Trying to see light in the darkness.
Season 1981-82 continued our lack of ambition. 3 points for a win was brought in but we had got a taste for selling and didn’t care about that. Frank Stapleton was sold to Manchester United for the then large sum of £900,000. So last year our best player was sold, Liam Brady, and now again our best player was flogged. Stapleton had been our leading goalscorer every year since SuperMac got injured and retired. Man Utd had ambition, as always, and were never afraid to splash the cash. Stapleton, being homegrown, was on a lower wage than some brought in on transfers. Again, I don’t remember much anger directed at Stapleton. He had been playing for several years with only one FA Cup to show for it.
The Irish connection was dwindling, only Pat Jennings, David O’Leary and John Devine were left. Dubliner Paul Gorman was trying to come through but he never made it and went down through the divisions in his career. Although I still liked Terry Neill, it seemed like no-one high up at Arsenal had ambition. Yes we finished 3rd in 1981 and qualified for the UEFA Cup but was that it? We’re ok. Keep our money in our pockets. They didn’t seem to care that Villa won the League and Ipswich came second, both teams that were smaller than us but with bigger ambition.
We were letting the light go out
Well, it didn’t go well for them. This season Liverpool would win. Ipswich, again second, then Man U with our top goalscorer, and then? I don’t even want to say who were next. The Spuds! Playing attractive football, full of big names, buying top players and not selling their best. This was the pattern for the teams around us. They didn’t sell their best. Only Arsenal. Yes, I guess 5th was ok. We were ok. We were not Arsenal but we were ok. Would we ever get our Arsenal back?
And so the Spuds? Laughing at us. Beat us 3-1 at Highbury and drew 2-2 at White Hart Lane. Sent us home crying in the 3rd round of the FA Cup 1-0. Despite the fact that the league position was better than the dark days of the 70’s, this felt worse. The flair had gone, we were flat. But at least we now had no top player to sell. Don’t get me too wrong, we still had good players, Jennings, Sansom, O’Leary, Rix, Sunderland and others were top players, but our goalscorer and our creator were gone. All because of a lack of ambition. A feeling that ok was enough.
Liverpool knocked us out of the League Cup in the 4th round 3-0 after extra time and a replay. We started the league with 2 losses and 2 draws out of our first five so we knew early on we would never really challenge. We were beaten by Fc Winterslag, now Genk, from Belgium in the UEFA Cup on November 3 and they celebrated wildly thinking they had beaten a crack English team. So in early January when the Spuds knocked us out of the FA Cup that was it for the season. I suppose the board were looking around to see if there was anyone else we could sell.
Could the light come from people with dark skin?
But were there green shoots? Well, yes there was. Paul Davis and Chris Whyte came into the team as regulars. Davis, a combative midfielder, was to become an Arsenal stalwart and win many trophies later on. Whyte formed a partnership with David O’Leary, replacing Willie Young. What was good about that aside from being good footballers? They were black and it started Arsenal’s association with black players. Brendan Batson had been there mid seventies but never made a regular slot. Many started to appear over the next years, Viv Anderson, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, later on came the Arsenal Fan Club of Bulgaria’s favourite, Ian Wright, and many others were to become club legends.
For me it was, and still is a great thing, to hear, every single time I have been at Arsenal stadiums, the chant for Rocky, because he’s one of our own. Himself and Ian Wright were childhood friends and he pushed Wrighty into believing in himself, despite being a few years younger, he told him he could make it as a professional. Rocky was right about Wright. Now, you cannot have a list of the best Arsenal players ever without plenty of black players high on the list.
They shined their light on English football
But what was it like for black players in England? At that time, virtually none had played for England. They got subjected to terrible abuse amid suspicions that they were soft (hah, tell that to Sol Campbell). Fans thought nothing of raining down all sorts of horrible insults every time they came near the ball. Sport should be about fairness, equality, a meritocracy. You are striving to be the best and that is all that should matter. But imagine having your family there, with you having achieved your only dream, to play football at the highest level, and all they hear are the disgusting names they call you. If it was me, I would have been crying inside for the whole match and humiliated that my family heard that. And if it was my kid, I would be heartbroken for them.
Luckily those Arsenal pioneers were made of sterner stuff. Without them the glory days wouldn’t have appeared. But black players still face discrimination and abuse. As I have said, the world should be a meritocracy, where the only thing that matters is how well you can do something. The 80’s were a period of fan hooliganism, of non-white faces appearing on sports pitches, of unspeakable tragedies, but without the courage, the resilience and the inner strength of the black players, and, I believe, the overall fairness and goodness of the majority of sports fans, the joy and triumphs they brought to so many teams would never have happened.
And gave us our best days
Michael Thomas threw our hearts up in the air in 1989 when we beat Liverpool at Anfield, Ian Wright’s goal in the 1993 FA Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday, the magical Henry goals, the rarer Viera goals, and so many others contributed to great nights for us Arsenal fans. And all the top teams can say the same. Those idiots who, even to this day think it is ok to chant racist abuse, are wrong. You are not Arsenal if you do it. It is not ok to be racist. Kids are entitled to appear on a football pitch, with their family there, and everyone has the best day of their lives.
And if I can get back to Arsenal and 1982, it was not ok to be ok and going nowhere. Would 1983 be any better? I certainly didn’t think so.