When everything brightened up
You have to understand, it was different to today. We just didn’t have the constant access to everything we have nowadays. We watched highlights on the BBC and ITV on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon. Probably no more than 15 minutes per match, mostly goals, goal chances and controversies. For a real live match we went to watch our local team playing on a Saturday or Sunday. The pitch was beside my house and Newbrook Celtic were the team. They played in Celtic colours and were indicative of the support Celtic had throughout Ireland at the time, and indeed still. Although there was some pretty good players, they were a long way off the standard on TV.
‘Shoot’ provided the magic
To get insider type stuff, we had to buy magazines. Me and my brother loved ‘Shoot’, which was the best at the time, and we travelled down to the local village to buy it every week. We had money from caddying in the local golf course as pocket money was unheard of in that time.
‘Shoot’ was captivating, we had colour photos of our heroes and because Arsenal started winning trophies, they featured in it. We were a top team, sort of. Because the double was a miracle, and we had a half decent year for the next two, hid the fact that we were on a slide. A dangerous slide into oblivion, or at least the 2nd division. The team broke up, the old squad giving way to the new, Ray Kennedy, Frank McLintock, Charlie George and others moving on, Bob Wilson and others retiring.
We finished 2nd to the wonderful emerging Liverpool side, who would go on to dominate football in the late 70’s and 80’s, in 1972/73. A little bright spark. Then 10th in 1973/74. Then a scarifying drop to 16th in 1974/75. Then the cliff edge appeared in 1975/76, 17th! The miracle year was a blip, like when your heart rate jumps through the roof because of a fright, and tumbles down again when you realise it was just somebody playing a prank. Lucky it was no prank that caused the blip. It was real, though unlikely. We did do it, although looking back now it is hard to know how. We like being underdogs and battling for what we get. We never get it easy. But the bond was forged and in many ways I have better memories of those dark days.
The Irish avalanche came
And why? Because the Irish started emerging. You could have 5 or 6 Irish players playing. In the latter half of the 70’s, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, John Devine, and surprisingly, Terry Mancini, who only learned late in his career that he could play for Ireland, joined Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson from Northern Ireland. Terry Neill, our stalwart Irish centrehalf from the 60’s, became our manager in 1976. Life started to improve and he jumped us up to 8th. My fear of relegation abated. And he stole Pat Jennings of Northern Ireland off the Spuds in 1977 to increase the Irish connection. We were the Irish team and we were the Arsenal.
The thing is that, to me at least, the team, the glory team, were a bit drab, Simpson, McNab, McLintock, Storey, Radford, Kelly and others, weren’t very exciting. Charlie George was though, for sure. You could always guarantee a spectacular goal or headbutting Kevin Keegan. Or even fighting with Bertie Mee.
The emergence of the exciting conjurers
You see the new team that emerged had magicians, Liam Brady, who even now if you ask an Arsenal fan who is playing number seven, will always reply Liam Brady. It is an in-joke amongst Arsenal fans. He could do things with the ball that we couldn’t believe. We brought in SuperMac Malcolm Macdonald. He scored goals for fun and always with flamboyance. Alan Hudson appeared to bring his silky skills to the midfield. Brian Kidd, who had won the European cup with Manchester United came into our attack. Alan Ball, the World cup winner still ran our midfield.
I hope you can see what it was like. Now, we had exciting players and an exciting team although we were scarcely midtable.
The Voyage to the promised arena
Crucially, I started going to watch English Football by this time. Myself and my brother travelled by ferry to Liverpool and went to Old Trafford several times a year. We were young kids, my memory says I was not even 16 when we went first and my brother Joe was seventeen. It was a huge adventure. Although I had been to many matches in Ireland, nothing prepared me for what it was like at Old Trafford. And what seems like an astonishing undertaking to buy ferry tickets, match tickets, get the train to Manchester from Liverpool, and then find our way to Salford to watch the football.
I should point out that we had both left school and were working full time. We didn’t feel like the kids we were. We had no ID. cards of any description. Just got on the ferry, and somehow figured out how to get the rest of the way. For the younger readers, there was no Google maps, no internet, in fact no mechanical way to find out where we were going. We relied on our reading ability and asking nice people. Lots of nice people in Liverpool and Manchester. And for me, staying quiet about my Arsenal support. I would always have to go in the home end. I learned how to jump inside.
Next week, I will describe those first trips. And getting to see live on their own stage the heroes I had seen only on TV.