For Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea, 1971 wasn’t half bad

DAVID HEPWORTH is a fine journalist and an excellent chronicler of popular culture. His highly readable book, 1971: Never a Dull Moment, accurately recalls the year as a pivotal 12 months in the history of rock music. He’s absolutely spot-on, although like almost everyone, Hepworth is playing the “better in my day” card. We all become our grandparents at some point in life.

But 1971 was also an engaging year for football. It spanned two seasons – 1970-71 and 1971-72 when England still had claims to being among the best nations in the world. Or so we thought. Both seasons gave us riveting championship races – in 1970-71, the saga of Leeds allowing a workmanlike Arsenal to win their first title since 1953, and the titanic struggle involving four or five teams in 1971-72. And oh yes, Leeds United, arguably the best team around, capitulated again, letting in Brian Clough’s Derby County in 1972.

Heroes all round

In 1971, you could easily name the line-ups of most Division One clubs. Every club had their local hero that could have played in most of the top outfits. While teams like Leeds, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City and United had their household figures, smaller, less successful clubs had “names”, albeit fewer of them. For example, Burnley had Ralph Coates, Southampton had Ron Davies, Newcastle Wyn Davies, Nottingham Forest Ian Storey-Moore, Wolves had the “Doog”, Derek Dougan, Stoke City benefitted from the safe hands of Gordon Banks and West Brom enjoyed the services of Jeff Astle and Tony Brown. In 1971, big names were not concentrated among two or three clubs.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, provincial clubs would “look after” their prize assets. Don Rogers at Swindon was well paid and comfortable, not to mention the toast of the town – why go elsewhere and become a smaller fish? Rodney Marsh, arguably, stayed too long at Queens Park Rangers, finally moving to Manchester City in 1972 at the age of 27.

There was also geography to consider. London and the North were worlds apart. A good example of this is was when Ralph Coates moved from Burnley in 1971 to join Tottenham. He looked out of place, unfashionable and drab compared to his long-haired, wide-trousered team-mates. I was a fan of Colin Bell and urged Chelsea manager Dave Sexton to sign the England midfielder. It was only years later that I realised there was little chance of Bell coming south to London. It was a major upheaval for a player to relocate from South to North and vice-versa.

It did happen, of course, but just consider the transfer activity of Chelsea between 1966 and 1972. Of 11 main signings, seven came from London and the south, while only one came from the north of England – Alan Birchenall. This was fairly typical of the time.

At the start of 1970-71, there were three clubs that featured in debates about the destination of the main prizes: Everton, Leeds United and Chelsea. Everton had won the title in 1970 in style, Leeds had reached out for everything available and ended with nothing and Chelsea had won the FA Cup for the first time. Arsenal were not considered strong enough to mount a title bid, although they had won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, ending a silverware drought that exceeded Arsene Wenger’s lengthy pursuit of the Premier League. Tottenham were still coming to terms with not being the “double” winners of 1961. Liverpool were dull by their standards, despite the hyberbole of Bill Shankly, and Manchester United were in decline as Best grew weary of propping up a team of yesterday’s men, Charlton’s influence began to wane and Law struggled to maintain fitness. Manchester City, meanwhile, had emerged as a cup team, despite the presence of Francis Lee and Bell.

By January 1971, a month blighted by the Ibrox Park disaster, in which 66 people died, it was clear that Everton would not be retaining their title. At the same time, the nation’s eardrums were assaulted by the sound of Clive Dunn’s Grandad at number one. Everton had certainly dropped from number one, and had become decidedly mid-table – their malaise eventually resulting in Alan Ball, their talismanic and white-booted midfielder, leaving the club in 1971-72 for Arsenal.

Capital capers

Leeds, predictably, led the table with 39 points from 24 games, three ahead of Arsenal, who had a game in hand. While it was “business as usual” for Don Revie’s well-drilled charges, Arsenal had unearthed a new striking partnership in John Radford and Ray Kennedy. Chelsea, in third place, had not been as exciting as in 1969-70, largely because their own front-line pair, Peter Osgood and Ian Hutchinson had fired less prolifically. Osgood took his time to get going in 1970-71 and his season was punctuated by ill-discipline. Hutchinson, a hapless figure, was injury prone and never fulfilled his promise. Chelsea ploughed away in Europe, but they were never a real contender in the league, eventually falling away to sixth place.

But over the other side of London, Tottenham were resurgent. Bill Nicholson had spent heavily in previous years to bring fresh talent to White Hart Lane, but it had not always proved to be well invested. Martin Chivers, bought in 1968 from Southampton for £150,000 and West Ham’s Martin Peters, a cash-plus-player swap with Jimmy Greaves, had not yet clicked in the white shirt of the Spurs. But in 1970-71, it started to come good and Chivers became one of Europe’s hottest strikers. Spurs won the Football League Cup in 1971 and were tipped by many to win the title in 1971-72.

Greaves’ new club, West Ham, continued to under-achieve, despite the presence of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. Moore, always seen as mild-mannered and conformist, looked to be heading away from Upton Park in January 1971 when he fell-out with manager Ron Greenwood following a night of drinking before a FA Cup tie at Blackpool. The Hammers lost 4-0 and the story broke that Moore, Greaves, Brian Dear and others had been on a bender. Apparently, the relationship between Greenwood and Moore was never the same again.

While West Ham were generally concerned with events at the bottom end of the table, the top end became a two-horse race with Leeds In command. Arsenal, who had been doggedly chasing Leeds, gained fresh impetus from the return of Charlie George to the team. George had the knack of scoring winning goals as Arsenal closed the gap of Leeds. He also helped propel the Gunners towards the FA Cup final.

Leeds had shown signs of vulnerability in the FA Cup and much to the joy of the nation – sadly, they were never popular outside of the West Riding – they were giant-killed by fourth division Colchester United and veteran striker Ray Crawford.

Colchester were beaten 5-0 in the quarter-finals by Everton, who succumbed to Liverpool in the semi-final. In the other semi, Arsenal were seconds from losing when Peter Storey scored from the penalty spot to take the tie to a second game. Eventually, they would win through and suddenly, talk of the “double” emerged in the media.

Not everyone was convinced by Arsenal, however. They were a “safety-first” team, coached by Don Howe. They were also hard and often uncompromising. Leeds also had those same qualities, but they had a shade more flair. “Sorry, lads, you’re bores” was how one Fleet Street hack described Arsenal on the eve of the FA Cup final.

You couldn’t fault Arsenal’s commitment or refusal to give up the chase, though, and after trailing Leeds all season, they were now one point behind with a game in hand. Leeds had finished their programme on 64 points. Arsenal, just a few days before the Cup final, travelled to – of all places – Tottenham and a Ray Kennedy goal have them the title.

On May 8, Arsenal completed the “double”, beating Liverpool 2-1. Charlie George scored the winning goal and promptly fell to the ground in a faux-messianic pose. Arsenal had created history, but few people gave them much credit. Ironically, the biggest selling single in the UK as the Gunners lifted not one, but two, trophies, was Double Barrel by Dave and Ansil Collins!

Leeds, for the second season running, had run out of steam, but at least they won the Fairs Cup, beating Juventus over two legs. And there was another European prize for England when Chelsea beat Real Madrid 2-1 in Athens in the European Cup-Winners Cup. London had swept up.

The tide would soon turn, however. While the capital’s clubs celebrated, Liverpool signed a young striker called Kevin Keegan. More telling, on June 2, 1971, Ajax Amsterdam won their first European Cup and the world started to realise just who Johan Cruyff was. “Total Football” was born.

Meanwhile, Tottenham spent lavishly on Ralph Coates and a loud-mouthed Londoner called Malcolm MacDonald joined Newcastle United for close to £200,000 from Luton Town.

When the 1971-72 season got underway, Leeds and Manchester United were both playing “home” games on unfamiliar grounds due to crowd trouble at Elland Road and Old Trafford respectively . But there was an unlikely name at the top of the Division One in the opening weeks of the season – newly promoted Sheffield United.


They were unbeaten in their first 10 games and at the end of September, three points clear at the top. Behind them were Manchester United, who looked to have found renewed vigour, despite George Best’s off-pitch path of self destruction. The London trio of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham had not clicked in gear and at Chelsea, there was some unrest as Peter Osgood, the fans’ idol, was placed on the transfer list. At Liverpool, Keegan was an instant hit and people started to talk about an England call-up for the former Scunthorpe forward. Sir Alf Ramsey was never one to bow to public pressure and Keegan had to wait 12 months before getting his first cap.

Ramsey was always loyal to the men that had served him well and in 1971, the luster of 1966 was still influencing team selection. Bobby Charlton had finished in the Mexico World Cup, but when England resumed their European Championship qualifying campaign in October 1971, Banks, Moore, Hurst, Ball and Peters were still integral to the squad, and from 1970, Emlyn Hughes, Alan Mullery, Terry Cooper, Lee, Bell and Paul Madeley were all still involved. After England’s World Cup capitulation in 1970, players like Chivers and Roy McFarland started to make an impact.

McFarland was skipper of Derby County, Brian Clough’s team that had now become credible title contenders. As 1971 ended, comedian Bennie Hill topped the record charts with Ernie, the fastest milkman in the west, and Manchester United stood astride the first division, three points better off than neighbours City, who had rediscovered their mojo in the league. Leeds, now recovered from their nomadic early months, had recovered and closely behind were Derby, Liverpool and Arsenal. Sheffield United fell away alarmingly after their autumn flourish. As the year turned, football fans would be treated to one of the most intriguing title chases in history. As if 1971 had not been enough.

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