As Bad Things As Things Got: Arsenal, May 1980

by | Jun 6, 2020

It’s different with Arsenal, of course. Which year to choose for a club with more than 100 years unbroken in the top flight? How bad can things get? Do you go all the way back to the 1912/13 season, their penultimate under the ‘Woolwich’ name, when they were relegated for the only time in their history, from the First Division? Or perhaps to the 1924/25 season, when finishing in 20th place in the First Division was only one above the relegation spots? Those of a certain age may remember 1965/66, when Highbury crowds dipped below an average of 30,000 in front of a soporific team which finished in 14th place, just four points above relegation. One season, however, stands out more than any other.

Terry Neill’s arrival at Arsenal in the summer of 1976, coming as it did directly from Tottenham Hotspur, caused a stir. Bertie Mee had only managed to get the team to 17th place in the First Division at the end of the 1975/76, their lowest final league position in more than half century, though only one place lower than the previous year. Mee was much loved at Highbury. He’d delivered the club a wholly unexpected league and cup double in 1971. That success, however, was not built upon and as the decade wore on it became increasingly evident that the club was becoming rudderless. Key players such as Bob Wilson, Ray Kennedy, Charlie George and captain Frank McLintock left and were not adequately replaced.

So Mee resigned to make way for a fresher face, and Neill, who’d played much of the 1960s for Arsenal, made the short journey from White Hart Lane, where he’d placed Bill Nicholson as the Spurs manager two years earlier. Someone so readily associated with Arsenal becoming the Spurs manager was odd. A Spurs manager packing up and crossing London was odd, all the more so for the fact that Neill was no battle-hardened managerial veteran. When he was appointed in July of that year, he was still only 34 years old.

By the end of the decade, though, Arsenal supporters had cause to be optimistic for the future. League form had improved, with the team finishing as high as fifth in 1978 and in the same year reached their first FA Cup final since 1971, although they lost this match, 1-0 to Ipswich Town. The team had been remolded, but not in the increasingly ostentatious manner in which other clubs were starting to go about their business. Goalkeeper Pat Jennings followed Neill from White Hart Lane in 1977 for a bargain £45,000 because Spurs believed him to be past his best. Injury did for Malcolm McDonald. The one time that the club did spend significantly was on Brian Talbot, who transferred for £450,000 from Ipswich Town in January 1979.

At the end of the 1978/79 season Arsenal tailed off slightly in the league, failing to win any of their last five games of the season to finish 7th in the First Division. This, however, was more than compensated for by winning the FA Cup against Manchester United in the one of the most entertaining finals seen for years. Regular European football had returned – this was their second season in a row, after having been beaten by Red Star Belgrade in the previous year’s UEFA Cup.

Elsewhere, 1979 was a febrile year in the British transfer market. In January, West Bromwich Albion paid Middlesbrough a UK record £516,000 to take David Mills to The Hawthorns. A month later, Nottingham Forest paid £1m to take Trevor Francis from Birmingham City. Three months later he scored the winning goal for them in the European Cup final. This hyper-inflation continued into the start of the 1979/80 season. In September, Manchester City paid £1.45m for Steve Daley from Wolves. Just days later, Wolves broke that record by £19,000 to sign Andy Gray from Aston Villa.

Having blown almost half a million pounds on Brian Talbot in January, Arsenal largely sat the summer market out. They had a settled team. One of the very best goalkeepers in the Football League in Pat Jennings, a tough defence of David O’Leary, Willie Young, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson, one of Europe’s most quietly creative players, Liam Brady, in midfield, with Talbot. Alan Sunderland and Frank Stapleton were in attack.

First up was return to Wembley to play the defending league champions Liverpool in the Charity Shield. Liverpool’s First Division title had been won with a record-breaking 68 points, and they’d conceded just sixteen goals  in the process. Arsenal were completely outplayed. With three-quarters of the game gone Liverpool were 3-0 up, thanks to two goals from Terry McDermott and one from Kenny Dalglish. An Alan Sunderland consolation with two minutes left didn’t paper over the gap between the two teams.

They didn’t start particularly strongly in the league. After a 4-0 win at Brighton & Hove Albion on the opening day of the season, Brighton’s first ever match as a First Division club, Arsenal became erratic and unable to kill games off. They won just two of their next eleven matches in the league, but also only lost three, and of the six draws they ran up, five were goalless. Their form started to pick up towards the end of September, really kicking on from the end of October. Arsenal only lost one league game in fourteen between the start of October and Boxing Day.

By Christmas, their involvement in the League Cup was over. In their two-legged Second Round match, they held Leeds United, whose star had slowly been waning since the departure of Don Revie five years earlier, to a 1-1 draw at Elland Road before demolishing them 7-0 in the second leg. The Third Round brought more First Division opposition, this time in the form of Southampton, and the Fourth brought a goalless draw at Brighton followed by a 4-0 win in the replay at Highbury.

There may have been cheering in the dressing room when the Arsenal team finally found out that they would be playing lower division opposition in the Fifth Round of the League Cup. That enthusiasm may have died down a little when they found out who it was that they were playing, though. Eleven years earlier, Swindon Town had caused one of the greatest cup final upsets of all-time in coming from the Third Division to the League Cup final, and beating Arsenal 3-1 after extra-time on a famously churned up Wembley pitch to claim the trophy.

There were 38,000 people at Highbury for this League Cup match, including 7,000 from Swindon. Arsenal took the lead with a disputed penalty in the eighth minute, converted by Alan Sunderland following a foul on Frank Stapleton. Swindon, however, didn’t buckle, and with six minutes left to play substitute Billy Tucker, a defender who’d only been on the pitch for ten minutes, headed in an Alan Mayes corner to force a replay in Wiltshire. Another replay, with the team still in the European Cup Winners Cup, the FA Cup still to come, and a 42 match league season to complete.

Swindon’s explosive start in this match owed a huge amount to luck. After ten minutes, Steve Walford headed past his own goalkeeper, and ten minutes later an Alan Mayes shot was deflected past Pat Jennings off Walford, again. With an hour played, Liam Brady pulled Arsenal back in the game, only for Chris Kamara – yes, him – to reopen the two-goal lead back up with a header deflected past Jennings by John Hollins.

This goal, however, was an isolated outburst for Swindon. Brady was running the game, and with just under twenty minutes left to play he pulled a second Arsenal goal back, and with six minutes to play he crossed for Brian Talbot to head in and force extra-time. Another thirty minutes, then, and with four of them left Andy Rowland stabbed the ball in from close range to win the game for Swindon. It was Arsenal’s seventh game in the competition that season.

Europe was kinder, with just four matches in the Cup Winners cup against Fenerbahce and East Germany’s Magdeburg by November, and then a four month wait until March for the quarter-finals. In the new year, however, came the beginning of their involvement in another cup competition, and in an era before penalty shootouts were used to decide matches the FA Cup an Arsenal team that seemed to be stumbling through a failure to kill games off was always likely to add to its growing fixture burden as the months wore on.

In the Third Round of the competition they were drawn away to Cardiff City of the Second Division, and came away with another goalless draw, this time winning the replay at Highbury by two goals to one. The Fourth Round brought a home match against Brighton & Hove Albion, their fifth match against them of the season. This time, a 2-1 win saw them through – Arsenal won four and drew the other one of these five matches. The Fifth Round brought fellow First Division opposition, this time in the form of bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers. Another draw and another unnecessary replay, then, this time won by three goals to nil. The quarter-finals brought another tough trip, to the upwardly mobile Second Division side Watford, where they won 2-1 thanks to two goals from Frank Stapleton.

There was a five week gap between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals of the FA Cup, but Arsenal’s schedule remained relentless. League form had continued to be good. Following a home defeat by Leeds United on the second Saturday in January they remained unbeaten for their next eight league matches, winning six and drawing two. But it had been a cold winter – they only played four league matches between the 19th January and the 1st March – and with European competition starting back up after a four month gap it was starting to become clear that the end of the season was going to be congested.

The quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup brought another comfortable win, 5-1 at home against Gothenburg followed by a goalless draw in Sweden, but the semi-finals were a different matter altogether, against Juventus. In the first leg at Highbury, an early goal from Antonio Cabrini gave Juventus the lead, before an own goal from Roberto Bettega with six minutes to play forced a draw for the second leg in Turin.

There is something curious about the fact that Arsenal’s semi-final second leg doesn’t seem to be mentioned particularly often when the club’s greatest matches are discussed. But it should be. Juve had been rocked a couple of weeks earlier when Italy’s Guardia di Finanza (the governmental finance department) confirmed the existence of the Totonero match-fixing scandal following a complaint of two shopkeepers from Rome, Alvaro Trinca and Massimo Cruciani, who had declared that some Italian football players had been taking bribes to throw matches. Juventus were not at the absolute centre of this story – Lazio, Milan and Napoli were the highest-profile clubs implicated in a scandal that shook Italian football to its foundations – but this was certainly a distraction for them at the time.

It was a tense night for the second leg at Stadio Comunale in Turin. Juventus had the away goal from the first leg, and the late equaliser in the first leg hadn’t dampened the feeling that this tie was Juve’s to lose by very much, particularly considering Arsenal’s well-documented struggles to kill games off. With two minutes left to play and the score still goalless, though, Graham Rix found just enough space on the left to cross to the far post and eighteen year old substitute Paul Vaessen, wearing the number thirteen shirt, headed in from close range to send Arsenal through to the final.

On top of all of this, between the two legs of this semi-final another one started that would become one of the most remarkable marathons in the history of the FA Cup. Liverpool were as imperious as ever in the league, but Bob Paisley’s team hadn’t yet won the double. They started as hot favourites for the semi-final against Arsenal at Hillsborough, but the match ended in a goalless draw. A replay was scheduled for the following Wednesday night at Villa Park, but this also ended in a draw after extra-time, 1-1 this time.

In an era before the penalty shootout was introduced to the FA Cup this meant another replay, again at Villa Park. This time around, a first minute Alan Sunderland goal gave Arsenal the lead, only for Kenny Dalglish to cancel it out in stoppage-time. After thirty minutes of extra-time this meant a third replay, this time played at Coventry City’s Highfield Road, where an early goal from Brian Talbot was enough to finally squeeze Arsenal through to a third successive FA Cup final, against Second Division West Ham United. Four days before the third replay, they travelled to Anfield for a 1-1 draw in the league, meaning that the two teams had played each other five time in just nineteen days between the 12th April and the 1st May.

Although hot favourites to win the FA Cup, Arsenal could also still qualify for the following season’s UEFA Cup if their league form continued to hold and two days after that third semi-final replay they were back at Highbury for a goalless home draw against Nottingham Forest. The team then finally had a short break of five days before making the short journey across North London for the Cup Final. It was the beginning of a period of nine days during which Arsenal would pack in the four matches that would define their season.

West Ham United may have been a Second Division club in 1980, but this was not going to be an easy afternoon for Arsenal. West Ham had previously won the FA Cup against Fulham in 1975, and their relegation in 1977 had been a little bit of a surprise. They still retained the services of players as distinguished as Trevor Brooking, Frank Lampard, Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart and Billy Bonds. And after thirteen minutes, a low header from Brooking gave West Ham a shock lead. It was, however, largely a poor game, mostly notable for a cynical foul by Arsenal’s Willie Young on West Ham’s Paul Allen, then the youngest player to play in an FA Cup final, as Allen ran through on goal. Arsenal couldn’t find a way through, and West Ham won the cup. 

There was little time for dwelling upon it. Five days later came another final, this time against Valencia in the European Cup Winners Cup final in Brussels. Again, Arsenal had cause to be optimistic. Valencia finished the 1980 Spanish league season in sixth place in the table. These were not the giants that a club might expect to meet in the final of a major European competition. Again, however, by now very familiar demons raised their head and Arsenal couldn’t find the goal they needed to seize control of the game. It was another poor game, another goalless draw after extra-time. On this occasion, though, there wouldn’t be the endless replays of the FA Cup. This time there would be a penalty shootout.

The shootout started in a similar vein to the previous 120 minutes of football, with a terrible penalty kick from 1978 World Cup winner Mario Kempes which was comfortably saved by Pat Jennings. Arsenal’s advantage, however, didn’t last terribly long. With the very next kick Liam Brady’s shot was palmed away by the Valencia goalkeeper Carlos Pereira. The next eight kicks were successfully converted, pushing the shootout into sudden death, and Ricardo Arias converted for Valencia. Next up for Arsenal was Graham Rix, but Rix’s shot was poor, Pereira saved again, and Valencia won the 1980 European Cup Winners Cup.

Another trophy may have slipped from their grasp, but Arsenal still had a lot to play for in their remaining matches of the league season and just two days after the Cup Winners Cup Final they were on the road again, this time to play Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league. A 2-1 win at Molineux kept at least their European ambitions for the following season just about on track. It meant that, with Ipswich Town a point above them and with a superior goal difference, they would need a win from their last game of the season, a trip to to Ayresome Park to play Middlesbrough, to secure a UEFA Cup place for the following season.

On Teesside, however, the previous 69 matches of an exhausting season finally caught up with them. Middlesbrough won 5-0, with David Armstrong scoring twice, David Hodgson and Craig Johnstone (both of whom would soon be playing for Liverpool) scoring one each, and Dave Shearer the other. The result meant that Arsenal finished the league season in fourth place in the First Division. With fifth placed Nottingham Forest qualifying for the following year’s European Cup as holders after winning it again at the end of May and sixth placed Wolves having qualified for the UEFA Cup as winners of the League Cup, they were the only team in the top six not to qualify for Europe.

It’s a record that still stands. No team has played a 70 match season before or since in England, though some have approached it, and certainly none have had such a schedule, come so close, and ended their season with nothing. Arsenal played 70 games throughout the course of the 1979/80, starting it with defeat at Wembley in the Charity Shield in August 1979, and reached two cup finals. To end this marathon with nothing, and without having even qualified for Europe for the following season, must have been incredibly galling for everybody at the club.

The cause of all of this seems clear. Despite finishing in fourth place in the league, they only scored 52 goals in 42 matches. The defence was almost as good as any other in the league – only champions Liverpool and runners-up Manchester United conceded fewer – but problems in front of goal cost them dear. Arsenal drew sixteen games throughout the league season, ten of them at home. Eight of these draws were goalless and seven finished 1-1. In cup competitions, they drew a total of ten matches, of which six were goalless and three finished 1-1. Alan Sunderland finished the season as top goalscorer with 29, but only 14 of these came in the league.

European football would return to Highbury for the 1981/82 season, but Arsenal after three FA Cup finals in a row they wouldn’t reach another cup final of any sort until the 1987 League Cup final. By this time Terry Neill had left Highbury. He was sacked by the club on the 16th December 1983 and retired from football altogether at just 41 years of age to be replaced by Don Howe, who would start laying the foundations upon which the 1989 First Division championship winning team would be built.

It’s not that the Arsenal team of 1979/80 was a bad team. Far from it. They finished in fourth place in the First Division and reached two cup finals. Disappointment, though, is relative. The years following the 1971 double win had been lean for Arsenal, and winning the FA Cup in 1979 may have led some to the belief that the new decade would be an opportunity to clear the decks and begin to challenge a dominant Liverpool team. Serious thoughts of that were probably waning with twenty minutes to go in the Charity Shield  and, despite having one Europe’s most creative midfielders of the time in form of Liam Brady, Terry Neill just couldn’t quite make it happen for Arsenal. It would take another returning hero, George Graham, to return happier times to Highbury.