Towards the end of Mr Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, and indeed since, in the days when we were allowed to attend football matches, there were a lot of complaints from one particular supporters group about the number of empty seats at Arsenal for matches. The club, it was said, should do much more to make sure every seat is occupied.
Personally I never saw many empty seats in the part of the stadium where I sit, but I was reminded of the time (3 February 1979 to be exact) when we beat Man U away 2-0 and the home fans showed what they thought of it all by holding a mass walkout after Sunderland scored his brace on 62 and 63 minutes.
The following week, on 9 February the ever escalating cost of players was back in the headlines as it was announced that Trevor Francis had become Britain’s first £1 million footballer when he is transferred from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest, doubling the earlier British record fee set when West Bromwich Albion signed David Mills the month before.
Excitement in football, and good times for Arsenal, you may be thinking, but on the day after that transfer we all came back to earth as Arsenal played out a goalless draw on 10 February at Highbury with Middlesbrough. Only 28,371 turned up.
The fact that crowds could sink that low (Highbury did not become all seater until 1991), reminds us that Arsenal has no natural right to expect and demand 60,000 for each game. Supporters come, supporters go.
For this match however maybe the stay-at-home fans were right as Middlesbrough took the eleven man defensive plan to a new level of boredom. John Neal, Borough’s manager, professed himself pleased, but it was quite clear why Boro’s own home crowds were so small. No one in his or her right mind would watch this week after week when it is quite possible to lie on a bed of nails or walk barefoot across burning coals instead.
Brady was man-marked throughout and Arsenal failed to score at home for the first time this season. But the most worrying thing was that other clubs would now copy this approach to stop the Irishman.
But it was another match without defeat (a fact the media singularly failed to mention) and indeed on 13 February the record was extended further with the result Queen’s Park Rangers 1 Arsenal 2 in front of 21,125. That made it just one defeat in 16 and this was Terry Neill’s best run during his time at the club as manager.
And the time traveller going back to these games would have another shock having become used to the perfect pitch at the Emirates Stadium. After the snow covered hard grounds, this was a pitch that was mud, and quite clearly unfit for football. But second half goals by Brady and Price carried Arsenal up to fourth in the league so in the end Arsenal’s complaints were tempered. That made it one defeat in 15 – even with Brady reduced to trying to find the occasional piece of pitch where his boots would not get stuck – and the first time he did it almost resulted in a goal with Parkes just saving at the last.
Young brought down Bowles, Bowles threw the ball at Young’s head from a distance of about 10 inches. Both were booked. Arsenal changed to lifting every pass above the mud and on 59 minutes Young smashed the ball at the goal, it bounced back to Price who scored from 15 yards. Brady added the second and the mud was beaten.
And as a result, amazingly Arsenal were suddenly second, and by some careful ignoring of the number of games played by each side a little dreaming of a second double started to emerge.
No one mentioned the size of the crowds.