Winter of discontent
Arsenal’s ’69 woe against Swindon
WE’VE all had days when we wished we’d stayed under the duvet. For me, the winter of 1968/69 represented four months’ worth of such days.
A dose of dysentery, somehow contracted while living in clean, comfortable Islington – which resulted in near quarantine, and the removal and destruction of my library and school books – was followed within a few weeks by an unfortunate tumble at home and a broken arm. Thirteen really did seem to be shaping up as an unlucky age.
There was, however, a chink of light amid all the gloom; Arsenal were through to the League Cup Final again.
After a number of barren years, they had reached the final of the same competition the previous year, only to lose a poor, bad-tempered game to Leeds United.
But Bertie Mee, the former physiotherapist at the club, who had taken over as the Gunners’ manag- er in 1966, was in the early stages of building a team which would win the famed double of league and FA Cup two years later with a number of the players who featured in the League Cup finals of ’68 and ’69.
Progress to the final in 1969 had been some- what schizophrenic, with close wins over Sunderland and Liverpool interspersed with thrashings of Scunthorpe and Blackpool. The two-legged semi-final saw us paired with dearly beloved neighbours Tottenham. Both matches, played in front of terrace-swaying full-houses, were incredibly close, with the Gunners securing a place at Wembley courtesy of a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, following a single goal victory at Highbury.
Despite my poor personal record of luck in the preceding months, my confidence for the final knew no bounds; for the first time in my years on the planet Arsenal were going to win a trophy. Our opponents were to be Swin-
don Town, from the old Third Division. What could possibly go wrong?
Town’s route to the final had been considerably longer than the Gunners, and far more physically draining.
A relatively straightforward win over Torquay United in the first round had been followed by a 4-3 replay success over Bradford City and a narrow 1-0 third round win over a Blackburn Rovers side from a division higher.
In the following round, they were drawn away to Coventry City from the top division. After earning a draw at Highfield Road, they walloped them 3-0 in the replay.
The fifth round saw arguably their toughest assignment to date, again away, this time to Brian Clough’s Derby County, a team who that season would storm to the Second Division title. A bruising goalless draw at the Baseball Ground was followed by a narrow, single goal success in the replay.
In the semi-final, they came up against Burnley, still a First Division side, but no longer the force they’d been at the beginning of the decade. The two legs of the semi-final couldn’t separate the teams, so for the fourth time in their cup run Swindon were forced to play the extra game, eventually prevailing 3-2.
Had I been more knowledgeable in the ways of cup football, less desperate for a reversal of my own misfortunes, and more endowed with the cynicism that only age can bring, I would have been more concerned about the battling nature of Swindon’s cup performances, and had considerably less confidence in an Arsenal defence that at that stage pivoted on Ian Ure, and an attack built around Bobby Gould.
Ure, a tall, fair-haired Scot in the classic stopper mode, was no doubt the man to have beside you in the trenches, provided you could put up with the occasional gaffe – such as shooting one of your own men.
The nomadic Gould – who would manage Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang to FA Cup success almost twenty years later – was all hustle-and-bustle, and would soon be taking his personal roadshow to yet another league club.
The morning of the match was grey and damp, which was a slight improvement on the persistent rain of the previous days. Wembley, even then, just three years after English football’s greatest moment, had the air of an elderly, slightly smelly, down-at-heel relative.
The pitch was atrocious, having had no chance whatsoever to recover from the combined battering of the inclement March weather and the far-sighted decision to stage the Horse of the Year Show on it the week before, and resembled the Thames Estuary when the tide has receded.
“Bugger me!” said my uncle as we emerged onto the terraces and saw the morass of sand and mud which constituted a playing surface. With these words I felt the first cloud go scudding across my inner sun of optimism.
The second cloud, a distinctly grey one, made its appearance after 36 minutes of the match.
The aforementioned reliably unreliable Ure attempted a backpass to goalie Bob Wilson, never a good idea on such a pitch, especially when you don’t grant yourself the luxury of looking first.
Christmas had come nine months early for
Swindon’s Roger Smart; the Wiltshire club were ahead. I departed for the toilets, ensuring that the plaster cast on my arm, with its bold prediction ‘Arsenal 3 Swindon 0’, was well covered.
For the next 50 minutes, up until the 85th of normal time, the Gunners encountered one of the phenomena of cup football – the goalkeeper who plays out of his skin. Peter Downsborough, the Swindon custodian, probably never had another day like it in his whole life.
With around five minutes left we started to prepare our excuses – and we came up with a few
We blamed the outbreak of flu which had recently struck Arsenal; we blamed the Wembley authorities for the condition of the pitch, conveniently overlooking the fact that both teams had to play on it; and we blamed Ian Ure for being Ian Ure.
And then, with only four minutes remaining, we were saved. An error of judgement by the previously assured Downsborough allowed Bobby Gould to bravely head the ball into the net for the equaliser, taking a blow to his chest as he did so.
In an instant our perceptions changed. The hand-wringing stopped. Now there was no doubt that we would go on to win. Swindon would be patronisingly admired for being so plucky, while being firmly put in their place.
Suddenly our excuses had become adversities which had been marvellously overcome. The flu, the pitch, and even Ian Ure; Arsenal would win. regardless of all these.
Fate, however, had one final application of the physio’s icy sponge still to come. Extratime was a disaster.
Swindon’s Don Rogers, a skilful, dribbling forward who somehow performed wonders on the quagmire of a pitch, scored in each period; firstly stabbing home to put them back in front, and then, when Ure gave the ball away as we pushed forward, running from the halfway line to round Wilson and slot home their third and final goal.
Our despair was intensified by the optimism of only a few minutes before. Masochistically, we stayed to watch the cup being presented to Swindon skipper Stan Harland – probably the last time a major piece of English football’s silverware has been handed to a victor bearing that first name – but realistically we were buying time, still trying to convince ourselves about those excuses.
Within a couple of years it would be claimed that from the setback of this defeat Arsenal forged the spirit that would lead to the brief glory days of the early ’70s.
That may well have been the case, but for me, following illness and injury, it simply represented the final act of that winter, a real winter of discontent.
Roger Smart puts Swindon ahead
Don Rogers scores
Roger Smart celebrates his goal