Win­ter of dis­con­tent

Arse­nal’s ’69 woe against Swin­don

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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