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Entering the Twilight Zone A strange season, the strangest yet. And about to get even stranger? Probably. Arsenal are halfway along with a few others. Where can we end up? Today I am going to come up with a few scenarios and in the end, plump for what I feel will happen. There are lots of variables but some conclusions can be drawn all the same. The first is that it will be a low points season. However that may not translate into 4th place as at the moment that is looking high. Looking at the table as it is now 20/1/2021 and giving Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool wins in their final matches for halfway as they all look winnable, let’s see where we are. Can We Win All Our Matches? Maybe In a Parallel Universe? Arsenal, if we win all our matches, will have 84 points. City, on the above scenario will be at the turn on 41 and top. A repeat for them would be 82, a low total by recent years. By that logic, Arsenal need to win all their matches to claim the league. However, if we could, I feel that this year it would be enough. Realistically, though, the league is not a likely option. Even the most blinkered Gooner won’t think we can win the championship this year. Maybe not impossible but close to it. A typical Arsenal training session this year So what else is out there for us? Let’s say we repeat the first 19 total of 27 points. That gives us 54 points. We had 56 last year and 8th. I would say outside the Europa league spots and somewhere between 8th and 11th. No danger of relegation but a mediocre season and hoping to win one of the 2 cups left to grab a Euro spot. We are all hopeful that we can do better than the first half, but we need to win a lot more I feel to grab the prize we want, Champions League. Can We Win Our Weirdest Wenger Trophy? The lowest ever 4th place was Liverpool in 2004 with 60 points. That is very doable for us, we would only have to be 6 points better over the next 19 to get that. However, Liverpool will be on 37 points at halfway on the above scenario and that is 74 on a repeat. As the other teams around them are close enough it seems to me that 70 or more is the target. So now we need 70+, can we get that? That is at least 16 points better than the first half or 43 points, better than any team has managed so far with City, if they win their last 2, on 41 as I proposed above. We will need a very strong finish to the season to get Champions league. And by the way, our worst ever 4th place was 67 points in 2006. We Don’t Know Who We Are. Seems we don't need a second goalkeeper like normal teams One problem we are facing is that nobody seems to know our best 11. Leno in goal for sure as we don’t seem to have anyone else. Tierney and Cedric for me as fullbacks. Or maybe Maitland Niles instead of Cedric. Bellerin is poor at the final ball. Holding has grown into the job but Gabriel and Mari could be our best bet. Smith Rowe, Partey, Xhaka and Saka with Auba and Lacazette up front but if Martinelli gets fit I would prefer him. But I guess there is no agreement as to our best 11. Can we put a strong enough winning run together, though? A couple of injuries to key players like Leno, Tierney, Saka or Smith Rowe and we could be in trouble. We have a young side, and we badly need to keep them and develop the others coming through, and with that in mind, I could live with a mediocre season if necessary as long as we develop the kids. They will come good for us. Injuries to key players could derail us Is That Light a Train Coming Through The Other Side of The Tunnel? One possible chink of light is our last six matches, all winnable with Chelsea the toughest. If we are in with a chance by then we could pile on the points and maybe even squeeze into the big prize and Champions league. So what do I think? I think we will end up with around 64, and that may get us Europa league. If we don’t improve our points total enough, I think that will affect our cup chances so this year we may not have a back door to Europe. A bit better than that 64 and we are challenging for Champions League. And that would be to me science fiction, but it is a weird season.
The Kings? But of where? Arsenal - KIngs of English football 1971 This time I have decided to look at the decade, the 70’s, and try to sum up what it was like going from a kid to a man. As you know from my first blog, Swindon beating Arsenal in 1969 was the catalyst for me choosing Arsenal. They kept trying to win but somehow couldn’t. I was selecting gallant losers then, was I? Probably, and certainly I had no idea of what was to come as I hungrily devoured knowledge of this red and white team, but winning and greatness was well in the past. And so, in 1970, as we finished 12th in the league, out in the 3rd round of both cups and single wins over West Ham and Palace, beaten both times by Spurs and Chelsea, we were a long way from the best team in London, let alone the league. But we won that year! The Inter cities Fairs Cup (now the Europa League) was captured by the Arsenal. It lifted my 12 year old heart, particularly as we came from well behind to win and beat Anderlecht, then a top team, 4-3 over 2 legs. Nothing whatsoever there to prepare me for the astonishing double that was to come in 1971. The league won at White Hart Lane and beating Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in the FA cup final. Matt Busby’s Manchester United couldn’t do it, nor Don Revie’s Leeds, nor Bill Shankly’s or Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, all the great teams that had been around since I first got into football or emerged in the 70’s. Somehow a little above average Arsenal battled their way to the impossible and I became ten feet tall. Kings of London? We were the Kings of England. Or were we jesters? Gunnersaurus brings fun to Arsenal 1972 brought me back down to earth, 5th in the league, 4th round of the League Cup, beaten by a wonderful Ajax in the 3rd round in Europe and at least got to the final of the FA cup but beaten by the aforementioned Don Revie’s Leeds. We were still Kings of London as we finished above Spurs, a win and a loss, Chelsea, 2 wins, West Ham, win and a draw, and Palace, win and a draw. We also beat Orient in the FA cup. Enough good performances to make me hopeful and Irish players were starting to come through. 1973 was the most topsy turvy of the decade for me. We finished 2nd in the league to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, starting on their road to becoming a winning machine. We finished way above any London teams, West Ham, Spurs and Chelsea well down from us and Palace relegated. But Spurs got the Uefa Cup place because the English FA alone kept to the one city, one team rule and they had won the League Cup. We did beat Chelsea in the 6th round of the FA Cup to cement our place as kings of London. But we were hammered 6-1 away to Leeds and 5-0 away to Derby as bad points of the season. Such defeats were hard for me, watching on Match of the Day or the Big Match with Arsenal sent home crying and me wondering will we ever be Arsenal again? The Irish coming through was making me hopeful that next year we could do it. A Royally Bad Time But we didn't want this type of fun 1974. No we couldn’t. The bad years started with 18 year old Liam Brady getting playing time, joining Rice and Nelson but we were 10th, doomed by a bad start. But, you know, it is a pattern with Arsenal, just when we think we are ready to dominate, we go backwards, even the invincibles never won the league again. We did little in the cups, beaten by Tranmere (League Cup) in our 1st round and Aston Villa in the 4th round of the FA cup. And London? No, promoted QPR finished above us in the league, the Spuds did the double over us, no kings of London for us. 1975 was worse, 16th! And the quarter finals of the Fa cup was our best effort, beaten by West Ham. Kings of London? Don’t make me laugh. A very poor London that year and we couldn’t even top them. Luton (sort of London) came up and went down again and we only took a point off them. QPR were 11th and West Ham 13th, the Spuds in 19th and Chelsea relegated. But a very young Stapleton and O’Leary appeared on the scene and Brady had nailed down his place, the only bright spark that year. Surely we couldn’t do any worse? 1976. Oh, yes we could. How about 17th? Out in our first round in both cups. 1 point from Spurs, and they finished 9th, way above us. QPR finished 2nd, totally out of our sight, and only West Ham behind us. We did beat them 6-1 in our second last game and we beat Coventry 5-0 earlier in the season but well away from being kings of London. We now had 7 Irish (with Terry Mancini declaring late for Ireland) challenging for places but were we going down? A New King Arrived King Terry to bring us success? 1977. No we weren’t. Bertie Mee was out and Irishman Terry Neill brought in. We jumped to 8th, the top London team, QPR fell apart to 14th from 2nd, West Ham took our position of 17th and the Spuds? Down at the bottom and relegated. We did the double over them and QPR did the double over us and knocked us out of the League Cup but I will still claim kings of London for that year, wouldn’t you? 1976-77 was the year that all 3 Irish newcomers became regulars so we had 5 starters as Terry Mancini had moved on. 1978. But then Neill pulled a masterstroke and got Pat Jennings on a free from the poor old stupid Spurs to become our best keeper in my time. 6 Irish, now we could win things surely? Definitely closer. 5th in the league, semi’s in the League Cup, beaten by the mighty Liverpool, and in the FA Cup final against Ipswich 1-0. But definitely kings of London. West Ham, win and draw, QPR won and lost, Chelsea win and draw and beat Orient in the Cup. Chelsea were the highest of those at 16th, and West Ham got relegated. Surely now we were ready to be Arsenal? 1979. Almost. A bit weaker in the league at 7th but we won the FA Cup creating the memorable Liam Brady final and beating Man Utd 3-2 at the last gasp. Although we had a low point getting knocked out by Rotherham in the League cup in our first round. As for London, we were easily the kings. We beat QPR 5-1 and 2-1, Chelsea 5-2 and 1-1, and the Spuds? With superstars Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa? 5-0 and 1-0. Kings of London? We were the steamrollers of London, helping to send Chelsea and QPR down to the second. Could we be Emperors in the 80’s? Could we bring the great days back? So, we finished the 70’s with 1 League title, 2 FA Cups, and 1 Uefa cup including a magnificent double. What else did we get? Liam Brady was 3 times in a row club player of the year and in 1979 was PFA player of the Year, the first foreign player to do so. If it wasn’t for Arsenal, London would have had a not so good 70’s, but the Spuds did win the League cup in 1971 and 1973, plus the Uefa Cup in 1972. Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1970 and the Cup Winners Cup in 1971. West Ham won the FA Cup in 1975. But we were clearly the kings of London for that decade, with our trophies, despite the almost disastrous years from 1974 to 1976 being the low point. We are Arsenal, we don’t get relegated but all other London teams did, Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham, Palace, QPR and also if we include Luton. The 80’s would be Arsenal, I could feel it in my bones. My first decade had been amazing, up and down, a scary rollercoaster, but we started with a win and we ended with a win and now I was ready to win all. We were Arsenal.
Arteta vs Neill You know, the situation with Arteta now is similar to when Terry Neill took over. We were happy when he took over but results didn’t improve as much as we would have liked. Arteta got us two gongs and Neill didn’t do that but he got us up to 8th in 1976-77 from 17th . Neill went on a losing run of 9 defeats from 11 - sound familiar, Gooners? It started in January and finished in March whereas I am hoping December brings us Christmas joy at the moment. Wenger fans will be aware that November was always his bad month and I am hoping Arteta has inherited that from him and we start winning again. But there is one thing that happened that year, a small team that most of you probably never heard of got relegated. Seeing as Mr Neill had left them well ahead of us in 9th. It was a big shock to them, I am sure, to finish bottom with everyone’s boot on their neck. 2nd division for them. I don’t suppose that could happen this year, though, unless Mourinho punches Harry Kane and he loses the dressing room. But you never know. He has a weak chin, Jose, go for the knockout. Arteta understands the shirt And so did Terry Neill, pictured here with some unknown footballer Always some good in the Arsenal Enough with the schadenfreude, though, and I am trying to point out that with Arsenal, I could always find some good in the season. Even not long ago, Emery got us to the Europa League final in what was the worst year in recent history. I do believe in Arteta, Partey and Gabriel have improved us as has Saka, Willock and others. I feel we will come good. And I did believe in Neill. He had lots of players I liked not just the Irish. Brady and Jennings would have walked into any team. Stapleton, O’Leary, Hudson, Macdonald and others were at the top of their game. That front 2 of SuperMac and Stapleton were scoring freely, and I can scarcely remember any 0-0 scoreline. I have just checked, only four 0-0 for the season out of 42 league matches then. I meant to say at the start (many weeks ago) that I try to write this from memory rather than relying on fact checking so I may get things a bit wrong. I have done ok up to now. If Stapleton didn't score I think football, for us fans, in those days, was somehow better than now. Now you see the whole game, all the boring bits, the passes gone astray, and who did nothing. Then, we got 10 -15 minutes, the great play, the goals, the dribbles, the saves, and our players looked better. Now, we can make our own mind up, and we are far more critical. For instance, that year, in the FA cup in the 4th round, we played Coventry, then a good mid table club, and beat them 3-1, SuperMac scored 2 and Stapleton scored one, I saw those goals and I was happy. I could dream of the cup. We were hammered 4-1 by Middlesbrough next round and the dream was over. But I can remember the Coventry game and only vaguely remember the Middlesbrough one. We would try not to get the results until we watched the game on the BBC Saturday night. Often we failed in that, though. It added to the memories though when we didn't know. SuperMac would A small team goes down Anyway, we contributed to the Spuds downfall, with a win and a draw. I never really felt we would go down, which was always my biggest fear, as our bad patch didn’t start till January and we had clocked up a good amount of points by then. A strong finish from March meant we really didn’t have to worry. We had a draw against Stoke, then 3 wins ending in beating the White Harts 1-0. Then a 2-0 away defeat against Liverpool, who had become the juggernauts of English football, and then another 3 wins in a row and we were dreaming of next year. We finished 8th, but next year would be much better, yes? On our day, we could win. And that seems to be true at the moment. We can win if everything goes our way. The 2 Manchesters, Liverpool and Chelsea have fallen by the wayside on our good days. That wasn’t happening before under Emery or the later Wenger. Now we can’t beat the Brightons and Burnleys of this world. All I had to do was dream Next season we would finish 5th and get to the FA cup final. It was actually a good season, one that sticks in my mind. We were playing well, most of the time. And in this crazy season, we can still have a good one. We are still in 4 trophies, if we beat Guardiola, we can do that one. FA cup, Newcastle? Why not? Europa league, if we get our youngsters to keep playing, again why not? The league, well only if we put a 20 game run together we might start dreaming. And that was what I had in those days, dreams. We’d fire in some goals, win a few matches. Brady and Hudson would mesmerize, the 2 S’s would notch up great goals, and the hope would rise. Were we Arsenal? I think so, but the hapless Spuds certainly weren’t. And sometimes we had to take the Arsenal we were given. And I liked Terry Neill. White Hart Lane turned into a one way street without him. Dreaming of The Europa League final! (Photo from the Arsenal end at The Baku Olympic stadium, 30 may 2019)
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.