About Me

My photo
Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Good old Arsenal - Growing Up a Gunner from 1976-1989

Choosing which football club to support should never be a calculated act. Those people who deride those who pick whoever happens to be the most successful at the time, tend to be even more worthy of condescension for the labyrinthine ways in which they seek to justify their affiliation with a club through painstaking analysis by locality or genealogy. 
For me it just happened that Arsenal was Dad's team, and I've never felt anything else but happiness at this state of affairs ever since. Sure with the benefit of hindsight I can talk about how my Spurs supporting step-Grandad later regaled me with tales about going to Highbury on Saturdays when there was nothing going on at White Hart Lane. How, during the 1930s he would get swept up the slope as soon as he stepped off the Piccadilly Line train, feet not touching the ground until he reached the North Bank. Or the story of his fellow Spur and "bumptious" Uncle who lived in Gillespie Road before the Gunners migrated north of the river, and stood defiantly in his front garden scowling at the red interlopers. Come to think of it I had a lucky escape from a life of endless Lilywhite hope unfulfilled!
Likewise I've no idea why my Dad is a Gunner. He has often told me how he decided to back them in the 1950 FA Cup final, rightly choosing the southern team resplendent in a magnificent gold strip as they soundly beat Liverpool 2-0 thanks to a brace from Reg Lewis. In equal measure I heard about "the long sleep" between trophies from 1953 to 1970 when he started to regularly go to games, expressing fond memories of watching goalkeeper Jack Kelsey. Lately I've discovered details of some of his first live games. A 5-1 win over Aston Villa at Highbury in the FA Cup 3rd Round in January 1954. A 1-0 win at White Hart Lane a year later courtesy of a Tommy Lawton header on a snowbound pitch flattened by wooden boards to make it playable.
Then as the Gunners awoke in the late 60s. it was Peter Downsborough who became the keeper of note, unfortunately because his man of the match display for Swindon Town in the 1969 League Cup Final denied Arsenal what was supposed to be an elementary end to their trophy drought. Of course the Fairs Cup and Double soon followed but worse to come in the earlier years of my life as Arsenal suffered the indignity of flirting with relegation and resorting to journeymen like Terry Mancini to save them.
Fortunately by the time I became conscious of football, young manager Terry Neill had started to build an Arsenal team to be proud of again and so it was with fondness that I remember the late 70s, Dad coming home with more often than not another bold red programme to sit down and scrawl all over, or Sunday afternoon watching Brian Moore introduce the action from Highbury.
Malcolm MacDonald became my first footballing hero, an image of him standing arms aloft like the colossus of Rhodes having scored yet another goal and defying a prematurely aged physique before he taught my first lesson of how fleeting fame and glory are, as following a disappointing performance in the 1978 FA Cup final he faded from view. I don't think I'll ever forget my Dad's clenched fist and simultaneous cry of Supermac as another goal hit the back of the net some time between 1976 and 1978 though.
By now I had started school and became aware that at the time Arsenal were far from popular, with Spurs, West Ham, Manchester United and inevitably the era's dominant team Liverpool counting many more fans at Larchfield infants and junior school. In contrast it was men of a generation the same as my Dad or even older that either supported or revered Arsenal, a reflection of the way they first dominated football in the 1930s. Next door neighbours the Gatefields were a south London family supporting Fulham. So I heard many tales of Jimmy Hill on my daily visits, although one regular aged guest Mr Picknernell was always keen to recite to me the names of the seven Arsenal players who were part of the England team the day the world champions Italy were beaten at appropriately enough Highbury. Thus my fast developing bent to all things historical found a happy marriage with supporting a football club for whom tradition was everything.
This trait was helped as Arsenal stormed their way through to the 1978 FA Cup Final, winning away at Sheffield United and Wrexham in what remains my favourite away strip, yellow and blue with the cannon big and bold in the middle of the chest, a design which embodied Bob Wilson's famous quote: "It was the feeling you were wearing this big gun on your chest, and my goodness, everywhere you went you felt proud to wear it". Uncle Bob of course presented my other source of TV football at the time, Football Focus, and the fact that he was an ex Arsenal player helped to soothe the feeling that although the club couldn't match the likes of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on the pitch, they had a big influence off it.
Arsenal's resurgence in the 1977/78 season meant they also featured regularly in the copies of Shoot! magazine that my Nan would bring round on a regular basis, with the cup run also bringing plenty of coverage in the Evening Standard, who published a sadly lost shiny colour booklet to mark the Gunners return to Wembley. Strangely my chief memory of this is the picture of a bloodied John Wile bravely carrying on for West Bromwich Albion in their semi final defeat at Highbury against Ipswich, presumably because of the bright green and yellow striped shirt the Throstles wore that day.
Dad had gone to the other semi final at Stamford Bridge to see Arsenal complete a comfortable win over Orient and so I discovered the long lost art of clipping tokens out of a programme to fill in an FA Cup final ticket application, with enough squares covered to earn a ticket. All of which proved a fruitless task come May as Arsenal were well beaten by Bobby Robson's Ipswich team, with only a great performance from Pat Jennings keeping the defeat to one goal. This was my first taste of footballing disappointment. Arsenal were huge favourites going into the game but froze on the day, with not for the first or last time my Dad cursing Willie Young's defensive incompetence.
I was well and truly bitten by the football bug though, the purchase of the family's first colour television only enhancing my armchair viewing. The bug became an addiction over the next two seasons, primarily because of Arsenal's great performances in the cup, particularly in evening games as I discovered the exciting medium of radio.
Firstly a new hero was required with MacDonald's demise through injury and although Jennings was always a favourite, streets ahead was Liam "Chippy" Brady, the one player guaranteed to grab the attention of supporters regardless of their team, a status sealed at Christmas 1979 as he inspired an unforgettable 5-0 win at White Hart Lane.
Soon after this match the country was covered with what proved to be the worst snow for a generation. Not that this affected Arsenal though with their futuristic undersoil heating. However it was an away game that was memorable for beating the weather and starting an amazing sequence of FA Cup ties.
Then as now Sheffield Wednesday were a bona fide sleeping giant but with a high profile manager in Jack Charlton and a budding young future Manchester United goalkeeper in Chris Turner they were to hold Arsenal to four drawn matches before the Gunners prevailed at the fifth attempt.
By virtue of being just one of six matches across the country that beat the weather, TV coverage of the initial tie was guaranteed. So on a wintry Sunday afternoon I learnt the meaning of the cliche including the word leveller as the game ended in a 1-1 draw, the most memorable aspect being the way the supporters on the still uncovered Hillsborough Kop spent a large part of the game lobbing snowballs at Pat Jennings in the Arsenal goal, the match being halted in high farce as Charlton remonstrated Canute like with the fans to stop their fun.
The subsequent replays provided my introduction to the wonderful medium of Radio as night after night I retreated to bed early to listen to live commentary of the seemingly endless replays with all but the last one going the full distance into extra time.
The jaunty theme tune of Sport on Two which followed the 8 pm news would soon grow into a Pavlovian refrain which heralded the dimming of the lights as I waited with bated breath to hear which match would be covered such was the required secrecy at the time. I was always rewarded by the next voice being either the passionate Welshman Peter Jones or the more authoritative tone of Bryon Butler providing the latest score from initially Highbury but for the three further ties, Filbert Street Leicester with always playable thanks to its protective hot air balloon covering. Listening to the match through the whirrs and whistles of the medium never ceased to create a feeling of wonder and awe at the technology which made this voice reach out to me through the ether, more so than the more advanced TV coverage, although that winters satellite footage of the Ashes tour managed to top it. It was almost as if the imperfection of transmission made it all the more remarkable as I twiddled with the knob as the signal ebbed and flowed straining my ear to find out if the last attack had resulted in a goal, which always seemed to be the case when Jones was on air.
Almost as soon as this third round saga had finished Arsenal swifty passed into the fifth round with an elementary win over a Notts County side which Howard Wilkinson under the tutelage of Jimmy Sirrel was gradually guiding back to the First Division.
It was the primary Nottingham club, Forest which was to provide the evidence for the full potential for the Neill era team, with two wins home and away in the winter of 1979 over the current league champions and soon to be back to back European Cup Winners, showing how good the Gunners could be when everything came together.
The first match saw an Arsenal team featuring record signing Brian Talbot make his debut in a 2-1 win at Highbury on a frosty January Saturday with the undersoil heating again paying dividends for the visiting Big Match cameras.
One month later Arsenal made a midweek trip to the City Ground for a rearranged fifth round FA Cup tie, winning with a Frank Stapleton goal on a night which saw the Gunners plied with plenty of plaudits which sadly did not produce and TV footage.
With this match won, Arsenal continued on to return to Wembley, although this time with the opponents being Manchester United expectations were dimmed, particularly with the 1978 final performance in mind.
What followed proved to be the perfect Cup Final day which nostalgia always paints. From the morning coverage including a Cup Final special of Mastermind featuring supporters of each team, I took my seat on the sofa primed with the current edition of Shoot! and the match programme courtesy of Station Approach newsagent Dave.
With the sun shining bright on the green baize of the Wembley turf, Arsenal appeared to be marching towards a comprehensive 2-0 win inspired by a virtuoso performance from Brady when from nowhere United scored twice in the dying minutes to equalise.
As John Motson raved about the tired legs of Arsenal about to expire in extra time, I stared at the screen in a daze, disbelieving what I was seeing, only to be reassured as Arsenal finished the script perfectly when Brady summoned up what was left of his energy to orchestrate one last attack, his pass finding Graham Rix who supplied the cross for Alan Sunderland to score before the latter collapsed with cramp.
So I was able to join in the celebrations, dancing round the room as Pat Rice led his men up the 39 steps, with some of the team somewhat incongruously wearing swapped red United shirts, before they entered the TV studio, the bright yellow shirts contrasting beautifully with the vivid blue backdrop, slurping down milk to beat the cliched cramp brought on by the heat and lush turf, in between making non sequiturs about moons and parrots to the interviewer. As Grandstand gave way to the tea time news, I moved into the garden to create the first of many re-enactments of the great victory of '79, pausing only that weekend to watch the highlights on the Big Match the following afternoon.
Now I was able to feel pride of an Arsenal team in my lifetime, and to this day I can still Ripping Yarns style, recite the winning eleven without a pause for breath, before going on to describe the goals in detail.
For a time this seemed to be the first of many trophies for Neill, but despite being a great Cup side it was to be a time when Arsenal were perennial nearly men, best exemplified twelve months later when two finals were lost in five days. Indeed any thoughts that Arsenal would become more popular as a result of winning the Cup were soon dismissed with the 1979/80 season ending in a way even more ignominious than 1977/78.
With Liam Brady announcing his attention to move abroad at the end of his contract, this should have been the season when he left on a high, instead the 1979 remained the high water mark of his time at the club as the following season proved the aphorism about happiness being contained in a journey full of anticipation rather than arrival at the promised land.
Arsenal were to play seventy competitive matches in the 1979/80 season, starting with the Charity Shield, and one man typified the grit and resilience required to keep going on by playing in every single minute of the season, Brian Talbot.
The highlight of the season was a run to the final of the European Cup Winners Cup, which took my radio listening to new heights of appreciation as I tuned into listen to the Gunners exploits across the continent.
That victory was denied in this competition was surely down to the number of replays in the domestic cups, games which also probably put paid to finishing in a UEFA cup qualifying spot, although to be denied this despite finishing fourth was harsh.
Initially the League Cup saw two replays, the final one seeing Arsenal exit embarrassingly once more at the hands of Swindon at the quarter final stage. Then it was once again the FA Cup which filled the calendar with Arsenal needing two replays to reach a semi final against a Liverpool team in the midst of winning back to back League championships. This tie didn't quite match the lengths of the Wednesday one, but still required three replays before who else but Talbot saw the Gunners through to Wembley for a third consecutive FA Cup final, the first club to achieve this feat in a century.
All of this might have been fine had it not muddied the path in Europe. The previous season had alerted me to the delights of European club football when Arsenal bowed out in the third round of the UEFA Cup to the great Yugoslavian team Red Star Belgrade, in a campaign full of wonderful club names following wins over Lokomotive Leipzig and Hajduk Split.
The following season saw just the one trip to the Eastern bloc to play Magdeburg, the closest tie in a run to the semi finals which also saw comfortable wins over Fenerbahce and Gothenburg. Blocking Arsenal's path to the final were the mighty Juventus, the destination for Brady in the summer, a team including many of the players who would win the World Cup with Italy in two years time.
One of those players, Roberto Bettega, provided Arsenal with a lifeline by scoring a last minute own goal  to leave the home leg finishing 1-1, and so leaving me glued to the radio for the return fixture. As the game went on the commentators continued to emphasise Juve's excellent home record and the importance of their away goal, yet the score remained 0-0, until, in a finish even more remarkable than the 1979 FA Cup Final Arsenal attacked in the dying minutes. This time it was young striker Paul Vaessen who scored the last minute winner, the one highlight of a brief career which was followed by his premature death.
Both legs came incredibly of the FA Cup semi final marathon, with the feat of reaching both finals an amazing one in the context of such a small squad,
The pay off was to be that double final defeat, but nothing will take away the memory of Vaessen's winner which prompted a victory celebration that saw my bed turn into a trampoline.
Bizarrely I decided to wear my claret and blue tracksuit on Cup Final day which was pointed out many times as I watched the match next door at the Gatefields who were unashamedly rooting for the West Ham underdogs. This time it was Arsenal's turn to play the role of pantomime villains, mocked for the way they conceded a unique headed goal from all round good egg Trevor Brooking, then booed when evil Willie Young tripped seventeen year old Paul Allen when the young record breaker had only Jennings to beat.
Worse was to follow in midweek as I stayed up to watch an incredibly dull goalless Cup Winners Cup final against Valencia numbed into submission by the time Brady and Rix missed the spot kicks to allow Mario Kempes' team to win the match.
This proved to be the end of the glory days for Neill, with fellow Irish star following Brady out of the club twelve months later, after Arsenal had finished in a creditable third place in the league thanks to a win in the final match against Aston Villa at Highbury which ended in unusual scenes as both teams invaded the pitch in celebration due to an Ipswich defeat handing Villa the title in front of the BBC cameras on Final Score.
This proved to be a desperate period for Arsenal as they could only sign mediocre players like Ray Hankin and John Hawley to replace their departed stars with the next generation of players such as Raphael Meade and Brian McDermott unable to live up to their illustrious predecessors.
This left me with workaday heroes such as Talbot, John Hollins and Peter Nicholas whilst Pat Jennings remained as the one truly world class player at the club.
By the time of my tenth birthday I was granted my wish to go to a game at last. That it proved to be an uneventful goalless draw against Birmingham City probably helped as the lack of action on the pitch meant I soaked up the experience off it, from the interminable crawl up the Piccadilly Line from Osterley, the wonder of seeing the entrance to the North Bank after climbing up the long slope from Arsenal station platform, the sights and smells of the roadside stalls, the entry into the historic West Stand, even the cry of the peanut seller made this an unforgettable day which inevitably finished in the queue to get back into the station and the crush on the tube train.
The year was 1982 and a new young hope had emerged in the form of all action utility player Stewart Robson who seemed destined to follow his namesake into the England side although on this occasion it was a young Birmingham debutant Noel Blake who was my man of the match, in stark contrast to the latest in a long line of failed replacements for Stapleton, the gormless Lee Chapman.
Later that season in the Spring of 1983. Neill managed one last hurrah as manager, guiding Arsenal to the semi finals of both domestic cups both runs terminated by Ron Atkinson's Manchester United. My Dad managed to get a pair of tickets for the FA Cup semi final at Villa Park, albeit amongst the United fans in the Witton Lane Stand. Thus I sat next to two old ladies resplendent in Norman Whiteside badges, intially happy as they plied me with sweets and Robson gave Arsenal an undeserved half time lead, but ultimately wanting to hide under my seat when in the second half United turned Arsenal over on the pitch and the wooden stand reverbated to the sound of stamping feet and the sound of "Glory Glory Man United".
The summer saw Charlie Nicholas bring a touch of much needed glamour to the club but Neill was not allowed to see his record signing for long as he was sacked and replaced by Don Howe. This proved to be a case of moving the deckchairs on the Titanic as illusory moments such as an early season victory in the autumn of 1984 over champions Liverpool which saw Arsenal go top of the league for the first time in years, were unable to stop the club getting stuck in a rut. Thus trips to Highbury continued to be enjoyed only for the experience of going to the match rather than the action itself. By now I had moved to Desborough School and continued to have little fear of being mocked as a glory hunter unlike the legions of Liverpool fans.
Having made the transition from armchair supporter to an all too infrequent seat in the East or West Stand in the mid 80s its amusing to look back now at all the debates over ticket availability, johnny come latelys and trophy droughts. Watching the club in this period just made me see everything that followed with awe. For the first fourteen years of my life it didn't even feel like the club was capable of challenging for the league title, or matching the dominance of the 1930s, and its through these young eyes that I still view the club today. grateful that I can confidently attend matches in the knowledge that I will see a win, let alone see some world class talent.
This pessimistic became a glass half full with the arrival of George Graham in the summer of 1986, and as is often it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man to take advantage of an exciting crop of young talent at the club which had ironically been developed by Howe who had left under a cloud the previous Spring when it was clear the club was actively looking for his replacement.
 I got a glimpse of the shape of things to come when I saw Arsenal beat Coventry 3-0 in March 1986 with a team that included Tony Adams, Martin Hayes and David Rocastle. Earlier in the season I had also seen the fresh faces of Martin Keown, Niall Quinn and erm Gus Caesar, and although its easy to be wise after the event I had no doubt my faith in Arsenal was going to be repaid.
In Graham Arsenal had found a manager ready to take the club forward, eager to progress after serving his time in the lower divisions as manager of Millwall, and with the credentials of the 1971 double to buy him time. Not that he needed it as Arsenal shocked the country by leading a title challenge in the autumn. With such an inexperienced squad this inevitably faded away but a trophy was won in the form of the League Cup. Of course in true Arsenal tradition the origins of this win was in a cup tie saga, this time at the wonderful expense of a three match semi final win over Tottenham. By now there was regular live TV coverage to accompany the highlights and trips to Highbury, all of which were now watched in the company of Uncle Bill, my Nan's new husband, and mad Spurs supporter.
Sunday afternoons in the living room in Courtlands were often riotous affairs as a result, and none the more so when Arsenal overturned came roaring back at White Hart Lane in the semi final second leg to get back on level terms after trailing 2-0 in the tie. A chief inspiration in this comeback was yet another new face, Michael Thomas but the replay ended in success thanks to the unlikely hero Ian Allinson.
Allinson had had a hitherto humdrum lower division career at Colchester United before arriving at Arsenal for nothing at the same time as Charlie Nicholas. His tubby appearance belied his often enthralling displays as a bustling winger, none more so than in this semi final replay. Once again Arsenal were trailing and it was back to the old days as I had to listen to the game on the radio in my bedroom. Allinson entered the fray as a second half substitute, and as always threw himself into his role on the wing. Firstly he cut in from the left to score, then misplaced shot found David Rocastle to score. As I erupted in celebration, I discovered my Dad had also turned the radio on in the living, so the cheers rang out in stereo.
All seats were taken in the living room for the final against Liverpool, and once again Arsenal overturned the odds, becoming the first team to beat Liverpool when Ian Rush had scored thanks to two Charlie Nicholas goals on what proved to be his swansong at the club.
Arsenal were back, a feat Graham seemed to have accomplished by creating a feeling that the Gunners were always the underdogs, always expected to lose despite their undoubted talent. In doing so it felt like Arsenal were able to take on the world and win whatever the odds
Naturally twelve months later then, Arsenal had their comeuppance when they returned to Wembley to defend their league cup against Luton Town. Everything was going to plan, overturning a early deficit to lead 2-1 and then winning a penalty kick, before a Luton team including Ian Allinson (about to mirror Talbot's feat of back to back cup final wins with different clubs) took advantage of some ponderous defending from Gus Caesar to win 3-2.
All of which delighted everyone at the Village Cup cricket match in deepest Surrey where I was scoring for Pinkneys Green. All the pride felt at the point the penalty was about to be taken ebbed away as the save followed by the two Luton goals reduced everyone but me to hysterical laughter at such a collapse to a club like Luton.
All was to be forgotten though over the next twelve months as for once in my time as a supporter the cups took a back seat in favour of a concerted challenge for the title. After leading the way for so long, Arsenal just about managed to take their hopes into the wonderful denouement at Anfield on the final day of the season. Never has a title been more thrillingly won, and never will it be done so again.
For my entire life to that point Liverpool were far and away the best English team winning every domestic title over and over again, not to mention three European Cups. Their dominance only grew in the 80s, as they equalled Arsenal's feat of winning three consecutive league titles, and a double. The previous season they even threatened to become the first modern invincible team, challenging Leeds United's record for the longest unbeaten start to the season and ultimately only losing twice. Of course Anfield was nigh on impregnable with countless penalties attributed to the power of the Kop's influence.
Despite the addition of experience in the likes of Brian Marwood, Alan Smith and Kevin Richardson, Arsenal's callow squad still looked pale in the shadow of the likes of Barnes, Beardsley, McMahon, Hansen et al, with Dalglish in the dugout already achieving more in three seasons as manager than most would in a lifetime.
Arsenal had to win the game, something they had not done at Anfield since the mid 70s, but they also had to do it by two clear goals to bring the title to London for the first time in my life.
Mattingley, a small village in north Hampshire was the location for my sofa for this game as I sat down with my Dad and Uncle Bill who was house sitting at this country house for what seemed set to be a miserable evening. That my hopes remained on the low side helped me to enjoy a game which most closely resembled that at Juventus a few years earlier, as the longer the game remained goalless the more I dared to dream.
Alan Smith's second half goal seemed to justify this optimism once it had been awarded in the face of vituperative protests from the Liverpool players which I've never known the reasons for but showed an unlikely tension in their ranks. The clock continued to tick down until Brian Moore uttered those immortal words "McMahon has got the word from the Kop, 1 minute to go" before his bleating assistant David Pleat murmured insincere platitude about at least finishing with a win.
Then it happened in the commentary that has become a legend "Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finds Smith, puts it through to Thomas, Thomas charging through the midfield, its up for grabs now! Thomas right at the end!"
Cue pandemonium, although my Dad was paranoid Liverpool would go straight back up the other end and snatch the title back.
The impact of this win was incalculable. For Liverpool it was the beginning of the end of their greatest ever era, and now its they who have to look back decades for their last league title. Whilst since then no one has ever taken Arsenal lightly again and even though the streets haven't quite been paved with gold ever since, their greatness now lies in my time rather than the past.
For me nothing will ever top this win. It felt like my Arsenal supporting life was one long march to this glorious point and everything since has been enjoyed in its context.
Good old Arsenal, I'll be forever proud to say that name.
Find out why here

No comments: