In every matchday programme, Arsenal historian Jon Spurling reveals the story behind a famous newspaper headline.
In the lead up to Double-chasing Arsenal’s pivotal FA Cup semi-final with Stoke City at Hillsborough in March 1971, midfielder Peter Storey vowed to avenge the Gunners’ humiliating 5-0 defeat at the Victoria Ground in the league earlier that season.
“A defeat like that is a blot on our record this season and we will be determined to rub it out,” Arsenal’s designated penalty taker told the Evening Standard. “One thing’s for sure. We will be mentally prepared for them this time. We will be treating them just like Leeds”.
The England international concluded the interview by adding, “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to stick one (a penalty) past Gordon Banks in the semi-final. That would really be something, wouldn’t it?”
They proved to be prophetic words.
For the first 20 minutes of the game, the teams indulged in a phoney war; playing keep-ball and knocking the ball around in neat triangles. Then, on 20 minutes, Tony Waddington’s Stoke drew first blood. Goalkeeper Bob Wilson turned Jimmy Greenhoff’s effort around the post, and from Harry Burrows’ corner, Stoke centre half Denis Smith nudged it on. Arsenal half cleared their lines, but the ball only rolled back out towards Smith, with Storey the last line of defence in front of Wilson. Storey toe poked the ball against Smith’s ankle, and watched in horror as it ballooned upwards and looped over Wilson into the top right-hand corner of the goal.
Nine minutes later, Burrows flicked on a long ball from defence, which was intercepted by Charlie George midway inside his own half. Controlling the ball on his chest, he opted to pass the ball back to Wilson. It fell agonisingly short, and John Ritchie nipped in, took the ball around Wilson and slotted the ball into the empty net in front of the ecstatic Stoke fans who were shoehorned in the Leppings Lane End. As a shell-shocked Arsenal limped towards half time, their Double dreams hung by a thread.
They clawed their way back into the match shortly after John Mahoney missed a golden opportunity to increase Stoke’s lead. A George Armstrong throw was hooked onwards by Ray Kennedy, and the ball was nodded clear to the edge of the box, where Storey lurked with intent. The Arsenal midfielder cracked the ball on the half volley, and it took a slight deflection as it rocketed past Banks. It was a sublime finish.
With the match nearly up, referee Pat Partridge added two minutes of injury-time. With the game in its death throes, Armstrong floated over a corner, which Frank McLintock nodded powerfully to the left of Banks, who couldn’t get near the header. Instead, Mahoney dived to push the ball away with his hand. Partridge pointed to the spot. Banks later talked of a sense of “fatalism” washing over him.
The pendulum had swung. As the Arsenal players hugged one another in celebration at the penalty being awarded, Storey knew that he still had his job to do from the spot. “It was one of those defining moments which I sensed would live with me forever,” he later recalled. "Miss and Arsenal would be out of the FA Cup and I’d never hear the end of it.”
The Steel City was a suitably raw and unvarnished venue for the player his team-mates labelled ‘Cold Eyes’ to stamp his mark indelibly in Arsenal’s long history. Storey skipped slightly as he approached the ball, and drove it straight down the middle to Banks’s left, as the England keeper shifted his body weight to the right. Framed by the Spion Kop behind him, Storey immediately stopped dead as he dispatched the ball, throwing his hands into the air. It was 2-2. Arsenal had saved themselves and forced a replay.
Such was Bertie Mee’s sense of relief that he later told the Sunday Times’ Rob Hughes: “I feel like I have won the FA Cup itself after today.”
Gordon Banks spoke confidently afterwards about finishing the job at Villa Park in the replay three days later. “But we knew that we had them,” claimed Ray Kennedy, “and I think they did too.” At Villa Park in front of 60,000, a header from George Graham and a tap in from Kennedy (Banks barely moved for either goal) meant that Arsenal went to Wembley to face Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
Down the years, Peter Storey downplayed his role in the semi-final, insisting that he simply “did his job”. The drama of the events at Hillsborough led to some memorable headlines. In the Sunday Times, Brian Glanville claimed: “Arsenal’s penalty unmakes history.”
Other newspapers preferred to focus on the hero of the hour’s surname. ‘Storey, Storey hallelujah!’ was one offering, but perhaps the tall, bespectacled Reg Drury’s headline in the News Of The World, 'A Storey Book Ending' captured the mood best. In the article, Drury waxed lyrical about Arsenal’s fight and determination – though he did describe the Gunners as being ‘lucky.’ He also spoke of Storey’s day of ‘personal glory.’ Arsenal’s team ethic that season was phenomenal, and even now, players confirm that “no one was bigger than the team.”
But in individual games that campaign, different players came to the fore at different times, meaning that certain matches were destined to become their signature 90 minutes. Hillsborough rightly belongs to Storey. Even the man himself, known for his insistence on getting on with the task, admits in his autobiography, “It can be all too convenient to claim you win as a team and lose as a team. That way of thinking can soften the blow for a player who has cocked things up. Yes, it is a team game, but sometimes individuals must show bottle.”
As well as being the cup ‘Storey of the season’ (as Drury put it), it was the day on which Arsenal came through with flying colours after their credentials, quite literally, were put on the spot.
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