I have something of a connection with our youngest supporters of today. Rewind to 1968 and Arsenal reached the League Cup final. The 11-year-old ‘holic was looking forward to watching his team win something for the first time. “Sorry son, we’re moving that weekend. We’ll be back again before long.” Fortunately, as it turned out, I missed us losing to dirty Leeds to a hotly-disputed goal.
Of course the ‘holicDad was true to his word. A year later we beat our friends and neighbours in the semi-final of the same competition with a last-gasp header by John Radford at the Lane. A fortnight later Third Division Swindon Town humbled Burnley in a replay and that first elusive trophy was about to become reality. When the tickets for the final became available the old fella wrote a lovely begging letter to Dick Jones, the Supporters Club secretary of the day, and four tickets for Wembley duly arrived in the post.
And so I remember us jumping in the family Cortina for the drive to the national stadium. It was a miserable grey day, but that didn’t matter because I was going to see Arsenal win a Cup. We had two terrace tickets which were taken by my sister and one of the lads from the local Cricket Club, while ‘holicDad and I made our way to the seats and took a first glimpse of the pitch.
A week earlier the International Horse of the Year Show, usually held in the indoor Empire Pool venue, had been staged on the lush turf for the first time. The surface showed the result of that ill-conceived decision. Essentially it was a mud flat with the odd patch of grass attempting to show through. The combination of heavy rain and a host of jumping horses had destroyed the playing area. That didn’t matter, because I was going to see Arsenal win a cup.
In the lead up to the game the papers had been full of Swindon’s injury woes. I don’t recall mention beforehand of any potential Arsenal casualties. The teams were announced and Swindon were at full strength. That didn’t matter, because I was going to see Arsenal win a cup.
The game started, and may sound familiar to Arsenal supporters of today. We pretty much controlled proceedings without creating much in the way of clear-cut opportunities. We were dominating possession, and the corner count. However in the 35th minute it was Swindon who grabbed the advantage following a rare break led by Don Rogers. The move seemed to have come to nothing when Ian Ure attempted a backpass that Bob Wilson was not expecting as he came to claim an overhit through ball. Roger Smart eventually bundled Peter Noble’s cross over the line. Calamity.
"A veritable sea of sheepskin and denim-clad skinheads turned the air blue, The atmosphere was on the turn. This was not in the script"
A veritable sea of sheepskin and denim-clad skinheads turned the air blue, the atmosphere was on the turn. This was not in the script. The second half saw continued Arsenal pressure with a little more of what might have constituted end product in different circumstances. A string of goalbound efforts were somehow saved by the Robins ‘keeper Peter Downsborough. One in particular from Jon Sammels will never leave me. It remains possibly the finest display I have seen from any goalkeeper at Wembley.
Then just as it looked as though all hope was lost we were level. George Graham fed a Peter Storey clearance into the path of Bobby Gould, and a kindly ricochet allowed him to head the Gunners level although in so doing he took a kick in the chest from Stan Harland that added blood to mud on the front of what underneath was a yellow shirt. That didn’t matter, because now surely, I was going to see Arsenal win a cup.
What we didn’t know at the time was that in the week leading up to the match a flu bug had swept through the Arsenal squad. Another half an hour on what was now a quagmire would prove to be too much for them. Unaware of that the shock of what happened in extra-time was only too painfully real. Swindon, and Rogers in particular, came out of their shell and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
In the final minute of the first added period we failed to deal with a corner and allowed Rogers to poach a goal from inside the six-yard box. To a 12-year-old it was a ghastly moment, but surely we would recover? Ure’s afternoon was not over.
"On the way home we stopped for a bag of chips, and for a while afterwards I associated the taste of chips with the taste of defeat"
The hapless centre half found himself on the left wing as Arsenal sought a second equaliser, but lost the ball carelessly to Smart and Penman immediately freed Rogers to run at Wilson. A dip of the shoulder, a swing of the right boot, and chants of “easy easy” from the tunnel end completed the humiliation. It is shown in black and white horror here.
As young boys do, I took the defeat badly, and in a strange way. On the way home we stopped for a bag of chips, and for a while afterwards I associated the taste of chips with the taste of defeat. I avoided them at all costs until a year later when hunger allied to a sensational European Fairs Cup Final triumph ended a foolish superstition.
Of course there was also Monday morning at school to be faced. Spurs fans of today will know only too well the venom I developed towards them at that time. We were still in with a mathematical chance of the title, but on an April afternoon in the Highbury sun dirty Leeds came and beat us to end that dream. Fifteen years without a trophy became 16, and I learned all about the lows that this amazing game we all love can dish out.