Date: 25th February 2011 at 11:02am
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Despite Arsenal`s impressive trophy haul in their 125 year history, the League Cup has not always co-existed easily with Arsenal. Indeed, we have only collected the trophy twice since its inception in the 1960-61 season- once in 1987 and again in 1993. We`ve lost four finals, to Leeds in 1968, embarrassingly to Third Division Swindon in 1969 and just as unexpectedly to Second Division Luton Town in 1988, before Chelsea`s first team edged past our collection of kids and scally wags in 2007. The competition has handed out some chastening defeats too; the 1983 defeat by Third Division Walsall at Highbury culminated in supporters gathering outside the Marble Halls to call for Terry Neill`s head- which was delivered on a platter within 24 hours. Since we last lifted the trophy, we have tumbled out in the semi-final stage to Aston Villa; Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Wigan Athletic and of course, most forgettably to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.

The League Cup was born in the 1960-61 season and was the brainchild of revolutionary Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker. In its inaugural season, Arsenal were amongst the abstainers and refused to take part in the competition along with Luton, Sheffield Wednesday, Spurs and West Brom. However, in the 1961-62 season, entry into the Fairs Cup was guaranteed for the winners and the rebellion relented. Arsenal got to their first League Cup Final in 1968. The 60s had been an incredibly dry period for Arsenal, a fact emphasised by the fact that their appearance at Wembley in 1968 was their first sojourn to the twin towers for 16 years, since the 1952 F.A. Cup Final triumph over Newcastle United. Much like George Graham 20 years after him, Mee showed signs of breathing new life into a club gone stale, crushed by the weight of his 1930s heyday. It`s perhaps fitting that Arsenal beat Huddersfield Town in the semi finals that year- another side struggling to carry the burden of Chapman`s glorious reign. (In the 60s, any Arsenal fan over 30 would have been reared on an unprecedented era of domination). The likes of Storey, McNab, McLintock, Simpson, Radford, Graham and Armstrong started the final- a significant portion of the side that would win European and domestic honours in the coming seasons.

Their opponents on March 2, 1968, Leeds United, were perhaps further along on their plotted trajectory to greatness, having been losing Fairs Cup Finalists the year before. Coach Don Revie had built a stern, solid (some say psychopathic) side, who had conceded only three goals in the six games leading up to the Final. Their side that day featured the likes of Charlton, Bremner, Lorimer, Sprake and Giles. In hindsight, both team sheets read like a who`s who of 1970s football. Leeds took a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes through Terry Cooper and their defence held Arsenal at bay for the rest of the game. It was the first trophy of Don Revie`s reign and Arsenal`s barren run continued into a 17th year. However, the next year, Mee`s men fought back to the Final. They were to face Third Division Swindon Town, making their first ever appearance at Wembley. Arsenal were strong favourites to collect their first ever League Cup. However, preparation for the match was marred by an outbreak of ‘flu in the Arsenal camp, which had caused their previous fixture to be postponed. The Wembley turf had heavy divots from having hosted the Horse of the Year Show just a week earlier. The heavy quagmire of a pitch contributed to the plucky underdogs taking a 35th minute lead. Ian Ure`s attempted back pass to Bob Wilson became quite literally stuck in the mud, causing the ball to stop dead outside the area. Town striker Roger Smart capitalised to round Wilson and score.

The Gunners banged on the door repeatedly in an attempt to equalise, with Town keeper Downsborough making a catalogue of incredible stops. It all looked rather forlorn until the 86th minute, Downsborough fumbled Armstrong`s cross and Bobby Gould stooped to equalise. With the game moving into Extra Time and the wind burgled from Swindon`s sails; Arsenal would surely finish the job in extra time. However, by now the mix of the heavy pitch and as much as eight Arsenal players still suffering the effects of ‘flu, Arsenal had nothing in the tank. Don Rogers resumed Swindon`s ascendancy with a cool finish from a goalmouth melee just before the end of the first period of extra time. Arsenal went for broke in the second half, but the game was up on 109 minutes when Ian Ure failed to control the ball on the unctuous turf and he was relieved of possession by Smart, who played a through ball to Don Rogers to seal an unlikely victory. The press were cruel; the Evening Standard carried “The Shame of Arsenal” as their cutting banner headline. But from that defeat and the subsequent mocking came triumph, the Arsenal goalkeeper that day, Bob Wilson says today,

“It’s never going to remain the happiest day of my life but I will go to the grave telling people that what we achieved in the years following that League Cup defeat we owe to Swindon, There were certain players who dropped by the wayside, but those who were part of the abuse we got from the London press ? who thought there was no way we could lose to a Third Division side ? used it as a spur.’

The team would win the Fairs Cup the next season and the domestic Double one season after that.

Perhaps understandably, Arsenal rather fell out of love with the League Cup through the 70s and early 80s, with a semi final defeat to Manchester United in 1984 about as noteworthy as our achievements became in the competition. However, the competition would again contribute to lifting Arsenal out of a period of stagnation in 1987 with a riveting last gasp semi final win over Spurs at White Hart Lane and the subsequent schooling of Liverpool in the Final. That success was arguably the launch pad for the league wins of 1989 and 1991. But once again, dejection and heartache loomed on the League Cup in 1988. After a packed Highbury saw Arsenal dispose of Everton in the semi finals, the feeling in N5 was that the good times were here and few doubted that, having upset Liverpool the year before, that this reinvigorated Arsenal side would have no troubles with 2nd Division Luton Town. But the Hatters, contesting for their first ever major domestic honour, were in no mood to be rolled over and took a shock lead inside 15 minutes thanks to Brian Stein. But the Gunners kept their heads in the warm Wembley sunshine and soon wiped out Luton`s advantage, with a 71st minute equaliser from substitute Martin Hayes and then a goal three minutes later from Alan Smith.

Arsenal looked good value to extend their advantage with Smith hitting the post and Hatters keeper Andy Dibble making gravity defying stops from Hayes, Rocastle and Thomas. With ten minutes left, a weary Mal Donaghy took Rocastle down in the box and Arsenal had a penalty. Winterburn stepped up but saw his spot kick turned round the post by Dibble. The miss served the double blow of knocking the stiffing out of Arsenal and inspiring Luton. With eight minutes left, Gus Caesar took a comical air kick on the edge of his own area, allowing Danny Wilson in to equalise. With extra time looming and the clock ominously striking 90, Tony Adams gave away a free kick on the edge of the area. Black pinged a wicked delivery into the area and Brian Stein headed a last gasp winner. (Incidentally, one of the guys I sit with at away games, Postman Pete, gave up smoking some thirty years ago, but pinpoints the immediate aftermath of this match as his only relapse in that time). Once again, Arsenal were roundly prodded and laughed at by the nation, but a year later, the miniscule matter of a League title win at Anfield went some way to diminishing the stress.

The Gunners were back at Wembley for the newly named Coca Cola Cup Final five years later. Having disposed of Millwall (on penalties), Derby County, Scarborough, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace en route to Wembley, Arsenal would face the unprecedented task of facing the same side in both the League and F.A. Cup Finals in the same year, with Sheffield Wednesday the opponents. This game arrived slap bang in the middle of a Wembley honeymoon for your correspondent, my first ever visit to the Twin Towers had been exactly a fortnight earlier when Tony Adams` header knocked Tottenham out of the F.A. Cup at the semi final stage. The 93 League Cup Final was the first ever occasion in European football that the players wore squad numbers and their names on the back of their shirts. Wednesday took an early lead when John Sheridan fooled the Arsenal wall, shaping up to shoot for a free kick, only to release Nigel Worthington down the left, he cut the ball back for John Harkes who lashed the ball past Seaman. But rebuttal was swift when Paul Merson`s swerving volley from the edge of the box flew past Chris Woods. Both sides rather laboured after that until the 68th minute, Winterburn`s low cross was only toe ended by Phil King into the path of Steve Morrow, who became an incredibly unlikely Wembley hero, smashing the ball past Woods from close range. The gentlemen behind me lifted my spindly 9 year old frame onto his shoulders and for some reason I have never quite been able to decipher, I cried. The only time I have ever done so inside a football ground. He apologised profusely, thinking he had scared me, until my Mum, knowing me somewhat better, explained that the tears were of joy not worry. That was the first time I had ever seen Arsenal lift a trophy in person and I think it`s fair to say the occasion overwhelmed me.

The match has since been made famous for a rather calamitous post match celebration. A fortnight earlier, Paul Merson had earned opprobrium by celebrating the semi final win over Spurs by mimicking the act of necking pint after pint of lager towards the Arsenal fans. In a snapshot, he had summed up the drinking culture that was rife within the club at the time. On this occasion, another poster boy for the booze culture spawned a thousand satirical cartoons, as Tony Adams attempted to hoist match winner Steve Morrow onto his shoulders and dropped him, causing Morrow to break his collar bone and miss the rest of the season- including the F.A. Cup Final. The trophy was again something of a catalyst as Arsenal assumed a status of Cup kings. The side had become too dour to strongly challenge for the league, but with the famous back five and a dogged, hard to beat team, they were ideally set up for knockout tournaments. They would go on to win the 1993 F.A. Cup, the 1994 Cup Winners Cup and were runners up in the same European tournament in 1995.

Since Arsene`s arrival in 1996, the League Cup has taken a backseat with the Gunners annual contestants for Europe`s big prizes. The League Cup has been used as a laboratory for Professor Wenger`s young Frankensteins as a bridge between the reserves and the first team. As the youth products at the club began to steadily improve under Wenger`s guidance, so too have performances in the League Cup. The Gunners got to their first League Cup Final in 14 years in 2007, having played away from home in every round, culminating in a satisfying victory over Spurs in the semi final. Wenger took the brave decision to keep faith with the young players who had gotten the club to the final, with the average age of the team at just 20.3 years old- the youngest ever to play a domestic cup final. 17 year old Theo Walcott gave Arsenal the lead and Petr Cech was in inspired form to keep Arsenal from stretching their lead. But the power and experience of Chelsea took over, with our bĂȘte noir Dider Drogba grabbing a brace to win the cup for Chelsea. The game exploded into a melee in injury time after a cynical foul by Mikel on Toure caused Arsenal`s skipper for the day to lose his head. An unsightly brawl broke out, with Toure and Mikel sent off, Wayne Bridge catching a light brush to the face by Eboue causing him to collapse in false agony. Emmanuel Adebayor was sent off for looking a bit like Eboue apparently (a mistake Howard Webb refused to fess up to) and both managers ran onto the pitch to appease the brawl. Whilst the media found plenty of mileage, the cup was Chelsea`s but the performance of Arsenal`s young team provided much promise for the future.

The club`s relationship with the League Cup has been a colourful if complicated one. We have only won the trophy twice which would surprise most even considering the tournament`s relative youth. The wins in 1987 and 1993 were glorious days in isolation and used as springboards for bigger and better things. Though there has been retrospective value in some of our darkest hours in the League Cup. The pain of consecutive final defeats to Leeds and Swindon fuelled the first embers of the Double winning side in 71, who used the pain and humiliation as inspiration. The 1988 final defeat to Luton was a blip on the road to League title success and a valuable lesson for a young team. We go into Sunday`s final with Birmingham hoping to simultaneously remove an orang-utan from the back and provide the tang of success in the nostrils of a team that has been so near, yet so far from trophy success until now. But we should heed the caution of history and temper any complacency by softly repeating the names of Swindon Town and Luton Town to ourselves, who were weaker opponents on paper than Birmingham will be on Sunday.LD.

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