It is easy to forget both how hard it is to keep a team that has not been used to playing at the top, at the top, and how easy it is to slip into the relegation mire.
Such is the way of football memory. Arsene Wenger is berated by a small bunch of forgetfuls for not winning trophies more regularly since delivering the two doubles and the unbeaten season, but it is worth looking back to what happened after the first double-winning season under Bertie Mee in 1971.
For what is often forgotten is that on March 25, 1975 the newspaper headline was “Luton force relegation anxiety on Arsenal” following the appalling result, Luton Town 2-0 Arsenal.
And this was not a game in which Arsenal put out a totally lesser known team. True they had injuries, suspensions and illness that shuffled the squad around quite a bit, but even so, it wasn’t an utterly hopeless line up: Rimmer, Rice, Mancini, Simpson, Nelson, Storey, Ball, Brady, Rostrom, Radford, Hornsby.
Here is the league table after that defeat (bottom three in relegation zone):
Division One table - March 25, 1975
The match report read…
“The Luton Town escape act continues. Two second half goals brought them their third successive win and their revival must have the teams just above them including Arsenal looking over their shoulders with increasing anxiety…”
And this match wasn’t a smash and grab by Luton. They got 12 corners in the first half to Arsenal’s nil. Mancini, Rice and Rimmer were singled out as the players that kept Arsenal in the game in the first half, and that determination and Luton’s poor finishing kept Arsenal in the game. The Gunners had one shot on target - a tame header from Radford - and one punt wide in that first half.
"The noise rattled around the terraced houses that penned in the ground and Arsenal looked like a team that just wanted to get out of there"
Luton kept up the pressure in the second half – they had all the belief and Arsenal didn’t. A Luton corner went to Husband, his shot was deflected, Rimmer was on the wrong side of the goal, Sammy Nelson dived and saved. In those days it was not a sending off offence, but just a penalty. Luton scored.
Seven minutes later it got worse. Buckley crossed and Futcher headed in. Radford tried to rally the troops and headed against the crossbar but Luton kept going forwards.
The ground, if you know it, is tiny, and the facilities in those days were of a standard that would be rejected in the Conference for this century. But the noise rattled around the terraced houses that penned in the ground and Arsenal looked like a team that just wanted to get out of there.
Of the newcomers there was a feeling still that Rostrom ought to make it, but he really needed a more balanced team to play in. With Ball about to miss the next three games with a suspension, he wasn’t going to get it and the future was not looking good.
In the end Arsenal did survive, and so did Tottenham by just one point, although Chelsea found themselves with such luminaries as Luton and Carlisle in making the descent – and they didn’t even manage to bounce straight back.
Following this match Arsenal managed three wins, two draws and three defeats in the remaining games, and so missed relegation by four points. But overall the speed of Arsenal’s collapse was hard to comprehend:
- 1969/70 – won the Fairs Cup
- 1970/71 – won the Double
- 1971/2 – 5th in the league, losing cup finalists
- 1972/3 – 2nd in the league, cup semi-finalists,
- 1973/4 – 10th in the league, knocked out of the league cup by Tranmere
Here is the final table for 1974/5, as I say, just four years after the double (bottom three relegated):
Division One Final Table 1974/5
|20||Luton Town (R)||42||11||11||20||33|
|22||Carlisle United (R)||42||12||5||25||29|