If you're an Arsenal fan like me, the only manager you've ever known has been Arsene Wenger, who's not only one of the greatest managers Arsenal has ever had (If not, the most cherished), but one of the greatest managers in British football history. When Wenger joined Arsenal back in 1996, he came in with a plan that would change the entire landscape of British football, and his mark on the league continues to be shown to this day.
Wenger himself follows a line of fellow Arsenal managers who are highly remembered, the group of names including Herbert Chapman, George Graham, and George Allison. You can consider Tom Whittaker if you want to, he scored just as many honors as Allison but managed to tank the team he inherited shortly thereafter. But among those names, is a name that is mostly left by the wayside in relevant conversation, that of Bertie Mee.
I just happened to stroll across Bertie Mee and his accomplishments about a week ago while I was looking for something for "History Wednesday's" for my own blog. Bertie Mee wouldn't fit in with the characteristics of OILF, but it was too interesting to completely pass up, so here I bring him for your own Arsenal reading pleasure.
Bertie Mee was born in 1918 in Nottinghamshire, and during his youth, aspired to be a football player himself, which resulted in stints with Derby County and Mansfield Town. He also played a short while for Southampton, scoring a couple of goals. His career was cut short though by injuries, and he quit football to join the Royal Army Medical Corps to practice physiotherapy. Before coming back to football, he specialized in training with disabled soldiers after the war.
Mee returned to football as a trainer and physiotherapist for a couple of different clubs until 1960, when he joined Arsenal as a physiotherapist under manager George Swindin. Mee lasted through Swindin's sacking in 1962 and was kept on through Billy Wright's tenure as Arsenal manager. In 1966 though, Wright was dismissed as Arsenal manager, failing to turn the club around from mid-table mediocrity, and then in a stunning turn of events...
Bertie Mee, to his own surprise, was offered the manager's position after Wright was dismissed. Mee himself proclaimed that his knowledge of football was too slim for First Division football, and he insisted on an opt-out clause which would allow him to retain his position as Arsenal's physiotherapist if managing didn't work out for him, to which Arsenal obliged. Mee then brought on a couple of assistants, Dave Sexton from within the club, and Don Howe from outside the club, to take care of most of the managing duties. Bertie Mee for the most part was considered to be a "caretaker" manager instead of a fully overseeing manager.
Mee's first couple years as Arsenal manager weren't exactly promising, but nonetheless Mee, along with Sexton and Howe, increased Arsenal's table finish in his first season to 7th, and made it to the 5th round of the FA Cup. While Mee himself wasn't much for strategy and tactics (Hence, Don Howe), he did take an active role in managing the club through the front office, bringing in the likes of Bob McNab, Alan Ball, and.... George Graham. Mee slowly started to piece together a club that would eventually contend for honors.
In '68 and '69, Mee guided the team to League Cup finals, to which Arsenal lost both, and in '69, Arsenal managed to increase their table finish to 4th, which qualified them for European play and the Fairs Cup. In their first season in European play, the club won the Fairs Cup in dramatic fashion. Arsenal lost to Anderlecht on the road leg 3-1, but in a performance reminiscent to our CL fallout against AC Milan, Arsenal returned home and scored a 3-0 shutout to claim the Fairs Cup. Due to travel and extra play, Arsenal dipped in their England performance, finishing 12th on the year. The Fairs Cup happened to be Arsenal's first honor since 1953 (Over 17 years, and we complain nowadays about a lack of silverware), but the following year would turn out to be memorable.
In 1971, Arsenal would return to the top of the English table with a balanced amount of talent on the field. With help from Sexton and Howe, Arsenal competed not only in England, but in Europe once more as defending champions. While the Fairs Cup didn't exactly end well, the English season finished in glorious form. Arsenal won the league at Tottenham 1-0 for the first time since '53, and a few days later, they defeated Liverpool 2-1 to clinch the FA Cup and the rare "double", the first double in Arsenal's history and only the second occurrence of the double in English football history at the time (Ironically, the first one done by Preston North End during their undefeated season in 1889). Mee had brought Arsenal and it's fans back to the glory days in just a few seasons.
Arsenal would drop the 5th the following season, but they still managed to make the FA Cup finals once more, losing 1-0 to Leeds United. Arsenal managed to climb back up to 2nd in the '72-'73 season and the semi-finals once more in the FA Cup, but the next three seasons would see the club disband almost entirely, with many players leaving the club for greener pastures. Arsenal continued to drop in form year by year, and dropped to 17th in the table by 1976. That would result in the dismissal of Bertie Mee as manager, who was replaced by Terry Neill. Mee would then go on to a front office career at Watford, hired by none other than Elton John.
It's very unfortunate that Bertie Mee is often passed over in conversations regarding great Arsenal managers, because when you consider his path to the manager's position, he was quite a unique character. Even though Mee had a modest football career as a player, he wasn't much for managing the team on the field. His appointment of Don Howe would actually pay dividends for Howe, who became the Arsenal manager from 1983 to 1986. But players remembered Mee for bringing discipline to the club and a reason to perform. Mee was also known for connecting with each player individually, a result of his time as a physiotherapist. Combined together, they brought Arsenal out of their 17 year sleep and back onto the national stage, and while it didn't last very long, it's still something to be remembered. It's a shame that we don't often remember the manager that brought Arsenal it's very first double.