This is part five of a multi-part look at the history of Arsenal. The other posts in the series, covering the origins of the club through the 20's, the Chapman years, the war/post-war years, and the 1970's, are just a click away.
Thanks to winning the 1979 FA Cup final, Arsenal got one of their first tastes of European competition by being involved in the 1980 European Cup-Winners Cup (the Europa League's first incarnation). Arsenal had beaten Fenerbahce, Magdeburg, and IFK Gothenburg to get to the semi-final, a two legged affair against Juventus. After a 1-1 draw in the Highbury leg, complete with a controversial twice-taken Juventus penalty and a sending off of David O'Leary (and then a Juventus own goal by the guy who took the penalty twice!), the teams traveled to Turin for the second leg and Juve had to be feeling pretty confident; as of 1980, Juventus had never lost to an English team at home.
The Turin leg was a tight, tense affair; neither team looked much like scoring. Juventus because they're Italian, and Arsenal because they couldn't break down the Juventus defense. It looked all set to head to extra time and probably penalties. Then, in the 88th minute, Paul Vaessen, an 18-year old making one of his 32 appearances for Arsenal*, headed in a goal past Dino Zoff to give Arsenal the 1-0 win and the 2-1 aggregate win that saw them through to the final, where they lost to Valencia in the only Cup-Winners Cup final to go to penalty kicks.
That's how the 1980's started; Manager Terry Neill would lead Arsenal to no further trophies, and was relieved of his job in 1983, replaced by Don Howe. Howe inherited a squad with the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, David O'Leary, and Charlie Nicholas, but Howe struggled to get the best out of them; in his three years in charge, Howe's Arsenal finished no higher than sixth in the league, and didn't make it past the 5th round of the FA Cup, and Howe was let go with two months left in the 1986 season, with Steve Burtenshaw taking the reins as interim manager until a permanent replacement was named.
On May 14, 1986, that replacement was named: George Graham. The Highbury legend returned to a hero's welcome, and immediately started to make his mark on the team; he started developing Adams and Keown into the legends they would become and promoting the likes of Michael Thomas and David Rocastle from the youth ranks, and he signed players like Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, and Steve Bould.
He also brought discipline back to Arsenal, after a decade or more of lax training methods and a sub-par work ethic; Graham made the team realize that they had to work for what they wanted to achieve, and Graham made them understand what that meant by ratcheting up the pressure in practices so that game days didn't seem like such a big deal.
This paid immediate dividends - not only did Arsenal finish fourth in the league in 1986/7, but they won a Shiny Silver Pot for the first time since 1979, taking the Littlewoods (League) Cup from Ian Rush-led Liverpool thanks to a brace from Charlie Nicholas. SHINY TIN POTS Y'ALL!
The 1987-88 season kicked off with very high expectations from Arsenal fans; after a seven year drought, there was finally something to defend, and Arsenal's league finish gave fans a lot of hope that the season to come would see Arsenal push for the championship, as they had a young squad of really solid players. in addition to the above-listed core, Arsenal had Alan Smith, Paul Merson, and Niall Quinn; all would go on to be varying levels of awesome, but in 1987 they were still young and un-legendary.
Arsenal's league position slipped a bit in 1988, as they finished sixth, but they again made the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, and they reached the final of the Littlewoods Cup again, where they faced Luton Town, who had never in their 103 year history to that point won a trophy of any kind.
So how'd the day go? Arsenal scored in the 13th minute to take the lead, and then later in the half David Rocastle was fouled in the penalty area, and Arsenal were awarded a penalty kick. Nigel Winterburn stepped up to take it, I guess because everyone else was dead, and it was saved. Still, Alan Smith scored in the 72nd minute to give Arsenal a 2-1 lead, and the defense of the Cup was almost complete. Then, because soccer is mean, Luton scored twice in the last 10 minutes to win their first ever trophy. Stay tuned to find out why that isn't the worst thing to happen to Arsenal in a cup competition!
Hey look! here we are in 1988/89. I could write a bunch of words about 1988/89, and try to bring a different spin to it, but at this point you know what happened. If you don't know what happened and you consider yourself an Arsenal fan, shame on you. Michael Thomas happened. Anfield happened. History happened. Go revel in it. Even if it was before your time, it's still a pretty damn epic story that doesn't seem real. But I've seen the trophy in the Emirates museum, so I know for a fact it happened. Or they stole a trophy, which would also be awesome.
(Hillsborough also happened in 1989, and if you know nothing about Hillsborough, go find out about it - but this is an Arsenal article on an Arsenal website, so I won't be going into any depth on it here.)
1990 was sort of a hangover year for Arsenal; fourth in the league, quarterfinals of both cups, but nothing really of note except another year of experience for the Adams/Bould/Dixon/Winterburn back line, which was slowly turning into one of the best the modern game had ever seen.
In the 1990-91 season, this back line led Arsenal to the title, on the back of an unprecedented run of form; P38 W24 D13 L1, for a total of 83 points. It should have been 85 points, but for a brawl at Old Trafford; Nigel Winterburn attempted to invite Denis Irwin to become acquainted with the ground in a more rapid fashion than was the custom at the time, but missed his tackle, and while he was on the ground, both Irwin and Brian McClair made a point of registering their displeasure with Mr. Winterburn by kicking him while he was on the ground (there was previous between Winterburn and McClair from a couple years back). A 21-man brawl broke out (only holdout: David Seaman), and afterwards the FA docked points from both sides (Arsenal two, Manchester United one).
Seaman kept 24 clean sheets that season, and that Arsenal back four allowed a mere 18 goals in the league, finishing seven points ahead of second-placed Liverpool for their second league championship in three years.
Arsenal won the Charity Shield in 1991, but that was to be their only trophy in 1991-92; the best part of this whole season, the first season I paid serious attention to Arsenal, was the name at the top of the Arsenal scoring chart that season. Ian Wright would top Arsenal's scoring for six consecutive seasons on his way to breaking Cliff Bastin's club scoring record of 172 goals with 185 of his own, which would be broken a few seasons later by Thierry Henry.
You know what the worst part of the 1991-92 season was? The FA Cup. As now, the First Division at the time got a bye into the third round of the Cup, which let the minnows duke it out to see who would be eaten by the sharks that January. Arsenal drew Wrexham in that third round - a nice easy minnow for the big fish from N5 to swallow. Wrexham were the absolute bottom of the English pyramid at the time - 92nd place out of 92 league teams at the end of the 1991 season and only not relegated because there was no Conference team with a League-suitable ground, and here is Arsenal, league champions and owners of one of the most intimidating defenses to ever take the field.
Arsenal scored first, but Wrexham scored twice in the second half to win the tie, which to this day is probably about the biggest upset in FA Cup history; Arsenal fielded a full-strength team (complete with the likes of Seaman, Adams, Bould, Dixon, Winterburn, Parlour, Rocastle, Wright, etc) and still couldn't stop the mighty Wrexham.
The next season, though, saw Arsenal back on form; Arsenal finished a mere 10th in the league, but won the first cup Double in the team's history, complete with the funniest/saddest thing I've ever seen in my years of watching Arsenal. The League Cup was won in April, over Sheffield Wednesday, and the winning goal was scored by Steve Morrow in the 68th minute. At the final whistle, Morrow ran over to Tony Adams and jumped up into his arms, and Adams tried to lift Morrow into the air; but Adams dropped him, resulting in a broken arm and the match winner being carried off the pitch on a stretcher.
The FA Cup final was also played against Sheffield Wednesday, and it featured something that doesn't happen any more - a replay. The final ended 1-1 after extra time on May 15, 1993, and the replay was the 20th. Arsenal won the replay 2-1 on a Gary Linighan goal in the 118th minute, in what is considered the longest FA Cup final ever played.
All of that brings us to the 1993-94 season, and that's where we will pick up next time with Arsenal's adventures in the European Cup-Winner's Cup, and George Graham's misadventures with envelopes full of cash.
*After two more injury-riddled years in the game, Vaessen retired from football, became a drug addict, became an abusive boyfriend/husband/father, and then died of a heroin overdose in 2001 at 39. There's a fascinating and deeply saddening detailed telling of his life here.