This is part four of a multi-part look at the history of Arsenal. The first three posts in the series, covering the origins of the club through the 20's, the Chapman years, and the war/post-war years, are just a click away.
As I mentioned at the end of my last Arsenal history post, the years from 1954/55-1969/70 didn't really amount to much for Arsenal. It was one of those periods that all teams of a certain longevity have - Arsenal were well-established in the First Division, but not doing much of note, finishing as high as third (in a time where third place got you nothing at all) and as low as 12th, coming second in the League Cup twice, and never making it past the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Of all the seasons Arsenal have had, these were several of them - nothing really remarkable, nothing really shocking.
This chapter of our little history, then, picks up in 1970, which is when things started getting tasty again.
Okay, so I lied. This chapter of our little history actually picks up in 1969, as all good stories should. In 1969, Arsenal made it to the final of the League Cup, where they faced Swindon Town, who were exactly as favored as you would think they would be - an unfancied Third Division team, in a Cup final against one of the biggest teams in the biggest city in the country? Should be a walkover, right? Funny thing is, nobody told Swindon that, and on the day Swindon were the far, far better team, beating Arsenal 3-1.
Arsenal's reaction after the match was one of excuse-making; a heavy pitch (Wembley had just the week before played host to the Horse of The Year show!), eight Arsenal players having flu, and a windy, rainy day were all cited by Arsenal players as causes of, if not reasons for, the loss. The London press had a bit of a field day with this, calling Arsenal "slaves of their own system" and "methodical and predictable" and generally kicking them when they were down, as the press was (and is) wont to do.
Two good things came out of this loss. At the time, the winner of the League Cup was granted entry into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a predecessor to the UEFA Cup. The Fairs Cup was a competition which was designed to coincide with trade fairs held in major European cities that also had First Division-level football teams. How far the game has come, eh? Anyway, the problem with the Fairs Cup and the League Cup is that the Fairs Cup was only open to First Division teams; lower league teams were not welcome.
Even though Arsenal lost the League Cup, they got the English place in the Fairs cup for the 1969-70 season, and all they did after that was win it, beating Belgian side Anderlecht in the two-legged final (!). You won't find that on UEFA's books, though, because they didn't recognize the Fairs Cup as an official competition. But it's still a trophy, and Arsenal won it, so neener neener, UEFA. That was Arsenal's first major European trophy, and signaled the start of great things to come.
The second good thing to come out of that disastrous showing against Swindon Town was something that as a baseball fan and sabermetrically inclined person I have come to disdain rather heavily - intangibles. They can't be measured, so it's impossible to know if and how much they impact a team, but many members of that Cup-losing side have said that losing that game galvanized them as a team, and hardened them to the point where nobody and nothing could get in the way of them getting better as a team. Whether one believes in intangibles or not, though, whatever happened worked.
This showed first in the aforementioned Fairs Cup; the 1969-70 League season was fairly disappointing for Arsenal, as they finished 12th, 24 points behind league-winning Everton. Read the end of that sentence again; "league-winning Everton". 1970 was a long time ago! Anyway, the 1970-71 season started out somewhat indifferently, with Arsenal only winning three out of their first seven matches. Two of those wins, though, were huge - a 4-0 win against Manchester United at Highbury, followed a couple weeks later by a 2-0 home win against the northern neighbors, signaled Arsenal's intent to challenge for the title.
This 1970-71 team didn't really destroy anybody - that 4-0 and a 6-2 against West Brom were the biggest margins of victory they had all season, and they actually lost to Stoke 5-0 - but what they did have was the beginnings of what came to be known as The Arsenal Way. This was a team that did not like to lose, and did not take losses sitting down; their longest stretch without a win was a three-game "skid" in which they lost to Huddersfield and Liverpool, and drew with Portsmouth. That season also saw Arsenal run off three three-game win streaks, and streaks of four, five, and seven consecutive wins - and the seven win streak was part of a run of ten wins in 12 matches that sealed the title.
And oh, what a title win. After losing to Leeds on April 26, 1971, Arsenal knew that the only way they'd win the league without help would be to win their remaining games; after that loss, Arsenal trailed Leeds by a point with a game in hand. Leeds won their final game of the season on May 1st, beating Nottingham Forest 2-0, and with Arsenal also winning at Stoke, thanks to an Eddie Kelly header, that one point margin remained.
A tense, nervy 1-0 win at Stoke, with the winning goal provided by Eddie Kelly, set up the most awesomely terrifying of things for an Arsenal supporter - a title decider on the last day of the season at White Hart Lane. Arsenal needed either a win or a goalless draw to avoid having the league title be decided by goal average (the tiebreak used in place of goal difference at the time), and a Ray Kennedy goal from a George Armstrong assist with three minutes remaining (bwahahahahahahha Spurs) saw Arsenal win 1-0 and claim their first title in 18 years, and do it at the Lane. There is no better way to win the league.
The FA Cup was next, the following Sunday (ARE YOU LISTENING, PREMIER LEAGUE? THIS IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE), and on that day Arsenal went to Wembley to take on Liverpool. Scoreless after 90 minutes, Arsenal went down 1-0 in the 92nd minute; 10 minutes later, Ray Kelly equalized for Arsenal. Ten minutes after that, Charlie George scored the winner, prompting one of the most famous celebrations in Wembley history - Charlie George splayed flat on his back, arms outstretched, waiting for his team to come pick him up.
Just like that, Arsenal had shaken off over a decade of mediocrity and won three trophies in two years; this was also the first Double in the team's history and only the second Double of any team in the 20th century. The list of names of that 1970-71 squad reads like a Who's Who Of Arsenal Legends today: Bob Wilson, Pat Rice, Ray Kennedy, George Graham, Frank McClintock, George Armstrong, Peter Storey, Charlie George.
Unfortunately, that squad was also the high-water mark for Arsenal's league form in the 1970's. Manager Bertie Mee tried, but couldn't get the job done in the early 70's, and was replaced in 1976 by Terry Neill. Neill oversaw the development of another Arsenal legend in Liam Brady, and got Arsenal consistently in the top half of the table, but his real success was in the FA Cup. Arsenal reached the final of the FA Cup three straight years from 1978-1980, but lost two of them; the 1979 final win against Manchester United was the lone success in that stretch.
And what a dramatic success it was, too; Arsenal jumped out to an early 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Brian Talbot in the 12th minute and Frank Stapleton just before half time. Arsenal held Manchester United scoreless throughout the second half, but in true Arsenal fashion (at least recent true Arsenal fashion, anyway) they allowed Manchester United back in the game in the 86th minute thanks to a Gordon McQueen goal. All Arsenal had to do then was hang on to that one goal lead and the Cup would be theirs; two minutes later, though, Sammy McIlroy destroyed that hope by scoring an agonizing equalizer.
So here we were, getting set for extra time and probably penalties, when WAIT WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Alan Sunderland scored right at the death! Arsenal win the Cup! I can't really begin to imagine how tense that finish must have been - remember, this was in the days before the amount of extra time was announced to the crowd and the TV/radio audience, so there was no way of knowing how much extra time would be added after Sunderland's goal. No matter how much time was added, at the end of that time, Arsenal were Cup winners yet again.
So there you have the 1970's. Great start, great finish, awkward middle; Arsenal were poised to do great things in the 1980's, though, and that's what we'll be covering next time.