In the early 1970s it felt as if no season was complete for Arsenal without the obligatory cup encounter with Leicester City: between 1971 and 1975 the Gunners and the Filberts met on nine occasions, including replays, in either the League Cup or FA Cup, and that series of matches shines like a beacon over the intervening years, a microcosm of the football of the period, and one of those untouchable focal points for my memories. Across those nine games fortunes ebbed and flowed, dreams soared or fell, and a small corner of Arsenal’s history showcased the fascination and enduring pull of ‘cup fever’ back in the day! It, too, was a story, at times dramatic, and at all times engrossing, which seesawed between two wonderfully traditional and atmospheric football stadia, each seemingly built for the enclosed and stifling intensity of a cup replay under lights: each in their own distinctive ways were the stuff of football-romantics’ dreams for both grounds had that patina of dignity which only the passing of time could bestow. These days of course neither ground hosts football, both of them lost in the bewildering rush to modernity: Highbury a property development which at least manages to incorporate a muted nod to its former glories; while Filbert Street has been obliterated, now a student village which might collectively shrug indifferently at the name of Jimmy Bloomfield, a name conjured from the history books of both clubs: a sound from the past replete with Brylcreem and baggy shorts.
Prior to that glut of encounters in the 70s the two teams had met only twice in cup ties previously: both going Arsenal’s way: 3-0 in 1922; and 1-0 in 1935. However, in March, 1971, with both teams involved in different but equally compelling battles in the league, the two clubs were drawn to meet at Filbert Street in the FA Cup 6th Round. Going into the game, City sat in fifth spot in the old second division, just a couple of points off the leaders, while Arsenal continued their unstoppable pursuit of Leeds United. Despite burgeoning fixture congestion and perhaps both clubs having bigger fish to fry, neither side held back, and both went in to battle with their respective best XIs available, for this was still the age of the glory of the cup. The Gunners were fresh from a convincing 3-0 victory at Molineux, the first of the nine consecutive league wins which would eventually break Leeds and secure the first part of the double.
I always associate the cup sixth round with the first tentative buds of spring, but that year an arctic blast hit the country and Filbert Street felt like its epicentre. Beneath grey skies, icy blasts, and a typically heavy late winter pitch it wasn’t just the conditions which made for an uncomfortable afternoon: in front of a gate in excess of 42,000 City went for it, perhaps sensing that home advantage gave them their one chance of success. Indeed, a young England international, Peter Shilton, was rarely troubled in the City goal, as Arsenal hung on especially in a torrid final quarter when Wilson had to be at his calm, unflustered best. (Indeed earlier in the season, Bob Stokoe, then in charge of Blackpool, had singled Wilson out as the most improved player in the league in any position following the Gunners’ 1-0 victory up at Bloomfield Road four months earlier.) On 70 minutes he blocked a rasping drive from the mutton-chop side burned Rodney Fern, but two minutes later could only watch as Glover just failed to make contact with a gaping goal at his mercy, and Arsenal rode out the storm with the grim resolution they were famous for. An intense and dramatic game ended 0-0 with Bertie Mee, far from frustrated at having another game to play, just relieved to still be in the hat for the semi-final draw and hoping the tables had turned in the Londoner’s favour.
Due to our commitments in the Fairs’ Cup, namely a feisty encounter with FC Cologne, the City replay was delayed until the Monday of the following week, and the delay only served to sharpen anticipation so that on 15th March over 57,000 turned up, an attendance only beaten that season by the 62,000 who squeezed into Highbury for the visit of Chelsea three weeks later. Graham in for Sammels was the only change for the Gunners from the original tie in the East Midlands.
The replay at Highbury followed much the same pattern as the first game: an intense occasion of cat and mouse with the second division team giving as good as they got. On 13 minutes that endeavour from the visitors seemed to have earnt a reward as City centre forward Fern headed home John Farrington’s cross in front of the North Bank. As silence fell, and Fern began to celebrate referee Finney spotted a raised linesman’s flag: Fern had been adjudged to have pushed Pat Rice just prior to connecting with the cross. In a contest of few chances, Arsenal’s escape, one recognised even by Arsenal as a very close call, seemed to encourage Leicester rather than diminish them. However, as the Gunners upped their game Geordie Armstrong jinked and skipped down the left, and forced a corner beneath the clock which now showed 45 minutes were up. Arsenal’s wee talisman took the corner himself and his flashing cross was met squarely by Charlie George running in and leaping at the near post to reduce Graham Cross and Peter Shilton to bystanders and crash the ball powerfully in to the unguarded net. George wheeled away with that familiar raised two arm air pump as a euphoric Highbury-high soared upwards from the crammed stands and away into the dark and chilly Islington night.
The second half was as equally absorbing and against his old club, skipper McLintock was necessarily at his supreme best in a match never comfortable right up to the final whistle. Arsenal prevailed 1-0, while City were recognised by Mee and Howe as gallant losers who would weeks later prove their worth by claiming the second division championship. Of course the Gunners would have another Midlands’ side to overcome in the semi-finals, Stoke City, before defeating Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley in the Final to complete the club’s first ‘double’.
In January ’73 the two teams met again in the third round. After previously eking out one goal over 180 minutes of cup football last time they met, this encounter would quickly burst into life with Frank Worthington turning it home for the visitors. A rasping drive from Ray Kennedy and a late equaliser from Armstrong (how many games did that little maestro influence?) evened things up at 2-2 and it was back to the East Midlands for a replay which turned out to be a game when the epithet ‘lucky Arsenal’ was perhaps never more appropriate! City had had an up and down season, but Bloomfield’s team played in a manner befitting the one time classy, Arsenal inside-forward who turned out for the Gunners over 200 times: they played bright, enterprising football with an edge of creativity and intelligence given them by players like Keith Weller, Lenny Glover, and indeed Worthington who on their day were a match for anyone. The following season City would get to the cup semi-finals only to be undone by Liverpool in a replay at Villa Park – a team suited to the hit or miss nature of cup football would on a bleak and raw January evening take the game to their illustrious visitors. Arsenal’s cup record too under Mee was exceptional; five cup finals in five years; the resilience, the fight and spirit, and the ‘goal out of nothing’ capability of Charlie George all added up to the archetypal cup team: no wonder these matches with Leicester became such engrossing contests that nearly 50 years on they still resonate in the memory with a freshness at odds with their age: a billboard advertisement for all that the modern game has perhaps lost along the way?
On Wednesday 17th January the Gunners ran out beneath the floodlights as the sound of the Post horn gallop faded into the Leicester night. A crowd of 32,000 had been drawn to this the latest instalment of the Arsenal/Leicester cup saga. The Gunners were at full strength; with Blockley in for McLintock who by now had fallen foul of Mee courtesy of his ‘little Hitler’ comment upon being dropped for the Birmingham game just prior to Christmas. McLintock’s frequent absences had become a rather soul destroying aspect of the 1972/73 season, depriving the team of its heartbeat and drive; and thus presenting poor Blockley with the most poisoned of poisoned chalices, replacing McLintock was a task always beyond the honest stopper who would in time make his home at Filbert Street becoming club captain under, ironically, the stewardship of McLintock later in the decade.
Ask any City fan of this era about the infamous Arsenal cup ties and you would hear pretty much the same assessment each time: it was always the same: Leicester, they say, murdered us, would hit the bar, the post, have them cleared off the line, then Arsenal would nick it against the run of play with a late goal which was usually offside: well that just about describes the game at Filbert Street. After City had peppered the Arsenal goal, with just an effort from Farrington to show for their enterprise and shots and headers pinging of the woodwork and a hasty goal line clearance with Wilson beaten; a goal from Radford and a late one from Eddie Kelly stole the victory from under our hosts’ noses. The only game I can liken it to would be the win at Forest in the fifth round in 1979 when, with Rice, O’Leary, Walford, and Nelson run ragged for 89 minutes of what felt like wave after wave of Forest pressure Stapleton won it with a pin-point header late on. There remains something magical about winning away in the cup after being hammered; good cup teams do it all the time, and at the time Arsenal were about the best in the business! Ultimately the Gunners weren’t able to build on the victory at Filbert Street, for second division Sunderland would undo us in the semi-finals at Hillsborough, the scene of poor Blockley’s ‘mishap’ – the under hit back-pass for which he was really never forgiven, and thus Arsenal missed out on the first ever Wembley hat-trick, though achieved that record, of course, in 1980.
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