As their 2015/16 season collapses around their ears, there is at least some compensation for frustrated Arsenal fans: This is nothing compared to what happened in 1980. In a 70 game campaign, the Gunners pushed for victory on four fronts, reached the final hurdle in two and ended up with nothing at all. And they didn’t even qualify for the European football that this generation take for granted the following year. Now that, right there, is a collapse.
Instead, the glory was shared between Liverpool, who won their fourth title in five years, Nottingham Forest, who retained the European Cup, second division West Ham, who won the FA Cup, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, who won what is to date their last major trophy, the League Cup.
Away from the glory, this was perhaps the first season that offered a clue of what was to eventually happen to English football. After Trevor Francis’ £1m move to Nottingham Forest the year previous, the transfer market’s floodgates burst open.
Ray Wilkins left Chelsea to team up with the man for whom he first signed a professional deal at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United boss Dave Sexton. The fee was £825,000, the second highest ever paid in British football. But not for long. In September, Manchester City smashed the transfer record to pieces, slapping down £1.437m for Wolves’ Steve Daley. City chairman Peter Swales was adamant that he hadn’t overpaid. “He will make us a better team,” he told The Times, “and I expect him to be in the England team before long.”
Daley never did for England and the following February, he suffered the indignity of being dropped from the City first team. A year and a half after signing, he was sold to the Seattle Sounders for just £300,000. Worse still, he only got to call himself the most expensive British player for three days. On September 8, Wolves spent his transfer fee, and a little more, on Aston Villa’s Andy Gray. But Gray’s season did have a happy ending. He scored the winner for Wolves in the League Cup Final against Nottingham Forest.
There are other significant changes to English football too. In July 1979, Liverpool announced something called a…*does quote fingers*…shirt sponsorship deal with Hitachi, thought to be worth £50,000 a season. The FA let it pass, but only on condition that the shirts are never worn during televised games. Liverpool chairman John Smith explained the rationale thus. “The days have gone when clubs like ours can control their destiny in the financial sense by relying on the money that comes through the turnstiles. We are all desperate for money and we have got to explore any new ways of finding it.”
But not everyone was so desperate for money. Offered a move to Luton that would have earned him the not-inconsiderable payment of £15,000, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris opted to stay put at Stamford Bridge “There are some things that money can’t buy,” said Harris. “I have spent 19 years with Chelsea, the good times and the bad. There isn’t a price on that.” He did eventually leave at the end of the season, taking on a player-coaching role at Brentford, but not before making another 38 league appearances for the Blues.
It is a time of very odd ideas. Everyone is freaking out about the spending and there seems to be nobody in a position of authority with any sense of perspective. In August, Football League secretary Alan Hardaker tells the Sunday People that the game faces serious challenges in the next two years and, “if we don’t sit down and talk soon, the whole of Europe will play part-time like in Scandinavia.” He then went on to rail against the evils of Sunday football and shirt advertising. Later that year his counterpart at the Football Association, Ted Croker, said that the system of meritocratic promotion between divisions two and three was the real issue and suggested limiting promotion to those sides with the best facilities. That doesn’t go down at all well. Nor does West Bromwich Albion’s manager Ron Atkinson’s call for English players abroad to be banned from the England team in order to stop the export of the division’s finest players. But it is entirely possible that this firebrand idea gets into the head of at least one travelling Englishman.
When Lawrie McMenemy invites local reporters to a hotel in Hampshire to, “meet somebody who will play a big part in Southampton’s future,” there are actual audible gasps of amazement as 28 year old Kevin Keegan is introduced. Keegan, his contract with Hamburg due to expire at the end of the season, had been widely expected to join Juventus in Serie A, pending the removal of foreign player restrictions, and a team with the limited means of Southampton were certainly never considered contenders for his signature. But Keegan, it seemed, wasn’t motivated by money.
“I want to play for England in the World Cup,” he explained. “Southampton can’t match the sort of money that Juventus, Real Madrid or Barcelona would pay, but I know I will get enjoyment from playing for them.”
McMenemy is delighted with his purchase, describing it as, “the biggest thing ever for the club, bigger than winning the FA Cup because it proves that we are never satisfied. We are marching on.”
Speaking of marching on, former Leeds United manager Don Revie has a mixed result at the High Court as he succeeds in overturning a ten year ban from English football, but fails to impress the judge, who refers to him as, “deceitful, greedy and selfish.” Revie returns to the Middle East and the handsomely remunerated role for which he left England, but leaves his position there at the end of the season. He never does return to English football.
Any hope of George Best continuing at a serious level in England ended when Fulham finally relinquished his registration in November. Best had spent two years in the US, but Scottish side Hibernian were convinced they could get something out of the 33 year old. That optimism didn’t last long. Invited for refreshments with the French rugby team, Best drank them all under the table and had to be carried back to his hotel where a club doctor desperately tried to revive him in time for that day’s game. “They gave him enough shots to bring Shergar back from the grave,” said one team-mate years later, “but still George didn’t flinch.”
Best was sacked in February. “Hibs had no option but to get rid of me,” he admitted. “I’ve let everyone down so badly there can be no excuses, Now, I must get away in the hope that I can lick the problem of alcohol.”
Back on the pitch, Liverpool opened the season with an emphatic 3-1 victory over Arsenal in the Charity Shield, but made a strangely subdued start to their title defence. Just two of their first seven games were won and a 1-0 defeat to European champions Nottingham Forest left them ninth at the end of September. “It’s disappointing to lose,” said Phil Thompson, “but there is still a long way to go and we will keep our title.”
Forest started like a rocket, winning their first four games in a row and racing to the top of the table. But this was a strange season for the club and there was great uneasiness in the background. A new £2m stand was in construction (and would eventually cost approximately £4m) but Forest’s transfer dealings weren’t exactly prudent. Brian Clough paid £500,000 for Asa Hartford, only to sell him to Everton for £400,000 after just three games. When Tony Woodcock left for Cologne in a £650,000 move that tripled his salary, Clough spent £250,000 on 30 year old Stan Bowles and brought Charlie George in on loan. The moves did not work out.
Clough, in time honoured fashion, tried to intimidate Bowles. ‘You bloody cockneys are all the same,’ he told him once. “I’m not a cockney,” Bowles retorted. “I’m from fucking Manchester,”
“I was only there 11 months,” Bowles said later in one of the greatest football books in living memory. “I hated it. Clough must have had something for him to win all those trophies, but I certainly don’t know what it was…Charlie George came down on loan for a bit and he was the same as me. Cloughie had a go at him in the dressing room and he retaliated. Clough said, ‘When I tell you to play centre-forward, young man, I want you to play centre-forward.’ Charlie said, ‘Why don’t you fuck off, you northern cunt?”
Unsurprisingly, George’s loan period was not extended and the Arsenal legend ended his season in grisly fashion when he lost a finger doing that thing you should never, ever do when your lawnmower jams. Yes...that thing.
But the friction wasn’t limited to the new boys. According to what is genuinely one of the best football books, after the first European Cup win in 1979, Clough had angered the players by immediately demanding their medals so that replicas could be made for the staff. Fearing that they themselves would end up with a replica medal instead of the genuine article, several players refused. Larry Lloyd showered with his around his neck, just in case, while Archie Gemmill threw his medal across the floor in a rage. Hartford was glad to get away so quickly, later describing the players as being terrified of their manager. The directors weren’t too comfortable with Clough either.
In October, Clough opened up a broadside on his paymasters, daring them to sack him. “If they want to shake hands and part company, they can do so with pleasure,” he said. “I would walk out of Forest if they pay me every penny they owe me on my contract.” Clough defended the chairman Stuart Dryden and said that he was outnumbered by the other directors. “The game attracts a certain percentage of people who are nobodies in their own walk of life and want to become somebodies in football.” Awkwardly, Dryden was later sentenced to six months in prison for swindling the post office. Clough apologised for his remarks soon afterwards, but it certainly didn’t help the atmosphere around the club. Any hope of a title challenge was scuppered by a subsequent run of one win in eight games that finally ended on Boxing Day with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa.
Not that it mattered where it counted, of course. Forest would retain their European Cup in Madrid in May, a feat attained since only by AC Milan in 1990. In these halcyon days when only the holders and the champions were invited and every round was an unseeded knock-out, the European Cup was a high tension, high risk competition, at least compared to the circle-jerking procession of wealth that it is now.
Both Liverpool and AC Milan were eliminated in the first round and when Forest later shrugged off a 1-0 home defeat to turn Dynamo Berlin over 3-1 in the second leg, they found themselves in the final four with Ajax, Real Madrid and Hamburg. The Dutch side were beaten 2-1 on aggregate, setting Forest up for a meeting with Keegan’s Hamburg in the final.
Preparation was typically preposterous. Club historian Don Wright wryly notes Clough and Taylor’s decision to take the players to Majorca for a training-free break. Unsettled by that, John McGovern defied orders and ran three miles every day. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton, desperate to practise, found the only patch of grass in town in the middle of a roundabout and took Jimmy Gordon there, literally laying down jumpers for goalposts and hurling himself around as the residents of Calla Millor drove around them in bemusement. Forest won, thanks to a John Robertson goal, and Clough’s methods were vindicated, but it was never this good again. They were knocked out in the first round of the competition the next season and didn’t finish higher than third in the league for the rest of Clough’s tenure. Two League Cups were all that was left for his career trophy haul.
Forest knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup that season, ruining Bob Paisley’s chances of a treble. Manchester United did their best to pile on the pressure in the league, but slipped up in March in a period that was difficult on and off the pitch. In January 1980, chairman Louis Edwards was investigated by the Granada TV show ‘World in Action’ and accused of all sorts of impropriety, including inducing young players to sign for the club with a secret cash fund and selling condemned meat to school children. Facing further investigations from both the police and the FA, Edwards died of a heart attack the following month. A week later, United were beaten 6-0 by Ipswich and it would have been worse, had it not been for goalkeeper Gary Bailey saving two penalties. Two goalless draws followed and even a run of eight wins from their last ten games wasn’t enough to reel in Liverpool. The Reds went top on December 8, 1979 and they stayed there until the season’s end.
Paisley might have been the first Liverpool manager to win the double, but his team were defeated in an epic semi-final with Arsenal. When the two sides drew 0-0 at Hillsborough, they were sent to Villa Park for a replay. That game ended 1-1, even after extra-time and so, 12 days later, they met again in Birmingham. In this, their third meeting, Arsenal looked to have won, but a last minute equaliser from Kenny Dalglish sent the tie to a fourth replay, hosted by the good people of Coventry. If this seems ludicrous, you should know that the FA did try to shorten the procedure by offering an easy way out. But both clubs refused. “We would rather play next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday than resort to penalty kicks,” said Arsenal’s chairman Denis Hill-Wood. Apropos of nothing, when Brian Talbot finally ended the lunacy with the winning goal, over £600,000 in gate receipts had been generated for the two clubs.
Fortunately, the FA did get their own way in one department. Always on top of the issues that matter most, they banned players from swapping their shirts on the field after the final. And you’d think, after all that, that Arsenal would make sure they won it, wouldn’t you? Alas, no. Overwhelming favourites against second division West Ham, they were vanquished by something that future generations were brought up to believe was the rarest of all elements; a Trevor Brooking header. He didn’t score many with his head, you know.
Four days after this humiliation, they were beaten in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup too. Manager Terry Neill tried to put a brave face on things. They still had everything to play for in the league where third place meant UEFA Cup football. But guess what? They lost their final game of the season, 4-0 away at Middlesborough and finished, yes, in fourth.
Oh, Arsenal. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps the 1980’s would offer the Gunners more success…
Is that really the case? Are Arsenal ‘the team of the eighties’? Will anyone stop Liverpool from winning stuff? And is there anything in the distant past that might cheer up Aston Villa supporters? Find out next week when we travel to the 1980/81 season.