Date: 29th July 2012 at 9:10pm
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When ruminating over some of Arsenal`s finest ever signings, last weekend I pondered over the Arsenal career of Joe Mercer , a centre half that brought organisation and order to a fading force. His retirement in 1954 saw the beginning of a 16 year trophy drought as his leadership skills and defensive acumen were never really replaced. This article will look at, what history and hindsight would ascribe, as his natural successor. That he was signed ten years after Mercer left Highbury on a stretcher tells you a lot about the Gunners` fallow period. Much like Mercer, this player had spent the formative years of his career as a wing half before Arsenal moved him backwards. He accepted Mercer`s baton and led the club to its first trophy in 17 years. As a defender and as a leader, Frank McLintock would alter Arsenal`s faltering fortunes.

Frank was born to a working class family in Glasgow in December 1939. After demonstrating promise as a player in his teens, McLintock joined renowned amateur side Shawfield F.C., who had previously supplied Hearts and Kilmarnock defender Bobby Dougan. By the age of 18, McLintock`s all action midfield play had earned the attention of many a Scottish scout, with Rangers and Celtic supposedly interested. But 1957 Second Division champions Leicester City came calling as they prepared for life in the First Division under Scottish manager Dave Halliday. McLintock served an apprenticeship with the reserves at Leicester under Halliday, who left in 1958. But another Scot, Matt Gillies, would take over and give McLintock his debut in 1959, aged 20.

McLintock was part of a very promising Leicester side, but their consistent flirtation with the top crystallized Frank`s professionalism with pain. They lost an F.A. Cup Final at Wembley in 1961 and chased the Double in 1962-63- only to lose the F.A. Cup Final to Manchester United and fell away in the 62-63 title chase, finishing 4th. McLintock won his first silverware in 1964, as Leicester beat Stoke City 4-3. This in the days when the League Cup Final was decided over a home and away leg- so McLintock`s Wembley hoodoo remained intact. The League Cup didn`t sate his appetite and in October, 1964, Billy Wright and Arsenal came knocking.

Arsenal were in a slump having not won a trophy for nine years. A succession of managers connected to the club`s glorious past had not quite worked out. Billy Wright, an England international and captain of 105 caps from his playing days, was held in huge reverence in the game. Player development was deemed to be his speciality having done a quietly impressive job as manager of England`s U-23s. McLintock was unashamedly ambitious and had become frustrated by Leicester`s status as perennial bridesmaids. Wright had assembled a formidable squad at Highbury, with Jim Furnell in goal and the likes of George Armstrong, George Eastham and Joe Baker in attack. Wright wanted to ally McLintock`s steel in midfield with the creativity of David Court and vision of Jon Sammels. He signed for a club record of £80,000. Wright had his midfield marshal and McLintock was at a club he believed could service his ambition.

Arsenal at the time were a talented, yet erratic side that scored almost as freely as it conceded. In 1963-64, Arsenal finished eighth and were the division`s third best scorers with 90 goals, yet they conceded 82- the third worst total in the division. (Bolton Wanderers were relegated having conceded 80). Wright saw McLintock`s brand of busy midfield play as the perfect tonic. But as so often with Wright`s reign, the commendable theory never quite made the leap to practise. Arsenal finished 13th in 1964-65 and were knocked out of the F.A. Cup by Peterborough United. McLintock himself did not quite perform initially as was expected. His endeavours in midfield were enthusiastic to a fault. He would often run around like a headless chicken, struggling to channel his vigour in Wright`s tactically undisciplined side.

McLintock pinpointed the Peterborough defeat some years later as the point at which he began to question his move to Arsenal, sighting Wright`s avuncular nature. In Norman Giller`s biography ‘Billy Wright: A Hero For All Seasons` the Scot would tell Giller, “He was simply too kind, too nice. We needed a kick up the backside.” In 1965-66, with the team over reliant on the goals of Joe Baker and Geoff Strong, Arsenal finished 14th and were humiliated 3-0 by Blackburn Rovers in the 3rd Round of the F.A. Cup. Rovers finished bottom of the First Division that season. Wright was relieved of his duties by the Arsenal board and McLintock, at this stage, did not look like featuring on a list of Arsenal`s greatest ever signings, even if he demonstrated satisfactory competence.

Frank was a very popular member of the dressing room though. He had an open, inquisitive nature that his teammates responded to. He was conversational, forthright and disarmingly honest. When the Arsenal board took the bold step of appointing their ex sergeant major physio Bertie Mee as manager, McLintock privately doubted Mee`s credentials as a manager, even if he rated him as a physio. Mee had a reputation for instilling discipline (Frank himself would say on the History of Arsenal DVD in 2007 that Mee deliberately made being injured a nightmare for players due to the strict fitness regimes he would place upon them, thereby encouraging them to get fit sooner). McLintock was approachable and liked to get to know people and confessed that Mee`s taciturn nature was frustrating to him. That McLintock was won round despite this is revealing of his perceptive nature. Mee and McLintock would go on to forge the most symbiotic Sergeant Major / Colonel partnership.

They recognised one another`s qualities, even if they were a slight bafflement to one another as characters. McLintock would tell Jon Spurling many years later, “We all overlooked Bertie`s single mindedness.” Don Howe was appointed as Mee`s assistant and Howe and McLintock were similar characters with matching mindsets that fed off of one another. It was Howe`s suggestion to move McLintock to centre half during an injury crisis. Here McLintock excelled, his intelligent reading of the game, the ability to bring the ball out of defence saw him channel his enthusiasm correctly. From the back McLintock could see the game better and order troops around him rather than husking around the midfield trying to do everything himself. Somewhat fittingly in that respect, Frank would describe Mee`s greatest quality as “surrounding himself with the right people” and McLintock began to follow suit, barking instructions irascibly from defence. He was made captain in recognition of his new found organisational abilities.

But that`s not to say there was a dramatic change in fortunes. Mee oversaw a steady improvement with Arsenal, installing the sort of discipline into the side that the affable Wright could not. In 1968, Arsenal made it to the League Cup Final but lost 1-0 to Leeds at Wembley, Terry Cooper scoring the only goal in the Final. McLintock had lost at Wembley for a third time. But the Gunners were not favourites for that match against Don Revie`s side. The final was seen as a sign of improvement, even if it meant third time unlucky under the twin towers for McLintock personally. But what followed a year later humiliated the club and brought Arsenal`s captain to the precipice with regards to his future. Third Division Swindon Town defeated Arsenal 3-1 on a sodden Wembley in the 1969 League Cup Final.

The Gunners had blown the chance to end their 16 year trophy drought and became a national laughing stock in the process. McLintock wasn`t laughing. In the summer of 1969, he began to ponder whether Arsenal had the winning mentality to trophies he desired now that he had entered his 30th year and the twilight of his career was in sight. He was always an honest, outspoken personality and publicly turned down the club`s offer of a new contract, telling the press he wanted to play for “a club where I have a better chance of success.” Bertie Mee met with his captain and talked him round; assuring him that he could see success at Arsenal if he stuck around. He did so reluctantly at first. But when Arsenal roared out of the blocks, bagging 16 of their first 18 available points in the league, he became enthused and signed new terms. The Gunners did not maintain their league form, but rather surrendered it in their pursuit of glory elsewhere.

With the agreement of Mee, McLintock proposed reintroducing Monday morning team meetings in the Halfway House in the Highbury tunnel. Such discussions were the cornerstone of Herbert Chapman`s interaction with his players. Frank felt it would be beneficial to spark the squad into analysing their own performances in the same way and air any grievances. He admits sometimes making the meetings deliberately confrontational in order to spark discussion. Fists were thrown and the air was often turned blue, but the meetings forged an indomitable team spirit. McLintock was always quick to see the potential and qualities in others; his trademark was simply to inspire them to feel as enthusiastic as he did, so that they would demonstrate those qualities as often as possible.
Quietly, the team began to fly through the rounds of the 1969-70 Intercities Fairs Cup, having brushed aside Glentoran, Sporting Lisbon, Rouen and Dinamo Bacau. Young Charlie George was a fixture in the Arsenal team by now and McLintock saw in him the star quality he felt the Gunners needed to challenge for honours. “There wasn`t a single weakness in his game.” Arsenal faced Ajax in the semi final and McLintock performed a task few other centre halves in Europe managed when he shackled Cruyff and Arnold Muhren as the team ran out glorious 3-0 winners at Highbury in the First Leg. The Dutch giants won the second leg 1-0 as McLintock`s defensive prowess was laid bare on the continental stage. He saw the chance for the glory he so desired as he prepared his side to face Anderlecht in the Final.

But the Belgians took Arsenal apart in Antwerp and raced into a three goal lead. Ray Kennedy gave the Gunners a late consolation. It looked rather hopeless, but Frank shook his colleagues with an almighty roar as he emerged from the showers in the changing room, “WE CAN STILL WIN THIS!” he yelled unexpectedly. A rousing team talk in the dressing room before the first leg was translated onto the pitch too. With the home crowd behind them, Arsenal moved into a one goal lead just before half time. Despite the electric atmosphere, inevitably, there is always a flatness both on the pitch and in the stands at the beginning of the second half. But the captain knew his team needed to crowd to maintain their intensity in order to inspire. He ran towards the North Bank just before the second half kicked off, thumping his fists together and inviting the crowd, via some industrial Scottish colloquialisms, to lift their voices.

It worked a treat too as the Gunners raced out of the traps with goals from Radford and Sammels. Arsenal had ended their trophy drought and McLintock was chaired on the pitch, cradling the trophy in his arms. It wasn`t just that McLintock pumped his fists and shouted a lot, but he had an amazing perceptive quality as to the timing of his interventions. As an analytical and open personality, he sensed when exactly was the right time to yell at his teammates- just as disappointment threatened to smother them in the aftermath of the first leg. When to instruct the crowd to “keep the bloody noise up!” just as the second half was beginning. He wasn`t just a bawler and a screamer. He was intelligent with it precisely because he cared about people; it gave him a judicious appreciation of human nature.

In the following season, with the trophy drought off their shoulders, Arsenal went on to storm to the League title in 1970-71, earning McLintock his first league championship. His no nonsense leadership and intelligent defending saw Arsenal concede just 29 goals. Enough to also win him the accolade of PFA Player of the Year for 1970-71. The Gunners mix of steel, industry and work ethic reflected their captain and manager. The club also got to the 1971 F.A. Cup Final and McLintock prepared to confront his Wembley hoodoo against Bill Shankly`s Liverpool. The curse looked set to continue as the London side contrived to miss a series of chances, with the game finishing 0-0 at full time. Steve Heighway struck to put Liverpool ahead in extra time and Arsenal appeared to have lost that Double feeling.

But their spirit took them through again, Eddie Kelly and Charlie George replied as Arsenal won the final and the F.A. Cup in 1971, the club making history by winning its first ever domestic Double. The captain`s beef with Wembley appeared to be settled, though according to the man himself, he didn`t savour the moment as he would have wanted retrospectively. “I didn`t enjoy it cos I was just so bloody tired” he remarked with typical honesty. McLintock and his men had assured themselves a place in history. But further Wembley heartbreak awaited him on the horizon as the Gunners lost the Centenary Cup Final to Leeds in 1972 and finished as League runners-up. In 1972, he was made an MBE to soften the blow a little. McLintock was still enthused enough by the team to see their prospects in a positive light, but much to his, and everybody else`s surprise, Bertie Mee sold him to Queens Park Rangers against his will in the summer of 1973 having appeared 403 times scoring 32 goals for Arsenal. Approaching his 34th birthday, Mee felt his captain was on the wane and that the team required new blood. It would prove to be an injudicious call.

The Gunners fell further down the table and were almost relegated in 1976- leading to Mee`s eventual retirement. QPR got four more years out of Frank as he captained a Rangers side that finished a close 2nd to Liverpool in 1975-76. He eventually retired in 1977, at the age of 37, to take up the manager`s position at Leicester City. Management did not work so well for him, but as a player, McLintock`s legend at the club is well intact. Even speaking before the Double win in 1971, Arsenal secretary Bob Wall said of McLintock in 1968, “Frank must represent one of the best signings in the club`s history, ” adding, “I have known few others who involve themselves so deeply and conscientiously in the game.”

Though not an instant success, McLintock not only represents one of the club`s best ever signings, but his sale in 1973 represents one of its biggest errors. A succession of centre halves tried and failed to replace Frank as a defender. His perceptiveness and ability to read the game set him apart. Firm in the tackle, he rarely went to ground because his positioning was faultless enough to make that unnecessary. His midfield apprenticeship made him comfortable on the ball too with a penchant for switching play at the right moment. As a captain and as a footballer, he had a brain that put him one step ahead of his contemporaries in his ability to quickly analyse situations and characters and perceive what the best course of action was. Arsenal did not truly replace him as a captain for some years either as they fell back into a faceless stupor upon his departure. The club did not win another trophy until 1979.

Frank is still a familiar face around the club today, as he owns as executive box at Ashburton Grove. The fire still burns bright in his 70s. In November 2010 he angrily confronted bookmaker and Spurs fan Barry Dennis for singing “3-2 to the Tottenham” in the box next to him at the North London derby. Not just content with telling Dennis to hush his noise, McLintock got up from his seat and entered Dennis` box himself to politely instruct him to hold his noise down. His nature is as charming and open as ever and he often appears at club functions as an after dinner speaker. He also served as a pundit for Sky Sports until he took permanent retirement to the golf course. Frank is often talked about as one of the club`s finest ever captains, alongside the likes of Hapgood and Adams. Few would argue with his inclusion in a list of Arsenal`s greatest ever purchases. LD.