On October 18, 2014, I stood in line at the Tollington with a hardcover clutched in my hand. It was a few hours before Arsenal played Hull City and the pub was already vibrating with match-day excitement. I hadn’t seen us play live since February 2012, but that anticipation was temporarily relegated to the back of my ribs. I was about to meet three Arsenal gentlemen of the “71 variety” as my friend Dave Seager later captioned it. The photo with Frank McLintock, Eddie Kelly and John Radford now hangs on my Arsenal wall.
It was Dave’s debut book release that I’d flown over for, from Spain (where I’d just moved for work), with the bonuses of getting in a match, being able to catch up with Gooner friends, and spend time in a beloved city. Geordie Armstrong on the Wing remains a labour of love, even seven years on, but on that day, yet to read the book, I was just proud of my friend, proud of the legacy of my club, privileged to witness both. That day, I walked out of the Tolly having met club legends, with a book that would make me miss a person I’d never know, with an introduction to Geordie’s daughter that has since turned into a lovely friendship, and carrying a desire to continue learning as much as I could about this most beautiful of games, but especially about this club I call home.
I wasn’t to know then the tempestuous times to come for the club.
Years and years before, on a Saturday in early May, the old Wembley was packed with 100,000 Arsenal and Liverpool fans. Just five days before, we had prevailed in a tense 1-0 win at White Hart Lane to secure the league. Tottenham were already Double holders from a decade prior, only the second team to do so after Preston North End, and had hence been keen to do everything in their power to stop us.
On May 8, Bill Shankly’s men, who had conceded a meagre 24 goals all season, were similarly keen to carry the FA Cup trophy up North. After 90 fiercely contested minutes, it was still 0-0. Liverpool struck within a few minutes into the first half of extra time and everyone was convinced the Merseysiders would emerge triumphant. But Arsenal equalised soon after in a goal that was originally credited to George Graham, playing in his first FA Cup final, but just a day after was correctly called as Eddie Kelly’s through video analysis by Jimmy Hill n ITV’s Big Match program (the pundit was incidentally responsible for writing the words to “Good Old Arsenal” the 1971 FA Cup final song for the club which has since become a standard bearer). Graham hadn’t touched the ball, after all, but his movement froze goalkeeper Clemence, allowing the ball to roll into the bottom corner.
1-1 and everything still to play for.
Long preceding certified Wembley hero times two Aaron Ramsey, there was cocky, long-haired rebel Charlie George who scored seven minutes into the second half of extra time to ensure that Arsenal became the first team to win the game despite going behind in extra time. At the final whistle, as he had immediately after the goal, the match-winning hero sank onto the Wembley pitch, arms outstretched in a celebration that was to go down into FA Cup lore. He famously claimed that all he was thinking about was how “f–king knackered” he was, while skipper Frank McLintock, already named that season’s football writers’ player of the year, later said, “Going to lift the F.A. Cup should`ve been the proudest moment of my career. But I was just so tired, I couldn’t enjoy it.”
After a dramatic, gruelling season, it is understandable that the 16 players who featured for Arsenal over those 64 games, including substitutes (in itself an astounding statistic), felt equally shattered and euphoric.
Yesterday, we celebrated 50 years of that sun-soaked Wembley occasion, of Arsenal’s first-ever Double.
Arsenal were only the fourth team at the time to achieve this feat, and after no trophy for 17 years before the thrilling comeback to win the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969-70 (club’s first European trophy), this was their third in two seasons. Over the course of a season when Leeds led the table more often than not, a team that had been languishing in mid-to-lower table mediocrity for more than a decade held their collective nerve and pushed their mental and physical boundaries beyond the limit even when it seemed like the trophies had slipped from their tenuous grasp—and at their helm, a physiotherapist who had the role of manager thrust upon him five years before.
Retrospective context is an illuminating process, but even by leaving that aside for a moment, it was a moment of triumphant celebration that went beyond just the winning of trophies.
When Bertie Mee took over as manager, Arsenal were a far cry from the dominant rampantly successful team in the 30s. They hadn’t come close to winning a trophy since their league title in 1952-53 or even finished in the top three since 1959. The Nottinghamshire-born physio had a rather short football career (spells with Derby County and Mansfield, as well as appearances for Southampton during the 1940-41 war-time league) and trained as a physiotherapist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He arrived at Arsenal in 1960 following the retirement of then physio Billy Milne. Billy Wright was in charge and the club well-entrenched in its mediocrity.
When Bertie was approached to take over after Wright, AISA Arsenal History Society reports that he requested a clause in his contract that would allow him to return to the physio job if the first season didn’t go well. Yet, the “Acting Manager” was made permanent on March 2, 1967, just under nine months later, despite Arsenal languishing in 14th with 29 points from 30 games (only a point less than at the same time the season before).
Disciplined to a fault he may have been, but the ballroom-dancing connoisseur was a man well aware of his weaknesses, and in his mission to stop the “mediocrity being perpetuated at this club”, he recruited Dave Sexton, and, later, Don Howe as assistant manager. Within a season, the new manager saw his team compete in successive League Cup Finals in 1968 and 1969. Despite losses in both, to then-dominant Leeds in 68 and, more humbling, to Third Division Swindon in 69, and despite finishing 12th in 1969-70, something was brewing.
Momentous achievements in sport, particularly team sport, are by their very nature group efforts, synchronicity over sustained periods of time. You never know how these pieces (and people) fit together until they succeed and you see the whole, see the heights and records that it birthed, the silverware that is proof of a dream realised, a common goal led to its winning conclusion. Many of these people are in the background. Take Carlos Quieroz and Rene Meulensteen who supported Sir Alex Ferguson and trained the players during the course of the Scotsman’s long managerial career at Manchester United. Rene, in particular, has spoken in detail about how he worked with a young Cristiano Ronaldo over one summer to turn him into the scary goal machine that he became.
Don Howe was one of this ilk.
Howe had been at the club as a player under Billy Wright since 1964 until a horrific leg break against Blackpool in March 1966. He started one game in the following season under caretaker Mee before injury niggles forced him into an early retirement by October 1966. Mee, however, had recognised Howe’s qualities and appointed him reserve team coach since he had already studied for his badges. He would join Mee in the first team coaching team following the departure of Dave Sexton two years later.
Don Howe was the tactical genius responsible for the heights that particular group of players climbed—and his hasty departure to West Bromwich Albion following a snub from then-chairman Denis Hill-Wood at the Double celebration dinner is widely believed to be the reason that the squad, far from replicating or coming close to that success, disintegrated rather exponentially soon after, instead.
George Graham would later write in his autobiography,
“As a player, I know who influenced me most, Don did his own thing to the satisfaction of the manager. And he did all of it in a way I understood and respected while Bertie hovered in the background, only occasionally to be seen at training in a tracksuit, which I thought made him look rather awkward.”
As these things often go, Howe would return to Arsenal in Terry Neill’s coaching staff in 1977, take over as caretaker in late 1983, be appointed as manager in April 1984 and stay at the helm until making way for none other than the George Graham era in March 1986. His later stint at the club would include Arsenal being back at the top of the First Division table for the first time in 11 years and a hand in the development of another round of young players and academy graduates in David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, and others who formed the spine of the side Graham would lead to great success.
George Graham was one of two players Mee brought into the club when he first arrived. The second was Bob McNab. Apart from that, he recognised and used the considerable talent he’d inherited, dipping into the talented squad that won the 1966 Youth Cup. They, already honed in the Arsenal Way, returned the investment and then some, whether captain and formidable defender Frank McLintock, goalkeeper Bob Wilson and his daring exploits, Geordie Armstrong, a box-to-box winger when none existed, playing 621 games in 16 years (607 starts), flamboyant FA Cup hero Charlie George, crucial tough man Peter Storey, or 19-year-old Ray Kennedy who ended up as the club top-scorer that season (26 in all competitions), brilliantly stepping in when George broke his ankle on the opening day of the season, their resilience and talent was enough to create history.
The Arsenal Way
“The Arsenal Education and the Arsenal Way are about being winners but in the right way. On the football pitch, from a young age, it is about football intelligence and being ahead of the game in your thinking. It is about a thought process as well as technique and skills, but it also about respect and conducting yourself in a certain way. The Arsenal way is to develop not just better footballers but better people.”—Dave Seager.
With Howe shaping the players on the field, Mee managed them off it, stressing the importance of proper decorum (though the gaffer could throw a punch as well as any of them, as evident in the infamous Lazio kerfuffle!). For all that some players clashed with his discipline, particularly Charlie George, they respected his attention to detail and adhered to the high standards he demanded from them as players and representatives of Arsenal Football Club.
“No vendettas’ was one of his [Mee’s] great sayings. He would tell them [the players] to forget it and get on with the game. If we lost, he expected us to lose with dignity, and to behave the right way if we were invited anywhere. He used to say, ‘Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.’”—Don Howe, to David Tossell, Seventy-One Guns
It’s a quote that would travel all the way down the Arsenal legacy to one David Rocastle who is now synonymous with it. The success that returned to Arsenal in those late 80s was born from those with deep local roots and from outsiders raised in the Arsenal way; more proof that cultivating a club ethos matters beyond the confines of the football pitch where it is, of course, vital to success; or, at least, it used to be.
Looking back now, beyond the immediate relevance of that success on May 8, 1971, there are things that stand out.
Gone may be the days of Herbert Chapman declaring that it would take five years to build a winning team (and going on to do it at both Huddersfield and Arsenal), or even the days when an inexperienced physiotherapist could lead the team to success, but it still matters that a club has the right personnel at all levels on and off the field who really understand the club, what it stands for, and what it means to work towards a holistic goal.
From the training perspective, it mattered enormously to us that the likes of Bob Wilson, Pat Rice, and the late George Armstrong, stayed on at the club in various coaching capacities after retirement. They were the right people not just because they bled Arsenal, not just because they knew what it meant to be Arsenal, to fight for the club, represent the badge, and uphold its values, but also for their strong football knowledge and ability to mould future talent with the same all-around understanding. Then there are those like Charlie George who run the Legends tour of the stadium and are involved with the club museum. They all had a hand in the success the club enjoyed in the George Graham and later Arsene Wenger years.
It matters that the support staff complements each other and balances the overall set-up with its structured delegation of duties and responsibilities, something that will naturally transfer to the players on and off the pitch. It matters that there are experienced football people making the important decisions at the higher levels of hierarchy, that there is a proper hierarchy in place to begin with and a clear strategy to accompany that, especially with how increasingly specialist and segmented football club positions are becoming.
None of which we’re seeing at Arsenal. We haven’t seen it for a while.
Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. We’re currently languishing mid-table but have a stellar core of youth coming through the Hale End academy, a situation that harkens back to both Mee and Graham who arrived at similarly transitional, turbulent times as inexperienced managers and built successful teams using the young, homegrown talent coming through the ranks. But both those managers were supported by a good structure set up around them, there was an ecosystem that was compatible with working towards that success, there was no absentee ownership, there were experienced, senior personnel with expertise to balance out the young and the up-and-coming, there was a proper system of accountability. And, of course, this was all before the advent of the Premier League and everything it brought with it.
Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.
On Thursday, 3 years to the day since Arsene Wenger managed his final game in charge, and a day to 15 years since the final game at Highbury with so much promised and expected, Arsenal were knocked out of the Europa League semi-final by none other than Unai Emery. Unless there are miracles in the next four remaining PL games, Arsenal are looking at no European football for the first time in 20+ years. We’ve been on a downward spiral for a while, but it is still hard to take.
As someone who knows only the Premier League, inculcated into Gooner fandom during the heady time of one Arsene Wenger, this is definitely the worst I’ve experienced as a fan of the Arsenal (remember when we thought the banter years were traumatic?). Following the emotional transitions that have occurred since Wenger bid farewell, there is now the sobering reaffirmation that success is a privilege, even for clubs with our pedigree. A brief look at the history of the club confirms this. If we consider the Double team, we won 3 trophies and were runners up (league and cups) four times during a six-year period under Bertie Mee, but flirted with relegation in 1975 and 1976 before settling into inconsistency until Graham and, later, Wenger.
As much as it might leave a sour taste or be an unpopular thing to say, we aren’t “owed” anything as fans, certainly not a gods-given right to success, and none of this means that we’re “accepting mediocrity”. I’m learning even more that we can demand excellence and ambition and competitiveness, we can demand that players respect the badge and perform in a way where they live up to the ideals of the Arsenal Way, we can criticise and be angry, sad, or frustrated or however we see fit to feel and choose to act, but the returns aren’t something that we deserve purely on the basis of everything we pour into our clubs. Even though modern football has distorted everything to the point where nothing’s the same – let’s leave aside the petro-clubs for just a moment, too – that’s not how being a fan works for most of us. Nor should it. When we sign up to be fans, we are signing up for a constantly evolving relationship from both ends, a journey that encompasses all the ups and downs of life. Didn’t Nick Hornby say that the natural state of a football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter the score? In an essay last year, I wrote,
“Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said that all love stories are frustration stories. On a purely footballing level he might just be right. Our lives, for the most part, even for the lucky ones who get to do what they love, are made up of routine, almost mundane tasks with the good stuff sprinkled in occasionally, not to mention the times we struggle, the times that nearly break us. Why should football be any different?”
The double-edged sword of nostalgia
Yes, there is a tendency to wax lyrical about “the good ol’ days” when we view the past through sepia-tinted glasses, romanticising and glorifying while conveniently omitting the not-so-rosy parts. It’s not always healthy to look back or stay stuck in the past. In fact, did you know that nostalgia was once labelled as a disease? Swiss doctors in the 17th century discovered what they defined as a “pathological homesickness that turned those afflicted with it indifferent to their surroundings and aching for the past.” Nostalgic folk were treated with opium, leeches and warm emulsions and it was considered as a paralysing disease.
Football fans are guilty of their own version of this affliction, but in the modern football ecosystem, drastically different to anything it was even just a decade ago, can you even blame them? Football now can appear mechanical and detached, a commodity. Fandom has also changed equally aggressively, though, in my mind, what it means to be a fan remains the same. In such circumstances, nostalgia serves as a great reminder of sport’s existence as a social thread.
It sustains us in turbulent times.
Arsenal have been slowly losing their way for years now, papering over the increasing cracks. We are no longer the big club we were in the first half of the Wenger years or even later. More recently we’ve been losing what makes us Arsenal beyond just the silverware – knowing about our heritage and acting in accordance may not have a direct connection to performances on the pitch, but these things are all a piece of the puzzle and each element interacts with others and affects the whole. Anyone will tell you that the situation at the club is complex and multi-faceted, and making our way out is going to need a total rebuild at every single level, even disregarding the unfair systemic issues created by the global football market.
As someone who cares about her club, admitting to all of this is painful and I’m not happy about what’s happening at Arsenal, but it’s the reality. It’s even more frustrating to acknowledge that under the current ownership and structure, no number of superficial changes (including more spending) will alter the current trajectory or suddenly make us a well-run football club, no matter how entitled certain parts of the fandom feel. None of this means that things can’t change or won’t; only that, without sounding defeatist, we might have to accept that things will possibly continue to be rough for a while. I see this acceptance as temporary, a way to recalibrate and tend to our collective mental health until we can find a way to effect some change. As is, the situation isn’t completely devoid of hope.
What’re we left with, then, in our control?
The people. Us fans. One of the biggest whys – and even if we show our love and support in different ways and have varied, sometimes polar, opinions, it’s important we stick together because, really, what is the experience of being a fan without the community, without the friends we’ve made and the family we’ve found? It’s also imperative, especially now when our club least resembles the one we fell in love with, that we educate and ground ourselves in our inherited legacy. As a means for understanding where we came from and where we want to go–because who are we without that–but also for honouring the people who have played their parts in the continuation of the Arsenal Way, who are still connected to us down the ages, through time and a mutual affection. For helping to preserve it all for those to come.
As long as we learn from the past, as long as we have the right perspective and motives, and we balance and blend it with new advancements, there’s much scope and inspiration in nostalgia, on a personal, community and club level. In this form it can be magical–and couldn’t we all use a bit of it, especially now?