Allow me to paint a very personal picture of my earliest memories of watching the Arsenal. It was undoubtedly a liberating time for many born a few years before I appeared on the scene, but for one who ended the decade a twelve year old Arsenal supporter it was a strange decade indeed.
I am assured I was already a Highbury regular at the start of the decade, but fortunately I have no recollection of footballing events until I turned six in 1963. I was alive, but unaware of the success of the little club up the road in 1961, and their inability to recapture the title in my lifetime has been a recurring source of amusement.
Probably because it was unusual for me at the time my first memories of Arsenal and Highbury are of our second Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (forerunner of the UEFA Cup) home game with Royal Liege of Belgium on Wednesday 13th November. An evening match under lights, against continental opposition, and we had a raw young goalkeeper making an early appearance. Bob Wilson remains a personal favourite.
The 1-1 draw that evening set up our exit from the competition as five weeks later we lost the second leg in Belgium by three goals to one. It was that sort of season. Promising, but ultimately disappointing. The two lads up front, Joe Baker (my first love!) and Geoff Strong, shared 62 goals that season. Unfortunately we had the third most porous defence in the League and suffered fourteen defeats, which condemned us to an eighth place finish.
There followed another couple of seasons of frustration. A year and a day after that Liege game I vividly remember a moment in a 0-3 home defeat by West Ham. A desperate seven year old implored his idols to do better, crying out “We want Arsenal”. From a couple of rows behind came the response of a much older North London wit. “Well you can bleeding well ‘ave ‘em, son.”
We may not have been setting the football world alight, but I was too young to care. I still have wonderful visions of the players of that era, although clearly a number of them, particularly the defenders, couldn’t have been anywhere near as good as I would like to think. As I grew older some, notably goalkeeper Jim Furnell and centre-half Ian Ure dropped high-profile clangers and were shipped out.
The attack was actually as good as most, with pacy wingers like Johnny McLeod and Alan Skirton, the goal scoring prowess of Baker and Strong, and the creative genius of George Eastham.
In the summer of 1966 however the club decided it was time for change. Manager Billy Wright was at the time the holder of the record number of caps for England. He was a former captain of the magnificent Wolves side of the fifties, as well as his country. All who knew him called him a very nice man. Too nice in the end, it appeared.
His successor, the club physio Bertie Mee, inherited a wonderful set of young players from Wright. As my favourite players were shipped out the lads were promoted and shrewd experienced signings were added to make a new side that would enter the decade with two consecutive League Cup Final defeats, but destined to take the early seventies by storm.
It didn’t take long for the young ‘holic to grow very attached to Peter Storey, Peter Simpson, Geordie Armstrong, John Radford, and later Charlie George, Ray Kennedy, and Eddie Kelly.
Match days back then were usually very familiar excursions. I said that Liege game, being an evening fixture, was unusual. Almost exclusively our football was at three on Saturday afternoons. A leisurely drive in from the home counties and we would park up in Highbury Fields in the days before residents parking schemes made Highbury a no-go area for suburban motorists.
First stop would be the newsagent opposite the Highbury Barn to buy the Islington Gazette. A couple of doors down was Mick’s restaurant. I don’t know what it cost, but his liver and bacon with onions, followed by a syrup pudding with custard, was worth every penny.
We caught up with the Arsenal news in the paper, then strolled down via Highbury Park and Aubert Park to the top of Avenell Road, and that most memorable of views down the hill. The programme seller on the left hand path in front of the flats always got our tanner. We would take a quick look in the club shop, always a word or two with Jack Kelsey, and then on to the turnstiles.
Which turnstiles depended on who was around. Sometimes Mum and sister would be with us, and they would have the season tickets in the East Stand Lower. Dad and I would take up position with some of his footballing friends from the forties and fifties, including my Godfather, at the back of the Clock End to the left of the famous timepiece as you looked at the pitch.
Most of the time the ‘girls’ went shopping in the West End, and if we hadn’t farmed the season tickets out to someone else I would get to position myself in the East Stand corridor where the players walked by to get to the changing rooms having parked their cars at the training centre behind the ground. Many programmes were autographed, and many good wishes exchanged between the idolised and the star-struck.
The post mortem always took place in Nan and Pop’s home just off the New North Road, accompanied by ham sandwiches on freshly cut poppy seeded bread, and a slice of bread pudding, with a cup of tea made with tea leaves so Nan could tell your future afterwards. My future was to see a change of diet to beer and burgers in the seventies, but that is for another piece.
By the end of the decade I was even making the odd journey on the train. A little pocket money went a long way in those days, particularly if you could get away without paying train and tube fares, and paid the couple of bob to go in the schoolboys enclosure. Sometimes you could persuade an adult on the other side of the fence to tell the commissionaire on the gate that he was your Dad. That was how I made my debut appearances on the North Bank, and learned some useful lessons in being streetwise that would stand me in good stead in the ensuing years.
We were moving on the day Arsenal reached Wembley for the first time in my lifetime so I missed the controversial single goal defeat by Leeds United. A year later I was not so lucky. I sat with ‘holicdad watching the hot favourites humbled by Third Division Swindon Town on a muddy bog. Better days at Wembley would come.
The Arsenal of 1969 were to finish fourth in the League, very much in the hunt for the title until eventual winners Leeds came to Highbury in April and took the points. We had hinted at better days around the corner. Those better days duly arrived.
That introduction to the Arsenal set the tone for everything that followed. I have savoured every one of the six League titles, seven FA Cups, two League Cups, and two European trophies that have followed that introductory decade of nada, zilch, zip. The first, and last, barren decade for the Arsenal since the twenties, when ironically ‘holicdad was born.
It seems to me we were cursed, and blessed, in equal measure. Thanks for not giving me any option, Dad.