The Nearly Men - Part 3: The ‘Double-Double’ Bypass
By Robert Exley
Our series on almost, but not quite seasons moves onto more recent times
On May 8th, 1971 Arsenal Football Club had achieved what had been their greatest achievement to date. Throughout the 1960s, the side had been living in the shadow of the great sides of the 1930s, '40s and early '50s. Now they had achieved something even those sides hadn’t. That great side itself, however, were very nearly ‘nearly men’ themselves. The four preceding seasons had seen two League Cup Finals lost. In the first, they were effectively kicked off the park by Leeds; in the second, they had suffered a humiliating loss to third-tier Swindon. After a 1-3 first-leg Fairs Cup Final defeat in Brussels to Anderlecht, it looked like a hat-trick of failures could have been visited upon this Arsenal side. However, a heroic Highbury comeback finally turned the tide in their direction.
After their Wembley heroics of May 1971, how then did the side of 1971/72 look to top their achievement of just a few months earlier? In July, they had lost the tactical engine behind the Double side, First-Team Coach Don Howe, who was handed the vacant managerial position at West Brom. With him, he took virtually the entire Highbury back staff – trainer George Wright and Youth-Team coach Brian Woodhouse. The loss of Howe possibly accounted for the side’s inconsistent start. Despite opening with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Chelsea, Arsenal lost eight of their first sixteen games, the lowest point being an 1-5 defeat away at Wolves in late November, as a consequence of which Arsenal had fallen to as low as 11th place and ten points off of the top of the table. Arsenal however responded with a 14-game unbeaten run, as well as the signing of Alan Ball from Everton around Christmas time. Ball made his home debut against his old club on New Years’ Day 1972
An impressive run of results, which included a 2-0 home victory over title challengers Derby County, saw Arsenal four points off the top of the table by the start of March, when they were to face league-leaders Manchester City at Maine Road. However, the unbeaten run had ended in a 2-0 defeat and a further two defeats away at Newcastle and Leeds United. On the other hand, the side had built up an impressive FA Cup run, again meeting Stoke City in the Semi-Final. After losing Bob Wilson for the rest of the season in the first match at Villa Park through a cartilage injury, John Radford deputised competently for Arsenal to hold out for a 1-1 draw. Ironically, it was Radford who was to settle the reply, scoring the second as Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners at Goodison Park.
Arsenal’s league form was also to recover in April, with the team winning five matches out of a seven-match unbeaten run, culminating in a 3-0 win over Man Utd. However, Arsenal were now lying in fifth place and, despite the games in hand over the sides above them that made winning the league a mathematical possibility, they no longer had their destiny in their own hands and were reliant on the collapse of those sides above them. In the end, Arsenal were to be involved in the quest for a League and FA Cup double, but it was to be that of their opponents in the Centenary FA Cup Final, Leeds United, rather than their own.
The 1972 final was a below-par performance for both sides, partly due to fixture backlog and both teams playing the Monday before the final, Leeds edging it with a goal by Alan Clarke ten minutes into the second half. The best chance of the game for Arsenal fell to Charlie George, who hit the bar from about twelve yards out.
Arsenal had two fixtures remaining after the FA Cup Final. The first and most significant was 48 hours on from Wembley, holding Liverpool to a 0-0 draw. On the same night, Leeds Utd ended up losing 2-1 to Wolves, meaning that the title went to a Derby County side who had completed their fixtures a week earlier. Arsenal had finished the season trophyless, though - through Leeds’ failure to secure the double - the prestige of their achievements a season earlier had remained intact. Had Leeds United matched Arsenal’s feat twelve months later, the currency of their achievements may well have been historically devalued.
Another Double was to follow for Arsenal twenty seven years on, beating historical Cup Final bogey team Newcastle United in the process. However by the end of the 20th century, winning the League and the FA Cup in the same season was not such a rare occurrence as it had been previously. In the final ten years of the century, it was a feat that was achieved more times than it had been for the previous ninety. The achievement of the ‘Double-Double’ however – that of winning the League and FA Cup in back-to-back seasons - still remains elusive to this very day, though Arsenal had a very good stab at it in 1998/99. They kicked off the season by beating Man Utd 3-0 in the Charity Shield. They were also unbeaten for their first six games in the League, although they drew four of their first five matches, a run that included a comprehensive 3-0 win over United around six weeks on from the previous victory.. The first defeat of the season came against Sheffield Wednesday, the same match where Paulo Di Canio lost his head and pushed referee Paul Alcock to the ground.
The turning point of the season for Arsenal, however, was to come in December against John Gregory’s Aston Villa, who were at this point leading the Premiership. Arsenal went into this game fourth in the table after four games without a win. A double strike for Bergkamp gave Arsenal a two-goal lead at half-time. In the second half, John Gregory switched to a 4-3-3 formation, and Villa pulled back to win 3-2 with goals from Julian Joachim and two from Dion Dublin. The side’s response to that defeat, however. was a nineteen-match unbeaten run, largely attributable to an aging but miserly defence who had conceded just 17 league goals all season, which was at that point the second-lowest-ever goals-against tally of all time. Arsenal were also boosted in attack by the signing of Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan in February. The Nigerian international caused a sensation on his debut against Sheffield United in the 5th Round of the FA Cup, by failing to allow the ball to return to the Blades after they had put it out of play after an injury to one of their players, resulting in him laying on Arsenal’s ‘winning’ goal for Marc Overmars in a match that was later voided and replayed at Arsenal’s insistence.
By the start of May, Arsenal had a three-point lead over Man Utd after five straight wins, scoring fifteen goals in the process, including a 3-1 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane, as well as taking Man Utd to a replay in the FA Cup Semi-Final. Two matches, however, were eventually to be the undoing of Arsenal in 1998/99, the first being the Villa Park Semi-Final replay. United took the lead with a 25 yard shot from David Beckham, but were pegged back by a Bergkamp equaliser on 69 minutes. Arsenal had an Anelka goal disallowed for offside followed by Roy Keane’s sending off for a foul on Marc Overmars. On 90 minutes, Phil Neville had brought down Ray Parlour inside the box, only for Bergkamp’s penalty to be saved by Schmeichel. It took a moment of magic to separate the two sides, which came from Ryan Giggs on 110 minutes, who finished off a mazy run which started mid-way in his own half before blasting the ball past Seaman, thus ending Arsenal’s staunch defence of the FA Cup. Man Utd also in turn went on to win the FA Cup itself against the 1998 runners-up, Newcastle United, 2-0.
The league challenge also went down to the wire, with United, Arsenal and Chelsea all within three points of each other by the time of the penultimate game away at Leeds. At the end of the first half, Martin Keown had brought down Alan Smith inside the box, though luckily Harry Kewell had failed to convert the penalty. Arsenal, however, fell to a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink goal four minutes from time, meaning that Arsenal went into the final game of the season reliant on George Graham’s Tottenham side defeating Man Utd at Old Trafford. The title was finally lost with a fairly predictable 2-1 victory for United. Man Utd were also to add the Champions League to their collection on May 26th 1999, with two injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich.
Man United, unlike Arsenal in 2004, have never been invincible. In 1998/99, however, they certainly were indestructible. In this season, Arsenal finished just one point behind the treble-winners in the League, and in almost any other season might well have won the title. Despite all their greatness and talent, in 1998/99 this Arsenal side won exactly the same amount of trophies as every Arsenal side has each season since 2005, which is probably one of the greatest injustices in football history. Were they the greatest side ever to finish a season completely trophyless? Certainly there is a case to answer on that one.
*Follow me on Twitter@robert_exley
1st February 2013
User Comment and Reaction
User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.
Tony Evans 12:56pm 1st Feb 2013
Arsenal have certainly had their fair share of ups and downs, Robert, which your excellent articles have highlighted very well. I certainly think to myself what might have been sometimes, especially for the season 98/99, but overall I feel very lucky that Arsenal have done so well during my 40 plus years as a supporter. - Post No. 34093
Steve LUFC 13:20pm 1st Feb 2013
I love all this sour grapes .."Kicked off the park by Leeds" stuff everyone keeps coming out with to excuse any 1960s 70s failings. I bet you never saw the game. You sure don't remember Ian Ure and Peter Story. Alan Ball was no pansy either - Post No. 34095
WeAreBuildingATeamToDominate 13:27pm 1st Feb 2013
I think that the 98-99 side suffered from not having enough firepower. Only 59 goals in 38 league games, and 20 of these were in just four of those games (Boro, Wimbledon, Leicester, West Ham). They approached that game at Leeds far too timidly, handing the initiative to the Yorkshire side. Before the goal, I think Chris Wreah (was it) should have scored but man on line threw himself at it....the great Nigel Winterburn injured, Vivas, another bargain buy crap defender, on as sub who lost Hasselbaink for the winner.....oh doesn't it sound so familiar. Actually, I was happier to lose the league by 1 pt than by losing it on goal difference. Man Utd, as is Fergerson's sides want, simply wanted it more than we did that season. But for my money Everton of 1985/86 were the best side never to win a trophy - Post No. 34096
Ron 13:33pm 1st Feb 2013
Another nice post Robert. Interesting too and evoking some old memories. Alan Ball was indeed a reluctant gunner and his signing created waves in the dressing room due to the amount he was paid vis other top players. He did well though but he never wanted to leave Everton, they sort of just told him he was being sold and 200 odd K was big bucks then. The very relevant point arising from your series of posts have been to emphasise that this past 8 trophyless years is nothing to us older fans (im sure Tony will agree?). 8 years on its own isnt a remote cause for concern as we ve done it before and in reality, it isnt long. Painful at times yes, but its all the other oft debated issues that get to most sensible fans, not merely the '8 year' thing which is just a bone idle (largely anti Arsenal) media handle on all things Arsenal that post SKY fans buy into far too willingly. - Post No. 34097
Steve LUFC 14:00pm 1st Feb 2013
To be honest I always enjoyed playing Arsenal, and liked your team. I enjoyed your article but disagree about Arsenals best chance in the 72 cup final. It was Alan ball's thunderbolt that Paul Reaney saved off the like that scared me most. - Post No. 34098
GaryFootscrayAustralia 15:15pm 1st Feb 2013
@SteveLUFC, one of the reasons Bertie Mee built the side tough is because other top sides of the era - Leeds, Liverpool, Derby, Chelsea - had the bite to match the bark as well. We could positively compare those clubs from 1968-73 and identify common factors in all. The style that managers chose to implement and the players they selected to "do a job" on an opposition key man was simply a product of that era. That was my dad's era, which I found out from one of the times Kevin Richardson belted someone, which prompted dad and his mate Barry to sing the "Storey, Storey, break his leg" song. Billy Bremner, Ron Harris and Tommy Smith also spring to mind. - Post No. 34100
Tony Evans 15:17pm 1st Feb 2013
Ron - indeed I do. Eight years is nothing - just ask Newcastle fans! I am just fed up with Wenger and I think the club is crying out for a complete shake up / back to basics approach from someone new - especially at the back and in goal. - Post No. 34101
Matthew 15:46pm 1st Feb 2013
The 1998/99 team was certainly the best of Wenger's trophyless teams, better than the shower that he has put out in the last few seasons. The title was lost in the early part of the season. Many of the drawn games we had before Christmas had a pattern - Arsenal would dominate without creating many chances but were untroubled at the back. Anelka had too big a burden that season. Bergkamp and Overmars didn't really spark until later in the season. If we had bought Kanu earlier (or indeed Kluivert, who we were after), I believe we'd have won the 1999 title. - Post No. 34103
Bard 17:33pm 1st Feb 2013
An interesting set of articles and many memories reignited. I am with Ron and Tony on this trophy business. I 've watched crap and wonderful Arsenal sides down the years. My Dad used to drool over George Eastham and scream abuse at Ian Ure, so yes 8 years isn't really that much of issue if you've watched down the years. But football is cyclical and all eras come to an end Clough's, Busby's and eventually Fergie and it is painfully obvious that Wenger's time is over. I have loved some of the sides he has produced and the style they have played with. I want him to leave with dignity and not hounded out by frustrated fans. - Post No. 34104
maguiresbridge gooner 18:14pm 1st Feb 2013
Going back through the history of our club it's weird (for the want of a better word)what comparisons can be made to players,results,what if's,etc,up through the ages.I agree Robert the 98/99 side deserved more,and a good question at the end.I doubt if we'll be saying/or asking the same thing about the sides over the last six or seven seasons when we're discussing our history ten years from now. - Post No. 34105
Gooner 48 0:12am 2nd Feb 2013
In response to Steve LUFC - As someone who saw all the Arsenal Leeds games in the 60'/70's I can only confirm that Leeds were brilliant at filthy tactics, over the top tackles, snide elbows and intimidation by all means possible. They were the most despicable side I ever saw play in the top Division in the past 54 seasons. A great shame because they had some great players but at the end of the day they all chose to win by the addition of pure filth. I hated the bar stewards and still do. - Post No. 34108
Malcolm 7:59am 2nd Feb 2013
Its true Arsenal could and should have won much more they they have done over the years.We have lost cup finals when we were overwhelming favourites against Swindon West Ham Luton and Birmingham in fact we hold the record for being the only team to lose cup finals against second and third division teams.Not something to be proud about.And we should have won the title in 99,03 and 08.When you think Liverpool havent won a title for nearly a quarter of a century they still have 5 more title wins than us.The sad thing about the club now amongst the board. the manager and players and sadly some deluded fans is the acceptance that 4th is success.Its not, silverware is - Post No. 34109
Moscow Gooner 9:50am 2nd Feb 2013
Ron - eight years WAS 'nothing', when you paid ten bob to stand on the North Bank and could enjoy singing and chanting all afternoon. It seems a lot lot longer when you have to sit in enforced silence at the Emirates, have people push past you and block your view up to ten minutes into the game and then do the same to get out again from the 80 minute mark on - AND pay a thousand quid + a season for the privilege. If we can't win trophies any more, at least bring back standing and cut prices! - Post No. 34110
The People's game handed to indifferent corporates 13:12pm 2nd Feb 2013
1998/99 - should have been ours. 3 points clear at the beginning of May, last minute penalty to send us to Wembley ...how did we let that slip? @Moscow Gooner - so very true. Going to Arsenal used to be about enjoying the atmosphere and singing as much as anything. And it wasn't at all expensive. So poor performances were more forgivable and it wasn't ALL about results. We now have a Cromwellian approach to supporting the team. Restrained silence and mutes sitting on their hands or tourists taking photos. Vociferous supporters being 'shhhh'ed' or told to 'siddarn'. Take away the genuine 'match day experience' and what's left? It's purely about results now. The atmosphere at football needs to be addressed. Let the ones who care passionately but were priced out back in. We need to introduce Safe Standing. (Note: not re-introduce as the previous terraces were far from safe.) - Post No. 34112
1971 Gooner 20:07pm 2nd Feb 2013
Absolutely top quality series of articles Robert, Arsenal and sports writing of the highest order. - Post No. 34113
Steve 1962er 11:52am 3rd Feb 2013
I have enjoyed reading Robert's series of articles, all the better as he left out his often included leftie political rants. But I must disagree with his comments about the 1968 League Cup Final, as I am sure he is not old enough to have seen it, and must be getting this information second hand. Yes Leeds were the dirtiest team ever to grace our football, and I still hate them to this day, unless they are playing the Spuds or Manure, but they did not have to kick us of the park on that day as Arsenal put in a very poor attacking show (see, we have got our Arsenal back!). We never thought we could win it as we new we were inferior and played accordingly. No mental strength at that time, just like today against better opposition. - Post No. 34119
Ron 16:15pm 4th Feb 2013
Moscow G - I can see your point fella, but unfortunately how much success or failure a Club has or doesnt have hardly has anything to do with what they charge us mugs to attend,instead it has nearly all to do with what the Clubs spend on the products they put on the pitch.Titles and Cup are all 'bought' these days. Its a shame and its a gross derogation from what was once a 'sport', but there you are. We dont HAVE to do anything, certainly not suffering in the way that you describe. We have choices. There are always choices. Mine is that i didnt renew my season ticket, never will again and now go to only a few away games per season that i feel are worthy of the price and a few selected home games judged by the same yardstick. Its Arsenals loss as i was a regular there, though ive never once spent a penny on their merchandise since the move to AG ( again, another choice we all have). Im not too miffed by them alone, more football generally of which Arsenal are but a small part globally. Yes, it was a far better experience years ago in my view too but those days have gone for good. SKYs dictates govern things now and (for me) all that that odious bunch have bought to football is all negative, hence ive exercised my choices in the way i have. Arsenal couldnt give a fig for me and im not bothered, but please, dont tell me that you 'have' to do anything because you dont. It took me a while to come to terms with what football has become, but now i have, im content with what remains my small involvment with it now. In fact, i regret a lot of time that ive given to Arsenal over 40 odd years,that with hindsight would have been much better utilised in other things.Football and Clubs are leaking fans like i was once was almost daily and there will come a time when they have to accept it. They will be begging us to come back too. The horse has bolted for good though for me. - Post No. 34163
21st September 2014
Online Ed: Three points in three and a half minutes at Villa Park