Great Reputations

Great Reputations: Arsenal 1968-70 – The Mee too generation

Arsenal parade, then go on to win again.

Photo: Press Association

WHEN Arsenal won the “double” in 1970-71, they received very little praise for their considerable efforts. Were it not for Charlie George’s messianic fall to the ground in the FA Cup final, Arsenal would be remembered for merely grinding-out results and out-slugging Leeds United’s relentless machine.

But the seeds of Arsenal’s triumph were sown in three seasons leading up to 1970-71. From 1953, when Arsenal won their seventh Football League title, the club had declined from its golden period and had been usurped by North London rivals Tottenham. The Gunners became a mid-table club with crowds in 1965-66 at Highbury dipping below 30,000 for the first time since before the arrival of Herbert Chapman.

The 1965-66 season saw Arsenal finish 14th despite the presence of former England skipper Billy Wright as manager. Wright was not a success as manager and in June 1966, the club made the surprise choice of appointing physiotherapist Bertie Mee as his replacement. Mee wasn’t totally convinced, either, and accepted with the caveat that if it didn’t work out, he could resume his physio duties.

Mee was a disciplinarian but essentially, a modest man with limited football knowledge. To compensate, he surrounded himself with good coaches, men like Dave Sexton and Don Howe. Initially, Mee took the job on a trial basis, but in March 1967, he made the move permanent.

By this time, Mee had started to mould the Arsenal side more to his liking. In October 1966, Arsenal signed full back Bob McNab from Huddersfield Town and within two years, he had been capped by England. At the same time, Mee acquired George Graham from Chelsea in a deal that saw Tommy Baldwin travel in the opposite direction. Mee also had in mind a number of young players, some of whom – such as Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson – had played for the Gunners’ FA Youth Cup final teams in 1965 and 1966. Arsenal ended 1966-67 season well, but they were never in the hunt for major honours.

The first signs of an Arsenal revival came in 1967-68. Mee’s team reached the Football League Cup final and faced Leeds United in a bad tempered game at Wembley. They lost 1-0 but it started a feud between the two clubs that reached its zenith in the early 1970s. That same week, Arsenal paid £ 90,000 for Coventry City’s Bobby Gould. The hard-working Gould had a lot of hope riding on him, but he never truly settled at Highbury and he didn’t stay too long.

Mee and Howe had built a team that was increasingly hard to beat and adept at shutting out the opposition. In 1968-69, Arsenal showed the first signs of their potential. They were unbeaten in their first nine league games, conceding just six goals in the process. Once again, they enjoyed a good run in the Football League Cup, beating neighbours Tottenham in the semi-final over two legs to reach a second successive final. Red-hot favourites they may have been against third division Swindon Town, but Mee’s men came unstuck on a dreadful Wembley surface and were victims of a major giant-killing.

A Don Rogers-inspired Swindon won 3-1 against an Arsenal team that was hampered by illness and just a little over confident. Arsenal were lambasted in the press, but this setback served to make the squad tighter and more determined to end the club’s trophy drought. And it didn’t stop Arsenal from finishing fourth in the table thanks to an excellent away record and a rock solid defence that conceded just 27 goals in 42 games.

Arsenal had qualified for European competition for only the second time in their history. Their previous appearance, in 1963-64, was in the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup but ended briefly in the second round in Liege. Spurs, Chelsea and West Ham had all enjoyed good European campaigns, but it had largely passed Arsenal by.

Mee made some changes to his squad at the start of 1969-70, letting centre half Ian Ure, who was at the heart of the Swindon defeat, go to Manchester United. His replacement was supposed to be John Roberts, signed from Northampton Town. But Roberts failed to establish himself at Arsenal and moved on in 1972 to Birmingham. As the season progressed, Gunners fans also saw the last of Northern Irishman Terry Neill as a player. In the summer, he would join Hull City as player-manager.

The most significant player movement for Arsenal was the arrival of two youngsters, Charlie George and Ray Kennedy, both of whom were blooded during 1969-70. There was no place for Gould, though, and he made less than a dozen appearances before finding himself on his way out of Highbury.

In the first weeks of 1970, the club attempted to add some flair to an otherwise workmanlike team, paying £100,000 for Peter Marinello, Hibernian’s George Best lookalike. With his long hair, trendy clothes, model girlfriend and jinking wing play, Marinello arrived in London on a wave of hype. “We’ve just signed the nearest thing that football has to the Beatles,” said one Arsenal director. Marinello was just 19 years’ old and although he scored on his debut, at Old Trafford of all places, the move to Arsenal seemed to overawe the young man from Edinburgh.

Arsenal’s league form was far from satisfactory. Marinello’s first appearance came during a 10-game run without a win. Arsenal had also gone out of the FA Cup cheaply, losing 1-2 at home to Blackpool and after two years in the Football League Cup final, the 1969-70 run ended in round three. Marinello was supposed to be about the future of Arsenal.

Europe provided a welcome distraction from a very average league campaign. The Fairs’ Cup could be an attritional competition and any team with ambitions of lifting the trophy would have to play 12 games.  Glentoran of Northern Ireland were beaten 3-1 on aggregate before Sporting Lisbon were overcome 3-0. A tough tie with Rouen of France saw Jon Sammels score the only goal over the two games to squeeze Arsenal through. Dinamo Bacau were then thrashed 9-1 on aggregate before a very daunting semi-final with Ajax Amsterdam and Johan Cruyff, the clear flavour of the month in European football.

Ajax were not yet the triple-crown winners of Europe, though, which was fortunate for Arsenal. This was Charlie George’s moment, for he netted twice in a 3-0 win against the Dutch. They lost the second leg 1-0 in Holland, but Arsenal were through to the final. Their opponents would be Belgium’s Anderlecht, who had disposed of three British clubs on the way, Coleraine, Newcastle United (the holders) and Dunfermline Athletic. They had also beaten Inter Milan in the semi-final. Furthermore, they had some genuine talent in their line-up, including Belgian international Paul Van Himst and the Dutchman Jan Mulder.

It was Mulder that tormented Arsenal in Brussels in the first leg of the final. He scored twice, following up on Johan Devrint’s opener to give Anderlecht a 3-0 lead. Arsenal looked buried, but substitute Ray Kennedy headed a consolation goal eight minutes from time to give the Londoners a glimmer of hope.

The second leg, on April 28, 1970, saw Arsenal go ahead after 25 minutes through Eddie Kelly, another young player who had made his bow in 1969-70. Arsenal remained patient, although Mulder hitting the woodwork jangled Highbury nerves. It wasn’t until the final quarter of an hour that Arsenal broke through, John Radford and Sammels scoring within a minute of each other. Arsenal had won, producing a miraculous comeback that had not looked possible a week earlier in the Belgian capital. The crowd streamed onto the Highbury pitch as Don Howe declared that victory was the start of a new dawn at the club.

He was right, to some extent. Arsenal won the “double” in 1971, but that triumph signalled the peak of that team’s achievement, not the beginning of a dynasty. The period between 1968 and 1970 had been the build-up, 1971 the climax.

Sadly, the triumph of 1970 has too often been overlooked. It didn’t help that 24 hours later, Chelsea and Leeds fought out the most compelling FA Cup final of recent times and Manchester City won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in Vienna. But Arsenal had broken a 17-year famine and had secured a magnificent piece of silverware.

Just for the record, the team that won 3-0 in London that night was: Bob Wilson, Peter Storey, Bob McNab, Eddie Kelly, Frank McClintock, Peter Simpson, George Armstrong, Jon Sammels, John Radford, Charlie George, George Graham.

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