I, Mee, Mine
Come 1966, Arsenal had become a team of talented individuals, weighed down by a burdensome history. Decorated manager Billy Wright had assembled a team with potential, but did not have the leadership skills to mould it into a cohesive unit. Wright was sacked in the summer of 1966 and the Board of Directors took the unprecedented step of hiring club physio Bertie Mee to the role of manager. The Board saw the way that Mee ruled his treatment room, buoyed by his background as a Sergeant Major in the Royal Marine Corps, he was a tough taskmaster and the board thought he could be the man to instill the requisite discipline in a team of virtuosos. Mee would go on to write his name irrevocably into Arsenal's history books.
Mee joined Arsenal as a physio in 1960 having studied physiotherapy in the army. He had delivered courses in sports treatment for the F.A. for the best part of 15 years. He was infamous within the squad for ruling the treatment table with an iron fist, working injured players incredibly hard and deliberately not releasing them fromthe training ground until 5pm to coincide with the rush hour. Basically, he made being injured a very unpleasant experience for his players. (Maybe Gary Lewin should start hooking Rosicky's hamstrings up to his car battery and telling him to run?) In 1966, Mee was astonishingly offered the manager's job. Mee felt a militaristic sense of duty and accepted, but asked for a clause to be written into his contract allowing him to return to the role of physio if the move proved a disaster after 12 months. Mee did not initially feel there was much wrong with the side, but just that more discipline would be needed. He insisted upon players wearing club suits and blazers when travelling to away games. He instantly recognised the raft of talent coming through the youth side, he moved on Eastham and Baker and bought the likes of Charlie George, John Radford, Ray Kennedy, Peter Storey and George Armstrong into the side. He believed a side comprising of mainly youth team players would have Arsenal at the heart. Essentially, he viewed them as his young corporals.
Mee was aware of his lack of experience and tactical acumen and recruited Dave Sexton and Don Howe to his coaching staff. In Sexton and Howe, Mee, a quiet man, had his 'good cop, bad cop' duo. Sexton was a reflective and thoughtful football intellectual, Howe was a tactical mastermind who relayed his point with a shake of the fist and a barking larynx. Mee took Arsenal to ninth in his first season, an improvement on the 14th place of Wright's death knell campaign. In 1967/68 Arsenal continued steady progress, finishing seventh and narrowly losing the League Cup Final to Leeds United. But Arsenal's next campaign was more sobering, despite finishing 4th. The nadir of the campaign arrived in April, as a 'flu ridden Arsenal suffered a humiliating 3-1 reverse to Third Division Swindon Town in the League Cup Final. Stung by the mocking of the tabloid press, the seeds were being sewn for an indominitable spirit which would lay the foundations for glory. The one consolation in defeat was that, being in the Third Divison, Swindon were not allowed to compete in the Fairs Cup the following season, Arsenal would compete instead. It would be a lifeline they would cling to. Twelve months later, another lifeline in the shape of a 3-1 Final defeat would set the platform for one of the greatest nights in the club's history.
Mee began to rejig his team in the following season, Peter Storey moved from right back to midfield destroyer, allowing Pat Rice to come into the right back slot. George Graham's finesse and lack of pace saw him moved from centre forward to creative midfield driving force. McLintock was moved from midfield to centre half as Ian Ure was sold and Peter Simpson came in to partner him and the mercurial Charlie George was bought into the side. The league campaign faltered as an inexperienced side finished 12th in 1969/70. But few Gooners remember that. The Gunners made steady progress in the Fairs Cup (now known as the UEFA Cup), dismantling John Cruyff's Ajax side with a spellbinding 3-0 victory at Highbury in the Semi Final. Even more amazing in retrospect as Ajax would go onto win three consecutive European Cups in the seasons that followed. Arsenal met Anderlecht in the Final but choked in the first leg at the Constant Vanden Stock. They found themselves losing 3-0 until the dying minutes when Ray Kennedy grabbed a late consolation. Skipper Frank McLintock, determined not to suffer a fifth consecutive runners up medal, told his team they would win the Final in the Second Leg.
On 28th April, 1970, Anderlecht came to Highbury. Eddie Kelly scored in the first half to bring the Belgians in sight. At half time, Mee instructed his side to capitalise on Anderlecht's lack of height at the back. They did exactly that when Ray Kennedy rose to power home a Geordie Armstrong cross. The much maligned Jon Sammels added the third to seal a 3-0 second leg victory and Mee had ended the seventeen year wait for a trophy. The hunger for success that had been laced into the players psyche had been well and truly ignited. Mee began to introduce no holds barred team meetings in Highbury's notorious Half Way house, allowing players to air their grievances with one another. What was said in that room stayed in there, players often came to blows and exchanges were heated between Mee, Howe and their players. But the upshot was a tight knit, family like atmosphere where solidarity was entrenched in every throttle and waving fist. Mee's reasoning was that no resentment was allowed to stew and discontent was nipped in the bud. Players willing to kill each other on Monday mornings he thought, would be more likely to die for one another on Saturday afternoons.
The early signs of indestructible spirit were apparent in the early weeks of the season. A creditable 0-0 draw away at Champions Everton on the opening day was followed by a 0-0 draw with runners up Leeds at Highbury, despite having played three quarters of the game with ten men. Despite an early season injury to star turn Charlie George, Arsenal were forging a reputation as a side that would be hard to beat. But their willingness to fight for one another would become controversially encapsulated away from the pitch. Following a Fairs Cup away tie at Lazio, players from both teams went to a restaurant together. Lazio officials presented the Arsenal side with souvenir 'man bags', very much en mode in Rome, but considered effemenate amongst 1970s British footballers. The Arsenal players began to mock their acquisitions and offended their Roman hosts. A mass brawl broke out and spilled into the streets. Polizie were involved and Lazio sulked, threatening not to show up forthe second leg at Highbury. They appeared but were soundly beaten 2-0 by their gritty hosts.
Arsenal ploughed through their league campaign on Leeds' coat tails largely unnoticed on the fringes of the title race. Despite the skills of Armstrong, George, Kennedy and Graham, Arsenal were still considered stoic and dour and the press largely ignored us. The Gunners then hit form at the right time, winning 11 of 12 league games between 6th February and 20th April and progressing through to the Semi Finals of the F.A. Cup. Around the end of February, Mee gave a speech to his players telling them that, from now on, they should expect two games a week. Despite being a staunch family man, Mee told his players that, until the end of the season, they should put their families second. He would tell them they owed it to themselves the traditions of the club and the supporters to achieve history. Determined to replace the pictures in the Marble Halls of Bastin, Compton, Drake and Chapman, his players responded. Though it was not all plain sailing. In their F.A. Cup semi final at Hillsbrough, they trailed Stoke 2-0 at half time. But a Peter Storey volley halved the defecit with twenty minutes remaining. In injury time, Arsenal were awarded a penalty. Peter Storey lived up to his nickname 'dead eyes' by keeping his cool and beating Gordon Banks from the spot. It was and still is, the most important penalty in Arsenal's history. The team spirit which Mee instilled pervaded through adversity.
Arsenal won the replay at Villa Park and on the same day, Leeds United lost controversially to West Brom with a goal that was so offside as to be ridiculous. Leeds fans invaded the pitch and manager Don Revie ordered his players to leave in protest. Commentator Barry Davis raged, 'Don Revie is going mad and he has every right to go mad.' Victory through harmony indeed. Arsenal beat Newcastle to go top, but ironic defeats to West Brom and Leeds threatened to derail the procession. Leeds finished their league season with a home win, putting them 1 point ahead of Arsenal, who still had one game to play. At White Hart Lane. Arsenal needed to keep a clean sheet to bring the title back to Highbury. Ten minutes from time, a Ray Kennedy header would seal a 1-0 victory which made Arsenal Champions. Arsenal fans invaded the pitch in their glee. Bertie Mee prepared to go out onto the pitch to salute the support. Ken Friar warned the mild mannered Mee that the pitch was something of a free for all and that Mee would probably be better served staying put. But once again, ghenuflecting his military past, Mee told Friar, 'there comes a time in one's life when one must do his duty.' Mee was quite nonplussed when a marauding fan took his club tie and decided to make a hasty exit, choosing to salute the fans from the Director's Box.
Three days later Arsenal had the small matter of an F.A. Cup Final against Liverpool. A win would equal Tottenham's 'double' feat of ten years earlier. Mee used his medical background in his preparation, Bertie was aware that cramp was common on the Wembley turf. Not only did he have the London Colney training pitches marked out to the exact dimensions of Wembley, but he attributed cramp to emotional stress as well as physical endeavour and he stopped his players from talking to the press from Thursday onwards. Mee also delayed his team from arriving in the tunnel, making Liverpool wait a full five minutes and allowing the nerves to imbue Liverpool limbs. After Arsenal missed a number of gilt edged chances, the game moved into extra time and Steve Heighway gave Liverpool the lead. George Graham moved upfront and looked to have grabbed the equaliser, until television replays proved Eddie Kelly had in fact scored the goal. Howe and Mee were ready to settle for a replay and moved Graham back into midfield and the tiring George, who had been reinvented as a roving midfielder behind Kennedy and Radford, was moved upfront and out of the way. It was an unwitting tactical masterplan as, far from staying out of the way, George rocketed a late winner past Clemence and Arsenal had an historic 'Double.' Once again, the team spirit Mee had forged pulled Arsenal over the finishing line in spite of the lactic acid that had accrued in their legs.
However, Mee was unable to recreate the success of that season. Howe was tempted by the West Brom job and left in the summer of 1971. He was never properly replaced as Steve Burtenshaw and then Bobby Campbell failed to settle into the breach. Arsenal finished 5th in the 1971/72 season and lost the Centenary Cup Final to Leeds United. Mee broke the side up, believing their hunger had diminished. His relationship with George became untennable and he moved to Derby, Kennedy to Liverpool, Kelly to QPR. But Mee would later attest his biggest mistake would be to sell the skipper McLintock to QPR and replace him with Jeff Blockley. The glue of his double side was now missing and Arsenal came unstuck as star signing Alan Ball suffered two broken legs and the side was never adequately rebuilt. Mee sensed it was his duty to resign and did so in 1976 with Arsenal returning to mid table obscurity. He later joined Watford as assistant manager where he is credited with discovering a young John Barnes. He was awarded an OBE in 1984 and died aged 83 in 2001.
Bertie Mee was a renowned disciplinarian, beginning something of a trend in composed Arsenal managers. His etiquette was unwavering and he always maintained an emotional detachment from his players, defining a clearly marked line between the master and his pupils. He recognised his own shortcomings and assembled a backroom staff to disguise them. He also recognised the raft of talent in the club's Youth Team when he arrived and took the controversial decision to remove fan favourites such as Eastham and Baker. Essentially, he was Arsenal's first manager for twenty years not intimidated by Arsenal's history, he was inspired by it. His time in the Royal Marine Corps taught him the merits of team morale and a no holds barred atmosphere, he recognised that a good foot soldier was a hungry one. The pain of consecutive League Cup Final defeats redoubled that spirit. Mee's problem at the end was that his players had tasted success and he could not beat them with the adversity stick any longer. He also suffered from the loss of Howe and broke up the Double side too early. Nevertheless, having curtailed the 17 year wait for a trophy and achieved the Double, Mee forever wrote himself into the history of the club and restored its pride and greatness, reinstilling the traditions and grandeur into a club steeped in mediocrity. Essentially, the physio mended Arsenal's wounded pride.LD.
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