With the interlull upon us, I thought now was as good a time as any to take another trip down memory lane. Following on from The Rise and Fall of Bertie Mee I thought I’d talk to you about The Terry Neill Years. So without further ado here we go.
It was the long, hot, sun kissed, scorching summer of 1976. Glam rock was finished and it was the age of the punks. The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Stranglers. Bertie Mee realised his time was up as manager at Highbury, retired and in the words of that fine band The Stranglers “Something Better Change”
Change it most certainly did and on the 9th of July 1976 ex-Arsenal player and captain Terry Neill was appointed as the youngest ever Arsenal manager at 34 years of age. He also uniquely replaced two Double winning managers in Bill Nicholson at Spurs and Bertie Mee at The Arsenal. He’d just spent a turbulent two seasons as Spurs boss. They almost went down under Neill in 1974-75 surviving by a point. Before steadying the ship, finishing 9th the following season. It’s worth noting the season after he left Spurs, they were relegated finishing bottom of the table!
Arsenal had finished 17th in Bertie Mee’s final season and Terry Neill inherited a squad which comprised mainly of the last remnants of the 71 Double squad and some highly talented young players who’d come through the Arsenal youth system. Brian Kidd who’d top scored with 11 the previous campaign left a week before the new manager arrived joining Man City. Terry Neill also inherited Terry Mancini but soon got shot of him to Aldershot!
On his first day in charge at Highbury Terry Neill called all the players together in the dressing room and said “This club needs a good shake up, anyone who doesn’t agree, there’s the door”
Terry made a big mistake by bringing with him from Spurs Wilf Dixon as Head Coach and Assistant Manager. He wasn’t rated by the players as a coach and it wasn’t long before the players were complaining about him, saying his training was dull and predictable. Problems began to surface on Pre-Season in West Germany. Eddie Kelly voiced his disapproval and was sent home with Alan Ball was also threatening to fly back to London as well
It wasn’t only a change of manager in 1976-77. It was also my first season as a season ticket holder. I left the Clock End and North Bank terraces behind for the princely sum of, I think £50 for a seat, for the season in the East Stand Upper. Although I missed the atmosphere of the terraces I now had a fantastic view of the pitch and all that took place on it.
Terry Neill’s first signing at Arsenal was a massive one. He signed Malcolm Macdonald from Newcastle United for a British record fee of £333,333. It was such an exciting day, watching from my new seat, on the opening day of the season, as Supermac ran out onto the lush green Highbury pitch for his debut. Unfortunately Terry Neill and Supermac’s first game ended in defeat to newly promoted Bristol City 1-0.
Halfway through the season and things were still not right. Terry Neill called the players together and asked “Why is it we lack consistency?” Alan Ball stood up and announced “The training is a joke. I’ve had him (pointing to Wilf Dixon) at Blackpool and at Everton. I know what he’s all about. I would stay and work all day and night if the training was interesting. It isn’t.” Less than a month later Bally was on his way to Southampton.
Alan Hudson was signed from Stoke City to replace him. He took over from Bally arguing with Terry over his contract almost from day one. Another notable addition in March was Willie Young from Spurs but the player’s discontent continued through till the end of Terry Neill’s debut season. We finished 8th and were knocked out both the domestic cups in the 5th round.
Before the start of the 1977-78 campaign the club went on an infamous pre-season tour to Singapore and Australia, where Malcolm Macdonald and Alan Hudson made headlines for all the wrong reasons, being sent home to England in disgrace for an incident which Neill refused to elaborate on! Terry Neill knew he needed a new coach and told the players that Dave Sexton would be joining them in Singapore in a couple of days. A day or so later he said “Sorry Dave Sexton is the new manager of Manchester United” The tour moved on to Australia where Supermac and Hudson were sent home.
When the players got home and they reported to London Colney for the start of the 1977-78 Terry Neill announced “Don Howe will be joining us as coach tomorrow”. Pat Rice smiled and said “You won’t know what hit you with this fellow” David O’Leary said that older players like Peter Simpson and John Radford spoke in awe of Don Howe. Terry and the players finally had the coach they were crying out for. Only Dennis Hill-Wood was unhappy about Don Howe returning to the club. He was still upset that Don had left for WBA taking two of the back room staff with him. But Hill-Wood said “The club comes first. It is bigger than any of us”
Things were looking up as Terry Neill continued to reshape the side, pulling off another master stroke; signing Pat Jennings from our bitter rivals Spurs for something like £40,000. Then in November, I remember I was on my way to see Supertramp at Wembley, bought the Evening Standard and saw we’d signed Alan Sunderland from Wolves. Trevor Ross left for Everton at the same time. Graham Rix became a regular as the replacement for the great Geordie Armstong, who left to join Leicester City. Rix became part of a strong left hand side along with Brady and Nelson.
Don Howe worked the players hard. But the training was far from boring and all the players respected Don. Even Supermac had stopped turning up half an hour late for training!
We improved our league position finishing 5th. We also narrowly lost out 2-1 over two legs to Liverpool in the League Cup Semi-Final and reached the 1978 FA Cup Final, against Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town losing 1-0. Neill made a mistake leaving out Rixy for Brady who’d been out injured and was an injury doubt leading right up to the day of the game. In fact Brady himself admitted he shouldn’t have played saying “He would never again fool himself over an injury. In future, if he wasn’t fit he wouldn’t play” I could understand Neill playing him though as he was probably the best midfield player in Europe at the time. But he struggled & was eventually subbed for Rix. As well as Brady, both Pat Rice and Malcolm Macdonald were struggling with injuries at the time.
1978-79 proved to be Terry Neill’s most successful at the club and the only time we won a trophy with him as manager.
We slipped to 7th in the league but more than made up for that by winning the FA Cup. Our first major trophy since the Double, eight years previously. We famously beat Manchester United 3-2 in the Five Minute Final. No Arsenal fan who was there that day at Wembley will ever forget the full emotional spectrum we went through of hope, despair and elation. Coasting at 2-0, the first goal was similar to the 1971 Final when Kelly & Graham both claimed it. This was another goal, which could have been scored by two Arsenal players. This time it was Talbot and Sunderland both striking the ball at the same time with Talbot eventually given the goal. There was no disputing the 2nd goal though. A beautiful pin-point cross from Liam Brady to the head of Frank Stapleton who buried it. As the game was drawing to its close Terry Neill replaced David Price with Steve Walford.
Then in the last five minutes the match turned on its head. Gordon McQueen scored in the 86th minute and the United fans urged their team on. Sammy McIlroy then slipped the ball past Big Pat to equalise in the 88th minute. Their end erupted. We were in despair. It looked like we were going to lose two FA Cup Finals in a row. Extra Time was looming and I didn’t fancy our chances. Along the way we had to play a five game saga with Sheffield Wednesday and beat Nottingham Forest away in the Quarter-Finals, the reigning League champions, who went on to win the European Cup. Forest threw the kitchen sink at Pat Jennings who was magnificent, before a Brady cross and Stapleton header won it for us. The thought of losing after all that was sickening. Then Liam Brady picked the ball up on the left skipped past a United challenge and pushed the ball down the line to Rixy. He looked up and hit a deep cross evading Gary Bailey to find Alan Sunderland who swept it home into the back of the net. It was pandemonium in our end. The stands were literally rocking as we celebrated our historic win.
I remember my dad recorded the game on our old Phillips video recorder and I remember watching the post-match interviews With the players drinking pints of milk and Terry Neill handing the FA Cup to Rixy saying “You take this Rixy, it’s heavy” with a huge smile on his face. This was as good as it got for Terry Neill. There was also sadness that Supermac had to retire at the end of that season due to chronic knee problems, managing only 3 league games at the start of the season and only returning for one last league game at Chelsea, typically scoring our goal in a 1-1 draw. The consolation for Arsenal was Alan Sunderland, who’d originally played wide right, then moved inside to partner Frank Stapleton and they became a formidable front two.
One other highlight that season was in the words of Basil Fawlty giving Spurs “A damn good thrashing” 5-0 at White Hart Lane a couple of days before Christmas. They’d just come back up again from Division two and their fans were full of themselves. Going on about how Ardilles and Hoddle were going to destroy us! Brady showed Ardilles and Hoddle who the guvner was that day!
Part 2 to follow later today
Out thanks once again to Gary Lawrence a regular guest on GT and @garythegooner56 continues his look back at the Terry Neill Years later