Bertie Mee was not, as some might have it, a Proper Football Man. He had played professionally, albeit for a very brief period before injury ended his career, but he was a physiotherapist by trade and you suspect that he was as surprised as anyone when he was named Arsenal manager in 1966. Of course, in Proper Football Man terms, you couldn’t be more authentic than the chap Mee replaced, former England captain and 105 cap hero Billy Wright. But despite staunch support from chairman Denis Hill-Wood, it just didn’t work out for Wright, who was never able to muster the same authority from the dug-out as he had as a player. This did not prove to be an issue for Mee. He was strong willed, self-assured and smart enough to cover his weaknesses with shrewd recruitment in the coaching department. And in 1971, he became only the second man that century to lead a team to the double.
Mee, as you’ll know if you joined us last week, had already achieved his first objective as Arsenal boss in 1970 by ending a 17 year trophy drought with the capture of the Fairs Cup. He picked the team and he managed the players with a firm hand, but knowing that he wasn’t the most astute tactician, he had Dave Sexton and then Don Howe to handle the more intricate, hands-on stuff. But while that European success might reasonably have been expected to serve as a springboard for the future, there was little to suggest that he was about to do anything like this. If anyone was going to emerge from the capital, it was supposed to be Chelsea, but they finished sixth and had to settle for the European Cup Winners Cup. Arsenal had finished 12th in 1969/70 and were not considered to be serious challengers for Everton’s title.
Everton, however, were quick to make clear that they weren’t serious in defending it. They opened with a 2-2 draw at home to Mee’s Arsenal and picked up just two points from their next five games. According to Rob Sawyer’s excellent biography of manager Harry Catterick, which you really should read, it was all the fault of the Football Association for having the temerity to pick four title-winning players in the 1970 World Cup squad.
Everton’s promotions manager at the time, David Exall said, “It felt to (Harry) as if the FA was trying to strip Everton of players and bring down their level of achievement in the following season.”
Palpable nonsense, of course. There were four Leeds United players in the squad too and yet they opened the season with five straight wins. The FA were simply trying to win the World Cup. And yet Everton were distinctly flat all year. Catterick had said that summer that his team was still to reach its peak. In reality, they’d already crested it and were coming back down the other side. They would finish in 14th place, winning just one of their last ten games.
Leeds, so close to the treble the season before, were the real favourites. Eager to make up for the disappointment of the previous season, they roared into action from the first day of the campaign. Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, West Ham and Burnley were all taken down before a draw against, yes, Mee’s Arsenal, ended their 100% record. But they continued to attract critics for their robust style of play. In September, a clash between Allan Clarke and Southampton’s Jimmy Gabriel ended with both men flat on their backs. Gabriel was shown a red card as he was carried off on a stretcher.
“Leeds exaggerate incidents,” he raged afterwards. “I have no respect for them except Bremner. It’s my first sending off and, of course, it had to be against Leeds. I had been hit in the jaw and kicked in the back just before the sending off.”
Meanwhile Arsenal had made precisely the sort of start that was expected of them. They’d won a couple, they’d drawn a few, they’d lost one. They were at the right end of mid-table, but while the 6-2 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion might have suggested something was brewing, a 0-5 drubbing at the hands of Stoke City a week later brought a profound “Oh, Arsenal,” vibe to North London. Mee’s side were good, Ray Kennedy was developing into a fine player and George “Stroller” Graham was starting to rattle in the goals, but there was nothing particularly notable about them. They were said to be functional rather than flamboyant. Coach Howe later revealed that these reports only fired up the players even more.
“Sometimes the boys have been really steaming after reading the press reports,” Howe told the Times that season. “Every team needs motivation and this was ours.”
But a number of players, Charlie George and Frank McLintock in particular, felt little connection with Mee’s authoritative management. Geoffrey Green wrote that he had, “something of the doctor about him, smoothly charming at one moment but able to raise a professional wall against intruders. Perhaps he is ahead of his time in football.”
Or perhaps he just wasn’t a Proper Football Man. Not that the players didn’t respect him. Quite the contrary after a brutal night in Rome.
After their bad-tempered clash in the Fairs Cup, Lazio hosted a banquet for the players that ended in a mass brawl on the pavement outside. Journalists Norman Giller and Jeff Powell had left early to walk off some of the hospitality and arrived back at their hotel after midnight at the same time as the Arsenal bus. Off came the players, battered, bloodied and brimming with stories of the battle. And where had ‘Gentleman’ Bertie Mee been while all this had happened? He’d been in the centre of all, swinging punches gallantly. They liked him for that.
But no, it was Leeds who led the way for much of the season. They were beaten only once in their first 24 games (by Stoke, who seemed to revel in their ability to take down the big boys, plus ça change) and by March 31, Revie’s side were six point clear of the Gunners.
Where were the mighty Manchester United in all of this? The simple answer is that they were not in all of this. Not at all. Poor Wilf McGuinness had succeeded Sir Matt Busby in 1969 and yet ‘succeed’ seems such a wholly inappropriate word to use. He was just 31 years old and he never had a chance. United finished eighth in his first season as he struggled with a dressing room full of entirely unimpressed stars. Not that this stopped George Best from signing an eight year contract with the club on June 14, 1970. Perhaps he thought results might improve. He was wrong, the following campaign was even worse. United didn’t even score a goal in their first three games, much less win a game. Only three victories were forthcoming in their first 13 matches and they were knocked out of the League Cup semi-finals by third flight Aston Villa. On Boxing Day 1970, just two and a half years after conquering Europe, Manchester United were held to a 4-4 draw by Brian Clough’s Derby County and were left 18th in the table. McGuinness was relieved of his duties by Busby and demoted to reserve team trainer. Broken-hearted, his hair literally falling out of his head in clumps, he left the club for good two months later. United won 12 games from 19 under Busby’s temporary stewardship and rose back up the table to finish eighth again. This time, Busby had the right replacement lined up. A man of authority, a man of class, a genuine legend. Jock Stein. Meetings were had, agreements were made, but Stein had second thoughts and opted to stay with Celtic. Instead, United asked Leicester City manager Frank O’Farrell to take over for the 71/72 campaign. More on him next week.
Ten years on from their own double, Tottenham were a team in flux. Dave Mackay had left for Derby, Jimmy Greaves had moved to West Ham, a new generation of players were rising for the final flourish of Bill Nicholson’s career. Interestingly, when pushed for his favourite Spurs XI by The Times’ Geoffrey Green, Nicholson pointed out that none of his 1970/71 team would make it. “I can’t even see a place for (Martin) Peters,” he said. “Although the overall techniques of the game as a whole have improved, I feel football earlier was more enjoyable as a spectacle. It is now what we call ‘a numbers game.”
Spurs weren’t consistent enough to present a serious threat to Arsenal or Leeds, but they did enjoy a run to Wembley in the League Cup, beating West Bromwich Albion 5-0 along the way. All that stood between them and silverware was Aston Villa, relegated from the first division in 1967 and then the second division in 1970. Confidence was high. Possibly, in retrospect, too high. Aston Villa took the game to Spurs, startling them with their ambition. They hit the woodwork, they had one cleared off the line and then they faltered at the last. Martin Chivers popped up with a late brace to win the cup. Poor Villa didn’t win another game in the league for five weeks after that heartbreak and their promotion campaign collapsed.
Back in the title race, the decisive day came on April 17. Arsenal, with a Charlie George goal, beat Newcastle at Highbury, but Leeds, who had failed to win their previous two games, lost at home to West Bromwich Albion and in the most controversial of circumstances. They were already a goal down when Norman Hunter’s pass was intercepted by Tony Brown inside the Albion half with twenty minutes left to play. As surprised as anyone that Leeds had squandered possession, Baggies’ forward Colin Suggett was stranded offside as Brown surged forward and the linesman duly waved his flag. But referee Ray Tinkler wasn’t having any of it. He felt that Suggett wasn’t interfering with play. Leeds had stopped running. Everyone had stopped running. Brown himself had seen the flag and had slowed to a canter. But Tinkler urged him on. So on he went. Out came Gary Sprake and Brown slipped the ball out to Jeff Astle who smartly tucked it in. Astle was offside too, but the linesman was still back near the halfway line with his flag up. Leeds went mad and commentator Barry Davies felt that they had every right to go mad.
“Immediately there was turmoil,” wrote Tom German in The Times. “Angry fans, perhaps remembering how many times Leeds had been caught in West Bromwich Albion’s offside trap, headed for the referee. Police intercepted them and, as the last of the invaders was carried off still struggling, another handful of spectators jumped the rail to stage a brief sitdown in the West Bromwich penalty area. They were quickly persuaded to leave and then, as the match resumed after several minutes, the other linesman who was not connected with the incident, was hit by a missile slung from the crowd. He sank to his knees.”
Leeds were later fined and ordered to play their first four games of the following season away from home. Revie raged at potato farmer Tinkler afterwards and repeated his call for professional referees. He promised that Leeds would, “keep fighting to the last gasp,” and he was true to his word. They won their last three games. They won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. But it was too late to win the league. Arsenal had taken top spot on goal average. Three days later they beat Burnley, who would be relegated at the end of the season and moved two points clear. Leeds would actually beat Arsenal 1-0 on April 26, but it didn’t make much difference. On May 3, they travelled up the Seven Sisters Road to White Hart Lane knowing that a win or a goalless draw would secure the title.
Spurs did their best to ruin their neighbours’ big night with Pat Jennings making one extraordinary save, but there was nothing he could do to stop Ray Kennedy from heading home the winning goal in the 88th minute. At full time, Arsenal fans streamed onto the pitch. Not only had they won the title, but they had won it in the back yard of their bitter rivals. What are the odds on that ever happening again, eh?
The double was completed in bright sunshine at Wembley, against a miserly Liverpool side that had conceded only 24 goals all season and finished fifth. Naturally, it was goalless after 90 minutes and when Steve Heighway slipped the ball inside Bob Wilson’s near post in extra time, it seemed that Arsenal would join Newcastle (1905), Sunderland (1913) and Manchester United (1957) in the small society of clubs to have won the league and then messed up the double in the cup final. But Eddie Kelly scrambled an equaliser (George Graham claimed it) and there was renewed hope. Then Charlie George stepped up and blatted home the winner, celebrating by lying down and flashing ‘come to bed’ eyes.
George didn’t like Mee and blamed him for the break up of the double side, “before it had a chance to develop, mature and produce even more success,” but the underrated physio had done what no Arsenal manager could do before and no Arsenal manager would do again for 27 years. He had won the double.
So how much of it was down to him? Well, George said it was coach Don Howe who really deserved the credit.
“As a player, I know who influenced me most,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Don did his own thing to the satisfaction of the manager. And he did all of it in a way I understood and respected while Bertie hovered in the background, only occasionally to be seen at training in a tracksuit, which I thought made him look rather awkward.”
“It must be fair to say that Mee couldn’t have done it without Howe and Howe couldn’t have done it without Mee.”
But there would be no time to assess the partnership further. When chairman Denis Hill-Wood stood up to speak at the celebratory dinner afterwards, he gave a long speech, thanking Mee, thanking the players, thanking pretty much everybody except for Howe. And so, feeling entirely unappreciated, Howe left to manage West Bromwich Albion. Double winners Arsenal would win only one more trophy in the next 16 years.
1, Arsenal – 65 pts
2, Leeds United – 64 pts
3, Tottenham – 52 pts
4, Wolves – 52 pts
5, Liverpool – 51 pts
Runners-up: Aston Villa
EUROPEAN CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Runners-up: Real Madrid
INTER-CITIES FAIRS CUP
FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
Frank McLintock (Arsenal)
ROTHMANS GOLDEN BOOTS AWARD (GB TEAM OF THE YEAR)
GK: Gordon Banks (Stoke City)
RB: Chris Lawler (Liverpool)
LB: Terry Cooper (Leeds United)
CB: Frank McLintock (Arsenal)
CB: Bobby Moore (West Ham United)
MC: Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
MC: Martin Peters (West Ham)
WG: George Best (Manchester United)
WG: Francis Lee (Manchester City)
CF: Martin Chivers (Tottenham)
CF: Ron Davies (Southampton)
Who replaces Arsenal at the top? Surely Leeds won’t come second again? Will Manchester United come eighth for a third successive season? Are we ever going to talk about Liverpool? Join us next week for the 1971/72 season.