Date: 25th February 2012 at 9:34pm
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Having written about just about every other trophy triumph in Arsenal`s history ( here here and here and here too), I decided that, at some point I was going to have to complete the set. So over the next week, I will be looking forensically at Arsenal`s two European triumphs to date. Today, I will focus on a tournament victory that scratched a 17 year itch. The Gunners had slumped into mediocrity during the 60s, struggling to take the strain of their 30s heyday.

After a nerve shredding league win in 1952-53 Arsenal underwent a 17 year wait for their next silverware. The longest the club has endured since their inaugural trophy in 1930. Arsenal produced good players during the 60s, but seldom good teams. The sleight of foot of George Eastham on the wing, the majestic power of Joe Baker upfront and Frank McLintock barking instructions from the back. Highbury was certainly a place to see goals in the 60s, with plenty of high scoring games. But they weren`t always necessarily in Arsenal`s favour!

Bertie Mee was appointed in 1966- an arch disciplinarian whose mandate it was to whip a squad of burgeoning young talent into shape. Mee`s ventures hinted at future success, with a run to the League Cup Final in 1968, culminating in a narrow 1-0 loss to Leeds in the Final. But it was humiliation ahoy in 1969, when 3rd Division Swindon Town defeated Arsenal at Wembley in the League Cup Final to make the Gunners wait still longer. Back at Highbury, captain Frank McLintock felt weighed down by the pictures of Mercer, Parker, Hapgood and James cradling trophies and asked Assistant Manager Don Howe if they could be removed. “If you want them moved, you`ll just have to replace them,” was his reasoned reply.

With the laughter of the football world still ringing in their ears, Arsenal set about doing just that. Having finished 4th in the 1968-69 League table, narrowly above Chelsea and Tottenham, the Gunners earned qualification for The Inter Cities Fairs Cup for the first time since the 1963-64 season. Organised European competition hadn`t existed when Arsenal were in their 30s and 40s heyday, so continental conquest was still a new thing for Arsenal. But foreshadowing their 2nd European trophy some 24 years later, Mee decided the key to success here was to build from the back.

The Gunners drew a relatively plum tie against Belfast semi professional side Glentoran F.C, notable for being the crib to Danny Blanchflower. Glentoran had however turned George Best away after the teenager had a trial there on the basis that he was too small and light. Arsenal travelled to Northern Ireland for the first leg at the Oval in front of a fevered 15,000 capacity crowd. But they made short work of the part timers with three first half away goals. George Graham struck in the 15th and 25th minutes, before Bobby Gould made the tie unassailable just before half time. The second half rather petered out into a faceless sludge. But prior to the second leg, played at Highbury some three weeks later, the Gunners` season was disrupted. Bob Wilson was injured and deputy goalkeeper Malcolm Webster stood between the sticks. His six game stint brought 3 defeats, 2 draws and a solitary victory. They were the only six games he ever played for the club. He suffered the ignominy of being dropped for Jeff Barnett and was released in the summer. Barnett didn`t fare much better. Arsenal only won four of the eighteen games for which Wilson was missing. Webster conceded a penalty in the opening minute of the second leg against plucky Glentoran at Highbury, felling Henderson, who dusted himself down to convert the spot kick.

The early goal gave the Irish minnows some impetus and made the tie less comfortable than it ought to have been. Glentoran were the sole British casualty of the round, with Liverpool, Newcastle, Southampton, Kilmarnock and Coleraine F.C. all through. Perhaps significantly, shortly after the 3-1 aggregate win over Glentoran, Arsenal tumbled out of the League Cup at the first attempt, losing to Everton. In the 2nd Round, Arsenal faced the notably tougher prospect of Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon as they`re more commonly known in modern parlance). The team made the journey to Estade Jose Alvalade without either Wilson or McLintock, but David Court and Terry Neill gave a defensive masterclass, enabling the Gunners to escape Portugal with a creditable 0-0 draw.

In the 5 weeks building up to the 2nd Leg, Mee`s side welcomed Wilson and McLintock back and began to find some form in the league. After 11 games without a win, Arsenal let loose at Selhurst Park, beating Crystal Palace 5-1, before tanning Derby County`s hides 4-0 at Highbury. The 2nd Leg saw the team turn in one of their performances of the season. John Radford`s long range thunderbolt giving them the lead on 25 minutes, before George Graham`s guided finish made it 2-0 just before half time. Graham added a third on 53 minutes past beleaguered Lisbon keeper Vitor Damas. The victory instilled the Gunners with the belief that they could challenge for the trophy.

Though that belief did not necessarily manifest in a swashbuckling style. Not immediately anyway. Having brushed aside Charleroi, French side F.C. Rouen were next up. Rouen did not have much of a pedigree and Arsenal were heavy favourites. However, again without McLintock, a nervy performance ensued in Le Stade Robert Diochan. Rouen penetrated the away side`s back four on a number of occasions, only to find Bob Wilson in inspired form to preserve a clean sheet. But Arsenal struggled for creativity in their own right too. For the second consecutive round they could not find the spark to score an away goal, so came back to Highbury in the knowledge that concession would make their job hugely difficult.

That manifested itself in a very cagey 2nd leg at Highbury. Arsenal had been knocked out of the F.A. Cup in the 3rd Round by Blackpool. With the side ensconced in midtable in the league, the Fairs Cup was their only route to silverware. By now, youngster Charlie George had forced his way into the first team reckoning following his debut the previous August. Mee felt he had the bombast and creativity needed in a solid, but workmanlike side. Recognising the lack of creation in the first leg, George was picked for the second. But it proved to be a fraught affair, with Arsenal terrified of overcommitting and losing an away goal. The match looked set for extra time, deadlocked at 0-0. But in the 89th minute, Arsenal won a corner. Geordie Armstrong swung in a left footed inswinger and Jon Sammels rose to head home the tie`s decisive goal. The last ditch nature of the victory over Rouen, together with the classy dismantling of Sporting Lisbon, led the club to quietly believe they had the ingredients to go all the way. But with Inter Milan- who had knocked out Barcelona, Ajax and Anderlecht all still in the competition, the bookmakers did not share that belief. In an all British round Newcastle had knocked Southampton out on away goals, leaving the Magpies and the Gunners as Britain`s sole survivors. Johan Cryuff`s Ajax side easily swotted Napoli aside, making them the big favourites.

Mee`s side drew Romanian team Dinamo Bacau, who had knocked out Kilmarnock in the previous round. The trip to Moldavia for the 1st Leg could hardly have gone better. Arsenal kept the first half tight, as had been their custom in away legs. Bacau showed little to nothing upfront and with the scores 0-0 at half time, the Gunners had the impression an away goal was in the offing. They got it on the hour mark via Jon Sammels` fulminating drive from range. John Radford wrapped up a pleasing 2-0 away victory with a header from the tireless Armstrong`s cross. If the 1st Leg had been professional and pleasing, the 2nd was a full scale riot. Radford opened the scoring after just 7 minutes and a bewildered Bacau side were undone twice in a minute by the peerless flair of Charlie George, to give Arsenal a 6-0 aggregate lead with an hour of the tie still to play.

Baluta pulled one back for the dispirited Romanians before Graham made it 4-1 on half time. With the away side already pummelled into submission, Radford sandwiched two Jon Sammels goals, meaning the final score was 7-1 to Arsenal. It remains Bacau`s record defeat to this day. They had been shamed on aggregate to the tune of 9 goals to 1. Today, the members of the 1970 squad say they felt they had a reasonable chance of making the final so long as they avoided Ajax of Amsterdam. Inter Milan and Anderlecht made up the quartet. Of course, Arsenal drew Ajax, with the first leg at home to boot. Johan Cruyff was just coming to prominence at this stage, in a team that also boasted Krol, Keizer and Muhren. Ajax had lost their Quarter Final 1st leg 3-1 to FC Carl Ziess Jena, but roared back to win the 2nd leg 5-1. On their day, Ajax could take any team in Europe to pieces.

However, the First Division schedule helped Arsenal. In April they were scheduled to play a solitary league game. It was against West Ham, before either leg of the Ajax match. Arsenal decided to try and make the 1st leg as tight and cagey as possible. But with the young Charlie George in their ranks, they managed to out Ajax Ajax. He scored with a beautiful curling goal after 16 minutes. The Dutch side appeared slightly off colour as George proceeded to run the show with a series of beguiling passes. Despite having been on the end of a 90 minute sledging from the cockney upstart, Cruyff would say after the game that “George could be as good as di Stefano.” Arsenal remained tight at the back, a feature of their Fairs Cup campaign to this point having shipped only two goals- both inconsequential- in progressing. Sammels hit another ripsnorter on 80 minutes as the Dutch giants cowed, then George won a penalty on 84 minutes, which he dusted himself off to score himself. Arsenal had pulled off an unbelievable 3-0 1st Leg victory against the team many considered to be Europe`s finest. Indeed, in the three proceeding seasons Ajax would win the European Cup- knocking out Arsenal en route to their 1972 triumph. The Gunners were 12th in their domestic league at this point. If you imagine F.C. Basel taking Messi and Barcelona apart, you`re probably about on par with this achievement.

Arnold Muhren scored a 17th minute goal in the 2nd leg to bring the score back to 3-1 on aggregate. But it was all Ajax could manage, as McLintock and Simpson displayed another masterclass. A year later, the defensive grit of that partnership, allied to the flair of George would win Arsenal a domestic double. The Gunners were showing a propensity to build from the back as a cornerstone of future success. Keeping Cruyff and co quiet meant they were a match for anyone. In the other semi final, Inter had defeated Anderlecht 1-0 at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium in the 1st leg, only for the Belgians to turn the deficit over, winning 2-0 in the San Siro to qualify for the final.

Anderlecht had won their domestic title five times on the bounce from 1964-1968. However, they surrendered their crown to Liege, relegating them to the Fairs Cup. With 5 successive European Cup campaigns behind them, as well as world class talent such as Jan Mulder and Paul van Himst leading the line. Arsenal`s defensive doggedness had got them this far, whilst the Belgian side`s flair made them favourites for the final. Arsenal`s league matches were postponed, meaning that the 1st leg of the final immediately followed the 2nd leg with Ajax. They were left to concentrate solely on their quest for European glory and a first trophy for 17 years.

But Anderlecht`s front two had too much for Arsenal. In a packed Constant Vanden Stock stadium, that howled and whistled at Arsenal`s every touch, a 25th minute goal from Devrinat, followed by a sumptuous effort from Jan Mulder in the 30th minute gave the Belgians a comfortable cushion. Van Himst set up Mulder for a 3rd in the 74th minute and the final had begun to look like a formality. However, substitute Ray Kennedy crashed a header in from Armstrong`s cross with six minutes left to give The Reds, what the back page of the Mirror described as “A Ray of Hope.” The Arsenal players weren`t as sure as they dejectedly trudged into their changing room. As they approached the shower, many of their heads were turned by the sound of Frank McLintock yelling, “We can still win this!” and thumping his fists together, imploring his team to keep their heads up.

The captain`s intervention proved vital in imbuing a drop of belief into the side. Just 3 hours before the 2nd leg, UEFA confirmed that away goals would count double. Again, this gave Arsenal another timely lift, knowing that a 2-0 victory would be enough. The official recorded attendance for the 2nd leg at Highbury stood at 51,000, but the reality would have had it closer to 65. Members of my family in attendance tell me their feet didn`t touch the floor for 90 minutes. On McLintock`s instruction, the home side went for a high octane pressing game to prevent Mulder dictating the game in the manner he had the away leg. After 25 minutes, Graham`s corner was cleared to the edge of the box; Storey tucked the ball back to Eddie Kelly, who stepped inside a challenge before curling the ball into the top corner. An ear splitting cacophony of noise greeting the goal. The side were buoyed at half time, but McLintock was quick to warn them of the importance of keeping the intensity high and staying close to Mulder and van Himst. “You needed eyes in your arse to keep tabs on them” he would say years later.

As the teams came out for the second half, there was the usual lull in atmosphere one experiences in football stadiums after an interval. McLintock turned to the North Bank, waving his arms furiously and pumping his fists. He could be seen mouthing “keep the bloody noise up!” over and over again. Arsenal swarmed on their visitors and on 75 minutes, Graham and McNab combined down the left. McNab sent in a swirling cross and Radford rose to head down into the bottom corner. He and his colleagues disappeared into a sea of braying bodies in the North Bank. Just a minute later, George nonchalantly picked up the ball on the left, with no backlift he sprayed a 50 yard cross field pass towards Sammels. Maurice Martins, who had just come back from injury, misjudged the flight of the ball, leaving Sammels to chest trap before unleashing a low drive into the bottom corner to send Highbury into raptures again.

There were still fifteen minutes remaining and McLintock and Simpson would again have to prove their true defensive worth. McLintock, who had four runners up medals but no winners medals in a quasi tragic career to that point, wasn`t surrendering this time. Mulder managed a speculative half volley which skimmed the outside of the post with 89 minutes on the referee`s watch. But the final whistle sounded and the supporters, who had waited 17 years for a cup, poured onto the pitch, most of them with tears in their eyes. Arsenal had broken their duck. The giant was awake again. McLintock spoke of his feeling of inadequacy when the likes of Ted Drake, Joe Mercer and Eddie Hapgood would attend club functions. The Fairs Cup added to the club`s honours board and set them up for the Double a year later, but for some players, there was an element of personal pride there too.

When asked about the significance of that night at Highbury on 28th April, 1970, McLintock says, “It meant I wasn`t a jinx or a loser anymore. It meant I could look people like Joe Mercer in the eye.” Nowadays, McLinctock can walk around the stadium and see pictures of himself, cradling the Fairs Cup in his arms, as he smiles, astride the shoulders of the pitch invading supporters, a red and white striped scarf draped hastily onto his neck. That night gave the supporters a night that they will take to their graves and it gave the players the belief that Arsenal were great again. It convinced Mee he had the ingredients to build from the back and that, in George, he had a precocious young talent to build a team around. It was just the beginning for a great team. But ultimately, it would all end too quickly too. LD.

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