Today of all days

Arsenal’s history one day at a time

This series takes a look at what was happening to Arsenal and in the world around them on this day at one point in Arsenal’s past.

26 January 1895

Arsenal: the first ever League club to have its ground closed because of crowd behaviour

26 January 1895: Woolwich Arsenal were ordered to close their ground for the rest of the season because of their inability to control the crowd. But why Arsenal? And when in 1895?

One thing we know is that the Manor Ground became the home to “betting gangs” – groups who hung out at the games and who were universally condemned by the press, and indeed the club.   Gambling was very highly controlled in England at the time, and indeed when Sir Henry Norris became an MP after the war and had a chance to introduce a private members bill the bill he chose was one intended to reduce gambling in relation to football.

Mind you, newspaper reports also show that drunkenness was a reason for arrests, and these arrests caused further problems for it was not unknown for supporters to try and rescue one of their number who might be arrested by the police. Respect for the police in London was not the same as it is now.

The key “problem” was verbal abuse.  Physical violence was very rare, but verbal abuse was becoming increasingly common.  On the three times that Woolwich Arsenal was reported to the FA, twice was for verbal abuse, and only one for any form of physical assault.

And of course, always on the look out to attack people who were unlikely to buy their newspapers, the press did indeed get very worked up about foul language from “weedy uneducated hooligans.”

The original sentence proposed against Arsenal in response to the crowd troubles, was that their ground would have been closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, the “compromise” of a mere 6 weeks suspension was eventually agreed upon by the FA.

However an almost identical episode of ref bashing at Wolverhampton Wanderers later the same year, in October 1895 led to their ground being closed for only two weeks. At least one non-local reporter put the disparity in the harshness of the sentences from the FA, down to Arsenal’s role as the pre-eminent southern professional team. The northern based League had welcomed Arsenal into their club, but didn’t want them getting above themselves!

There were also some altercations with Tottenham, the most serious being when the Spurs goalkeeper (an ex-Woolwich Arsenal man) punched a fan who was subjecting him to “foul and insulting language” from behind the goal.

Most of the findings point to a predilection for verbally abusing anyone and everyone, including the home team when they played poorly. Unlike today, the majority of supporters worked on the Saturday morning and only had that afternoon and Sunday as time off work, and also had very little annual leave. So this leisure time was precious in a way that, over a hundred years later, is very hard to appreciate. Working class men were treated as second class citizens at work, and this was their chance to fight back.

Thus They paid their 6d (about 2p) and saw it as their entitlement to exercise their verbal volleys at whoever they wished. If it was a home player who was the subject of their displeasure it was generally because pre-WW1 the crowd had an intense feeling of belonging and bond to that the club as a representative of “their”town. If the player was letting down the whole area with their uselessness, the feeling was that the player should be informed in no uncertain terms.

25 January 1890

122 years ago today Arsenal won through to a cup final, which in turn led to the club’s first ever trophy: the Kent Junior Cup. “Junior” in this regard did not relate to the players’ ages but to the fact that the cup was intended for reserve teams.

The reserve team had been created for the season 1886-87, with them playing a total of three friendlies. And it should be remembered that at this time there were no leagues in the south of the country, so this was indeed the only option.

The reserves played their first competitive game against Upton Excelsior in the London Junior Cup; winning comfortably by 3-0. They played two more games in the competition beating Upton Ivanhoe 4-3 and losing 1-4 to Spartan Rovers. Details of the games however are scarce, and there is not even mention in reports as to which round of the competition the games were played in.

But 1889-90 saw the big expansion of the club, ahead of the decision in 1891 to become a professional side. In all the irst team was entered into the FA Cup, the London Senior Cup, the London Charity Cup and the Kent Senior Cup with the reserves in the Kent Junior Cup. The first team reached the finals of the three regional cup competitions but before they played in any of those games, the reserves reached the final of the Kent Junior Cup on 1st March 1890 beating en route, Dartford Working Men’s Club (7-1), Lewisham (9-1), Ordnance Store Corps (13-1) Cray Wanderers (score unknown) and Folkstone (2-1)

The final against was played on 1st March 1890 at Gravesend’s Bat and Ball ground. As the name suggests, it was originally built to play cricket on but during the winter football was played on it (I am sure the cricketers really appreciated that).  Interestingly Danskin played in goal, as he was too injured to play in the outfield.

Here’s the report from the local paper

These teams met on the Bat and Ball Ground, Gravesend, on Saturday in the above competition. Both clubs have a splendid record, the Excelsior lads having an unbeaten record up to Saturday last, while the Royals have beaten Dartford Working Men’s Club, Lewisham, Ordnance Store Corps, Cray Wanderers, and Folkestone in the above competition. Much interest was taken in the match by the partisans of both clubs so that a hard game was looked forward to.

TThe Excelsior winning the toss, Kime started the ball at 2.45, both teams striving their utmost to take the lead. The Woolwich players being much quicker on the ball were leading at the interval by one goal to none. After having much the best of the exchanges during the second 45, the Reds quickly settled what little hopes the Excelsior supporters had left, as after the change of ends the Royals, playing splendidly together, quickly registered five more goals, victory resting with the Royal Arsenal Reserves by six goals to nil Kime scoring three, Christmas, Charteris, and Rowland one each. Every man on the winning side played a splendid game, and it would be unfair to signal out any special player. The Excelsior played hard to avert defeat, but found their opponents much too strong for them.

    Teams: – Royal Arsenal Reserves: D. Danskin (goal), J. Gardener, J. Wilson (backs), A. Brown (captain), W. George, A. Walton (half-backs), A. Christmas, J. Rowland, J. Kime, J.M. Charteris, D. Gloak (forwards). Chatham Excelsior: Taylor (goal), Clark, Davis (backs), Wymhill, Pellath, Williams (half-backs), Williams, Jenner, Hartland, Tonbridge, Wells (forwards).

    The cup was brought to Woolwich by the winning team on Saturday evening, who received quite an ovation at the Arsenal station.

24 January 1998

1997/8 was Arsène Wenger’s first complete season at Arsenal, and as you might remember (if you are of a certain vintage) Mr Wenger set himself an impossibly high bar to measure up to thereafter by giving us a Double.   It was our first championship in seven years, the first league/cup double since 1970/1 (although George Graham got the country’s first ever cup double in between).  Only the League Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea stopped the dream of the domestic treble.  Europe was uninspiring, but no one seemed to mind.

And all this in the season when we let Paul Merson go to Middlesbrough for an offer of over £4m (considered to be huge at the time).  But the incomer – Manu Petit – most certainly caught the eye.  Gilles Grimandi wasn’t a huge star player, and he proved a superb he of scouting in France after he stopped playing.  .

And then there was Marc Overmars, who came in for £7m – which explained Merson’s leaving.  For what a stunning player he turned out to be – and what a profit maker too, when he eventually went (complete with an injury) to Barcelona for an insanely huge price.

Christopher Wreh also came in, and has since been the subject of considerable controversy – along with Boa More, Mendez and Manninger.  Indeed during the summer of 1997 it was hard to keep up.

As for the FA Cup, in the 3rd round it looked like Mr Wenger was going to fall into the sort of disaster area that beset previous managers facing lower league clubs – we drew at Highbury with Port Vale.   We drew the replay too, but did manage to go through on penalties. Not an auspicious start given that not only were Port Vale a second tier club (known as Division 1 in those days) but that they missed relegation at the end of the season by just one point.

So we come to 24 January 1998: ten years to the day after we suffered our eighth consecutive league game without a win.  We played Middlesbrough of Division 1, heading for promotion – they ended up second that season.  It was away, and was where Marc Overmars scored in just about a minute, and Ray Parlour scored the second.  Inevitably Paul Merson scored against us.

A goalless draw at home to Crystal Palace took us to a replay in the fifth round but we won with a less than full strength team.

Then in the 6th round we went behind to West Ham, London’s 3rd team at the time, just behind Chelsea, but some way ahead of London’s Premier League also rans – Tottenham (who only just avoided relegation by four points) and Wimbledon, who gained the same number of points as Tottenham.  Wimbledon and Tottenham matching each other eh?  Who would have thought it!

But for Arsenal Dennis B. scored a penalty, to give us our third replay in four cup games.  This was getting a habit – and for those of us paying, an expensive ticket.

Worse (at least for the nerves) it was another draw in the replay and another penalty shoot out.

This was also the time when (amazingly as it now seems looking back) a few of us thought Chris Wreh was a real prospect.  And I do remember in the build-up to the semi final against Wolverhampton Wanderers thinking for the first time that we could actually do the double here – and that was before Wreh scored.

So to the final on 16 May 1998.   There was no Bergkamp, and I think we all assumed that the forward line would be Wright and Anelka, or maybe it was just me.  But it wasn’t… it was Wright on the bench – something that became an issue when he didn’t even get on at the end for his medal.

I remember it as a lopsided affair in which Newcastle didn’t really look a serious threat – in fact I am sure I remember after talk of them not even showing up – especially after Marc Overmars scored on 23 mins, putting the ball between the keeper’s legs.   Was there no end to what Wenger could give to us?  We were going to do the double!

Nic Anelka got the second and Wreh looked ok – which is worth noting given his subsequent history.   But everyone raved over Marc Overmars, quite rightly. Except Ian Wright.

  • 3 January 1998: Arsenal 0 Port Vale 0; 3rd round
  • 14 January 1998: Port Vale 1 Arsenal 1; replay Arsenal win 4-3 on pens
  • 24 January 1998: Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 2; 4th round
  • 15 February 1998: Arsenal 0 Crystal Palace 0; 5th round
  • 25 February 1998: Crystal Palace 1 Arsenal 2; replay
  • 8 March 1998: Arsenal 1 West Ham 1; 6th round
  • 17 March 1998: West Ham 1 Arsenal 1; replay, Arsenal win 4-3 on pens
  • 5 April 1998: Wolverhampton 0 Arsenal 1; semi-final at Aston Villa
  • 16 May 1998: Arsenal 2 Newcastle U 0; Final.

A second double in Mr Wenger’s first full season.  Well I never!

23 January 2013

Arsenal 5 West Ham United 1. 

What is supporting a football team about, apart from watching the match?  It is about being with your mates, having fun, sharing experiences.  And just occasionally watching a game that is so enjoyable that you just can’t forget it.

Like the game on this day in 2013 in which Arsenal had 24 goal attempts and Podolski, Giroud (2) Cazorla and Walcott got the goals.

It was one of those “When we are good, we are really good,” moments.  We ended the game against West Ham with 69% of the possession, and 24 goal attempts, with 10 on target.  For 12  minutes we were unbeatable.   Any suggestion of anything else was a mere trick of the floodlights.

As for West Ham’s opening goal – it felt like we had to give them something just to make the game interesting.  At the start the match previewer on the Untold Arsenal blog said it would be a 3-1 win and that opening goal made it seem possible. 

But the game left many questions unanswered.  Like how could Sam (the one with the nickname that relates to his size, he who is now of WBA) put out a team like this?  Yes WHU did some defending in depth, but nothing like the revolting “park the team bus” and “kick the hell out of them” which had led me some years earlier on my blog to describe the tactics as “rotational fouling” and “rotational time wasting”.  Yes they still did high balls and industrial challenges in the nature of the Mr Allerdyce’s favoured tactic, but there were odd bits of footballing adventurousness there too, which was strange to behold.

West Ham tried to play, and really the only sadness in the match was the problems at the away supporters end in the second half.  Of course I could only see from my vantage point at the opposite end of the stadium, so maybe it was Arsenal stewards fighting amongst each other.  Maybe it was nothing. Who knows.

Back with the football, Santi Cazorla’s back flick goal, which crawled over the line at about the speed of a tortoise who has drunk too much meths, was a wonder.   And the promise of Podolski was there for all to see.  He did assists, set ups, and perfect passes and then went through the routine again – whilst getting the equaliser with a rasping shot.  A “Good Man” was the general assessment in the crowd.

So what else happened?

At each match during the season at this time I would always go and order a burger.  Not that I wanted one – I can’t stand them in fact.  But I did it just to prove that they are not available so I could write it up in my blog.  Try ordering a burger 10 minutes before kick off, anywhere in the upper north and the answer was always either a straight no, or you will have to wait 10 minutes. Not much good when one is at a football match in order to… watch the football.

Now since advertising a product you know is not for sale is against Trading Standards regs, Delaware North the purveyors of stuff at the time were, in my view, being naughty.  I told them so, and reporting it, game after game, seemed slightly amusing at the time. It all seems a bit silly now, but I was younger then…

I also used to ask for a cappuccino at half time.  This time, two of the three coffee machines in the area behind my seat had their front doors hanging off.  Only a couple of the people serving knew how to use them – the result was chaos as men with cups and no liquid bumped into men who had got liquid into their cups.  The doors on the front of the machines were slammed shut and sprung open, knocking cups that may or may not have had some form of drinkable solution within them.   That’s how it goes. Watching them helped pass the time, especially when we were losing. Remember Laurel and Hardy?

In fact irrespective of the football the service of food and drink at Arsenal at the time was chaotic, and looking back at my blog it seems we all commented on it quite a lot, so the victory on this day over West Ham was doubly welcome.

But on this day, most thoughts of food and drink it seems were forgotten. Theo moved into the middle at the end, and went off to count the £9.92 he earns a minute – even when he is asleep.  I think I would sleep better if I knew I was earning £9.92 a minute while sleeping. I wouldn’t spend it on Delaware North products either.

And I see in my blog for the day I made a point for the ref.  Very early on Vaz Te kicked the ball away after the whistle had blown.  The ref did nothing.  Later he got booked (at the end of the first half) for repeating the trick.   If the ref had seen the first one, he might have sent the player off – which is not what I want, but kicking the ball away is really a very silly little game to play.  But maybe the ref thought the first kick away was a knee jerk reaction.

22 January 1910

Without the events of 100 years ago today, there would be no Arsenal

22 January 1910 is a date that should be remembered by every Arsenal supporter, and yet somehow it is just another day.  I doubt that many other web sites will remember this day, and certainly none of the media will note it, and indeed even Arsenal FC seem to have forgotten it.

But this was the day, when Woolwich Arsenal FC held two meetings, either side of their home match with Middlesbrough.   The first was a shareholders’ meeting and the second was a public meeting – both being held in the Town Hall.

The purpose of the meetings was the same in each case… to announce to all and sundry that Woolwich Arsenal had run out of money, and that the man who had been financing them for years – George Leavey – could carry on the good work no longer.   He was not a mega-wealthy man, but did own a chain of gentleman’s outfitters, so his funding potential was not unlimited and he felt he had reached the limit. 

The club’s shareholders had been aware for some time that Arsenal was in serious trouble – which was why the 1909/10 season was going so poorly with Arsenal in the relegation zone.  The order had gone out one year before: clear out the playing staff, get any transfer fees you can, and bring in players for free on lower salaries.

But by 22 January 1910 it was clear that this was not enough.   The club had significant debts, including salaries and (although this was not made public at the time) debts payable to Archie Leitch who had designed the grandstand at the ground years before.

So why was the day so important?

The answer is that it was the reporting of these two meetings that led to a general awareness that the club was teetering on the edge of extinction. And this reporting also aroused the interest of one man, who turned out to be the club’s saviour.

And by the Monday following the two Saturday meetings Henry Norris, the owner of Division 2 Fulham (Division 2) was expressing an interest in helping to save London’s original league club.

Norris was a man who had left school at 14, and built up a huge property empire in Fulham  but had never lost his love of football. Indeed he was a director of Fulham FC.

He regularly wrote columns in several newspapers to put his point of view across and after just one term as a councillor in the Borough of Fulham he had become the Mayor of the Borough.  Indeed he went on to become the longest serving mayor in the history of London. 

On the Monday after the announcement of Woolwich Arsenal’s impending demise Norris used his column to write about “London’s oldest professional club” and the sadness it would cause all Londoners if this club went out of business.

Whether in fact he knew where his opening article about Woolwich Arsenal FC would lead is anyone’s guess, but from the moment of his comments he was drawn into the Arsenal saga, and did eventually take the club over in the summer of 1910.

Throughout the process of rescuing Arsenal, Henry Norris acted carefully and with aplomb, exploring every avenue, and taking note of supporters’ views as much as those owed money by the club.

From the off there was talk about moving Woolwich Arsenal out of Plumstead, but respecting the supporters’ wishes Norris gave the committee that ran the club the assurance that if he were involved, he would leave the club in Plumstead until every avenue for rescuing the club and keeping it in the area had been explored.

Indeed although he only promised at first to keep the club south of the river for one year, he quickly extended the promise to two years, and ultimately continued to support Arsenal in Plumstead for three years until he announced the move to Highbury.

What’s more, with Arsenal having run out of money, it was Henry Norris who personally supplied the funds to move grounds, guaranteed the lease on the land in Highbury, and guaranteed the bank loans for the building of the stadium.

His aim throughout was for the club to become financially self-supporting, and this is exactly what he achieved.

A fictionalised account of the year in which Henry Norris took over Arsenal, through the eyes of a young Fleet Street journalist and Woolwich Arsenal supporter is published in the novel “Making the Arsenal”

You can read more about, and order a copy of the book “Making the Arsenal” by clicking here.

21 January 1893

The end of Royal Arsenal in the FA Cup

In the early days of the FA Cup when there were only two divisions in the Football League, the amateur teams would play in a set of four or more qualifying rounds and then the League teams would join in, in the first round (the equivalent of the third round today).

Thus on 10 December 1892 Royal Arsenal beat Clapton at home 5-0 in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup.   It was the fourth time Arsenal had been in the FA Cup and the first time Arsenal had won through the qualifying rounds to reach the first round.

That is not to say that Arsenal had not been in the first round proper before because for the previous two seasons Royal Arsenal had been excused qualification.  It all seems a bit erratic – a bit like the FA today in fact.

The record runs like this:

1889/90 Arsenal played in the qualifying rounds and lost in the fourth qualifying round 1-5 at home to Swifts.

1890/91.  Despite the size of the defeat upon their exit last season Arsenal were given a bye and moved straight into the first round, where they were beaten 1-2 at home by Derby

1891/92.  Although the result in the first round was poor thus far (two defeats in two games) Arsenal were again given a bye and this time were beaten 1-5 away by Small Heath in the first round.

1892/3.  Playing in the cup for the last time Royal Arsenal were put back into the qualifying rounds.  The draw gave them every game at home, and the results were

  • 14 October Beat Highland Light Infantry 3-0
  • 29 October Beat City Ramblers 10-1
  • 19 November beat Millwall Athletic 3-2
  • 10 December beat Clapton 5-0

As a result the club moved back into the First Round but on 21 January 1893 Arsenal once again lost in the first round – this time 0-6 away to Sunderland.

There is one interesting moment in the club’s qualification in 1892/3 and that was the match against City Ramblers.  Arthur Elliot  played in this game and he along with  James Henderson and Charles Booth each got three goals – the only time ever that three players all got hatricks in one game.

To give a bit of context to the time, this cup run in the qualifying round in 1892 came after the club had earlier in the year attempted to start up the Southern League.  Indeed in February of that year the following teams were elected by their peers to be part of the new Southern League:

Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton Town, Marlow, Millwall Athletic, Old St Marks, Reading, Royal Arsenal, Swindon Town and West Herts.

Although the league did not get off the ground a second tier of teams was formed as the Southern Alliance (effectively a second division):

Chesham, City Ramblers, Criterion, Erith, Old St Stephens, St Albans, Tottenham Hotspur, Upton Park, Uxbridge, Westminster, Wolverton and Woodville.

So we can start to see a few familiar names appearing.  But to return for a moment to City Ramblers, they must have got used to big defeats as Southampton St Mary’s beat City Ramblers 13-0 in a friendly in 1895/6.

After getting through the qualifying rounds in 1893 Arsenal had to play in them again in the following season, and on October 14 1893 had their record win of 12-0 against Ashford United.  Arsenal played for the last time in the qualifiers in 1903 where after two replays Arsenal beat Bristol Rovers 1-0 at Tottenham to go through.

But here’s a twist: between 1889/90 and 1893/4 Arsenal played 12 matches in the qualifying rounds, winning 11 and losing one.  10 of these games were at home, and only two away.   Of course it might be just a quirk of the balls coming out of the hat, but I wonder if there was anything done to give Arsenal the home games, perhaps because of the quality of the ground, or the expected size of the crowd.  Arsenal did not get drawn away in the first match they played in the competition in any season in the qualifying rounds until 1900/1 when they were drawn away to Darwen.

20 January 2001: Leicester 0 Arsenal 0.

The time is up for Wenger, Henry, Bergkamp, Ljunberg, and Parlour

On 23 December 2000 Arsenal lost 4-0 to Liverpool, the Arsenal team including Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Dixon, Keown, Parlour, Ljungberg… The media called it a “thrashing” with some editors undoubtedly getting excited with memories of their own public school experiences.

Indeed, December 2000 had proven to be a difficult month all round for Arsenal with just two wins in the last six, and a sequence of just five goals in five games.

And of course the press couldn’t let go of the tale that Arsenal had not won at Anfield in eight years and hadn’t even scored in their last three visits to Anfield, and after this game (making it no goals in four visits) the press crowed over the “wonderful” Steven Gerrard, “the game’s outstanding performer” (the BBC).

Arsenal on the other hand were said to have travel sickness and a complete inability to score goals.  The attacking players (Henry, Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Parlour) just were not up to the job and needed to be moved on if Arsenal were ever to make a serious challenge for the title.

As a result of the game Arsenal retained their second place above Leicester on goal difference but were eight points behind Man Utd.

Worse, this result made it three defeats two wins and two draws in last seven, and there was considerable talk of Arsenal slipping down the league especially looking at the next fixtures.

In fact, on Boxing Day Arsenal had to play third placed Leicester City.  The media predicted another Arsenal defeat.   Arsenal won 6-1.

But we still were not back on track.  New Year’s Day saw an unusual defeat to Charlton.  In fact the new year started as the old year had finished, and by 20 January with a goalless draw against Leicester, that made three draws and one defeat in the last four league games.

The league table on this day showed Arsenal in third, with Liverpool and Ipswich only one point behind them.  A top four finish was said to be unlikely, especially as on 25 February came another disaster: a 6-1 defeat to Man U, emphasising the fact that there were now 16 points between Man U and Arsenal.  Arsenal’s days with this Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira team were numbered. Or so we were told.

In fact Arsenal did recover enough to finish the league second, ten behind Man U, making it a hat trick of coming second.

Of course had this been 2014, the 6-1 defeat to Man U, and the 4-0 to Liverpool, not to mention a 1-3 home defeat to Middlesbrough, would have had sixty or so Arsenal “fans” up in arms demanding that Wenger should go, with the full support of the press.

Thankfully for the moment at least the board took no notice. I say fortunately because the following season Arsenal won the Double.

It would have been a shame to miss it.

19 January 1991

It is sometimes forgotten that before the Unbeaten Season, there was the Almost Unbeaten Season of 1990/91.  And on 19 January 1991 we had league match 23, the last match of the run before the one defeat of the season in the next game.  This match ended Arsenal 1 Everton 0.  Merson scored.

Of course with talk of “unbeaten” generally referring to league matches, we don’t take into account the one defeat Arsenal had suffered before this match, on 28 November the game ended Arsenal 2 Manchester United 6 in the League Cup.

After  the match on 19 January Arsenal played Leeds United home and away in the FA Cup, both games ending in draws, 0-0 at Highbury, 1-1 at Elland Road, but after those two battles, the game three days later at Stamford Bridge was a step to far, and Arsenal lost away 2-1 to Chelsea.  A mere 29,024 turned up to see the game.

Arsenal were however still top of the league, one point above Liverpool, and three points ahead of third placed Crystal Palace.  The media’s view was that Arsenal’s bubble would now burst.

 In fact the four games between 27 January and 13 February 1991 were the low point of the season – the defeat to Chelsea and three FA Cup draws all told with Leeds, before Arsenal finally beat Leeds 2-1 to continue on to the relentless league match and FA Cup games against Shrewsbury Town (we won 0-1) and the mighty Cambridge United (2-1 to the Arsenal)

In fact the final defeat was in the FA Cup to, of all people, Tottenham Hostpur 3-1. But by then there were just five games to go to see out the title.  We won three and drew the other two.

But there was one other twist.  The game at which Arsenal were certain of the title (following a failure to win by Liverpool earlier in the evening) was at home against Manchester United, who graciously clapped Arsenal onto the pitch in the traditional manner.  No argy bargy this time.

Which was ironic because Arsenal had been deducted two points and Manchester United one point for unruly behaviour in a match between the two on 11 December 1990.  It was seen as a deliberate attempt to stop Arsenal winning the title, and so the entire return match against Manchester United, with Arsenal already having won the title, was accompanied by seemingly the vast majority of fans singing a song which reflected upon where the Football League could place the two points that it had stolen from Arsenal.

Even more amusingly, the game was filmed live on ITV, and watching a recording of it later, wherein it is quite clear what the crowd is singing, the commentator was reduced to saying, “And the Arsenal crowd are singing “We are the champions”.”   As if we ever would.

18 January 2015

On 1 January 2015 Arsenal were sixth in the League, 13 points behind the league leaders, and there were, what was by then, the regular demands for the sacking of the manager, not least for the fact that we were behind Tottenham, and “clearly” not even going to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Worse we then lost 2-0 to Southampton in that game on New Years’ Day, and although this was followed by the defeat of Hull in the FA Cup, that hardly gave much reassurance.  Even the 3-0 home win over the team who were by now as much of an enemy as Tottenham (Stoke City) at least in terms of their playing style, did not reassure everyone that Arsenal were on the way back up.

Especially as the next game, on 18 January was against Manchester City. Away.

It was however a match which stunned critics of Arsenal, not just for Arsenal’s victory (Giroud and Cazorla scored) but the style of play in which Arsenal conceded possession to Man C for much of the game.  Having lost to Southampton on New Year’s Day this was now Arsenal’s third win in a row without conceding.  It also turned out to be part of a run of eight wins in nine games and just three defeats in the last 26 games of the season.

Even the normally anti-Arsenal media found it impossible to knock Arsenal’s achievement in this game, This was City’s first defeat in 15 matches in all competitions since CSKA Moskva’s win at the Etihad Stadium on 5 November 2014 and was Arsenal’s first win at the home of the Premier League’s reigning champions since a 1-0 win at Manchester United on 8 May 2002.

That game of course was also important since it was part of the run which meant Arsenal became the first top flight team to go through a season without losing an away game since Preston North End in 1889.  It was also the case that the last time Arsenal won at the defending champions by more than a single goal margin was on 26 May 1989 when Thomas’ last minute goal at Liverpool won the title just as the commentator was saying what plucky losers Arsenal were.

And to cap it all the referee was Mike Dean!

So what did Arsenal do and how do they do it?

In fact what Mr Wenger did was change the team’s style of play, setting the side up to defend, often with all 11 players back behind the ball defending in depth with a work rate that could not be criticised, and a previously unseen 4-1-4-1 formation which left Giroud on his own up front and Francis Coquelin lying in between the back four and a midfield four of Alexis, Cazorla, Ramsey and the Ox.

But there was more, for Arsenal averaged only 35% possession, and it was hilarious to hear the TV commentators proclaim how Arsenal were going to get hammered “if they don’t manage to keep hold of the ball.”  In fact Opta later said that it was Arsenal’s lowest possession rate since 2003, when they started keeping records.

Meanwhile Monreal and Bellerin held their positions at the back and refused to get drawn forward – which was clearly the opposite of what the Manchester City players had been told to expect.  If one did go forward, another player held back to make sure the back line was intact.

It meant Arsenal were never caught with too many men forward, and you could tell that was definitely part of their game-plan because of what happened when they did get carried away.

For when Monreal did forget himself and got involved in an attack, Francis Coquelin gave him a reminder in no uncertain terms of what the game plan was.  And Coquelin was entitled to lay down the law, for he made more clearances and more interceptions than anyone else on the pitch.

Equally outstanding was Santi Cazorla, who was hailed by the media for being both creative and fearless.

But what really made the game so memorable was the way the media had built it up, seeing Arsenal as a soft touch and Wenger as a one dimensional manager.

The run that followed was one of 16 wins in 19, another top four finish, and to cap it all, our most emphatic FA Cup final win of all time – 4-0 against Aston Villa.   It didn’t all come from this day, but I am certain it made the team believe they could play this way, and win.

17 January 1976

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.