We are a week away from the first of two crucial fixtures against Manchester City in the month of April. Whilst next week we will be looking for three valuable points in our fading bid for a top four finish the second meeting will provide the opportunity to progress to a third FA Cup Final in four seasons.
Perhaps surprisingly it will be the first meeting of the clubs in the premier cup competition since 1971, a night this blogger will always recall with great pleasure. To put the fifth round tie into context we had been drawn away to the champions of 1968, the FA Cup winners of 1969, and the European Cup Winners Cup winners of 1970. In short City were firm favourites to progress.
Former Gunner Joe Mercer was the manager, and alongside coach Malcolm Allison had fashioned a wonderfully entertaining side at Maine Road. Like their neighbours who boasted the holy trinity of Law, Best, and Charlton, City had their own in Lee, Bell, and Summerbee. All three had been plundered from the lower divisions. Bell, nicknamed Nijinsky after the racehorse rather than the ballet dancer, had phenomenal stamina and was one of the best box to box midfielders I ever saw. Lee and Summerbee, from Bolton and Swindon respectively, were equally at home on the flanks or in front of goal.
Arsenal had won the European Fairs Cup in the previous season, our first trophy in seventeen years, and although we were locked in combat with Leeds United for the League title we really were given little hope of progressing. It was a very wet spring indeed. The fifth round tie was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon kick-off but for the second time in the competition that season an Arsenal tie was washed out by an absolute downpour which rendered the pitch unplayable.
On the following Wednesday it was played on a drenched and muddy pitch that looked like a skating rink under the floodlights. The grainy footage (see below) scarcely did justice to the conditions. Charlie George had missed much of the season after breaking his ankle with Everton goalkeeper Gordon West on the opening day of the season (of course he scored!).
His return was to lift the Gunners to the eventual triumph in the competition. In his comeback he scored in a fourth round replay against Portsmouth. He would go on to head the only goal against Leicester City in a quarter final replay. With one of the last shots of a remarkable season he would beat England goalkeeper Ray Clemence from twenty yards to secure an incredible double.
But it was at Maine Road that Charlie proved his greatness in the biggest of fixtures. A first-half free kick from the edge of the box put the visiting Gunners in the driving seat. His second was a hint of what would happen at Wembley nearly three months later. Strike partner John Radford sent Charlie skipping clear of the City back line and having slotted the ball past another England international goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan, Charlie gave us all a preview of his most famous celebration.
Colin Bell’s consolation strike wasn’t enough to spoil one of the biggest Arsenal victories in my lifetime. Charlie explained his celebration of the winner thus,
“As I laid on the floor, I was looking over to Malcolm Allison, Manchester City’s coach. Frank McLintock came in the dressing-room before the game and said: ‘I’ve been talking to Malcolm and Malcolm thinks you’re crap’. When the game started, I was the best player. That’s why I looked at Malcolm.”
Allison hadn’t said anything of the sort and was taken aback at the abuse Charlie aimed his way at the final whistle. Pure Mclintock genius!
A wonderful evening, and I have known ever since that I was lucky Mum and Dad let me stay up to watch the highlights that school night. Enjoy Charlie’s goals with contributions from him and the wonderful Jon Sammels who was also in the side that night.