I was up for Swindon Town. The minnows against the crack first division team, who wouldn’t be? I was starting to get into football in a big way, the England win in ’66 being the catalyst and then the magnificent European cup win of Celtic followed by the glorious George Best inspired Manchester United’s win over Benfica in a match where the football reached stupendous levels.
And now we were watching Swindon Town vs Arsenal in the League Cup final in 1968-69. Arsenal didn’t have the emotional Irish impact of either Celtic or Manchester United. Everybody supported them, it seemed. My older brother had declared for Man U and I didn’t know any Irish person who supported Arsenal. I also liked Man U but obviously didn’t know yet what was about to happen that day. Sometimes, in life, your world changes without you having a clue it is going to happen.
Wembley was in black and white (or maybe that was our tv), and covered in mud as every ground was at that time in March. The photo gives you the idea. We didn’t have fancy grass technology or millionaire groundkeepers, then. Arsenal were ravaged by flu with eight players out, but were forced to play. Swindon, though, were the underdogs and I was up for them. This was in the days with one sub and small squads. We always knew the team every week as they only changed with injury. I was familiar with Arsenal and indeed all the top teams.
And then it kicked off. Arsenal were all over them. They made them look like they were two divisions below them, which, of course, they were. It was one-sided until, unexpectedly, Swindon’s Roger Smart scored in the 35th minute from a breakaway. Swindon went back into defence and it continued like that through the second half. Arsenal kept trying but it wasn’t happening for them. The heavy muddy pitch favoured the defence as passing the ball was difficult.
I started to change allegiance. Arsenal were the better team, always trying to score. And then they stuck the ball in the back of the net. I cheered and from then on I knew I was Arsenal. The love affair was born. It was, unfortunately for Arsenal, late in the game, the 86th minute. Too late for them to get the winner. Injury time in those days was short, with only one sub. Fergie time was yet to be invented.
They came out for extra time with dead legs. The flu, chasing the game, and the heavy pitch took their toll. Their mighty effort, in constantly trying to win, came to nothing. Swindon won 3-1. My eleven year old mind felt that Arsenal deserved to win and were the victim of the unfairness that life throws at us from time to time. The best team lost. The newspapers cheered Swindon. And I became a Gooner. For life.