Date: 10th July 2011 at 4:57pm
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The 1971 F.A. Cup win was the culmination of the club`s finest hour to date. With a fairly young, hungry team, fresh from winning the domestic ‘Double`, the Gunners looked set to dominate English football for the foreseeable future. But 1971-72 proved to be something of a double bypass that would eventually rip the heart out of the team. In the summer of 1971, Arsenal`s inspirational assistant Don Howe left to manage West Bromwich Albion. The move would prove to be a disaster for both Arsenal and Howe; as the Gunners finished a disappointing 5th in the league, whilst the Baggies were relegated under Howe`s tutelage.

In the Cups, Arsenal would endure heartbreak. Inspired by Johan Cruyff at the peak of his powers, Ajax knocked the Londoners out of the European Cup at the Quarter Final stage. Arsenal would get to Wembley again in the F.A. Cup in 1972; but would lose a dreary and borderline violent Centenary Final, for which Allan Clarke`s stopping header was enough to seal victory for Leeds. Mee treated a drama as a crisis and broke the team up. In the proceeding three years, George, McLintock, Radford, Kennedy, McNab, Wilson and Graham would all leave and not be adequately replaced. In 1975-76, Arsenal would have been relegated were it not for a Terry Mancini goal against Wolves at Highbury to save them from the drop. Mee`s time had come and he knew it. He resigned and was replaced by Terry Neill.

Neill did improve Arsenal`s lot in the league, but not to the standards expected from Arsenal fans. Like Mee, Neill wasn`t the best tactician or strategist. But like Mee he hired Don Howe as his Assistant to circumnavigate those shortcomings. Neill was the diametric opposite to Mee; warm, charming, open, but struggled to discipline his players- such as the time he had to send Malcolm McDonald and Alan Hudson home from a pre season training camp in Adelaide for repeated drunken indiscretions. But he was a canny operator in the market- he brought in shrewd signings such as Willie Young and Pat Jennings from Spurs. Alan Sunderland came in from Wolves, Brian Talbot from Ipswich, as well as the page stopping £333,333 capture of Malcolm McDonald from Newcastle. Already he had inherited a forthright, articulate young genius named Liam Brady from Arsenal`s Youth Academy.

Though Neill couldn`t bring league success to Highbury, history has forged a reputation for him as a cup manager, with Arsenal reaching four finals in three years from 1978-80. Three of them were lost. The one he won- the 1979 F.A. Cup, ranks as one of the most dramatic wins in Arsenal`s history. This is the story of how it transpired. Arsenal had fought their way to the 1978 F.A. Cup Final, but suffered a shock Final defeat at the hands of Bobby Robson`s Ipswich Town- after a flu epidemic ripped through the Gunners camp during the week of the Final and a patently unfit Liam Brady hobbled around the Wembley turf.

Arsenal would battle their way back to the Final in 1979. But it would take them a record ten games to get to Wembley. The side would finish 7th in Division One in 1978-79, were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in December by Red Star Belgrade and the League Cup in the Second Round away at Rotherham. The F.A. Cup represented their best chance of glory. The scene was set for an unusual cup run when Arsenal drew Third Division Sheffield Wednesday, managed then by Jack Charlton, in Round 3. The Yorkshire side`s intransigence would fill our January calendar as it took an amazing five games to separate the sides. (This in the days before extra time and penalties were used at the end of cup replays). Arsenal travelled to Hillsborough in Dickensian scenes as thick snow blanketed the pitch. Alan Sunderland gave Arsenal a first half lead, after Owls keeper Brian Cox had blocked Stapleton`s initial shot. As Jennings took to his goal for the second half, he was mercilessly pelted with snowballs by a mischievous Wednesday crowd behind his goal. Wednesday earned themselves a replay when Alan Johnson headed home a second half equaliser. But both times would be quite sick of the sight of each other in the ensuing sixteen days.

Brady gave Arsenal the lead in the replay at Highbury, only for Roger Wylde to hit a late leveller. With both teams having had a fair crack at the tie at home, F.A. rules dictated that any further ties between the two would be resolved at a neutral venue. The teams would face each other a further three times at Leicester`s Filbert Street. This is where the “and Leicester!” part of the “We all follow the Arsenal” chant comes from, so frequently were travelling fans finding themselves heading to the East Midlands. A third replay finished 2-2, Stapleton and Brady for Arsenal, with Hornsby bagging two for Wednesday. Just 48 hours later, a fourth tie would end in a cracking 3-3 draw. Stapleton twice putting Arsenal ahead, only for Hornsby and Lowey to peg the London side back. Dave Rushbury looked to put Wednesday on their way to a famous win, only for Willie Young to rescue Arsenal with a late equaliser from Brady`s corner. But Arsenal were finally able to shake the Third Division side`s tenacious grip from their ankles in a fourth replay, Frank Stapleton and current Youth team coach Steve Gatting obtaining the precious goals. Fourteen years later, Arsenal would defeat Wednesday in a more epoch making Cup replay for the club.

That month, Terry Neill dipped into Denis Hill Wood`s funds to buy midfielder Brian Talbot from Ipswich Town. Talbot had been instrumental in defeating Arsenal in the previous year`s Cup Final. Talbot still holds an Arsenal record, having appeared in all 70 games of Arsenal`s draining 1979-80 season- the most appearances made by any Arsenal player in one season. And he would score his first goal for the club in the Fourth Round tie, a much more comfortable affair with a 2-0 win over Second Division Notts County at Highbury. Talbot was left with a tap in after Brady had weaved between three bewildered Notts County bodies on the right. Willie Young- a beastly figure at set pieces, scoring the other.

With Malcolm McDonald nursing a knee injury obtained at the beginning of the season, which would eventually claim his career, Neill stumbled across one of Arsenal`s most enterprising ever strike partnerships. Frank Stapleton, a bulldozer of a forward with an impressive leap, teamed up with bubble permed Alan Sunderland. Having served an apprenticeship in midfield, Sunderland was a slightly more cultured forward with an impeccable timing in his runs. Both would thrive on the service received from Brady and Rix. It was Stapleton`s aerial prowess allied with Brady`s precise set piece delivery that manoeuvred Arsenal out of a tricky tie at the City Ground, as the Gunners edged past Champions and eventual European Cup winners Nottingham Forest 1-0.

A trip to the Dell to take on Lawrie McMenemy`s emerging Southampton side waited in Round 6. Having been promoted from the Second Division in 1978, McMenemy assembled an entertaining side featuring the likes of ex Arsenal mavericks Alan Ball and Charlie George (as well as future Arsenal midfield grafter Steve Williams). David Price gave the Gunners a precious second half lead against a tenacious Saints side, but Graham Barker`s late equaliser forced a replay. Just 48 hours later at Highbury, two Alan Sunderland goals were enough to slay the Saints and put Arsenal into the semi finals. Southampton and Arsenal would meet again in the 2003 Final.

Just as they would do again en route to Cup glory 19 years later, the Gunners would face Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park for a shot at Wembley in the Semi Final. Wolves, driven on by box to box midfielder Steve Daley (who would attract a British transfer record that September to take him to Manchester City), were on a revenge mission having also been knocked out of the 1978 F.A. Cup by the Gunners. But Daley was easily bested by the majestic Brady in midfield as Arsenal overcame Wolves 2-0. Brady grabbed both assists as the symbiotic partnership of Stapleton and Sunderland shared the goals. Had statistics for assists been available in the 70s, it`s hard to imagine anyone coming close to the numbers Brady would have amassed in that department.

Having defeated Liverpool on the other Semi Final, Manchester United awaited Arsenal in the 98th F.A. Cup Final- the 49th played at Wembley. It was arguably to be the most dramatic ever. Dave Sexton and Terry Neill were both aiming for their first ever trophies as managers of these two famous clubs. For the first 86 minutes, the Final had been rather unremarkable save for Brady`s effortless genius. After 12 minutes, it was Brady`s searching ball that split United`s defence and found David Price in the area. Price ducked past Buchan`s challenge and tucked the ball back into the area from the by line and Brian Talbot and Alan Sunderland both bundled headlong for the ball to put it into the net. Both players claimed the goal; but both agreed a truce to award it to Talbot, given Sunderland`s heroics later in the game.

Two minutes before half time, the Gunners had eased themselves into a two nil lead when Brady used those deceptive hips to collect Talbot`s pass and sway between two United challenges, before standing up an inviting cross from the by-line, which Frank Stapleton was only too happy to head past Gary Bailey. The second half largely played out as a faceless blur in the stifling Wembley heat. Arsenal believed they had done enough to win and took their foot off the pedal. United looked beaten. But they were given a flicker of hope on 86 minutes when Steve Coppell`s free kick found Martin Buchan on the back post, he turned the ball back into the danger zone and Gordon McQueen`s wits were the keenest as he toe ended the ball past Jennings.

What followed played out in slow motion. With the Gunners tiring and the nerves taking hold, Coppell hurriedly hooked the ball into the Arsenal area. McLlroy poked the ball despairingly past the toes of a panicked O`Leary, then just touched the ball away from Young`s tackle. Jennings came hurtling out to his compatriot`s feet, but McLlroy just got his toe to the ball in that mini duel as well and sent it trickling into the corner of the net. Arsenal had thrown it away. With extra time looming and United buoyed by an impossible recovery, the Gunners surely could not but lose.

Liam Brady recalls now that his utmost objective from centre was “To get the ball as far down the pitch as possible to stop them scoring again.” Once again, Arsenal`s shimmying Irish heartbeat slalomed down field, leaving a bevy of United`s eager tacklers swinging at air, he released the ball to the onrushing Rix- who had somehow summoned the energy for a lung bursting run to the corner flag. With Arsenal supporters` heads still in their hands, Rix floated over a first time cross which United keeper Gary Bailey came out to collect. But in his eagerness, the United keeper miscalculated the flight of the ball. It flew agonisingly over his head and straight onto the outstretched foot of Alan Sunderland, who steered the ball into the net. Rix revealed later that the cross was engineered on the training ground by Don Howe, “I always remember thinking about what Don had always told me, that the closer you get to the byline the more you have to think about eliminating the goalkeeper with your cross.” Manager Terry Neill also highlights the importance of Brady in the goal, “Instead of playing the ball to Rixy’s feet he played it in front of him and forced him to accelerate on to it with what energy he had left.”

Arsenal had won one of the most extraordinary Cup Finals of all time- later dubbed “The Five Minute Final” and secured their first silverware in eight years. Arsenal have a history of less than straightforward wins- the 1989 league title, the 1953 league title won by 0.9 of a goal and the 1993 F.A. Cup Final win with a 121st minute effort. We are also just as likely to lose in the most dramatic fashion- last minute defeats in Finals in 1995, 2001 and 2011 are testimony to that. But the 1979 F.A. Cup Final was one of the most heart stopping in Gunners` legion. “I just stood up and raised my hands to the heavens. I was saying a prayer of thanks,’ says Terry Neill today of his reaction at the final whistle.

Arsenal`s ‘London Irish` (so called by the Press due to their mixture of Southern and Northern Irish playing staff, headed up by their Ulsterman coach) had won the Cup for the fifth time in their history. However, the club couldn`t use the success as a springboard for an era of success. They lost the F.A. Cup Final to Second Division West Ham United a year later and also lost the Cup Winners Cup Final on penalties to Valencia in a marathon 70 game season in 1979-80. Brady would leave in the summer of 1980 and Arsenal couldn`t replace him- enduring a miserable time of the early 1980s. It would be 14 years until they got their hands on the F.A. Cup again- yet again, courtesy of another last gasp winner. LD.


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