On 17 January 1976 the score was Leicester City 2 Arsenal 1 and “Boring Arsenal” was a theme within the press, whose reporters suggested the fans thought relegation a distinct possibility. The away support for the Gunners was only 300 in number. The Mirror said, “you need masochistic tendencies to enjoy Arsenal these days.”
So why pick such a dismal time in Arsenal’s past as our feature for 17 January in this column?
I suppose for myself it is to maintain a sense of perspective. Having watched the Arsenal win the Double in 1971, I also watched their extraordinarily rapid decline thereafter under Bertie Mee and so I remember what a poor Arsenal side is really like.
Which I guess is why I supported Arsenal through the era in which Arsene Wenger was endlessly criticised for merely winning a record number of FA Cups while keeping Arsenal in the top four. The go-to comment of the time was “fourth is not a trophy” to which I always wanted to add, “no it isn’t, but it is certainly preferable to 16th and 17th which is where we ended up just four and five years after the first glorious Double.
In December 1976 Arsenal had won two out of six games, scoring just two goals in the process, and ended the year in 17th
There was some thought that maybe there might be relief against a relegation threatened Wolverhampton in the third round of the FA Cup – for although the game was away from home there was the fact that the club had only won four games all season, and scored only 24 goals in the 24 games they had played.
But even against such opposition in a trophy that Arsenal had done so well in just a few years before, the club could not raise itself and on 3 January 1976 the score to depress the depressed supporters even more was Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Arsenal 0, with 22,215 in the ground. As the old timers said, it felt like 1958 all over again.
Bobby Campbell put the result down to Wolverhampton having all the luck, but the truth was that for 70 minutes Arsenal only had one shot on target. Wolverhampton played with Alan Sunderland at right back, and the home team and its manager were barracked by their own fans throughout. Arsenal must have wondered what the local fans did when the side were playing badly.
There was of course a chance to recover in the league, but the following weekend’s result of Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 0 with just 24,501 at Highbury gave little hope. (Those who in pre-pandemic days complained that not every seat was taken at the Emirates, might care to remember these days: fans don’t turn up to see a declining team.)
Alan Ball suggested in public that the club ought to give the supporters their entrance money back not least because Villa adopted the increasingly popular approach of playing at Highbury with the entire team behind the ball. As a result everyone seemed to accept that this was going to be a 0-0 after about 15 minutes, and simply gave up. Mee, never the master tactician, clearly did not have alternative strategies that he could pass on to the players, so 10 behind the ball it was.
Ron Saunders admitted his team’s anti-football stance, saying that a 0-0 draw was a good result for Villa . Bertie Mee pointed out that Arsenal had four teenagers in the team – but the feeling was that aside from O’Leary none of them were really good enough; even Brady was having an off day. Besides, if Mee was using that as an excuse, it was a fairly lame one, since it was up to him to buy or bring through players, and he was the one who had spoken at length of the need to cut the squad. He had, after all, been in post since 1966.
For the record Arsenal’s young team was
Rimmer, Rice, Nelson, Powling, O’Leary, Mancini, Armstrong, Ball, Stapleton, Kidd, Brady.
And so we come to 17 January with the result was Leicester City 2 Arsenal 1 with a crowd of just 21,331 in Filbert Street.
“Boring Arsenal” was starting to be a theme within the press, although some preferred “Dreary Arsenal”, while others suggested that the fans thought relegation a distinct possibility. Indeed the estimate for this game was that the away support for the Gunners was only 300 in number. It was the start of the ironic song suggesting “we will follow the Arsenal “overland and sea and Leicester”.
The Mirror said, “you need masochistic tendencies to enjoy Arsenal these days.” Yet Arsenal actually took the lead on 19 minutes hitting a 25 yard drive in off the post from Ross. Both Leicester’s goals came in the last three minutes. It was a disaster for Arsenal’s morale.
Arsenal had now lost to two of the clubs in the bottom section of the league and drawn their other match. All that was left was to play the division’s bottom club – who then, as this season already looked doomed: Sheffield United.
Arsenal did win that game (1-0) but the crowd sank even further; 14,477 was Arsenal’s lowest home crowd of the season, and it felt as if each of us were able to have a crash barrier to ourselves as Arsenal, who could have scored half a dozen, took 85 minutes to get their goal. In fact my memory of the game was of walking all around the North Bank during the course of the match, just because one could.
To be fair, visiting keeper Jim Brown decided to have one of his most magnificent performances and even when Arsenal did score, they relied on a spot of luck, as Brown failed to hold Kidd’s shot and the ball bounced to Brady who slipped it home. Until that moment Sheffield played with ten behind the ball (undoubtedly having watched a recording of Villa earlier in the month). United took this further playing “how many defenders can you get into the penalty area at once?” A tedious game, as Ball, Ross and Powling all conjured up attempts to find ways through.
In fact Sheffield left no weapon untried, as a result of which Mancini suffered concussion. When he arose and carried on we could see the stud marks and blood down his face, and it was reported that he retained vision in only one eye for the rest of the game. Medical precautions? Who needs them!
Arsenal were now 18th, just two places above relegation.