Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday July 11 2010
As swinging London jigged itself into a groove in the sixties, Arsenal had dug themselves into a rut. Following the league title win in 1952-53, manager Tom Whittaker`s health failed him and he died in office in October 1956. By then the club was already declining into mid table mediocrity with the feats of an Arsenal team a generation previous in the 1930s weighed down heavily on successive players and managers. 1930s stalwart Jack Crayston and then 40s goalkeeping legend George Swindin were appointed in swift succession in an attempt to replot the connection to Arsenal`s glory days. But the appointments had the opposite effect, intimidating players rather than inspiring them. By the time Billy Wright took over in 1962, the rot had well and truly set in as the England legend oversaw a talented yet maverick side, well heeled with attacking talent in the likes of Baker and Eastham, but lacking in discipline and defensive tautness. By all accounts Wright was far too nice a man to ever be a football manager and Arsenal drifted through the late 50s and 60s without ever even looking like winning anything at all. Worse still, Bill Nicholson`s Spurs side were revered for their winning blend of 'Push and Run` football, securing a double in 1961. Spurs had Blanchflower, Arsenal had Ian Ure. These were truly dark times.
The club parted ways with Wright in May 1966 and turned to an unexpected source. Bertie Mee had been Arsenal`s physiotherapist for some years and had a reputation for running his treatment room like a military boot camp. He deliberately made life tough for injured players to incentivise them to stay fit. (Just a thought Arsene?) The Arsenal board felt the basis of a team was there but that they needed a strict disciplinarian to guide them and whip them into shape. Mee was motivated by the challenge, commenting later that, "Mediocrity was being perpetuated at the club. I thought I could change it." But many were unimpressed with the appointment, Liverpool manager Bill Shankly scoffed, "They`ve appointed the medicine man?!" But scoff as Shankly might, Bertie had the prescription to cure Arsenal's ills. Mee had no real football pedigree to speak of, beyond a few pre war appearances as an outside left for Derby County and then Mansfield Town before injury cut his stalling career short. The players were also very surprised, appointing the physio as manager has never really been the done thing in football and for a club the size of Arsenal, it was very much out of left field. But having chopped and changed through a number of big names, the board felt left field was very much the place to look to reignite the club`s fortunes, so they looked for the ex outside left with no managerial experience! But Mee did also have a military background and he quickly went about instilling that sense of rigour. Players were told to wear ties and jackets bearing the club crest when travelling to away grounds, players were fined for swearing or for turning up to training without shin pads. Mee`s edict was clear, rather than allowing the club`s history and tradition to be a weight on the players` shoulders, it should be a guiding force that elevated them. One of Mee`s favourite phrases was, "Remember who you are and who you represent." Mee felt the club demanded greatness and he would be ruthless in returning it to the Highbury faithful. Captain Frank McLintock would later say, "I have never known a man in football with so much a sense of purpose as Bertie."
But Mee recognised that his army major routine alone would not suffice, he realised his tactical shortcomings and surrounded himself with the expertise he lacked. He appointed Steve Sexton and Steve Burtenshaw as coaches- when Sexton left to manage Chelsea in 1968, he appointed Don Howe as his assistant. Howe and Mee enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, the perfect yin yang approach. Mee was the distant disciplinarian who identified talent, but pervaded rigour and discipline, Howe was the expert coach who related to the players as friends as well as a coach. One of Mee`s gifts, perhaps perversely, was recognising his limitations and appointing foot soldiers to make up the short fall. In Frank McLintock, Mee saw that he had a lieutenant figure on the field. McLintock, the bawler and shouter at centre half, driving his team on, demanding more with gnashed teeth and clenched fists. Arsenal`s ideal military chain of command was complete. Mee-Howe-McLintock. But Mee was also blessed with a generation of generals, the youth team provided him with quite a crop and he recognised the value of a team that had grown up together. Radford, Armstrong, Simpson, George, Sammels, Kelly, Storey and Ray Kennedy all passed through the conveyor belt of academy talent in the 1960s. McLintock had already arrived from Leicester and goalkeeper Bob Wilson from Wolves was already the established number one. But Mee did still sprinkled some important signings into the mix, Bob McNab was a nippy full back bought from Huddersfield Town and George Graham, an elegant, languid centre forward from Chelsea who would be converted into a central midfielder. In fact, a fair few players were reconverted during the Mee era, George, Storey, Kennedy and McLintock all excelled in previously unfamiliar positions under Mee.
The foundations were there and Mee set about improving the club`s fortunes, a 1968 League Cup final defeat to Leeds was regarded progress in light of Arsenal`s elevated league finishes compared to Billy Wright. But the humiliating 1969 League Cup Final defeat to Third Division Swindon Town bought a pervasive feeling of negativity back to the club. McLintock, ever the shop foreman for his players, approached Don Howe and asked that the pictures of the great sides of the 1930s that were littered all over the Marble Halls be taken down. McLintock would later comment in his autobiography, "You`d play a game and the guys from the 30s and 40s would be there after the game- the Drakes, the Comptons and the Mercers. It made us feel inadequate because they`d won things and had won nothing." But Howe raged at the suggestion, telling McLintock that the players should focus on replacing the pictures with snapshots of their own if it bothered them that much. That change of tack and redirection of focus was pivotal, the team used the Swindon defeat as fuel to succeed and they displaced the largest of orang-utans from their back by winning the 1970 Fairs Cup, coming back from 3-0 down in a two legged tie to defeat Anderlecht at Highbury.
McLintock felt Howe`s frankness in their argument had been an asset and McLintock and Mee agreed to introduce team meetings in Highbury`s "halfway house" after games. The halfway house was a small room in the Highbury tunnel, in the 20s; Chapman had introduced the idea of team meetings in the room. Chapman was the first ever manager to do this, he did not regard his players as ignorant serfs, but believed they should be taught to reflect on their performances and contribute to team tactics. McLintock and Mee agreed to reintroduce the idea. Once again, Arsenal were drawing on past glories rather than sheltering from them. The players would meet every Monday morning and be encouraged to speak frankly about their performances and the efforts of their team mates. The meetings would often come to blows and it was the one place Mee allowed profanities. McLintock would often chair the meetings and fights and heated discussions were commonplace. In one quasi legendary exchange, the usually taciturn Peter Storey was pricked to pipe up when McLintock questioned his performance in a 1-1 draw at home to Crystal Palace in November 1970. "Well how the f**king hell do you think you`re playing then Frank?!" Storey yelled, "About as crap as you are but I`m trying to sort it!" came the reply from his skipper. The potent cauldron of the pain of defeat to Swindon and the no holds barred team meetings contributed to an insatiable team spirit. It was undoubtedly the Gunners biggest asset. Mee would later comment, "A title winning team performs in 45 out of 50 games in a season. Occasional brilliance won`t cut it. It`s hard work and determination that win you titles."
The team was certainly well stacked with steel. As well as the fiery drive of skipper McLintock, central midfielder Peter 'Old Dead Eyes` Storey was picking up a reputation as a 70s hard man. Having opened the season with a 2-2 draw at Goodison- a game in which Charlie George broke his ankle and a 0-0 draw at Upton Park, Arsenal`s season began in earnest with a 4-0 win over Manchester United at Highbury. A John Radford hat trick and a beautifully worked George Graham goal gave the Gunners the impetus to start a title challenge as the likes of Law, Charlton and especially Best, were well beaten at Highbury. Best was famously foiled in a one on one by keeper Bob Wilson, whilst the "special attention" Storey gave to Best nullified his impact on the game. "He breathed up my arse for the whole 90 minutes," Best would comment some years later, drily adding, "He`d have booted his own Granny in the air if it would have stopped the opposition scoring." The confidence gleaned from beating United so convincingly saw Arsenal push on to challenge Don Revie`s Leeds side at the top of the table. With George injured, Ray Kennedy moved upfront alongside Radford and the two forged a formidable partnership, though Arsenal did miss George`s penchant for the spectacular, even in games where he was playing badly. (In that respect, Andrey Arshavin is surely his modern day equivalent?) Aside from a 5-0 aberration at Stoke`s Victoria Ground, Arsenal were incredibly hard to beat and stayed in the top 2 for much of the first half of the season. Following a 1-1 away draw with Newcastle, the Gunners would concede just four times in eleven games from mid October to January. Wolverhampton Wanderers were also grappling at the summit of the table and another checkpoint in Arsenal`s season would be a nervy 2-1 win over Wolves at Highbury on 12th December. But though Arsenal were grinding out results, they were relying on their back four; the goals began to dry up. That is until their catalyst, George, returned in January.
Interestingly, McLintock adopts a Wengerism nowadays when describing George`s comeback, saying without a hint of irony that, "He was like a new signing when he came back. He was our spark; you always knew he could do something. Most importantly, Charlie always knew he could too." George was a player of flair with the streak of a rebel. In a well drilled regiment, George was the loose cannon, a self taught and unconventional footballer who honed his craft on the gravel and the small patch of grass at the back of his Islington estate. George was moved into a position behind the strikers, so his venomous shooting could be better utilised, he had a knack of being able to hit a ball almost off balance with no back lift (again, I refer you to the Arshavin comparison) . Due to his long hair and ebullient play, George was targeted by opposing fans and players as something of a nancy boy. (Opposing fans would often sing, "Where`s your handbag Charlie George?") But George could handle himself in the combat zones of 70s football. In an interview with the Daily Express in December 1970, George pithily remarked, "If anyone thumps me, I just nut them." George`s influence was never more neatly summed up than in April 1971 when Newcastle United came to Highbury. By now the Gunners had fallen five points behind Leeds and found themselves frustrated by a resolute Magpies side. George was being closely marked by Newcastle skipper Bobby Moncur. After receiving another dig to the shins, George finally snapped and lifted the Barcodes skipper off the ground by his throat. Five minutes later, George received the ball on the edge of the area and smashed it into the bottom corner with his left foot. The image of George running towards the North Bank with his veins bulging would probably have been the most iconographic image of Arsenal`s season were it not for a certain celebration he executed some five weeks later at Wembley that is etched into the annals of Arsenal`s history. George was the personification of Arsenal in a different way to McLintock; George was an artist with the snarl of an army general.
Leeds lost on the same day that Arsenal defeated Newcastle and the title race was back on. After the game, a trembling Bertie Mee gave a riveting speech to his players in which he told them to "put your families second just for the next six weeks, we have a chance to make history here." The circumstances of Leeds defeat have drifted into football folklore; they lost 2-1 at home to West Bromwich Albion. Already a goal down, Norman Hunter`s pass hit Tony Brown and bounced to Colin Suggett, the only Baggies player inside the Leeds half and at least ten yards offside. Though the linesman raised his flag, the referee Ray Tinker, inexplicably waved play on, leaving a half smirking Suggett to bear down on the Leeds goal and set up Jeff Astle for a tap in. The decision was so incompetent that Revie ordered his players off the pitch and a crowd invasion began, causing indignant commentator Barry Davies to rage, "Leeds are going mad and they have every right to go mad." Whilst Leeds understandably raged, Arsenal had been handed a lifeline, having already secured a place in the Cup Final, the Gunners saw the chance to emulate Spurs` feat of 1960-61 of winning the Double. Arsenal led the table until late April, when they travelled to Elland Road one point clear the top of the table, but lost 1-0, bringing the title race to a thrilling conclusion. Arsenal and Leeds both won the following weekend, the Gunners edging out Stoke 1-0 in a tense encounter at Highbury. The Gunners had one game left; Leeds had concluded their league programme, Arsenal were one point behind and had to travel to White Hart Lane.
On Monday, 3rd May, 1971, Arsenal made the short journey to White Hart Lane; the permutations were that a victory or a goalless draw would win them the title. A score draw or a defeat and Revie and Leeds would be crowned champions. Over 50,000 packed inside the ground, estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000 depending on who you ask as to how many were locked out on the Seven Sister`s Road. The throng of people was so assiduous that the match referee abandoned his car on Tottenham High Road and made the rest of the journey on foot. Pre match, Spurs were bullish as ever, maintaining a habit that persists generations on as Alan Mullery unwisely told the press pre match, "Arsenal have as much chance of being given the title by Spurs as I have of being given the crown jewels." A fraught game tumbled on at 0-0, a result good enough to secure Arsenal the title. Nerves pierced the night air until with three minutes remaining, Radford`s shot forced a fine low save from Jennings, Armstrong collected the rebound, sauntering past Joe Kinnear before clipping a cross into the box, which Radford headed in off the underside of the bar. A Spurs equaliser would have snatched the title away from their North London rivals, but Arsenal held on. At the final whistle, Gooners invaded the pitch in the thrall of delirium. Once back in the dressing room, Mee walked back to the pitch to salute the supporters. Ken Friar warned him not to due to the thriving mosh pit of ecstatic Gooners on the pitch. Mee responded regally in his typically clipped tones, "There are times in life where one must do one`s duty." Mee returned to the dressing room minutes later with his well tailored suit ripped the shreds. Five days later, Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1 in extra time at Wembley to ensure the club`s first double. The sky was the limit, in a rare piece of blue sky thinking, Mee told a reporter at the parade at Islington Town Hall, "I wanted to win the F.A. Cup for Frank McLintock, the league championship was for my Chairman Denis Hill Wood. As for me? I wouldn`t mind the European Cup next year." But the optimism was short lived, Don Howe, dismayed that Denis Hill Wood had not mentioned him in his after dinner speech for the Double celebrations, left to manage West Brom. (Nice to see public relations gaffes are not the sole preserve of Denis Hill Wood`s son). Neither Howe nor Mee were ever successful managers without one another, elucidating their symbiosis. The Double team was broken up after their narrowly missed the title in 1972. They would again surrender to years of mediocrity and it would be 18 years, before they would recapture the biggest prize again.LD.
Date:Sunday July 11 2010
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