Street brawls in Rome, dressing room unrest, a five nil spanking at Stoke, bucket loads of self doubt but ultimately a last gasp winner in the Cup Final, and the iconic sight of Arsenal’s fan boy, rebel-with-a-cause, Charlie George lying prostrate on the Wembley turf, which is the image seared into the psyche of every Arsenal fan, as this unsung team became the first side to win the Double in the television era and the benchmark for all the triumphs that have followed, and are to come in Arsene Wenger‘s new vision at the Grove.
As I write these words I can feel a frission of excitement and I transport myself back to my early twenties and walking out of Arsenal Tube Station. I can literally smell the hog dog stalls and feel the chill night air in my throat. There was something indescribably primal about night games at Highbury, football fandom stripped of all the modern paraphernalia. Cold, often wet, jostling by the turnstiles, steaming Police horses, stale beer breath, fag cupped in hand, soggy chips. Cliché upon cliché. Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for.
I started to go on a regular basis when I returned to the Britain in 1989, but my first Arsenal game took place at Wembley in the Summer of 1988 during the much maligned Makita Tournament.
English Clubs were rightly the pariah of Europe in the wake of the Heysel Disaster of 1985 which had claimed 38 lives through that great English Tradition of “running”, not proper hooliganism, but deadly when combined with poor organisation and a ramshackle Stadium.
Thus the only action we could get against foreign opposition came through pre season tournaments such as this one which featured AC Milan, Bayern Munich, the mighty Tottenham and of course Arsenal.
We arrived from Ireland at Baker Street Station and this was to be, for me the dreaded Meeting The Family scenario.
A guy turned up driving a convertible blaring New Order, sporting an ear ring and implausibly tight jeans, but enough about Martin Kemp. My future Brother in Law and I spoke the common language of football and this started one of the most important, lasting and valuable friendships and relationships of my life. Brian Marwood is the prime suspect in all this.
I was Hull City through and through, and whilst I watched top flight stuff on the telly, I had no opinions either way about the teams taking part, usually cheering the under dog as in Coventry and Wimbledon in successive Cup Finals.
But when my all time Tigers Hero Brian Marwood, inspiration for two promotions in the Don Robinson inspired madness which saw City come back from the abyss of bankruptcy, signed for Arsenal and Michael was a fan, the jigsaw fell into place. The rest as they say, is history.
Arsenal beat Spurs 4-0 in my first game. This Arsenal supporting thing is easy enough then! If only….
As I got into it, you listen to the stories and talk to the older fans and 1970-71 seems to be the genesis for the modern Arsenal narrative.
All the great Arsenal traits seemed to come together in the Double Team and it’s instructive to compare the first Double team with the 1998 vintage, the foundations of which were laid by George Graham, built on by Bruce Rioch, and topped off by Arsene Wenger in his first full season at Highbury.
A fantastic back five, 1971 and 1998 are legendary for the Captain Fantastic centre half leading from the front and never expecting of others what they wouldn’t of themselves. Tony Adams may as well have been cloned from Frank McClintock.
Wilson, McNab, Rice and Simpson were mirrored in 1998 by Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn and Keown with Steve Bould filling in when required, and the former Stoke man played a pivotal role in that surreal moment when he played Adams through with a pinpoint ball which the skipper buried with the aplomb of a seasoned finisher when the Gunners clinched the Title at home to Everton.
In midfield Coach and tactical mastermind, Don Howe and Boss Bertie Mee had a withdrawn man on the right hand side of the park who possessed a great engine, pace and a fierce shot in Eddie Kelly who ironically gave way to the mercurial Charlie George during the run in. Kelly however came off the bench to score the equaliser in the Cup Final.
Ray Parlour provided that role in 1998, and how the Essex Pele never made it to the World Cup of that year, lies only in the mind of the bonkers Glenn Hoddle.
Geordie Armstrong provided the width and pace on the left wing, and Marc Overmars had the season of his life in 1998 including netting the vital winner at Old Trafford in March.
In the middle of the Park, Manu Petit’s class and ability to play the killer ball directly compares with George Graham, not a man blessed with pace and like Petit he learnt through the sharp tongue of his defenders when he needed to get stuck in and protect as well as create and do the flashy stuff.
Peter Storey, latter-day porn runner, brothel owner and convicted counterfeiter was the archetypal ’Seventies central midfield brusier, the water carrier for the classier players and whilst Patrick Viera was much more of a rounded player as befits the Premiership era, his basic task for Wenger was to win the ball and feed Overmars, Petit and the finishers. And what a great engine the guy had, non stop hard running up, down and all around.
Up front Howe and Mee had the young buck Ray Kennedy, as Wenger had the blistering pace of an 18 year old Nicolas Anelka ably supported by the old head and experience of Bergkamp coming into his pomp. Who can ever forget his masterful hat trick at Leicester early in the season? Howe and Mee had John Radford, a no nonsense Yorkshireman as Kennedy’s mentor.
On the periphery was Jon Sammels. A talented midfield schemer in the mould of George Eastham but who became the butt of the notorious North Bank boo boys. He played a pivotal role early in the season, but injury and a perceived loss of form saw him absolutely slaughtered by a section of the crowd and whilst his colleagues celebrated the Double, Sammels negotiated a summer move to Leicester.
This has become somewhat of a nasty and unpleasant seam running through recent Gunner’s history. In my era it was Perry Groves followed by Jimmy Carter, Martin Keown and almost unbelievably Kevin Campbell. The current target is Alex Hleb whom I observe to be a hard running, committed player on the right hand side, Parlour like. Not spectacular but does a job.
The Groves thing intrigues me. No one doubted his effort but he really wasn’t any good and lived off skinning Gillespie in the 1987 League Cup Final win. I vividly remember the cacophony of groans that accompanied his introduction on the tannoy. His nadir came in a horrendous 0-0 at QPR in 1992 when his name was chanted sarcastically because we were so bad.
The pitch is tight at Rangers and you are on top of the play and during this game a hard core totally crucified a hapless Jimmy Carter.
I felt for the lad and saw him physically crumble in the face of such abuse. He was a decent player by reputation, but we needed him to actually change things, rather than hone his skills and blend in, and he wasn’t up to the job but I am certain the boo boys wrecked any hope of us seeing the best from him.
And yet…. Groves’ autobiography is selling like hot cakes amongst the Gooner faithful. There is a distinct whiff of revisionism at work. Faux sentimentality. But Groves is having the last laugh on his way to the bank. A perverse form of justice.
As for Seventy One Guns… It’s a well researched read complete with fascinating insights from the players, casting light on what it was like to be a pro in that era and I’m sure many of today’s players wouldn’t last the pace what with the heavy pitches and the brutal tackling. And best of all Arsenal pipped Damned United, Dirty, Violent, Thugs Leeds United to the Title.
I would heartily recommend it, and not just for Arsenal fans as you get a great flavour of the contemporary game, and it ranks with my favourite book about football, Eamonn Dunphy’s tome Manchester United and Matt Busby: A Strange Kind of Glory.
There is no way Arsenal can match the magical history of Britain’s (if not the World’s) greatest football Club, but David Tossell’s book reminded me why I fell in love with Arsenal and why I should jolly well do something about re igniting matters which I have let drift since 1999 when I moved to Hull.
Hull City is the wife, but Arsenal is a tempestuous but enchanting mistress.