AT the start of 1971-72, England’s football fraternity was still clinging to the idea that the nation was a major power in the game. The 1970 World Cup defeat at the hands of West Germany was mostly seen as an aberration and partly attributable to the rustiness of poor old Peter Bonetti, the outstanding Chelsea goalkeeper. There was little suggestion that perhaps the English method was outdated and the product of a stubborn manager, although Sir Alf Ramsey was starting to lose friends among the media.
English clubs had won seven of 12 European competitions in four seasons, including Manchester United lifting the European Cup in 1968. As soon as the World Cup was over in 1970, Bobby Charlton and Bonetti said farewell to international football and Ramsey started to introduce new faces: Peter Shilton, Roy McFarland, Martin Chivers, Joe Royle, Colin Harvey, Peter Storey, Chris Lawler, Paul Madeley, Tommy Smith, Larry Lloyd and Tony Brown all won their first caps for England in 1970-71. England had a relatively easy European Championship group that included Malta, Switzerland and Greece. They made hard work of Malta in Valetta but beat them 5-0 at Wembley, and won 3-0 at home to Greece.
England were well placed to qualify for the quarter-final stage as they went into 1971-72. There was nothing to suggest that normal service could not be resumed, even though Ramsey stuck loyally to 1966 acolytes like Geoff Hurst, who had his least effective season for his club, West Ham, in 1971-72.
Meanwhile, English clubs were having mixed fortunes in European competitions. Arsenal, who had won the “double” in 1970-71, were embarking on their first European Cup campaign and many people felt they were one of the favourites. They had won their first European trophy in 1970, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, beating Anderlecht in the two-legged final. On the way, they had beaten Ajax in the semi-finals 3-1 on aggregate, a team that included the emerging Johan Cruyff and would win the Dutch league by 15 points and lose just one Eredivisie match. Bertie Mee, reflecting on the fact that Arsenal had brushed Ajax aside with relative ease, commented that the Dutch champions looked somewhat “amateur”.
Mee’s comments were a little hasty, for Ajax, within a year, were European champions.
Arsenal had two relatively unchallenging rounds to start with, beating Norway’s Strømsgodset 7-1 on aggregate and Grasshopper Zurich 5-0. The quarter-final draw, which included no less than five previous winners, paired Arsenal with Ajax. Celtic, Feyenoord, Benfica and Inter Milan also possible opponents so it was no surprise that the last eight was tough.
Ajax had certainly moved forward since 1969-70 when the two teams met in the Fairs Cup. Although Rinus Michels, their innovative coach, had moved on and was replaced by Stefan Kovacs, Ajax were in their pomp and would win the “double” in the Netherlands and half of their team – Cruyff, Keizer, Hulshoff, Mühren and Neeskens – would feature in the European Footballer of the Year voting, a prize that Cruyff had won in 1971.
Ajax were rock star footballers, all flowing hair, beads and trendy attire. They were a team that reflected the times and they played a progressive brand of football that became known as “Total Football”.
Arsenal’s own style had not convinced the critics – “sorry lads, you’re bores” was one headline on the day they won the FA Cup final in May 1971 – and they had found it hard to defend the prizes they had won in 1970-71. Arsenal signed Alan Ball from Everton just before the halfway stage to add an extra dimension to the midfield, paying over £ 200,000 but he was unavailable for the European Cup.
Ajax won the first leg in Amsterdam by 2-1, Ray Kennedy putting Arsenal ahead after 15 minutes but Gerrie Mühren scoring twice (25 and 70 minutes). The away goal had given Arsenal a good chance of getting through – a 1-0 victory would be enough. However, Ajax were gifted an early goal at Highbury, an own goal by George Graham and that was enough to send the holders through. There was absolutely nothing “amateur” about Ajax this time. Brian Glanville, in his book, Champions of Europe, said Arsenal looked “clumsy and naïve” compared to the sleek Ajax side.
London, as a result of the capital’s fine season in 1970-71, had three representatives in European competitions – Chelsea and Tottenham were also deeply involved. Chelsea were defending the European Cup-Winners’ Cup they had won in Greece in May 1971. The Blues had almost lost their manager, Dave Sexton, to Manchester United in the close season, but the bid to try and lure him north had been played down. Sexton was convinced his talented, but often inconsistent and ill-disciplined squad could win the title, but they were, essentially, a team for the big occasion rather than one that could grind-out results week-in, week-out.
They had started the 1971-72 season abysmally, with one or two players a little thick around the girth, suggesting two successive years of winning trophies had been well celebrated. Chelsea were gifted an easy tie to start their European campaign, Jeunesse Hautcharage of Luxembourg. This was a village team of steelworkers, hairdressers and butchers. There was player with one armand another with taped-on spectacles. Little wonder that over two legs, Chelsea won 21-0 with Peter Osgood, who had been placed on the transfer list by Sexton after the first two league games for a bad attitude and “not trying”, scoring eight over the two games.
Chelsea’s fans must have thought the path to the 1972 final was charmed when their heroes were drawn against Swedish part-timers, Atvidaberg. The first leg in Sweden demonstrated there would be no repeat of the previous round’s goal-fest and it ended 0-0. Sexton was confident of victory in the second leg, but Chelsea were still not playing well.
At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were wasteful and didn’t go ahead until the 46thminute through Alan Hudson. They had a golden chance to extend that lead on the hour, but John Hollins, normally so dependable, sent a penalty kick against a post. Five minutes later, Atvidaberg silenced the 28,000 crowd when the blond and athletic Roland Sandberg scored a shock equaliser. Despite the pressure, Chelsea couldn’t score and they went out on away goals. They were jeered by the fans and the players were just as stunned. It seemed to shake Chelsea out of their early season malaise, for they soon went on an impressive run and eventually reached Wembley again.
Liverpool were also in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, but they too, went out in the second round. They beat the Swiss side, Servette in round one but then came up against Bayern Munich, a team packed with players who would become household names in the years ahead – Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller. Liverpool were held at Anfield but then lost 3-1 in Munich, with Müller, Der Bomber, netting twice.
So both Arsenal and Liverpool were dismissed by two teams that would be representative of the era of Total Football and two years later, would form the backbone of two World Cup final teams.
In the UEFA Cup, England had a strong quartet: Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton. Leeds, after two seasons of heartache where they fought on all fronts and ended with very little, had won the last Fairs Cup in 1971. They won their first round first leg in Belgium, beating Lierse SK 2-0. In the second leg, they fielded a weakened side and came unstuck, losing 4-0 at Elland Road. Did Leeds decide to sacrifice the competition after running their squad into the ground over the past few years? They had another year of near-misses, winning the FA Cup but losing their chance of the league in the final, controversial game. Southampton also fell at the first hurdle at the hands of Athletic Bilbao.
Tottenham and Wolves, though, provided the first all-English European final in the UEFA Cup’s first season. Spurs enjoyed a roller-coaster ride to the final. Keflavik of Iceland were no problem, Spurs winning through to the tune of 15-1 on aggregate over the two legs. Then came Nantes of France, who gave Spurs two tough games and only went out 1-0 on aggregate, Peters scoring the only goal in the second leg at White Hart Lane.
Two bruising encounters with Romanians Rapid Bucharest followed, with Nicholson incensed after the second meeting that his team had been kicked and punched for 90 minutes. But Spurs won 5-0 on aggregate, so the last laugh was on them.
Another Romanian side, UT Arad, were next, with Spurs doing all the hard work in the first leg, winning 2-0 away and overall, 3-1 on aggregate. It set them up with a semi-final against Italians AC Milan. This was a severe test for Nicholson’s side. Perryman was the hero at White Hart Lane, scoring twice as Spurs beat the Serie A aristocrats 2-1. Mullery, who had been out on loan to Fulham to aid his recovery from a pelvic injury, came back to score at the San Siro in a 1-1 draw. The fires were burning on the terraces as Spurs hung on to claim a famous win.
Wolves, meanwhile, had worked their way through against some very decent teams. Académica de Coimbra and Den Haag were both beaten 7-1 on aggregate and “crack” East Germans Carl Zeiss Jena were disposed of by 4-0. Then came a memorable 3-2 aggregate victory against Juventus, a team that would win the Italian league in 1971-72. Finally, Wolves overcame Hungary’s Ferencvaros. Their team included experience and the very experienced Derek Dougan, a player who always attracted attention.
If there was disappointment, it was because the final was between two English clubs – it just didn’t seem like a European final. The first leg at Molineux was won 2-1 by Spurs, which almost killed the tie. Chivers was on song, scoring both goals (his tally reached 44 in 1971-72). In the return, Mullery headed Spurs in front early on and David Wagstaffe levelled for Wolves, who then battered the home defence. Spurs held out and won their second piece of European silverware.
End of an era
On the international stage, England received another lesson from the West Germans in the quarter-finals of the European Championship. On April 29, 1972, Günter Netzer tore England apart, driving West Germany to a 3-1 win at Wembley in the first leg. During the game, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder had brushed aside the English – one move saw him outpace Bobby Moore, dismiss Francis Lee like a ghost and side-step the usually agile Martin Peters. Sir Alf Ramsey had made a career-changing mistake in ignoring Netzer’s threat and power and had paid dearly for it. In the second leg, with England’s hopes all but gone, Ramsey fielded a team of “cloggers” to neutralise Netzer. The game ended 0-0, but England had avoided humiliation. For Ramsey, it was the beginning of the end.
While England had lost their World Cup crown in Mexico, there was an underlying feeling that the game at Wembley in 1972 was really closure of an era. The balance of power in Europe had shifted and the new darlings of the football media were the Dutch and Germans. In little under 18 months, another nail was hammered into the coffin when Poland knocked England out in the World Cup qualifying group. Then Ramsey was sacked and, in 1973-74, after a six year period in which English clubs had won nine European trophies, the sequence ended with Tottenham’s fans rioting in Rotterdam.
The question was whether England could learn from the free-flowing football of Ajax, who won their second successive European Cup and Bayern Munich and the West German national team, who were crowned European champions in the summer, playing superb and intelligent football. English clubs suddenly looked a bit stodgy and over-reliant on function over form. There would be some very difficult, and sometimes dark, days ahead for the country that gave the world association football.
5 thoughts on “72 Classic: Lessons from Europe for English football”
Dave Sexton didn’t become manager of Manchester United until July 1977.
Ah! My Mistake, misparsed the sentence. Many apologies – also, nice to see a site give the great Gunter Netzer some acknowledgement of his at times preternatural talent.
No problem, actually the attempt by a United to get him in 1971 was very low key in the media. Netzer, what a player, I have a picture of him in my office. Thanks for your comment,
The irony of it all,f or me, is that my second favourite German player ever was the hugely underrated Wolfgang Overath – the man for whom Netzer was so frequently omitted.
Great site, fantastic nostalgia. Those Dutch and German teams will never be forgotten.