I left you will Terry’s first tastes of glory and Arsenal’s first in 8 years in Part 1 and the story continues……
1979-80 remains for me the most heart-breaking season Arsenal have ever had. A season that promised so much, yet we ended up with nothing. A gruelling marathon of a season where we played no less than 70 games, including the Charity Shield. Stan Kroenke would have loved to have owned us then, with all the extra match revenue he’d have had! Between 2nd April & the 1st of May we played 11 games in 30 days including a NLD away, 5 matches against the champions Liverpool (4 FA Cup Semi-Finals plus a League game away) and a two legged Semi-Final against Juventus! Brian Talbot who arrived from Ipswich for £400,000, the previous season, in January 1979, was another excellent addition to the side, popping up and scoring some vital goals for us. Although he had an ugly ungainly running style, he had a brilliant engine with endless stamina and he played in all 70 games being substituted just once. An incredible feat of endurance!
I recall we played Southampton away Easter Saturday, played Spurs away Easter Monday & played Juventus on the Wednesday. The Juventus team went to watch the NLD and couldn’t believe we were playing Spurs just 48 hours before a Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final. We’d asked Spurs if we could play the game on another date and typically of them they refused us. So we played 6 reserves giving Paul Davis his debut and still beat them 2-1!
Terry Neill made another shrewd signing at the start of that season, bringing in Oldie but Goldie John Hollins from QPR the day before he turned 33 years old. I remain convinced it was only the sheer amount of games that stopped us retaining the FA Cup and winning the European Cup Winners Cup as well. Losing two finals in 5 days was a killer. We still had two league games to play, needing to win them both to claim the last UEFA Cup spot. We beat Wolves away 2-1, before an exhausted Arsenal team were hammered 5-0 away to Middlesbrough. Though 4th place in the League was still Neill’s best finish as Arsenal manager, up to that point. Then the cruellest blow of all we lost Liam Brady for a woefully poor European tribunal maximum price of just £600,000 to Juventus.
But it should never be forgotten what an incredible season it was. We beat Juventus over two legs with Roberto Bettega almost breaking David O’Leary’s leg, snapping his shin pad in half at Highbury and Terry Neill saying “Bettega was a disgrace to his profession.”.Then the away leg in Turin, when a late Paul Vaessen goal won it for us, becoming the first English side to win there. We played Liverpool, the Champions, four times in the FA Cup before finally getting the better of them. We were so unlucky to lose to Valencia on penalties. David O’Leary, who marked Mario Kempes out the game, along with Graham Rix were our best players that night. It was a terrible moment when Rixy agonisingly missed that vital penalty. We richly deserved to win something that season, but it just wasn’t to be. Strangely Arsenal had played Ajax in a pre-season game at the start of that 1979-80 season and lost on penalties. With the same two players Brady & Rix missing their spot kicks!
1980-81 was Arsenal’s best ever league campaign under Neill finishing 3rd. We never replaced Liam Brady, how could we. There’s only one Liam Brady, as the song goes. Though we did buy Peter Nicholas from Crystal Palace in March 1981, but he was no Chippy Brady. We also had the strangest transfer that season, or any other season come to that. Which was the swap deal involving Clive Allen and Kenny Sansom. Clive Allen who never played a competitive game for Arsenal after becoming the first £1 million teenager, signing from QPR, just two months before, ended up going to Crystal Palace with Kenny Sansom coming the other way to Highbury! Only Terry Neill and Terry Venables really know what went on with that deal. Some say QPR wouldn’t sell Allen direct to Palace but who knows!
1981-82 saw another major departure with Frank Stapleton doing a Van Persie and joining Manchester United for £900,000. Once again we were stripped up by a tribunal. We finished 5th. We also saw Paul Davis and Stewart Robson establish themselves in the side that season.
1982-83 saw Terry Neill splashing the cash again. He spent £500,000 on Tony Woodcock from Cologne, who was a great signing, being Arsenal’s top scorer for the next 4 seasons & the hapless Lee Chapman from Stoke City, also for £500,000. He was sold 18 months later to Sunderland, after scoring a pitiful 4 league goals for us. In December Neill also signed Arsenal’s first modern foreign player the Yugoslavian Vladimir Petrovic from Red Star Belgrade. His silky skills weren’t suited to the English game & he was isolated out wide & starved of the ball. David O’Leary said in his book that Petrovic couldn’t cope with the English game. But I think he’d have been a great player in an Arsene Wenger side. We slipped to 10th in the League but reached the semi-finals of both the League Cup and the FA Cup losing out both times to Manchester United.
1983-84 was Terry Neill’s final season as the Gunners manager. All summer they’d been a three way transfer battle between The Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool to sign Celtic’s Cannonball Kid Charlie Nicholas, who’d scored 50 goals for Celtic the previous season. I and every other Arsenal fan were delighted when he choose us ahead of the other two clubs. His signing for a club record £750,000 really excited the fans. I remember his debut against Luton Town when he came on the pitch on his own to a massive roar from the crowd.
He was a great player to watch, really skilful, with a superb touch and close control, he could also hit a ball with either foot. But I think it’s fair to say he didn’t like the physical side of the game which his opponents knew that and regularly kicked him out of games. The North Bank and Clock End idolised him and I’ll always remember him fondly for scoring so often against Spurs! But another problem with Charlie, he was under pressure to perform from the word go. Had he chosen to join Liverpool he’d have had time to learn from Dalgleish and gradually replace him. At Highbury he was the main man in a team desperate for instant success.
David O’Leary mentions in his book there were cliques formed in the dressing room. The players were no longer giving 100%. We then got knocked out the League Cup at home by Walsall, which really turned the fans against Terry Neill, the atmosphere in the stadium was toxic and we were 16th in the table, then lost at home to WBA 1-0. There were angry demonstrations by the supporters outside the ground afterwards. The fans wanted Neill out. Neill had just signed Tommy Caton, who must have wondered what he’d let himself in for. We then lost 3-1 away at West Ham and on the 16th of December 1983 the club did the inevitable and sacked Terry Neill.
Terry had the gift of the Gab with plenty of Irish blarney. He talked a great game but once the fans turned on him his position became untenable. Though we were a great cup side reaching 3 FA Cup Finals in a row and a Cup Winners Cup Final as well I think most Arsenal fans would agree it was time for Terry Neill to go. He wasn’t a strong or ruthless enough character to be more successful and history doesn’t look back at him too kindly on his time as Arsenal manager.
To be fair to Terry, during his reign he made some excellent signings; Supermac, Jennings. Sunderland, Woodcock, Sansom, Talbot, Hollins, Big Willie and Charlie Nick to name a few. He was also very unlucky with career ending injuries to Malcolm Macdonald and promising young players like Richie Powling and the tragic Paul Vaessen.
I think the Board should have supported him and done more to keep Stapleton and Brady. Liam said he felt the club took him for granted and that as an apprentice he wasn’t treated in the same way as other players, as the Board thought the lure of playing for The Arsenal would be enough for him to sign.
If we’d managed to hold on those two it’s hard not to imagine we’d have won the Title. We had the spine of Jennings, O’Leary, Brady and Stapleton already there and with additions like Anderson, Sansom, Woodcock and Nicholas, (who wouldn’t have had such high expectations placed upon him with Brady there to help him,) we’d have been a very formidable outfit indeed.
Don Howe took over as caretaker manager and guided us back up to 6th in the league that season. Many fans felt Don Howe should have gone as well. Saying it was his coaching and tactics after all. There were other fans who thought if anybody deserved the job it was Don Howe. After all it was his coaching and tactics which won us the Fairs Cup and the Double with Bertie Mee. Also winning the FA Cup and taking us to four major finals in 3 years under Terry Neill. The Board eventually appointed him manager. But that’s a story for another day.
Thanks for reading and sorry it was another long one! Till next time
Thanks again to Gary Lawrence @garythegooner1956 back with the Howe 84-86 blog soon we hope