The Gunners were 3-1 down after the first leg of the Fairs Cup in Brussels and had not won a trophy in 17 years, but roared back in north London to sow the seeds of future gloriesBy Graham Lister
When the draw for this season’s Champions League placed Anderlecht and Arsenal in the same group back in August, it inevitably evoked memories of the only previous competitive clash between the clubs: the 1970 final of the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
That two-legged final began in Brussels and left many in the success-starved Arsenal camp wondering if they would ever see an end to a trophy drought spanning 17 years.
Deliverance would, in fact, arrive in emphatic style one week later in north London on what those who were there hailed as the greatest night Highbury ever witnessed.
The recent nine-year hiatus finally banished by May’s FA Cup final triumph over Hull was but the blink of an eye compared to the wasteland into which the Gunners sank after 1953.
The football gods seemed to be toying with them as they lost successive League Cup finals in 1968 and 1969, cruelly taunting captain Frank McLintock, who had now played in four Wembley finals and lost the lot.
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Obstacles of variable difficulty were overcome before, in the semi-final, the Gunners impressively swept aside Johan Cruyff’s Ajax – destined to become champions of Europe in each of the following three seasons – to reach their first European final. Awaiting them were the classy Belgians. Then, Anderlecht were enjoying a good run and were favourites against Bertie Mee’s side whose domestic form remained unconvincing.
Despite their trophy-less record, a major final meant the burden of history and weight of expectation was bearing down on Mee’s players. McLintock said they could feel the pressure because the earlier Arsenal teams of Herbert Chapman, George Allison and Tom Whittaker had achieved so much. In contrast, he and his team-mates had achieved nothing.
It looked like that would continue as Anderlecht cruised into a 3-0 lead in the first leg. They took Arsenal apart with some outstanding football capped by goals from strikers Johan Devrindt and the exceptional Jan Mulder. McLintock found the different tempo a more chastening challenge than they were used to. “The continental sides didn’t bombard you like British teams,” he later reflected. "Their build-up was much more patient, yet before you knew where you were, you could be two or three down."
Right-back Peter Storey concurred: "We were entrenched in the blood and thunder of the English League system, yet here was this bunch of crafty Belgians beating us with brainpower and the accuracy of their passing. They were unbelievably patient and we just let them weave their pretty patterns in front of us, then bang, they scored and we were 3-0 down after 70 minutes."
No team had ever managed to turn around a three-goal deficit in a European final, but a late substitution threw the Gunners a slender lifeline. Charlie George, bruised and battered, was replaced by 18-year-old Ray Kennedy, making only his fifth first-team appearance, who found the net with a header, his first touch of the ball. Mee realised the strike had subtly altered the balance of the tie. "Kennedy’s goal was vital to us as it means we can face the second leg with confidence," he told reporters in his post-match press conference.
In the dressing room, however, the mood among the players was one of despondency that they’d fluffed a rare shot at glory. McLintock was particularly deflated. He’d been converted by coach Don Howe from a buccaneering midfielder to an effective centre-back – a move that had given his career a new lease of life and prolonged it at the top level.
But his inspirational leadership was arguably his greatest attribute, and now he displayed it amid the dejection of defeat with a motivational speech that has entered Arsenal folklore.
Goalkeeper Bob Wilson recalls his captain emerging from the shower suddenly fired up and brimming with belligerent optimism. "You know they’re rubbish really. If we get at 'em next week at Highbury, they’ll cave in. We'll murder them." Storey said McLintock told the team to get their heads up, metaphorically and literally, because Kennedy’s introduction had exposed Anderlecht as vulnerable in the air and uncomfortable defending crosses. By the time they set off back to London, the Arsenal players believed they could do it.
Most of those who were involved in the return leg at Highbury reckon the atmosphere in the old stadium that night was the best ever: a magical mix of heady expectancy and burning desire; a full house, thousands more in the streets outside; rain lashing down through the glare of the floodlights; history waiting to be written.
In the dressing room before kick-off, Mee reminded his men what this game meant to them, their careers and the club. Then Howe talked tactics: "Their two best forwards can be bullied. Well, bully them. Hit them hard and do it quick… Don’t let Jan Mulder start running at you. He can take four on and go straight past the lot of you."
The team found previously unmined reserves of energy as they set about securing the two-goal lead, without conceding, that would win them the cup on the away goals rule. Eddie Kelly blasted the all-important first into the roof of the net from 20 yards on 26 minutes. John Radford soared to meet a Bob McNab cross with 20 minutes to go to level the tie on aggregate and tip it in Arsenal’s favour.
Stung, Anderlecht immediately responded, but Mulder’s shot came back off the post. Two minutes later Jon Sammels latched on to George’s sublime through-ball and put the issue beyond all doubt by hitting an irresistible shot into Trappeniers’ net.
The final whistle meant McLintock at last got his hands on a trophy and Arsenal were back among the honours after 17 years of pain. It was the cue for a mass pitch invasion by ecstatic Gooners who poured off the North Bank and Clock End terraces to engulf their heroes in a sea of gratitude, relief and sheer exultation.
Victory had far-reaching implications, too. Future Arsenal manager George Graham insisted the Fairs Cup triumph gave the players the confidence to believe that what Mee and Howe were doing "must be right".
McLintock summed it up: "On the night, as a team, we couldn’t have played any better. Everyone was on fire and the crowd was really behind us. Winning that cup was so important to me and the club. The first trophy in 17 years. We were becoming a good team and now we had the confidence to go with it."
Twelve months later he lifted the Football League Championship trophy and the FA Cup after captaining Arsenal to the double - and the seeds were sown that night at Highbury.