In pre-Goonerholic days I was indebted to Darren at Arsenal-Land who decided I was just the sort of old fossil who could write some history articles for that excellent site. He got me started, but please don’t hold that against him! Since this piece was written in February 2006 Arsenal-Land has gone through a major redesign and those early pieces were lost in the ether. Once again therefore I owe Darren my gratitude for letting me reproduce them here, starting with a review of the 1978/79 season. Thanks Darren.
Here’s a question for you. When did Arsenal score five goals at White Hart Lane, and beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Final? Did I hear 2004-2005? Well, you are only half right. Welcome to the other season it happened.
Terry Neill Joined Arsenal as a seventeen year old in 1959 and served the club, primarily as a central defender, until departing for Hull City as player manager in 1970. Four years later he succeeded Bill Nicholson as manager of Tottenham. A couple of summers passed before this favourite son returned to Highbury. He immediately stamped his mark on the club by signing Newcastle striker Malcolm Macdonald for a club record £333,333. The steady improvement under Neill was supplemented, in 1977, by the return of double winning coach, Don Howe, a former defensive partner of Neill at Highbury. The pair celebrated their first season with a fifth place finish in the league, and an FA Cup Final appearance, albeit unsuccessful, against Ipswich Town.
By the start of 1978/79 they had removed all but the last remnants of the double winning squad of eight seasons earlier, and assembled an impressive group which, apart from Macdonald, included homegrown talent such as Nelson, O’Leary, Stapleton, Price, Rix, Gatting, Devine, the experienced skipper Pat Rice, and the supremely talented Liam Brady. Neill had persuaded Jennings, Young, and Walford to follow him to the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, whilst the lively Alan Sunderland had been purchased from Wolves.
There was, however, little sign of the glory to come in August. No wins, an embarrassing 3-1 defeat at Rotherham in the League Cup, and the loss of Macdonald for virtually the rest of the season with a serious knee injury didn’t bode well. Thankfully, September brought a 5-1 demolition of QPR and closed with an away win at Middlesbrough. In between these the East Germans of Locomotive Leipzig were overwhelmed 7-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup. Some of those who endured the tortuous trip behind the Iron Curtain sought out the team hotel after the away leg, and found themselves part of an impromptu ‘ceilidh’ in the banqueting hall with the Arsenal squad and management. Liam Brady’s rendition of ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’, an attempt to involve the awestruck guests, stole the show.
October and November produced yet more mixed fortunes, inconsistent league form countered by further progress in the UEFA Cup as Hajduk Split were conquered on the away goals rule. Liam Brady, having taken much punishment during the second leg at Highbury, finally retaliated with a shove and found himself red-carded along with his marker. The goal that took Arsenal through in the final seconds was delicately floated home from the edge of the box by the unlikeliest source, Willie Young would rarely demonstrate such a delicate touch.
However, a month later Red Star Belgrade, another Yugoslav side, ended the Gunners interest, also on the away goals rule. Malcolm Macdonald made a cameo appearance as a substitute after Arsenal had conceded a fateful late goal, and had the ball in the net. The referee, for a reason known only to himself, ruled the strike out, and Macdonald returned to the treatment table. December was not all bad news though. The month had dawned with a 1-0 defeat of Liverpool, courtesy of a David Price goal. And at White Hart Lane on December 23rd Tottenham were destroyed 5-0 by as good an Arsenal performance as any Terry Neill side produced. The highlight was a goal by Liam Brady that is still talked of, by older Gooners, in revered tones today. Having robbed Peter Taylor on the edge of the box, Brady hit a left foot curler into the top right corner of the net, and the watching television cameras caught perfectly the arc of the ball, and his celebration in front of a stunned Shelf. ‘We all agree, Brady is better than Hoddle’ sang the travelling fans as three sides of the ground all but emptied long before the final whistle.
If Brady had shone a little sun into our lives then January was the antidote. Snow and ice gripped the country and in the only league fixture of that month Nottingham Forest triumphed 2-1. The weather was not the sole reason for the lack of league action. Third division Sheffield Wednesday took the Gunners to FOUR replays before finally bowing out of the FA Cup. In the first replay at Highbury they had been seconds from a giant-killing when Brady grabbed a dramatic equaliser. Steve Gatting and Frank Stapleton netted the goals that secured Arsenal’s progress in the final meeting at Leicester.The month closed with a more comfortable 2-0 triumph over Notts County in the fourth round. Debut boy Brian Talbot, a Cup winner against Arsenal for Ipswich, celebrated his £450,000 move with a goal.
Inconsistency would again haunt Neill’s charges in February. At Old Trafford Alan Sunderland struck twice against a Manchester United side who could produce no response, but the title challenge was effectively ended at Highbury after Middlesbrough (0-0) and Wolves (0-1) made off with valuable points. Two days after the latter the team travelled to the City Ground to take on the reigning champions, Nottingham Forest, in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Forest were hot favourites having been unbeaten at home for 49 games stretching back two years. In this season they would go on to lift the first of two consecutive European Champions Cup’s, but Frank Stapleton’s 78th minute header was enough to take the visitors into a quarter-final appointment with Southampton.
After a 1-1 draw at the Dell, the Saints were felled 2-0 at Highbury with Alan Sunderland again grabbing a brace. The semi-final at Villa Park pitted Arsenal against Wolves. Liam Brady, mindful of his decision to play in the previous year’s final when not fully fit, declared himself unavailable. A surprisingly confident display resulted in goals for Stapleton and Sunderland without reply, taking the Gunners to their tenth FA Cup Final.
March had also witnessed the crowning of the Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year award. The choice of his peers was one Liam Brady. In an era when Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were the dominant forces, Liam’s recognition was proof indeed of his special talent.
April produced a minor panic. After scoring the equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Coventry City, left back Sammy Nelson celebrated by dropping his shorts in front of the North Bank bringing an immediate charge from the Football Association. For once the governing body acted stealthily, and Nelson was able to complete the ensuing suspension before the FA Cup Final.
So to the 12th May, 1979. Wembley bathed in sunshine for the first ever meeting of two of the games biggest clubs in the FA’s showcase event. Both had gone into the season tipped for success, but with eleven and twelve league defeats respectively, this game would provide only one of them with European competition the following season. Given that fact it was perhaps surprising that, for eighty-five minutes anyway, Arsenal were able to put a stranglehold on the proceedings. It took just twelve minutes for the first goal to arrive. David Price accelerated onto a Stapleton through ball on the right hand side of the penalty area, rounded Martin Buchan, and his perfect cut back was met by both Brian Talbot and Alan Sunderland. That the ball was in the back of the net there was no doubt. Almost to a man the players ran to congratulate Sunderland, whilst Talbot cut short his solo celebration and indicated it was in fact he who had got the touch. For now it didn’t matter, but the goal was later credited to the man who had picked up a winners medal twelve months previously. Sunderland would have his moment in the spotlight soon enough. In the closing minute of the first half the lead was doubled as the mercurial Brady surged from midfield, rode two challenges (including one from the hapless Buchan) and chipped perfectly to the unmarked Stapleton at the far post. Frank didn’t miss opportunities like that!
The second half saw United huffing and puffing, but the elegant O’Leary and the combative Young looked to be dealing comfortably with any direct threat. As the minutes ticked away the Gooners massed at the tunnel end started the celebrations. And then the unthinkable happened. What was to become known as the ‘five minute final’ actually started to become a contest, and how! In the eighty-sixth minute Steve Walford, a second-half substitute for David Price, failed to get a meaningful head on a free-kick lofted into the box. Joe Jordan hooked the ball back into the danger zone and centre-half Gordon McQueen swept the ball past the unsighted Jennings. Surely this was no more than a consolation? Less than two minutes later we had the answer as Steve Coppell fed Sammy McIlroy in the box. The young Irishman skipped inside the challenges of O’Leary and Walford and slipped the ball under Jennings for the equaliser. Arsenal players and fans alike were dumbstruck.
Many tales are told of fans who had their head in their hands and missed the final twist to this unexpected thriller. From the restart Sammy Nelson chipped the ball down the left flank for Stapleton who in turn fed Brady on the half way line. In the post match interviews ‘Chippy’ admitted he just wanted to carry the ball into the United half and prevent them from getting it back and scoring the winner. He saw off four challenges before catching a glimpse of Graham Rix charging down the wing and his perfect pass begged the perfect cross from the Yorkshireman. It got it! At the far post Alan Sunderland sidefooted possibly the most dramatic winner in any FA Cup Final (although Andy Linighan may contest that particular statement!) Pat Rice, a young right-back in the double year of 1971 finally picked up a trophy as captain.
Behind the goal at this end we went off the scale mental
Two days after the lifting the Cup, Arsenal faced already relegated Chelsea in the final league game of the season at Stamford Bridge. Malcolm Macdonald made his final appearance, and ‘Supermac’ fittingly grabbed the goal in a 1-1 draw.
History will record the FA Cup triumph as the highlight of the Neill years as manager. Twelve months later he led his team out at Wembley for the third consecutive season, and also took Arsenal all the way in the European Cup-Winners Cup. Both finals however ended in bitter disappointment, and Liam Brady moved on to the greater challenges that awaited him in Italian football. Behind him, Chippy left a treasure trove of memories of that magical left foot.
A thankfully brief, but new barren spell of eight years was about to be inflicted on Highbury’s finest.
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