1973 and the Downfall of Bertie Mee

Recalling a painful FA Cup semi-final

1973 and the Downfall of Bertie Mee

Sunderland's Billy Hughes fires a shot at Bob Wilson, as Peter Storey and Peter Simpson look on.

Specific defeats can mark the beginning of the end for managerial eras, the point of no return in the lifecycle of a team. Looking back they stand out in the arc of history as the moment when decline shifted from being a perception into a reality, yet at the time their significance can perhaps be missed amidst the general disarray of losing sequences, just one of so many setbacks. Managers, and teams, can limp on but when the end comes it is always back to a certain game that we go to begin to trace the irresistible inevitability of the fall.

The 29th November 1983 was just such an occasion, marking as it does the symbolic end of Terry Neill’s reign, the infamous 2-1 home League Cup elimination at the hands of third division Walsall, despite the fact that the previous game had witnessed perhaps a more profound shambles of a 3-0 defeat at Leicester City, and that further ignominies were to be encountered before the axe fell. Neill’s football death, in retrospect, was a long lingering affair lasting two or three seasons, but the Walsall game felt like an ending, and it has perhaps become the hook we hang the narrative of Neill’s decline upon.

Ten years earlier, another, painful cup elimination stands out as a symbolic ‘end of the affair’ defeat, which perhaps, at the time, wasn’t quite as obvious a landmark defeat as it might otherwise have been seen as. Never-the-less, it was a still shattering loss by any standards, and it was one which came upon Arsenal in the unlikely guise of a man in a Trilby hat and a mucky old raincoat.

On the 7th April, 1973, beneath leaden grey northern skies Arsenal met second division Sunderland at Hillsborough in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Although manager Bertie Mee continued as the Arsenal manager for another three seasons, the 1972/73 campaign became a last hurrah for the Mee administration and at the same time signalled the imminent sharp decline back into the vast swathes of mediocrity out of which Mee had led Arsenal back in 1966. The season was a strange one: the Gunners would end up finishing second in the league and come within a whisker of recording the first Wembley FA Cup final hat-trick of consecutive appearances, but regardless of this the season is viewed as a disappointment, and one indicative of the confused thinking beginning to become evident at Highbury. The season had begun with an experimental approach as the once doughty Gunners went all Continental, and Mee, a fan, albeit previously a restrained one, of the new-wave of cerebral football emerging out of Holland, and ably demonstrated by Ajax, who were then the reigning European champions, sent Arsenal out to play a type of totaalvoetbal. It was a plan hatched partly as an attempt to more fully integrate the possession approach of Alan Ball into the style of play at Highbury. When Ball first signed he quickly voiced his annoyance at the frequent bypassing of midfield, which was then an integral aspect of Arsenal’s fast, pressing ‘power-play’ approach. The experiment ebbed and flowed until a sound trashing at the Baseball Ground in November 1972 (a torrid 5-0 defeat which was Bob Wilson’s first game of the season, back from his serious knee injury sustained in the Cup semi-final at Villa park against Stoke City in April 1972), and thereafter Arsenal resorted to what they knew best, and promptly went on an eleven game unbeaten league run, including a 2-0 away win at Liverpool in late February, which had sent Arsenal briefly top.

A side story of the 72/73 season was the controversial decision of Mee to replace club captain, leader, and man-at-arms Frank McLintock with a once promising young central defender from Coventry City, Jeff Blockley, signed for a weighty £200,000: a deal which was later simultaneously claimed as the best bit of transfer business done by Coventry boss Joe Mercer; and the worst ever done by Arsenal’s Bertie Mee. As things panned out Blockley’s fortunes would not survive the fall out of the Sunderland cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1973; and Bertie Mee, likewise, would emerge damaged by the experience of seeing his expensive signing effectively hand the game to lower division opponents, thus, in the process, bringing his judgement severely into question.

Bob Stokoe, he of the Trilby hat, had taken charge at Roker Park, in late November 1972. Sunderland was in disarray, lingering near the foot of the old second division. A native of the North-East, Stokoe had ‘previous’ against Arsenal in the context of the Cup when he was still a player: he had turned out for Newcastle United in the 1953 Final, the afternoon when a magnificent rearguard action by an Arsenal team led heroically by captain Joe Mercer and decimated by injuries and illness to the extent that by the final whistle they had barely five men left standing, were only defeated by virtue of an 85th minute goal, indeed just after Arsenal, themselves, had hit the bar and thereby nearly claiming the most unlikely of victories.

McLintock had started the ten previous games, the last nine of them in place of Blockley, but when the big day came Mee stuck to his guns and insisted on playing Blockley, in spite of, or perhaps because of, McLintock’s still massive influence over the dressing room, something Mee was coming to resent, seeing it as a challenge to his own authority – an authority no longer shored up by the excellence of Howe at his right hand.

Flurries of snow had fallen prior to the game, for which a standing ticket would set you back a mere 70 pence! The Dagenham Girl Pipers welcomed the teams onto the pitch along with a powerful rendition of the Roker Roar! Perhaps this was being looked upon as Sunderland’s cup final, a gallant effort with their honour maintained, and with the Gunners progressing to the business end of the competition and the chance to avenge Leeds United for the previous year’s defeat at Wembley?

Arsenal started with John Radford on the bench and they missed his tireless running and endeavour, preferring instead to go with the possibility of Charlie George’s more off-the-cuff spontaneity. Arsenal settled early, but the opening chance fell to Sunderland, a rasping drive from Horsefield which required a flying tip over from Bob Wilson. Arsenal needed to heed the warning, but before they could reflect – calamity! A simple long, straight ball pumped towards the edge of the Arsenal box, caused chaos: with the Gunners’ backline retreating, Blockley tried to steer it back to safety in the shape of Wilson, but he got only the faintest touch on it and it fell well short: the free ball was seized upon by Vic Hallam, who took the ball around Wilson and scored to give the underdogs the lead. As the ball nestled in the net, Blockley stood dejected and forlorn with his hands on his hips, looking less like the commanding figure of McLintock than perhaps at any other time in his brief unhappy Arsenal career.

Blockley, though, very nearly made amends within minutes as he had a header cleared of the line and Armstrong, following up had his shot charge down. Arsenal, in golden shirts, began to work the ball and soon after, the best passage of football almost resulted in an equaliser: Alan Ball played a neat little pass ‘around the corner’ and Armstrong running on to it crashed a shot against the outside of Montgomery’s left post, with the ‘keeper labouring to keep it out. Then it was Sunderland’s turn, with the action again centring on Hallam and Blockley: another long ball caused undue trouble, and Blockley, falling over, allowed Hallam in to shoot, which forced Wilson in to action. The Arsenal goalkeeper jumped to his feet and roundly berated his defenders who had failed again to deal with a routine punt forward.

Honours were even for the remainder of the half, Sunderland maintained their momentum and but for Bob McNab clearing off the line would have taken a first half two goal lead: soon after Armstrong, once again, drew a world class stop from Montgomery with a waspish shot which took a late deflection; indeed so good was the save, wrong footed and requiring the swift readjustment of weight from Sunderland’s number one, that even a disappointed Alan Ball took time out to pat Montgomery on the back of the head.

At half-time Mee swallowed his pride and withdrew Blockley and sent on Radford in his place, signalling that Arsenal were now, surely, going to take the game by the scruff of the neck. But soon the challenge facing Arsenal doubled as Billy Hughes managed to loop a header towards the far post following a neat flick on from Dennis Tueart, and Wilson, falling backwards despairingly, could only brush the ball goalwards with his fingertips and it fell just inside the post. From then on Arsenal huffed and puffed, and when with five minutes left, Charlie George forced a shot to the centre of the goal to go in, almost through Montgomery’s outstretched hand, it did at least set up a dramatic finale, which Sunderland managed to ride out with little in the way of chances for Arsenal to drag the tie onto a replay.

As the final whistle went and Stokoe took the salute of the old open topped kop at Hillsborough packed with joyous North-Easterners, the Gunners slipped away. The blushes that otherwise might have stained Mee’s legacy in the intervening years, have largely been mitigated by Sunderland’s famous defeat of Leeds United in the final itself: no one other than Gooners of a certain age remember the semi-final: ironic and odd too that after defeating Stoke City twice in the previous two years’ semis that it would be a man called Stokoe who finally undid them!

There was a neat symmetry to Arsenal’s FA Cup exploits between 1971 and 1974 which maps the fall from grace of Mee’s team: winners in ’71, losing finalists in ’72, losing semi-finalist in ’73, and ignominiously knocked out by second division Aston Villa 2-0 in a fourth round replay in ’74. Although Mee would stay in charge for three more seasons after the Sunderland set-back I always think of this game as being the beginning of the end, though admittedly one slow in coming to fruition. What had begun with the decision to let Howe move on, and what had gathered pace with the perhaps misjudged signing of Alan Ball, and the massively ill-judged decision to replace McLintock with Blockley all came damagingly to a climax at Hillsborough? Within 12 months Arsenal was mid-table again and had two successive fights against relegation to look forward to. It didn’t start or end with Sunderland but the cup defeat of 1973 remains for me the key symbolic element in the narrative of Mee’s fall.


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  1. Moscowgooner

    Sep 02, 2019, 4:57 #114741

    For Blockley read Xhaka.... Only one great moment I can remember from him: a superb volleyed goal in the opening minute of a game against the Leeds 'invincibles' (LOL) at the North Bank in August 1973. Hardly compensated for the rest though.... And we managed to lose that game 1-2 to a Lorimer free kick.

  2. Moscowgooner

    Sep 02, 2019, 4:40 #114740

    For Blockley read Xhaka.... Only one great moment I can remember from him: a superb volleyed goal in the opening minute of a game against the Leeds 'invincibles' (LOL) at the North Bank in August 1973. Hardly compensated for the rest though.... And we managed to lose that game 1-2 to a Lorimer free kick.

  3. Dick Dastardly

    Aug 31, 2019, 7:34 #114728

    Look not only at AW for what was won (which we thank very much) but also for what wasn't. Should have won the league in 1999, 2008, perhaps 2011, 2016, losing cup finalists 2001, Champions league 2006 (Pep's substitution's caught him out badly), UEFA cup 2000 (didn't have the nous to beat a 10-man mediocre opposition), league cup finals 2007 (should have won if played full strength side) and 2011 (a clueless performance against poor but determined opposition). His legacy would have been set in stone if even half those opportunities were taken.

  4. TonyEvans

    Aug 30, 2019, 14:41 #114725

    Hi Ron - yeah you're right about the last 12 years, trophy wise, being not so bad; we should have won the League when Leicester triumphed, but three FA Cup wins can't be sniffed at! Of course it could (and is!) be argued that the Cup wins kept Wenger at the helm longer than might have been - but who knows for sure eh! You are bang on the money too that it is the insipid nature which still prevails at the club which really grates. The team under Emery isn't much better than Wenger on that front, and until we see that longed for steel / cynical edge back we won't be challenging for the game's two big prizes.

  5. itsRonagain2

    Aug 30, 2019, 13:30 #114724

    Hi Tony - a good debate isnt it this one. When Don Howe left along with Whitehouse and the other guy whose name i cant recall, it tore Arsenal apart a bit. There was upset for Howe as he felt he had been the architect of the double team and wasn't being paid enough to reflect that plus he had the sentimental pull of managing Albion didn't he. We did sell a few players who we shouldn't have done just afterwards and in many ways it showed Mee up to be rather inept managing on his own. The Ball signing didnt work out. It was a big money buy but again, in truth his best days had gone. He had a lot of miles on his clock by time he reached N5 even though he was about 28 only. His best years had gone by 1970 when Everton won the title. That was his zenith i think but he had some argument with Everton as i recall. Post 1973 we started to buy very average players and persist with others who were no more than journeymen. I think Mee survived till 1976 out of sentiment towards him really, a bit like Wengers longevity but not near so long. Yr dead right, we broke Liverpool not bloody Man U as the hallowed SKY diary of football will have people believe, but hey ho, football never existed until 1992 did it! Anything since is small beer and insignificant. For all of our wonderful successes we do have a habit of allowing th grass to grow beneath the clubs feet leading to sterility and quite long periods of frustrating inconsistency and failure dont we. By comparison to some of the periods of our history this last period of 12 years hasn't been too bad really for all we moan about this latter period. Its the insipid, naive feel that the club has created about it that gets to me the most which has led to the thrashings and putrid away performances over the years. Just like the 1960s in many ways. The clubs badly lost its Ooooomph!

  6. TonyEvans

    Aug 30, 2019, 12:20 #114723

    Hi Ron - good points re the 70/71 double side 'getting on a bit' and Liverpool's dominance mid 70s to mid 80s. I suppose as I was a late-comer to the 70/71 side (Nov 1970) I hadn't really thought about how long some of the players had been at the club, and how old they were post 71. Even so some bad decisions were made, and the club's rapid fall from grace could and should have been avoided. That brings me on to Liverpool - I agree with you that despite being a good side they really weren't up against much. Arsenal had lost their way; United were still in the post Busby doldrums under Docherty, Sexton and Big Ron, which left Cloughie's Forest side and briefly Villa as the only real threats to the Scousers. They were fortunate in having Paisley as manager - a very canny operator; head and shoulders above the rest (bar Brian Clough). He always did just enough each year on the transfer front; never made wholesale changes, but freshened things up with one, maybe two, astute purchases who always seamlessly slotted in to the team. Kendal's Everton gave them a run for their money mid 80s, but it was good old Arsenal who finally knocked them off their perch, which is why THAT match at Anfield in '89 will never be beaten for sheer drama and such a great feeling of finally getting one over on them (to put it mildly!), in such dramatic fashion, after years of frustration.

  7. itsRonagain2

    Aug 30, 2019, 4:02 #114722

    Yes, defo the owner as the root problem mate. It always was wasn’t it, even under Wenger. Him and his cohorts just don’t get. English football to me and worse still, don’t want to. Ultimately, the Coach has to be the fulcrum of the set up and the principal figurehead and to possess force of personality to impose himself on a club, like Klopp has done. For that to happen the owner has to encourage it to do do. Arsenal seem to me to be so pre occupied with creating a set up that is wholly aimed at ensuring that another Wenger type situ can never occur again. It’s gone to far though I feel. Emery looks to me to be almost an accessory and in a position where he can be disposed of at will and the effect of that is to be minimal. Like you, these signings do little for me. Token gesture signings as I see them. Agree tho, whatever state we re in its always vital to see off the N17 rabble. I fancy the draw though this time.

  8. Exiled in Pt

    Aug 29, 2019, 23:50 #114721

    Hello Ron, think that is a great comparison Leeds and the Wenger mess we are left with ! Maureen of 5 years ago i would of agreed with you through gritted teeth but in my humble opinion now i think he is as washed up as Wenger. It has overtaken them . Not quite the same as with GG but by 94 you were probably the same as me and many others home and away saying his time was up , difference between George and Wenger is he knew his time was up . Just been reading tonight something i had not remembered or did not know at the time ,he had spoken to Peter Hillwood and said he wanted to quit with the chairman saying go at the end of the season, before the whole bung fiasco happened !! I still maintain the biggest problem at Arsenal is the owner and a few signing in the summer has not changed my mind but it seems like it has quelled the unrest for now. Fingers crossed we are both proved wrong and they go on to do something this year ...More importantly we stuff the scum on Sunday

  9. itsRonagain2

    Aug 29, 2019, 23:31 #114720

    Hi Exiled. I believe it was the biggest error they made at Leeds when the Chairman there didn’t back him. BC knew the old sweats like Bremner and Giles had all peaked and slid in the 18 months before he went there. They needed clearing out. I don’t think that 1973 Sunderland team would have had a hope in hell of beating the Leeds team of sat up to 2 years before that 73 Final. As it was Montgomery in goal beat Leeds on his own with his heroics. The history books don’t say that though. I think BC may well have created another great Leeds side had he have remained. In many ways Leeds decline from the point of his sacking carried over and festered right up till they eventually went down and arguably it’s hung over until even now. Revie cast a long and malignent shadow over that Club great as he had been. In a less sinister way than that, I believe Arsenal are similarly undermined by Wengers shadow even in today’s light touch , gossamer flimsy football. It’s why I’ve now taken the view that to rid us of it will take a Mourinho or some one of his ilk. Emery won’t do it. This happens in football doesn’t it and history teaches us much. Utd suffered post Busby. They appointed snowflake types like MCGuiness Sexton and O Farrell. All lovely men but their brand of niceness just allowed the lethargy of the old guard to gradually eat away the club’s fibre. Not until Tommy Dicherty went there with his bristling sharp and aggressive approach and a the hell with the lot of the old sweats approach, did they recover. That was 5 or 6 years after Busby too and it took a relegation to make their Board sit up and realise that a giant sized power broom was needed to clear the cobwebs and dust. Arsenal should take heed. In my view they’ve followed a similar path and are still in thrall to Wengerist habits. Emery himself is too. His methods pay homage to AW s legacy. That’s why he ll fail. I hope to be proved wrong though. Truly do.

  10. Exiled in Pt

    Aug 29, 2019, 21:55 #114719

    Ron have to agree with you about Clough, what he did at Derby and Forest will never be replicated. Also his goal scoring record as a player before retiring early due to injury is right up there. As I have said before the early 70's Arsenal is just a bit before my time but what a great piece and great posts by all that were lucky enough to witness that period. It still amazes me just what a difference keeping Ray Kennedy might of made to our fortunes from 74 to the 80's when you see how well he did for the scousers.

  11. itsRonagain2

    Aug 29, 2019, 20:39 #114718

    I forgot Forest. Great side. Best Coach ever in my view.

  12. itsRonagain2

    Aug 29, 2019, 20:35 #114717

    Ron Saunders. AV were very good werent they. The title chase with Ipswich in 80/81 was enthralling. I ived in Warwick then and used to go watch them with Villa fan mate on the Holte End quite often. WBA had a good side too. Very exciting to watch back then were Albion.

  13. Radfordkennedy

    Aug 29, 2019, 20:28 #114716

    Very true about challengers Ron, between '73 and ''90 say there was what...Derby, Forrest Villa then us , must say I thought Villa were great to watfch at that time, their manager was mustard I thought can picture him but cannot for the life of me remember his name

  14. itsRonagain2

    Aug 29, 2019, 20:13 #114715

    RK - very true about Liverpool. The luck element is always ignored about them though.Their rivals back then were QPR and Norwich and Ipswich et al. The big clubs were all in hibernation or on the cusp of relegation. Arsenal and Chelsea had both declined from early 70s fine teams. Utd were nowehere and went down. Spurs went down. Everton had fallen away towards the bottom. Leeds had declined badly and had no ditection after Revie left. None of them were anything like for the whole decade and into the 80s non shone, Credit due of course they were the best side but the standard of the top clubs was dire until the mid 80s when such as Arsenal and Everton came back. Look at the teams they beat in Europe too. Lollipop teams really as all the main euro giants had gone to sleep.

  15. Radfordkennedy

    Aug 29, 2019, 18:20 #114714

    Hello Ron...your right mate its often forgotten that some of that team had been with us along time, I think Geordie signed on in '61, and the rest followed 4 or 5 years later. I think what did us was losing the spine within a short space of time, by about '75 Willow Frank Ray and Stroller had gone and Raddy was picking up niggling injuries on a regular basis. Personally I think one of the reasons why Liverpool went on to build a dynasty was their habit of not letting the team get old and replacing players no matter who they were when they had served a purpose thereby avoiding unsettling wholesale changes, new players just seemed to gel effortlessly I seem to remember

  16. itsRonagain2

    Aug 29, 2019, 17:29 #114713

    NIce article. Memories indeed. They became a decent side Sunderland, maybe the last decent side they had. Name on the Cup that yr perhaps as they did beat the great Leeds side in the Final and we had a good FAC run over 2 -3 years didn't we. I always thought losing Kennedy was a massive blow after 1971. He was a fabulous player. Mee did miss Howe and yet Howe was no manager himself. Great Coach though and lovely fella. In fairness, the team after 1971 was getting long in the tooth and a bit tired. Many were Billy Wrights boys from mid 60s and onwards. Teams used to disappear from grace pretty quickly back then. Some of you will recall the really great Everton side who won the title in 1970. Ball Harvey and Kendall and Co and guys like Joe Royle and Whittle. Fab team and next to hopeless the season after. Leeds declined quickly after that FAC loss to Sunderland and from then on Liverpool were remorseless for years weren't they. Jeff Blockley was poor yet he had looked so dominant for Coventry City and his buy did look like a good one at the time.

  17. Radfordkennedy

    Aug 29, 2019, 15:29 #114712

    Good article David. ..I wasn't aware of the ill feeling between Bertie and Frank I always thought he was much revered by the boss. The much rumoured animosity between Bally and the rest of the team however was evident on the pitch, I don't think there was a game plan to bypass midfield by the team just him.I think I'm right in saying Bally was getting £100 a week more than the rest a huge sum then, and they simply wanted to play the way they knew, Willow to Rice to Armstrong ,Kennedy 1 nil thank you very much.Thinking back we all felt how did it all come to this when Mancini, Ross, Powling and Matthews came in and comparing the side to what we had been such a short time before.But having said that I wouldn't of missed a minute of it

  18. !No Pasaran!

    Aug 29, 2019, 14:24 #114711

    That brings back memories! And I agree TE that the 71’ side was broken up too soon. I was 15 in 1973. I can remember how loud the Sunderland fans were, even in the vast open end. Mc’Clintock was one of the best men to lead an Arsenal side I’ve seen. His running battles with Osgood late 60’s early 70’s were entertaining. I can still see him in my minds eye shaking his fist at us behind the goal we were defending at the start of extra time in the 71’ final against Liverpool to encourage us to get behind the team. Don Howe leaving was a big blow. I wonder how things would have been if he’d have stayed on?

  19. !No Pasaran!

    Aug 29, 2019, 14:24 #114710

    That brings back memories! And I agree TE that the 71’ side was broken up too soon. I was 15 in 1973. I can remember how loud the Sunderland fans were, even in the vast open end. Mc’Clintock was one of the best men to lead an Arsenal side I’ve seen. His running battles with Osgood late 60’s early 70’s were entertaining. I can still see him in my minds eye shaking his fist at us behind the goal we were defending at the start of extra time in the 71’ final against Liverpool to encourage us to get behind the team. Don Howe leaving was a big blow. I wonder how things would have been if he’d have stayed on?

  20. Seven Kings Gooner 1

    Aug 29, 2019, 13:04 #114709

    Good article - although a painful reminder of the "upstairs downstairs" way of life at Highbury. Bertie Mee's downfall began the moment Don Howe left the club. At the club's 71 Double celebration dinner, huge praise was lavished on Bertie Mee's achievements and not a mention of Don Howe's fantastic coaching and player development, turning Frank into a great centre back and Peter Storey from a full back into Wilf Copping mark two! Don and Frank were definitely downstairs in the eyes of the board and that alone prevented any further success at the club. I remember my father saying we do not need Alan Ball, we need a winger to give Radford and wee Georgie a bit of help on the flanks - dad really fancied Woodward of Sheffield United to fill that role. Anyone doubting the effect of Frank leaving the club just check out QPR's rise when our double captain joined the West London club.

  21. TonyEvans

    Aug 29, 2019, 11:36 #114708

    A very good article for those of us of a certain age. The great Arsenal teams I have been lucky enough to watch and enjoy under Mee, Graham and Wenger have always been allowed to 'wither on the vine' for reasons that have often left us mere fans scratching our heads in bemusement. Certainly the break-up of the 70/71 side was and still is, for me, the greatest mystery of all. When you think of the players that were shown the door - the likes of Big Frank, Ray Kennedy and Charlie George; the change of style to accommodate Alan Ball - it was almost unbelievable the speed of our downward spiral.