The demise of Bertie Mee
Bertie Mee gave us the impossible double without top players. I mentioned 17th two columns ago. 1975-76. The darkest point in my memory. But of course the Irish just kept appearing like mushrooms, to lighten the pain. Yes, I was worried about relegation for a long way through the season. The strange thing was that we started well. 2 wins and a draw out of the first 4. With that type of form you could dream of a high finish to banish the horrendous 16th of the previous season. And on paper we had what looked like a top team. Alan Ball, Liam Brady, Brian Kidd, the evergreen John Radford, with Frank Stapleton emerging and a virtually Irish defence, John Devine preferred over Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, David O’Leary, Terry Mancini and with Jimmy Rimmer in goal who got his only England cap that year. In all fairness, the 2 main English keepers of the time, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence (who recently passed on RIP) were among the best in the business. So how did it all go wrong?
The Irish from left to right. David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton, Pat Jennings, Sammy Nelson, John Devine, Pat Rice and Liam Brady
He stayed too long
Probably, Bertie Mee was the answer. Despite looking like a kindly schoolmaster, he was a tough disciplinarian who was known to refuse payrises to players. He constantly fought with Charlie George for example. He was an ex army sergeant and I reckon he lost the dressing room the previous year finishing 16th. Football was becoming more glamorous, a trend started by Georgie Best in the 60’s, and long hair and fancy clothes were becoming the norm in the 70’s. It is hard to see Mee approving of such things.
Once Mee had lost the winning touch, then there was little he could do about it. More crucially, Don Howe, his first team coach, and generally regarded as top class, had left to join West Brom not too long after the Double, leaving Mee bereft of tactical nous. Howe was probably more responsible for Arsenal players playing above themselves than Mee. I don’t like saying this, as he brought me my biggest thrills as an Arsenal fan. Checking the stats for this piece, I see that Mee had 241 wins, second only to Arsene Wenger. But he first had Dave Sexton as first team coach, who went on to become a great manager, and then Howe, who was to play a pivotal role at Arsenal when he returned under Terry Neill, to do the things he couldn’t. Seemingly Mee, even during the glory years, was never that popular with the players.
The black hole threatened
And once they were gone? He now had a bunch of players that by talent, should have been challenging. As mentioned above, we had a pretty good start. But 4 draws and 2 defeats in the next six left us with 9 points out of 10. Close to relegation form. Then a huge 5-0 trouncing of Coventry to bring hope back. Then 4 losses out of the next 5. Modern day Arsenal fans, are you reading this? Were we Arsenal at all? But then a 3-1 win over Man U at Highbury hinted we might still be.
Until 3 defeats and a draw put paid to that notion. I was just hoping that other teams would be worse than us. Sheffield Utd were struggling, yes, but the rest of the teams near the bottom were picking up points. There were lots of teams that could go down. And we were definitely among them. We then beat Burnley, who eventually went down, so I suppose that was an early 4 pointer. We never picked up momentum. We were dumped out early in the League cup and FA cup by Everton and Wolves respectively. It was going badly wrong.
Luckily other teams were worse
Honestly, it never really got better. We finished the season with 3 defeats in a row. We scraped home with 36 points, well short of the magic 40 talked about now. We were alongside West Ham on 36, 3 points above Birmingham on 33 and they were 3 points above their big rivals Wolves, relegated on 30. Burnley and Sheffield United making up the other 2.
So Bertie Mee resigned. He had stayed on past his sell by date. His past glories forgotten. I suppose he was actually forced out like Wenger many years later but resignation gave him dignity. He did achieve his great year with players who were that bit below top class, and that is always a great thing, to overachieve. Wenger, during his glory time, had players who were regarded as among the best in the world. Mee had no such. He gave me our first big accomplishment and he cemented me forever as an Arsenal fan. I only have good memories of him now. And I cannot remember ever thinking bad of him at the time. But it was time for change. I suspect, if the board hadn’t moved, Mee would have brought us down and destroyed his legacy. Arsenal are generally known for not sacking managers but we did have good players, many emerging as top talents, and we were staring at relegation. Again, modern day Arsenal fans, are you listening?
Good times coming?
Terry Neill who came to us from managing Spurs, although he had played with us in the 60's
And so an Irishman took charge. A young Terry Neill (only 34) took over, recruited Don Howe as first team coach and brought Irish legend Pat Jennings from Spurs, who was thought to be coming to the end of his career. Neill got both decisions right, Jennings played another 8 seasons and became one of the few players adored by both sides. Don Howe steadied the ship, allowed the talent to flow, and gave us glimpses of what we were waiting for, for us to be Arsenal. Could we now once again become what we were waiting for? Were we really Arsenal, an Irish Arsenal? Next time we will see what it was like in the late seventies post Bertie Mee.