The first major error in the decline of Arsenal under Bertie Mee started the very next season. Losing Don Howe to WBA was a hammer blow for the manager and his players. I felt Arsenal should have done more to keep Don at the club and could have maybe made him joint manager alongside Bertie, in the same way as Man City had done with Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. Or failing that, as Frank McLintock suggested in his book True Grit. If Bertie had promised Don the manager’s job in a few years’ time when Bertie retired that would have been enough to persuade Don to stay.
Arsenal tried to compensate for the loss of Don Howe by bringing in Steve Burtenshaw to replace Don. He was a fine coach but lacked the discipline and toughness of his predecessor and Burtenshaw only lasted two years as first team coach. Arsenal signed Alan Ball from Everton for a British record fee, in a blaze of publicity, in December 1971 and Arsenal had to change their style to suit his game. Although Bally was a magnificent player, he also caused resentment among the other players as he was on better wages and wasn’t slow to let the other players know this by deliberately leaving his wage slip in the dressing room for all and sundry to see. We narrowly lost the FA Cup Final 1-0 to Leeds United in 1972 and came close to the Title in 1973, finishing as runners-up, just three points behind Liverpool. Also we lost an FA Cup semi-final to Sunderland the same season. Arsenal replaced Burtenshaw with Bobby Campbell. But things were never the same after Don Howe went to WBA. The team gradually stopped adhering to Don Howe’s four key watchwords discipline, teamwork, commitment and desire.
The wheels really started to come off for Bertie when he made, which he later admitted was his biggest mistake as Arsenal manager, selling his wonderful inspirational captain and leader Frank McLintock to QPR. Mee had signed Jeff Blockley in October 1972 from Coventry City, for £200,000 a huge fee especially for a centre half, as Frank’s eventual replacement. A ridiculous, bizarre decision as Blockley, quite frankly was a liability. In fact Joe Mercer who was then Coventry manager at the time told Frank that the fee he got for Blockley was the greatest transfer move he’d ever made!
McLintock had called a team meeting during the 1971-72 season and requested that none of the coaching staff should attend. This didn’t go down too well with Bertie and a rift had begun to appear between our captain and manager. Bertie probably believing that Frank was undermining him but in truth had Frank just wanted a no holds barred clear the air meeting between the players.
The rift continued to widen on a pre-season tour to Switzerland in 1972.
The players were taken to a wine tasting and smuggled bottles of wine under the tables before they had lunch. The players then got stuck into the wine whenever Bertie’s head was turned. On the coach back Bertie always liked a sing-song. Frank was up the front, belting out “Strangers in the Night” wearing the female courier’s orange jacket! Bertie was giving Frank daggers. When the team arrived back at their hotel Frank said “Did you see wee Bertie, the little Hitler. What’s his problem?” The trouble was Bertie was in earshot and heard every word!
The next day on the coach on the way to training Bertie stood up and said “I’d just like to mention that I’ve never been so embarrassed by a team’s behaviour and our captain was a bloody disgrace to the Arsenal” Frank knew he’d done wrong and apologised. It has to be said that back then it was commonplace for players to drink on these tours. The season started and everything seemed to have settled down for a while but the link that Bertie had with the rest of the players through Frank, was irretrievably broken.
Just before Christmas the team travelled up to play Birmingham City and on the Saturday morning three hours before kick-off, Bertie asked to see Frank in private to tell him “I’m leaving you out the team.” Frank was fuming and smashed his fist into the wood panelled corridor wall splintering the wood. Bertie went pale and scuttled off leaving Big Frank sat crestfallen in the dressing room. When Dennis Hill-Wood came in just before kick-off, he went straight over to Frank and asked why he wasn’t changed into his kit. Frank replied “You’d better ask that little bastard over there.” Though Frank admits he was disrespectful and shouldn’t have used that choice of words, he had every reason to be annoyed.
Frank was so angry that Bertie had dragged him all the way to Birmingham just to inform him he’d been dropped for the first time in his career. He felt Mee had treated him like a 17 year old apprentice. Bob McNab who’d taken over as captain made an impassioned plea to get Frank back in the side, saying Frank’s still the captain of this team, everybody knows it and wants him back in but Bertie responded by saying Frank had burnt his bridges.
Frank went to see Bertie in his office in March and with tears streaming down his cheeks, put in a transfer request, which Bertie granted. He also refused Frank’s request to bring his testimonial forward a year. Bertie refused saying he only had nine yeas’ service and you needed ten to be granted one. Frank also asked if they club would allow him to leave on a free transfer, but again Bertie refused and put a £25k transfer fee on his head.
Frank eventually left the club in June 1973 and signed for QPR, where he played till 1977. In 1975-76 QPR and with Frank being in outstanding form, came within a point of winning the Title, just being pipped by Liverpool. That season Arsenal finished 17th!
A young David O’Leary made his debut in the opening game of that season, up at Burnley. Could you imagine what it would have done for his progress and his confidence, having Frank McLintock alongside him for a couple of seasons? Terry Mancini was David O’Leary’s centre back partner 13 times that season. Is it any wonder we did so poorly!
Even before Frank McLintock left the club, the break-up of the Double squad was already well underway. Jon Sammels a very fine player was the first to go. He had to leave as his confidence had been damaged by some of the crowd barracking him. George Graham was sold to Man Utd in December 1972. Bought by Tommy Docherty, who once said “If Martin Peters is 10 years ahead of his time than George Graham is 15!” Peter Marinello Arsenal’s first £100,000 signing, who never lived up to all the hype, left just a month after McLintock to join Portsmouth.
The season after McLintock left which was 1973-74. Bob Wilson retired at the end of it to concentrate on his successful TV career and Jimmy Rimmer was bought to replace him, who I thought was dependable and did a good job for us. The major plus though for us that season was the emergence of one of the finest players ever to play for The Arsenal, the Irish magician Liam Brady, who made his debut in October 1973. He thrived on playing and learning alongside Alan Ball. That season Arsenal finished 10th.
1974-75 was another terrible one for Arsenal and Bertie Mee. Another bad error of judgment was allowing Ray Kennedy, aged just 22, to become Bill Shankly’s last signing for Liverpool. Ray was converted into a midfielder by that shrewd judge of a player Bob Paisley and was a big success there, winning plenty of medals and caps. Brian Kidd arrived from Man Utd but left after just two seasons. That season also saw a raw Frank Stapleton make his debut in March 1975. We finished that season in 16th place.
1975-76 was Bertie Mee’s final season as Arsenal manager. Two players left in July 1975. Bob McNab was sold to Wolves, replaced by his patient understudy Sammy Nelson who really blossomed and did a great job for us. Incidentally Sammy was also the last of the Double squad to leave the club, moving to Brighton in September 1981.
The other player Mee sold was the real bombshell and another massive error. He sold the terraces favourite son, Charlie George to Derby at just 24 years old. The only good thing about it was that Charlie was on the verge of joining Spurs before Derby stepped in! Ex-North Bank boy Charlie was one of the most naturally talented footballers I’ve ever seen. In training it was said if you kicked a ball straight up into orbit, that as it came down Charlie could control it and kill the ball stone dead, such was his control. He was quick, could swerve past players, was good in the air and had great vision. He could also hit long raking passes accurately and had a rocket of a shot on him, striking the ball so sweetly.
The downside with Charlie was that he was sometimes too brave for his own good and picked up some nasty injuries. He was also very volatile and sometimes reacted badly when being provoked and kicked by the opposition. Bertie and Charlie were worlds apart with the boss from a different generation. He was an ex-army Sergeant and conducted his life in a quite regimental fashion whereas Charlie was a rebellious maverick with long hair and Bertie hated it. Charlie also had a low opinion of Bertie and I remember being at a gentleman’s evening and Charlie was one of the guest speakers. When asked a question from the floor about what he thought of Mee he answered bluntly and straight to the point “I thought he was a c**.” They clashed many times and when Charlie got his marching orders against Glentoran, Bertie banished him to the reserves for three months. Charlie also once turned up for pre-season training with a beard he’d grown in the summer break and Bertie told him unless he shaved it off he’d never play for Arsenal again! Bertie Mee didn’t have a clue how to handle a free spirit like Charlie, who often did things off the cuff. The fans adored him and resented Bertie for selling him.
Bertie’s last season was also Eddie Kelly’s last season, another of the younger players who left too early. I’ll give another example of how pompous Bertie could be. I met Eddie Kelly at the Geordie book launch at the Tollington and I mentioned to him, his Max Wall impression, he once did on the pitch in the warm up, before an away match. It was very comical and featured at the start of the Big Match for a while. Eddie told me Bertie Mee gave him a bollocking for doing that and called him unprofessional.
Bertie Mee left Arsenal in 1976 and made way for Terry Neill. After flirting with relegation and finishing a lowly 17th in the table. Bertie had also lost the fans. Not just because of the poor results, the fans were frustrated he’d dismantled the Double squad far too quickly as well. By the time Terry Neill took over the only players left from the Double squad were Geordie Armstrong who was still going strong, our two Irish full backs Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson. Also John Radford, Peter Storey and Peter Simpson were still at the club, but had become fringe players by then.
I think the biggest mistake Bertie made was allowing Don Howe to leave and not doing enough to keep him at the club. Bertie wrongly, arrogantly assumed he could be replaced, in the same way Don had replaced Dave Sexton. I’m convinced that had Don Howe stayed at the club. We’d have kept Frank McLintock, Ray Kennedy and Charlie George.
Instead of finishing 17th we’d have been challenging for the Title. Can you imagine a mouth-watering side with O’Leary being taught his trade, next to McLintock with Bally and Brady pulling the strings in midfield, with Charlie George playing in the Ozil role? Add to that Geordie still doing his stuff on the wings and supplying the ammunition for Kennedy and Stapleton. That could and should have been possible, had Don Howe stayed. After he left the club we failed to win any silverware until he returned under Terry Neill.
I’ll always be eternally grateful to Bertie Mee for bringing success back to the club after so many years, culminating in the Double. But I’ll never forgive him for letting Don Howe, Frank McLintock, Ray Kennedy and Charlie George all leave the club.
Hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Thanks for reading and Part 1 from earlier is here
Our Thanks Gary Lawrence back once more as an always welcome guest columnist.
I am sure Gary won’t mind me saying he is one of the wise senior statesman of Arsenal Twitter so we suggest you get following @Garythegooner56