A Midsummers Nights Dream
Last time we had just come out of the 70’s. We had beaten Liverpool and Juventus in semi’s. We gave Valencia a tough game in the Cup Winners Cup final. We played 70 matches and somehow came close to winning the league, losing a few at the end because of all the hard replays against Liverpool. We were ready to come out of the blocks. I was dreaming of a red and white year for 1980-81.
We signed Kenny Sansom from Palace, who was a superb full back and all round footballer. He was one of the best England full backs ever and would go on to be an Arsenal legend. Sadly, his is also at the end a tragic story and one day I will write about that. But his transfer was surreal. We had just bought Clive Allen and he went to Palace in a swap without ever playing. Rumours were flying that the Allen transfer was a setup. And we had kept Liam Brady. He was training with the team. Except there came a nightmare. A Shakespearean twist.
The Merchant of Turin
Gianni Agnelli II had other ideas. The immensely powerful Fiat owner who also owned Juventus decided Brady was his man. It was an easy sell. Arsenal were being stingy and Brady was on a low wage even compared to some others in the squad. He was PFA player of the year and Arsenal player of the year for the past 3 seasons. It was crazy but Terry Neill (managers decided wages in those days) figured that Brady would never leave because he was pure Arsenal. He was on £300 per week and that suddenly jumped to £3,000. They gave him £250,000 just to sign on! Nobody on this planet would turn down that class of money.
The annoying thing was that almost certainly if Neill had made him Arsenal’s top earner which he deserved as the best player, he may well have stayed. Arsenal, to this day, have kept this reputation of not wishing to spend money, a constant moan of the fans (letting go staff on low wages during Coronavirus being an egregious example), and this was just stupid. Brady was 24, recognized as one of the star players throughout Europe and should have had one of the top salaries in England. Instead he was a long way short of even being the highest paid at Highbury. I was very disappointed with Arsenal and a bit fed up. We can’t be a big club without the ambition to keep our top players.
It Was Not As We Liked It
I was looking enviously at Forest, who were willing to splash the cash for the best. The Spuds had brought in World Cup winners in Villa and Ardiles, Ipswich had brought in Thijssen and Muhren and others and were playing great football. Liverpool or Man U never worried about buying the top players. We sold our best. As I have said, in those days the manager had great power and our duo of Neill and Don Howe were letting us down. Bringing in Sansom was great as Rice and Nelson were coming to their end and John Devine had finally nailed down a place as full back. Our miserly attitude was the problem. Sansom, while a superb player, was a fullback and was no substitute for Brady, who ran our midfield. That was the low point for me, not Brady going. I don’t really remember much anger at him. He would have had to be crazy not to go.
I feel that this decision ultimately led to Neill losing the support of the Arsenal fans and the dark days that I could feel coming. We were just short of being great and we should have kept Clive Allen and Brady alongside Sansom. We were Arsenal. Where was our ambition? Our courage? Gone missing when we needed it.
The first match of the season showed this, beaten by West Brom and then a draw against Southampton reflected our lack of bottle. Ipswich, Forest and even Aston Villa, showed you could challenge Liverpool, but not us, it seemed. Beating them over 4 hard matches the previous season seemed not to matter to the Highbury elite. We could, and should have been challenging. I was fed up. For the first time, I started looking at other teams and saying, why is that not us? This, for me, was the low point since I started following Arsenal.
Okay, we beat Coventry and had our next match against the Spuds, who had flown out of the traps and looking like they could even win the league. We beat them 2-0 and Pat Jennings played superb as did our whole team. But the Tottenham hooligans had caused dreadful scenes before the match and it left a sour taste in the mouth. Fan violence is disgraceful and has no place in football for me. I don’t go to matches to be afraid but that was standard in those days and still today, there is a huge security presence at football matches. Have a laugh with the opposing fans but why hate them? They are you, they love football, only that they support a different team. Arsenal have one of the better reputations in London for this but it is more being the best of a bad bunch and we also have our nasty boys, willing to hospitalize opposing fans. Sickening.
Was a Winter’s Tale coming?
So, what happened in our matches? We came 3rd to Aston Villa and Ipswich so we did well, I suppose, but we won nothing. Spurs sent us home crying 1-0 in the League Cup 4th round and Everton gave us tears in our eyes in the 3rd round of the FA Cup 2-0. Spurs got their revenge also at White Hart Lane in the league 2-0. Spurs won the FA Cup, beating Manchester City in a replay 3-2 in a great final, with Villa and Ardiles playing superb. It is hard to claim supremacy in London that season because they won that and knocked us out of the League Cup. They finished 10th but with a trophy. And we had lost 3 and drawn one of our last six. For the first time, I wasn’t hopeful for the next season. We had our chance to make a statement and we didn’t. That moment, at the start, when we lost both Brady and Clive Allen, signalled to me that we just weren’t serious about being a great team. The people at the top didn’t want us to be Arsenal.