Several years ago I did the Emirates stadium tour . Our host was the inimitable Charlie George and he was a delight to chat to, Charlie is almost an exact contemporary of mine and I was telling him a story about pre-season training in the summer of 1971 in a local park. I noticed all the boys around me playing football and on scoring, falling to the ground in an imitation of Charlie’s iconic celebration at Wembley a couple of months earlier . He smiled at this and one of our group asked him how well he knew the current team ( this was around the summer of 2014 ) . Charlie looked back a little forlornly and said ‘ Nobody in that dressing room has a clue who I am ‘. It stunned our group because Charlie George was, we thought, a special figure in Arsenal history and even very much younger players would appreciate his place in the history of the club, particularly as he was an Arsenal ambassador, who appeared at the club regularly . But Charlie was clearly sincere and mentioned that when he did see any of the current team they walked straight past him .
Does that matter ? Many people reading this may not realise who Charlie is and what he and his teammates did for the club but in May 1971 Arsenal will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first of three League and Cup doubles that we have recorded. It was a VERY big deal fifty years ago. Arsenal had emerged from a barren period of 17 years with no silverware by winning the Fairs Cup in 1970. The following season they mounted a challenge for the League and Cup which also encompassed a Fairs Cup defence that saw them attacked in the street after an official banquet by Lazio players and a League Cup campaign. That season they played 64 games on pitches that were mudheaps in winter and barren deserts in spring .
On the website www.Goonerholicsforever.com we are commemorating the Double triumph and at the same time trying to raise money for the Willow Foundation . Willow is the charity that was set up by Bob Wilson the goalkeeper of that Double team and his wife Megs to mark the death of their daughter Anna from a rare form of cancer at the age of 32. It seeks to provide special experiences for terminally ill people or those receiving palliative care aged between 18-40 . Please visit the site in May and try to donate or enter our online auction for memorabilia signed by members of the team. I’ve known Bob for a number of years and he is the go-to person for radio and tv when they want to discuss Arsenal, Arsene Wenger or goalkeeping in general . He was the person the club chose to host Wenger’s leaving presentation in 2018 . If there is a better candidate for ‘ Mr Arsenal ‘ I’ve yet to meet him and had the Arsenal board co-opted an ex-player onto the board there could not have been many better choices. As part of our commemoration on GF we’ve recorded a couple of podcasts with Bob and Pat Rice who was the right-back in the Double side , captain of the Cup winners in 1979 and of course assistant to Arsenal Wenger until 2012 . What story did they have to tell and why does it still matter now ?
Before beginning to tell you, Let me tell you I’m 70 and have supported Arsenal since 1958. I’ve seen well over 1500 games and my family support spans five generations from a grandfather who watched Arsenal play at Woolwich to a grandson of 11 who loves the club too. I went to around twenty games at Highbury in that double season but played myself on Saturdays so most of the games I saw were in midweek. I did get to some London away games too. Beginning that season Arsenal had a bit of momentum having just won the Fairs Cup although there were no incomings in the close season. There was no transfer window then but the side had several injuries. Jon Sammels missed several early games and Peter Simpson one of the finest defenders never to play for England was seriously injured too. In the first game at Everton Charlie George broke his leg in scoring the first equaliser in a 2-2 draw, a very decent result as Everton were the reigning champions . The side started the season well despite having to make many changes . Peter Storey joined Eddie Kelly and George Graham in midfield. John Roberts a giant Welshman replaced Simpson and Ray Kennedy joined John Radford in a two-pronged attack. Kennedy had scored the away goal that effectively won Arsenal the Fairs Cup but was very inexperienced. He and Radford notched 50 goals between them in the Double season. The season began with a series of very good results and few defeats . Arsenal were unbeaten at home all season ( remember what that feels like ?!) in the League and were a very well-organised defensive side. Talk to any of those players and they attribute this to the coaching of Don Howe although they do recognise the organisational ability of Bertie Mee (my pen name on Le Grove!) who was a foil to Howe who had been a top- class defender. I had expected the team’s form to dip but they were consistent away from home and produced a set of excellent performances coming into Christmas. The one exception was a 5-0 thrashing at Stoke who were a very high-quality outfit then. Think Tony Waddington not Tony Pulis!
It was a time when the identity of future champions was hard to work out. Everton were champions but we thrashed them 4-0 at Highbury. Chelsea had just won the Cup and played some stylish football. Liverpool were an emerging force and Manchester City were a side full of attacking flair ( although we beat them twice at Maine Road that season). Spurs won the League Cup and eventually finished third. But the favourites were Leeds. They were the toughest competitors and the best football team in the country but had a tendency to fall at the last hurdle . But they emerged as our biggest rival as we emerged into the New Year, trailing a few points behind them ( and there were only two points for a win ).
When the cup campaign began in January we were given away draws in every round. Yeovil were not a serious problem but we needed a tight replay to dispose of Portsmouth then produced a superb display to beat Manchester City with the restored Charlie George scoring two spectacular goals. At that moment the press began to talk about the possibility of a double. Arsenal had stayed in touch in the League but trailed Leeds by 7 points. Fortunately we began a brilliant league run which saw us claw back that lead until a Saturday in April when Leeds and Arsenal were both at home. We played Newcastle and Leeds played West Brom another side who had tremendous attacking power ( although we had beaten them 6-2 at Highbury in September ). Arsenal clinched victory through a late George thunderbolt. Leeds meanwhile were on the wrong end of a 2-1 defeat where the referee had allowed a demonstrably offside goal by Jeff Astle to count . We were top of the league heading for the finish !
Stoke reared their head again in the Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. The first half was a disaster. A deflection off their captain gave them a fluke first goal and a George back pass fell short for Ritchie to round the stranded Wilson for their second. In the second half Peter Storey , one of the toughest players in Arsenal history saw a deflected shot cut the arrears and then in the last minute he was tasked with taking a penalty kick to save the match after Stoke’s Mahoney had dived full-length to save a Mclintock header. Storey’s kick was one of the worst I’ve ever seen but Gordon Banks probably the best keeper in the world then had his weight on the wrong foot and it crept in. Stoke were crushed mentally and lost the replay 2-0.
In the league we suffered a desperately late reverse at Leeds which put them back into contention but we went into the last week of the season needing to win our last three games to clinch the Double . We beat Stoke in a nervy game at home 1-0 and then on the Monday travelled to White Hart Lane for our last game . To do justice to the atmosphere of that game and to see how events unfolded do check Goonerholics Forever in early May . I was locked out of the ground in common with 60,000 other people . We needed to win or draw 0-0 to take the title because of goal difference. A Ray Kennedy header with minutes to go gave us victory after a titanic battle on a night when more people were locked out than got into White Hart Lane. The vast majority were Arsenal fans .
We went to Wembley on the Saturday as champions and produced a really solid performance. It was 0-0 at 90 minutes although we had dominated but an early Heighway goal in extra time looked likely to break our hearts. Then a very strange goal which to this day has not been definitively attributed to Kelly or George Graham ( who was outstanding on the day ) brought us level and Charlie George scored with a superb drive in the second half to clinch the Cup and the Double and trigger that iconic celebration. Again the GF account will give you all the drama from the players and some of us lucky enough to be there.
When I was talking to Bob a few weeks ago I told him that as the team were running towards us at Wembley before the start I had a concern that having won the league that would be enough for them. I asked Bob if that had ever occurred to them and the look on his face made it very clear that it never crossed their minds. Frank Mclintock one of the great figures in Arsenal history and a captain still revered by his surviving team mates had lost four times at Wembley. The team were all desperate to win for him and for fans starved of domestic success for so long. But above all they were great competitors and to me they were heroes. And win they did .
As I reflected on the question I asked Bob I realised what a 2021 attitude that is. Arsenal has never had a tougher , more committed team than that one. It has had many better football teams but never one I can remember trusting more to hold a lead . Those players , those that survive, as Armstrong that tireless winger and Roberts have died , and many others are in poor health, deserve to be recognised and as we wade through the squalid detritus of the ESL it is poignant to reflect on a team that achieved great glory but whose players are not recognised by lesser players of the current era. That’s a metaphor for football that doesn’t reflect well on our game .
That week in May was one of the very best of my Arsenal – supporting life. The day after the Final 750.000 people thronged the streets of North London and the club celebrated an achievement only accomplished once before in modern football history at that time . When you are 70 you look back much more than you look forward especially when your club is owned by Stan Kroenke . I look back with pride and satisfaction and a sense that what we had achieved was very special. And it remains special fifty years on .
Authored by Peter Le Beaum (Bertie Mee in the comments)