The Nearly Men: Part Five – ‘Neill By Mouth’

By Robert Exley

Continuing our occasional series on Arsenal teams that fell agonisingly short

In an era when the importance of league finishing-positions has grown enormously in comparison to that of Domestic Cup wins or Final appearances, it’s easy to forget, or certainly to underplay, the kudos which Arsenal had enjoyed toward the end of the 1970s as the premier domestic Cup outfit in English Football.

Brady: Final season ended in heartbreak

The FA Cup Final win of 1979, more for the final five minutes, as opposed to the rather one-sided and, on the whole, uneventful 85 minutes that preceded them, is often cited as one of the most memorable Wembley Finals of all time. To many, it may well have been viewed as the start of something big; even Terry Neill had dared to talk of challenging for the title in 1979/80. However, as stated by Jon Spurling in ‘All Guns Blazing’, his account of Arsenal in the 1980s, ‘the '79 Cup Final, while appearing to be a new dawn for the Gunners, was in some way the sign of ‘fin de regime’’. Brady had announced not long after the 1979 FA Cup Final victory that the 1979/80 season would be his last in an Arsenal shirt, tempted as he was by the lure of the Lira and furthering his footballing education overseas.

He later stated that ‘I wanted to sample life and football abroad and I wasn’t prepared to wait any longer. '79-80 was a time when I did feel unsettled. I’d said at the start of the season that I wanted to leave. All in all, I think it was the right decision to announce it rather than drag it all out, but there were a few disgruntled individuals who voiced their opinions about my departure. To be fair, that was to be expected. It was a minority, but I noticed it’. On top of that bombshell came the premature retirement of Malcolm MacDonald, the club’s top scorer for two of the previous three seasons, in August 1979.

Having suffered a knee injury in a League Cup tie against Rotherham just four games into the 1978/79 season, MacDonald did not return until the last game of that season, two days after the FA Cup Final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, scoring Arsenal’s only goal in a 1-1 draw. He was sent on loan over the summer to Swedish side Djurgarden, to regain his fitness for the coming season, playing nine times and bagging two goals. However the writing was on the wall for Super Mac’s playing career. In the close season, Arsenal were linked with Bryan Robson, Mark Lawrenson and Johan Neeskens. The only addition to the side, however, was a 33-year-old John Hollins signed from a relegated Chelsea side.

The first test for Arsenal’s title-challenging pretentions was to come against the reigning League Champions themselves, Liverpool, in the Charity Shield. Arsenal were on the receiving end of a rampant Liverpool side in a 1-3 Wembley defeat. Their league campaign had started promisingly enough with a 4-0 win away at Brighton, but after twelve games they were lying as low as twelfth position, with just three wins to their name. Defeats such as 0-1 away to Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace in November, and title-challenging Manchester United in the final league fixture of 1979, left Arsenal eight points off the top of the table by the turn of the year. As Jon Spurling had stated, ‘with a lack of depth within the squad, the club’s bold August title-promises were mere illusions’.

Again, it was to be the Cup competitions where Arsenal were to thrive. In the first round of the League Cup, Arsenal were drawn against Leeds United, who were still to some degree prominent in the post-Revie era, finishing above seventh-placed Arsenal in fifth position the season prior. The first leg ended 1-1 at Elland Road, followed by the same score-line in the league three days later. The following Wednesday came the second leg at Highbury, where Leeds were trounced 7-0 with an Alan Sunderland hat-trick, two penalties from Brady, as well as Sammy Nelson and Frank Stapleton getting on the score sheet. There followed victories against the previous season’s runners-up Southampton, and then Brighton in the third and fourth rounds, before being drawn against third-tier Swindon Town a decade on from their famous League Cup Final win over Arsenal at Wembley.

The first game had ended 1-1 at Highbury, followed by a replay at the County Ground a week later. Arsenal had trailed 0-2 with own goals from Steve Walford and John Hollins. Brady, Arsenal’s man of the match, had almost singlehandedly brought Arsenal back into the game scoring with a diving header, before future Sky pundit Chris Kamara restored Swindon’s lead. A further Brady goal, followed by an assist for Brian Talbot’s equaliser, took the game to extra-time; however, a late Swindon winner from Andy Rowland four minutes from the end of extra time meant an embarrassing 3-4 defeat for Arsenal. The Gunners were to fare better in Europe, beating Fenerbahce 2-0 on aggregate in the first leg, followed by a tough encounter with East German side FC Magdeburg in the second round. At Highbury, Arsenal took a slender 2-1 lead in the first leg with goals from Willie Young and Alan Sunderland. In the away leg, Arsenal held off the spirited East German side with a 2-2 draw with goals from David Price and Liam Brady to put the Arsenal into the last eight of the competition.

In the New Year, Arsenal kicked off their defence of the FA Cup with a 2-1 replay win over Cardiff, followed by a 2-0 win over Brighton in the fourth round. Back in the League, they were beginning to build an impressive run of results which included a 3-1 win over Aston Villa and a 2-0 win over Bolton three days after disposing of them in a fifth Round FA Cup Replay in the month of February. They were also to remain unbeaten in all competitions throughout the month of March, seeing off Graham Taylor’s Watford in the FA Cup Quarter Finals with a 2-1 victory, as well as Swedish side IFK Gothenburg 5-1 on aggregate in the Cup Winners Cup.

Arsenal were to lose only one league game between New Years’ Day and the FA Cup Final – a 1-2 defeat away at Norwich at the start of April. This run was, however, to include five draws, as the side were quite obviously distracted by their two Cup runs in the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. The first signs of fixture congestion came in early April with the then standard two-game Easter Weekend, as well as the first leg of the Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final against Juventus. Arsenal were to play three times in five days, which included the North London Derby at White Hart Lane on Easter Monday. Tottenham had rejected Arsenal’s request to postpone the match to alleviate fixture congestion and Arsenal faced the wrath of the Football League for fielding an under-strength side minus six first-team regulars. Spurs, however, got their come-uppance as Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners at the Lane with goals from Paul Vaessen and Alan Sunderland.. As David O’Leary stated ‘Spurs were sick. We thought it served them right’.

48 hours later, it was back to Highbury for Juve, and this time it was O’Leary in the sick bay, stretchered off as a result of a two-footed lunge from Roberto Battega. Juve took the lead through Cabrini scoring from a rebound after Pat Jennings saved the initial penalty. Juve, however, were later reduced to ten men after Marco Tardelli had taken out Liam Brady. Arsenal, though, equalised with five minutes left as Battega put through his own net, the game ending 1-1. Three days later, it was on to Hillsborough for the marathon FA Cup Semi-Final with league-leaders Liverpool, these being the days before FA Cup ties were settled by penalties after one replay.

It was also the days before televised Semi-Finals. The only way for avid fans to keep up with this saga was through match attendance. As John Spurling states in ‘All Guns Blazing’, ‘How many zombified workers must there have been in various London warehouses and offices, obsessed by this particular soap opera, their mental sharpness destroyed due to hours of motorway travel?’ The first Semi-Final encounter had ended 0-0; the following Wednesday David Fairclough gave Liverpool the lead, only for Alan Sunderland to equalise. Incredibly, the two sides had to meet again in the league the following Saturday at Anfield. Liverpool were going toe to toe with Manchester United for the title they would eventually win, but a 1-1 draw with Arsenal reduced their lead at the top to just one point.

A trip to Turin for the second leg of the Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final was not much of a welcome break for the Arsenal from the on-going Liverpool saga, considering that no side had beaten Juventus at home in Europe for over a decade. The return leg however did bring positive results, as Arsenal eventually broke the deadlock after 88 minutes with a goal from Paul Vaessen which stunned 66,000 Italians into deafening silence. After pulling off such a triumph, however, there was little time for Arsenal to bask in glory. Three days later, a tough encounter against Ron Atkinson’s West Brom at Highbury ended 1-1, then back to the on-going Liverpool saga 48 hours later for the second replay at Villa Park. Alan Sunderland gave Arsenal the lead after just 13 seconds only to be cancelled out by Kenny Dalglish’s equaliser deep into injury-time.

By this point, the tie had become – and remained - the longest-running Semi-Final of the twentieth century. On Thursday May 1st at Highfield Road in Coventry, the saga was finally put to bed. David Fairclough of Liverpool would later reveal that Bob Paisley’s advice to his players before each tie had been ‘You’ll have to keep an eye out for the boy Osborne coming late on the scene…. You know, the lad from Ipswich’. Bob, of course, had actually meant Brian Talbot, who actually did settle the third replay with a headed goal, just nine days before the FA Cup Final had been scheduled. However, within those nine days, another two league fixtures were also to be played.

First off on the final Saturday of the season was Coventry away, just two days after Arsenal’s heroics on the very same ground. Arsenal took both points through a Paul Vaessen goal. Then on the May Day bank holiday, another 48 hours on, Arsenal were to play Brian Clough’s European Cup Finalists Nottingham Forest at Highbury in a game which ended goalless. Even though the Sunday Times’ description of the disparity between the two Cup Final sides had been that West Ham were ‘so much the underdog that there was a danger of somebody calling in the RSPCA’, the five days’ respite between that fixture and the FA Cup Final against second-tier West Ham was not nearly enough recuperation.

In the Final itself, West Ham, whose nine days prior to the final included games against second-tier relegation candidates Bristol Rovers and Charlton Athletic, were sharper and fitter than their London rivals. On a boiling hot Wembley day, the Hammers took a first-half lead from an unlikely Trevor Brooking header. David O’Leary told in his autobiography that ‘at half time, Don (Howe) came into the dressing room and ordered ‘get yourselves under the showers, for god’s sake wake yourselves up’. It was no good, we were gone’. And so too was the FA Cup.

Just four days on, and it was on to the ill-fated Heysel Stadium for the European Cup Winners Cup Final against Valencia – a side who boasted Argentine World Cup winner Mario Kempes, but, in all, a much weaker side than the Juventus team Arsenal had disposed of in the Semi-Final. The final went all the way to a penalty shoot-out, when Liam Brady had failed to capitalise on Jennings’s save from Kempes, missing from the spot. All other penalty takers from both sides had converted, taking the shoot-out all the way to sudden death, until Graham Rix had missed the deciding penalty at 4-5 to Valencia..

Incredibly, there were two further league fixtures to play after the Cup Winners Cup Final defeat, and neither had Arsenal the luxury of deeming them to be meaningless fixtures. Arsenal lay in fourth place after 40 matches, which in any other season would have meant qualification for Europe. Due to UEFA co-efficient rankings, however, only three berths were available to English sides in the UEFA Cup for the 1980/81 season. This might be considered an odd decision seeing that English sides practically owned the European Cup during the late '70s and early '80s; however, English sides’ performances in the UEFA Cup itself were not so dominating during this very period. Three points above Arsenal in third place were Ipswich Town. Under the two-points-for-a-win system, this had meant that Arsenal were required to take full points in both matches in order to qualify for the UEFA Cup.

Just 48 hours after the Cup Winners Cup Final defeat, on a Friday evening Arsenal were required to pick themselves up to get a result away at Wolves. They won 2-1 at Molineux, with goals from Frank Stapleton and Steve Walford. Three days later it was on to Ayresome Park to play ninth-placed Middlesbrough for Arsenal’s seventieth fixture of the season. The Arsenal side were pretty much dead on their feet, and crashed to a 0-5 defeat with two goals from the prematurely-balding David Armstrong and future Liverpool stars David Hodgson and the Australian Craig Johnston. It was to be the final appearances for Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and - more importantly – Liam Brady.

Arsenal’s final wage-offer to Brady in the close season of 1980 would have made him the highest-paid footballer in English Football at the time. It was, however, not enough to persuade him to stay. Brady became a free agent and left for Juventus on 1st August 1980. The fee had been the maximum permitted by UEFA and the EEC for international transfers - £600,000. Twelve months on, Arsenal had also lost Frank Stapleton to Manchester United for just £900,000. Arsenal had lost their two most influential players within 12 months of each other for a combined figure that one could easily define as paltry considering that the transfer record at that point stood at the figure of £1.45 million which Manchester City had paid for Steve Daley. As a result, it was to be another seven years before Arsenal were to be able to sustain a credible challenge for trophies once more. In May, 1980 it wasn’t quite ‘Fin De Regime’ in London N5, but it certainly was the beginning of the end. Neill was to remain in his position for another three and a half years, but his tenure would never match the achievements of the four-time finalists between 1978 and 1980.

*Follow me on Twitter@robert_exley

5th March 2013 09:00:00


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

Paul Heaton  7:50am 5th Mar 2013

A brilliant piece Robert, thanks. Great memories of listening to Magdeburg away on a transistor radio at the back of the classroom on a Wednesday afternoon and I was at WHL for the win on Easter Monday with Paul Davis making his debut. The drama of those 6 semi final games, against Liverpool and Juventus no less, in less than a month will never be repeated. Massive highs and lows bought about by the drama and excitement of cup tie football. How times change. What dreary times we live in now where the FA Cup is a sideshow and clubs are defined solely by which European competition they qualify for the following season. Those really were the best of times. Wonderful. One tiny point though. Didn't John Hollins sign from QPR? Great article. - Post No. 35600

Tony Evans  8:37am 5th Mar 2013

Thanks for a great read, Robert. The 79/80 season is one that always lives on in my memory. Great memories of the runs to both finals and then the awful kick in the teeth when Arsenal lost both of them. Brady leaving was also terrible and heralded a period of dross similar to where the club appear to heading now. - Post No. 35601

Where's Wally is a Gooner  9:12am 5th Mar 2013

I have always thought that had Brady stayed,we would have won the league in 80-81,when we came third to Villa and Ipswich.We drew too many matches and Brady would probably have turned more of them into wins.Selling our best player and missing out on silverware,where have we heard that before? - Post No. 35602

Paul  10:04am 5th Mar 2013

1980-86 really were the dead years.We sold Brady and we bought in Peter Nicholas a clogger form Palace to partner workhorse Talbot.And when we sold Stapleton one of the best centre forwards in the league we bought in John Hawley Followed by the English Giroud Lee Chapman.The club was a shambles.It really was depressing.I once phoned the box office and was diverted to the Samaritans. - Post No. 35604

WeAreBuildingATeamToDominate  13:11pm 5th Mar 2013

Draws, draws, too many draws that season.....suggests the side lacked either guile and incision in the final third or a weak attack. Surely not with a side consisting of Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Rix? In the end the exhaustion must have told. As a young boy I was taken with my dad to two home games that season. Both finished 0-0! Against first newly-promoted Stoke then Liverpool. From memory, 10 home draws in the league that season. Even relegated Bristol City blagged a 0-0 in an evening kick off. And there were darker days on the horizon..... - Post No. 35605

Mark W  13:16pm 5th Mar 2013

Excellent piece Robert, What a great season, didn't we play something like 70 games, gutted that for all the effort it ended in heartbreak, I particularly the Liverpool FA cup semi final saga, we should of won what was a poor game initially at Hillsborough, then in the first replay they battered us for an hour and then Fairclough scored and we thought that was that but a couple of minutes later Sunderland equalised with a wonderful lob, then it was back to Villa Park again and Sunderland scored after a minute, when then hung on for practically the whole game only for Daglish to score with virtually the last kick of the game, then it was off to Highfield Rd, Coventry and we score early again through Talbot, I couldn't believe after all that we lost to Brooking falling over and the ball bouncing in off his head in the final. When you think back the spine of that team was Jennings O'Leary, Brady, Stapleton add to that the industry of Talbot, the skills Rix and Sunderland plus the soon to come Sansom and an emerging Paul Davis if the side had of stayed together it could really have been a golden age, I mean Villa won the league and European Cup a year later FFS. - Post No. 35607

Gare Kekeke  14:24pm 5th Mar 2013

Super article Robert. I was born during 1979/80 but I am aware of what football was like during that time through books & archive football on television and YouTube. With Brady, Jennings & Stapleton, we had the nucleus of a good team and it’s a shame that the FA Cup win the previous season was not a springboard. Yes, everyone was in Liverpool’s shadow during that time but when you consider Ipswich, Nottingham Forest & Aston Villa all did better than us then we really did underachieve. I’m enjoying the whole series. Keep it up Robert. You’ve inspired me to do one myself. - Post No. 35611

Ron  15:16pm 5th Mar 2013

Good read. Too many draws,lots of dissapointment and lots of frustration but we had some great players and it fell to bits when Stapleton and Brady went. However not once in those days did i ever question my faith in Arsenal or lose motivation. The Cups were great too.The Utd Final in 79 was awesome to be at. Deadly serious tournaments played as if lives depended on it. Nowadays, theyre just classed as flotsam tournmanents. Its a disgrace and for what? A few group games v dull and boring teams i would nt look out of the window to see in the main and a pasting every Season v the 1st euro team worth watching. Footballs a dying sport,it really is.They can stuff the CL for me. Little pride in the game today, less loyalty and silly money for old rope for all sorts of garbage that wouldnt have got to close to getting a game under Terry Neill however limited he was. - Post No. 35612

Mikey59  15:40pm 5th Mar 2013

Thanks again Robert for another enjoyable read. These were the days when nobody seemed to complain about playing 70 odd games(they probably did but I can't remember!). Those Liverpool matches did take their toll though and left us on empty for the finals. These were the days when players were often seen in my local pubs and clubs and were considered normal and approachable. I spoke to Graham Rix about those days only last year and was a little surprised to hear him say he still hurts like the rest of us from that penalty miss. It's a pity I don't feel the same hurt about today's teams efforts. - Post No. 35614

Ramgun  16:14pm 5th Mar 2013

Thanks Robert. So many memories. Paul Heaton is right that Hollins signed from QPR. Malcolm MacDonald's knee actually locked against Chelsea in March 1978 and he played the rest of that season half-crippled and was hardly able to move at all in the FA Cup Final against Ipswich. Bettega's challenge on O'Leary was not two-footed but it was studs out and right over the top. The squad wasn't deep enough to sustain a challenge against Liverpool's outstanding squad of that era, but our players were gutsy and gave everything, which is why the supporters identified with them so much. Those of us who now feel completely disenfranchised by the foppish, Wengerised Arsenal of today still feel a lot of affection for 1979/80 season, which shows that it is not winning trophies that matters, it is giving everything to try and win trophies that engages us. - Post No. 35615

maguiresbridge gooner  16:42pm 5th Mar 2013

Remember Bradys last season well,they're not announced so readily today and a lot more drawn out with a hell of a lot more spin. Another good piece of history Robert and a good read for everybody. - Post No. 35616

James  17:07pm 5th Mar 2013

Brady was a forerunner to Cesc and RVP.He could see what was coming at the club.The man was up there with Bergkamp and Henry as a great player.One wonders what would have happened to the club if George hadnt come to save us.I remember in 1986 we lost 2-0 at home to Watford then 3-0 at their ground the next day!!!! But the saviour was on his way and within a year we were lifting silverware at Wembley - Post No. 35620

Dan h  18:42pm 5th Mar 2013

Great read Robert could you imagine a modern team playing under that schedule infinate replays until a winner?One sub in those days so no going off with minor knocks or pulls! - Post No. 35623

600NER PETE  21:00pm 5th Mar 2013

Although I moved to Devon for four years in 1979, I still managed to get tickets for most of the FA cup games. The tickets for the second replay against Liverpool in 1980 were sold after the League game against WBA on the previous Saturday. When I got my ticket Alan Sunderland was just leaving the ground so I got him to sign it. At Villa Park I was telling everyone that Alan Sunderland would score because he’d signed the back of my ticket. He scored after 13 seconds and I went ballistic (along with a few thousand others!). We were in the lead in that match for over 90 minutes until Dalglish scored in injury time. I was used to replays in those days as I went to all 11 cup game in 1979, including 5 against Sheffield Wednesday (three replays at Leicester City's ground)). Happy days! I used to love the FA cup! - Post No. 35626

Tommy  9:28am 6th Mar 2013

great article from a time when football was exclusively for the working man,very few middle class bores and effeminates at the games and despite what people say Arsenal were second only to Liverpool as far as ability and flair during the 70's and 80's.I loved all the long knock out competitions none of the boring group stage nonesense you get nowadays surely a tennis style seeding system would be better.Sadly football has become like it has as far as the money side is concerned because that is how it is now,the rich love football and it's changed to suite their taste.We all look on the game when we were young and thought it the best,my grandad always slated 70's football because he remembered the 30's.I guess one day we will all look back and wonder why we gave so much time to the game and wish we hadn't bothered. - Post No. 35630

Tony Evans  9:29am 6th Mar 2013

I remember the bond that I felt with that 79/80 team and although ultimately the season ended potless it didn't matter (although it felt awful at the time) because it was still an incredible season, the team worked their socks off for the cause and I could relate to them all. What a contrast to the team and manager we have at the moment that I can not relate to at all. Winning trophies is not the be all and end all, it is the trying and competing that matter (in every competition) - that is the message ringing loud and clear from 79/80. - Post No. 35631

Radfordkennedy  9:56am 6th Mar 2013

Wow robert you certainly stirred up some emotions and memories with this article.I remember spending what was a fortune in those days on cup games and replays,having 4 hours sleep and then going back to work seemed to be a regular occurance then.Your article reminded me of the fact that i had to sell my much beloved stereo complete with 4 feet high TEAC speakers to be able to go to brussels,i went with the Travel Club on a coach with what seemed the entire population of Islington in a motor cavalcade up to Felixstowe,we stayed at the Novotel in Antwerp if memory serves me right,the local bars were full and resembled the Highbury Barn tavern and the Gunners on matchday,sadly the build up was the best part of the occasion,what also struck me was the poor condition of the Heysel stadium chunks of concrete quite literally broke off under foot.It was a sad way to end the season with nothing to show for 70 games and the years that followed where dire to watch as we all know,untill Stroller rode to the rescue and we got a pot at last.Strange isnt it how apathy and resignation can be the only emotion towards todays team,yet reading your article i can feel strong emotions and feelings about a season over 30 years ago!,i would like to hear fellow Gooners thoughts on the team that came together in the 2 or 3 seasons after, the one containing Charlie Nic,Anderson,Woodcock,Mariner and the much under rated Stevie Williams. - Post No. 35634

Croker  13:36pm 6th Mar 2013

Thanks Robert. A thoroughly excellent dose of nostalgia. - Post No. 35660

Les Crang  17:10pm 8th Mar 2013

Excellent Article. Poor old Vaessen. Any chance of one on 1983 and the two semi's? - Post No. 35765

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

16th February 2018

Frozen North Provides Relief For Arsenal

Rare comfortable away win for Gunners v Ostersunds