illustrated by the fact that after they won at Spurs in the Milk Cup, Third Division Walsall travelled to Highbury and stunned the hosts by winning 2-1 in the next round. It was a shock almost as big as the one the Midlands outfit had inflicted on the Gunners half a century earlier, and few days later, Neill was sacked. “I’ll never know how the team could have played so well against Tottenham, but then play like a bunch of pantomime horses against Walsall,” Neill admitted as he departed Highbury.
Coach Don Howe stepped into the breach and Arsenal rallied after Christmas to finish sixth, partly thanks to the arrival of Ipswich and England striker Paul Mariner, who added a strong physical presence up front.
On paper, Howe had a strong side for the ‘84/85 campaign. England full-backs Sansom and Viv Anderson marauded forwards down the flanks, and in Davis, Stewart Robson, and Steve Williams, the nucleus of a strong midfield began to appear. With Nicholas and Woodcock in excellent early season form, the Gunners shot to the top of the table by mid October, the highlight of that dazzling spell a 3-1 home win over champions Liverpool in front of 50,000 at Highbury.
Yet again the wheels came off by Christmas, and Arsenal laboured home in seventh position. On January 26, 1985, York City completed one of the most infamous giant killings in FA Cup history, as a Keith Houchen penalty consigned the Gunners to humiliating exit.
It was a turbulent period in Arsenal’s history, but Don Howe was about to unleash a new generation of Gunner which would enable the Club to rule English football by the end of the decade, albeit under a different managerial incumbent.
- During the Highbury UEFA Cup match against Belgian outfit Winterslag in 1981, substitute Willie Young had three ‘goals’ disallowed
- Midfielder Brian Talbot said his stunning free-kicks against Newcastle and Liverpool at the start of the ‘84/85 campaign were inspired by watching Michel Platini at the 1984 European Championships
- On the opening day of the 1983/84 campaign at home to Luton, the Club announced the start of the Junior Gunners. Daniel Quy had the honour of being Arsenal’s first mascot