"The reaction Arsenal players received after losing the 1969 League Cup final to Swindon Town was so bad that you’d think we should have packed up football and gone and played marbles or tiddlywinks instead,” admitted former Gunners winger George Armstrong in 1990.
For the disconsolate Arsenal players, many of whom had been present and correct when the Gunners also lost to Leeds United in the 1968 League Cup final, there was no escaping the newspaper reports which appeared to revel in Bertie Mee’s men’s humiliating loss to the Third Division side. “Some players fell by the wayside after that, but those that remained used the headlines as a spur,” explained goalkeeper Bob Wilson.
It was the Daily Express’s Desmond Hackett – known for turning up to football press boxes around the country in his trademark brown bowler hat – who filed the most infamous report, but the Sunday Express’s Alan Holby teed up his colleague the day before.
“Arsenal, slaves of their own system, methodical but utterly predictable, were finally unhinged by the individual brilliance and flair of the Swindon stars – the small town Cinderellas whom cynics expected to lose to the North London favourites by a bucketful of goals,” Holby wrote.
Hackett said in his piece on the Monday: “Look with admiration at these heroic athletes from the Third Division who reduced the traditions of Arsenal to a miserable myth... Arsenal betrayed the pride of London.” In case Express readers hadn’t quite grasped the meaning of Hackett’s report, it was headed ‘THE SHAME OF ARSENAL’.
It was the most infamous Arsenal occasion since Herbert Chapman’s team was defeated in the FA Cup by Walsall some 36 years earlier. Admittedly, the conditions at Wembley were horrendous – the pitch had been reduced to an energy-sapping mixture of sand, mud and water, with hundreds of gallons of water pumped off in the days before the game, and eight Arsenal players had been laid low with a chest infection in the previous week – but there were no excuses.
Swindon goalkeeper Peter Downsborough played the game of his life, making several superb last-ditch saves, the best of which was a fine stop from a Jon Sammels volley. Defender Ian Ure’s ill-judged backpass to Bob Wilson allowed Roger Smart to nip in and score the first. Striker Bobby Gould grabbed a late equaliser and began to cry when he realised that his wife was providing a running commentary for his blind father up in the stands.
Arsenal coach Don Howe pleaded unsuccessfully with the referee to abandon the game as it went into extra time. Don Rogers plunged the dagger into Arsenal’s hearts in that torturous half-hour with a tap-in from a corner, and a quicksilver run from the halfway line, after which he drove the ball past Wilson from an acute angle. Arguably the most jarring image of the day was of a dazed and stunned McLintock wandering lost among the band of the Royal Engineers.
“At that moment, I was wondering if I was cursed, destined never to achieve anything of note in the game,” admitted the former Leicester City player, who had already lost two FA Cup finals at Wembley with the east Midlanders as well as the previous season’s League Cup with Arsenal. “Luckily, I had a strong family around me to lift me, and I guess I had a mean streak inside me which meant I just couldn’t give up.”
In London’s Mayfair, comedian Bob Monkhouse – who prepared to welcome the Arsenal on the Saturday night after the League Cup final – had to alter his routine to reflect Swindon’s unexpected success, and of course, Hackett busied himself writing his piece for the Monday press. The day after the League Cup final defeat, Mee spent Sunday at home with his family, “gathering my thoughts and spending most of the morning fending off journalists who wanted to speak to me.” His policy was to avoid speaking to tabloid hacks in the aftermath of matches, which explains the lack of explosive Mee quotes in the archives.
On the Monday morning, Mee and Howe met with the deflated Arsenal players, and in time honoured Mee fashion, he delivered a ‘let’s get on with it’ type of speech. “I told them that the team spirit we’d nurtured would not disintegrate, rather that we would gain strength and come back from adversity and negative headlines. I looked into the eyes of all my men, and although I saw disappointment and hurt, I also saw hunger and desire, none more so than in the eyes of Frank McLintock. I thought that if he, after all he’d been through, remained strong, then this team would stay resolute.”
Bob Wilson recalls, “We could have gone home, gone to bed, pulled the covers over ourselves, and stayed there. Instead, we came out fighting.”
The players immediately looked on the only positive they could draw upon from the whole experience. There was still a Fairs Cup place up for grabs if they could finish in the top four in the league, which remained a distinct possibility if they could stabilise quickly.
Mee and Howe, who realised that Arsenal were lacking in key areas, made two key tactical switches. George Graham, who had been a substitute at Wembley, was asked by Mee and Howe to play in the number six shirt as an old- fashioned left-half, who could play in midfield and ghost into the box to score some goals. His relaxed skill on the ball – hence his nickname ‘Stroller’ – made him an obvious choice for the role. More unorthodox was chief-scout Gordon Clark’s suggestion that McLintock could be converted from a high-energy, occasionally rash midfielder, into an effective centre back. Both were inspired tactical moves, as Arsenal went from strength to strength, winning the Fairs Cup in 1970, and the Double in 1971.
Hackett continued to cover London matches, and write provocative headlines. He regularly bumped into the Arsenal players, several of whom reminded him that the harsh headline he penned during one of the club’s darkest hours had, ultimately, had a galvanising effect on many of the players as they ensured the trophies once again returned to Highbury.
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