28 August 1971: Arsenal 0 Stoke City 1: the double winners defeated three times in opening games.

There was a feeling that Arsenal had grown into the Double.  Two League Cup final defeats, the Fairs Cup win, and then the Double.  It was a progression, and I think there were many fans who really thought this rise and rise would be inexorable.

As we know, it wasn’t, and in a very real sense the sign that things would not be the same came as early as 8 July 1971 when Don Howe left Arsenal to manage WBA.  The move was not a success and WBA was relegated in 1973.   Don moved on to Leeds and to Galatasaray, before coming back to Arsenal in 1977 as coach with Terry Neil as manager.  But his loss as the footballing assistant to Bertie Mee was keenly felt.

Then on 22 July Jon Sammels was sold to Leicester for £100,000, after becoming a victim of the “boo-boys” in the crowd.  He had played 215 league games including 13 games in the Double season and went on to play 241 for Leicester, leaving them for Canada in 1977.  There is not question that he would have got a lot of games in 1971/2 had he stayed, but he would have been a valuable reserve.  But that element in the crowd that Arsenal have suffered from even since Chapman, was out in force and it was Sammels they went for.  If he had to go because of that, so be it, but a good replacement was needed.

Two days later the friendlies began and they included…

31 July 1971: Benfica 2 Arsenal 0.   This was designated the “Champions Challenge Match,” celebrating with each club’s victory in their respective leagues.   Again we see Marinello in the starting XI, and there were thoughts that maybe he had turned the corner.

4 August 1971:  The return of the Champions Challenge Match ended Arsenal 6 Benfica 2.  44,244 turned up to celebrate Arsenal as double winners.  Storey, Roberts, Graham 2, Armstrong, and Radford were the scorers.  Unfortunately the ref then reported Benfica for the behaviour of the entire team after he was attacked by several Benfica players.

7 August 1971.  Feyenoord 1 Arsenal 0  (63,000).  This was Charity Shield day, and Arsenal had of course won the double in 1970-71 but did not take part in the 1971 Charity Shield match having organised a pre-season trip to the Netherlands long before the end of the season.  I guess the excuse was that it was so long since Arsenal had played a Charity Shield game (1953 to be precise) that no one even wrote it in their diaries.   With Feyenoord threatening to sue if Arsenal didn’t show, and with no profit to the club from playing in the Charity Shield, the 1971 FA Cup Final runners up Liverpool and second division winners Leicester City were invited to take part instead.

 14 August 1971: And so the season began, and it got off to a cracking start with an opening match of Arsenal 3 Chelsea 0.  49,174 turned up and McLintock, Kennedy and Radford scored.

On August 17 there was more good news withHuddersfield 0 Arsenal 1.  The  attendance was a paltry 21,279.

But then came disaster in the oddest possible circumstances on August 20 withManchester Utd 3 Arsenal 1, in front of just 27,649.

The game was played at Anfield with Man United banned from playing their first two home matches anywhere at all within Greater Manchester, after their fans had thrown objects, believed to be knives into the away section at a match at the end of 1970/71 season.  Anfield and Stoke’s ground were selected as the replacement locations.

The front page of the Guardian announced with ill-concealed excitement and mock horror that “About 100 fans” were thrown out of Anfield, and that “the windows of some houses in Anfield were smashed and “600 skinheads” were said to have been “kept in check” by police.

Liverpool were instructed by the FA to pay Arsenal compensation for lost revenue. 

So Arsenal had an early defeat but in odd circumstances, and for match 4 on August 24 it was an even greater shock with Arsenal 0 Sheffield United 1 in front of 45,395.   

With a second home game just four days later Arsenal needed to pick themselves up, but instead August 28 gave us Arsenal 0 Stoke City 1 in front of 37,637.

After Ritchie scored in the 19th minute Stoke looked for all the world as if they had done what they wanted and would now just see out the rest of the game – which is what they did.  Where the Arsenal forwards had previously looked capable of finding some kind of way through, now they looked uncertain when facing the packed defence.  It was as if everything that had worked last season, no longer worked this season.

There really was only one explanation: after the games against Man U and Sheffield U, Arsenal had started to lose belief in their own invincibility.

By the end of the month the season was not looking promising, not least because the teams Arsenal had beaten made up two of the bottom three.

1Sheffield United65101125.5011
2Derby County62401061.678
3Manchester United63211281.508
3Stoke City6321961.508
6Wolverhampton Wndrs6231871.147
7West Bromwich Albion5221541.256
9Ipswich Town6141331.006
9Leeds United5221441.006
11Manchester City52121152.205
12West Ham United6213541.255
13Tottenham Hotspur5131780.885
15Coventry City61326110.555
17Nottingham Forest6123690.674
18Newcastle United5122350.604
19Leicester City51137110.643
21Crystal Palace61144100.403
22Huddersfield Town60245120.422

Doubts were expressed about not having brought in a player or two to boost the team, and doubts about Mee’s tactics which had looked so right for three years, but suddenly didn’t seem to be all there.