Friday, November 21, 2008

'Have A Double On George': Sports Illustrated covers the 1971 FA Cup final

The flux capacitor is up and running for this time machine trip that follows. Below is the full article as it appeared in the May, 17, 1971, Sports Illustrated on pages 22-25. This was SI in all its glory, perhaps never more influential as a piece of good writing, nor ever more varied in the breadth of topics contained within its pages. It's a long one, but there's no better way for you to kill 15 minutes at work right now. The period is captured perfectly, and the descriptions of Arsenal's ascent in the '71 season will cheer up the Gunners out there cursing Gallas' name this week.

Headlines are as appeared in the magazine. Photos also included.


Scorned by Northerners as too soft and sophisticated, along came London Arsenal to grab soccer’s extremely rare double


One of the most durable traditions of the North of England – more persistently endemic than cloth caps and chips with everything – is a vigorous contempt for the footballers of the South. In the raw, uncompromising cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire and Northumberland the soccer teams of London have long been regarded as pathologically effete. Even the Northern players who migrate to the rich clubs of the capital are generally assumed to have been corrupted by its soft living and diminished by its implied acceptance of the mad heresy that soccer is only a game.
In the large, steeply banked stadiums of Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle no such delusion can survive. There, players and crowd come together each Saturday afternoon and on many weeknights through nine months of the year to enact a mutually sustaining rite. An important football match in that part of the country is one of the last intense communal experiences remaining in English society, just as the football star is still the truest folk hero, cutting across boundaries of age and cultural background as no pop singer or film actor every could. He is a magical being without the accompanying disadvantage of remoteness. The tribe can reach out and take its share of him every Saturday.
London is not entirely exempt from this mythology: It has thousands of fans who are as violently partisan as any in Britain. But there is no doubt that the metropolitan environment tends to produce a sophisticated blurring of attitudes, sometimes replacing the values of a religion with those of show business. This sort of thing helps to harden the Northern conviction that Southerners do not feel football where it should be felt, in the guts and the marrow of the bones.
Northerners are not shy about telling anyone who will listen that life is real where they come from and it has made men of them. Their favorite demonstration of this manliness has been provided on the football field. “The South is too soft to stand a chance with our teams” is a boast that has come regularly from club managers as well as from the beery voices on the terraces, and in season after season recently it has been validated by the record books.
The First Division championship, most exciting and accurate test of quality in English football, was virtually monopolized by the North during the ‘60s. There are 22 clubs in the top division of the Football League, and each plays the others home and away on the basis that a win earns two points and a draw gains one. Those 42 matches, in conditions that vary from snow and ice or mud up to the shin guards, all the way to the baked and jarring surfaces of early and late summer, amount to a marathon that drains the substance from all but the most determined and resilient teams.
Between 1962 and this year, if it was not Manchester United or Manchester City that finished with the most points, if was Liverpool or their Merseyside rivals, Everton, or the formidably combative side built at Leeds by Don Revie. In the other principal competition, the Football Association Cup, the story was slightly less dismal for the South, partly because the straight knock-out system employed in cup football gives more scope for fortuitous results and unlikely winners. Nevertheless, in the 20 years from 1950, the Cup went to London only five times.
If there was anything to temper the North’s smugness, it could only be what happened right in the middle of those 20 years, in the 1962 and 1962 seasons. Tottenham Hotspur, which competes with Arsenal for the affections of north London, won the Cup in both years, and in the earlier one they did something much more remarkable. They became the first club this century to accomplish the seemingly unattainable double of Cup and First Division championship. The feat had been managed twice before, by Preston North End and Aston Villa, but their successes came in 1889 and 1897, in an era of curly mustaches, long pants and infinitely milder competition. The Spurs’ achievement was incomparably more impressive and many good judges suspected that, as soccer’s financial rewards and therefore its stresses increased, the double would move permanently out of reach.

Arsenal is, by traditional right, the Establishment club in England, a symbol of solidity and discreet affluence.

The idea that London club might emulate the Spurs in the foreseeable future was dismissed as utterly fanciful. Any suggestion that Arsenal might be the club to do the double had to be received as a sick joke. Arsenal is, by traditional right, the Establishment club in England, a symbol of solidity and discreet affluence. In the 1930s it enjoyed success befitting its station, taking the league championship three seasons in a row. And even when things began to go wrong in the middle ‘50s Arsenal continued to put on a brave face. Seventeen barren years had persuaded some that honors were for other people when, in 1970, Arsenal beat Anderlecht of Belgium to win the Fairs Cup, the third in order of significance among European club competitions.
What was relevant about that victory was that it was neither a fluke nor the result of an isolated surge. By now Arsenal was being run by a partnership that was sending out the most confident and best organized team in two decades. Headline writers on the London papers happily dug out their old puns about the Gunners (the club’s origins were at Woolwich Arsenal) shooting for the top prizes again. The senior member of the partnership is Bertie Mee, a short, brisk man with a hooked nose and rather clerky mien. Mee proved to be an outstanding organizer, and, perhaps, most vital of all, a man who knows how to pick a supporting cast and the best use of it.

Mee’s chief assistant, and the man whose coaching is mainly responsible for the present Arsenal team’s prodigious efficiency, is Don Howe. He made the team hard to beat, then gave it the knack of winning consistently. Arsenal’s football has often been about as stirring as a plowing contest but the points kept accumulating in the second half of the league program, and a crisis in the semifinal of the Cup was weathered after a replay. Then Leeds United, which had set up a commanding lead in the First Division only to be crucially weakened by injuries to its best players, was afflicted with the wobbles that so frequently strike at the end of the season. Suddenly Arsenal was even with Leeds and the double was a possibility.
But neither leg was going to be easy. In the championship Arsenal went into its last match on Monday of last week – just five days before the Cup final – against a mass of mathematical possibilities: The Gunners were one point behind Leeds (which had completed its series) and if they played to a draw and neutralized that deficit, the title would be settled by a comparison of the goals records over the season. The fractions involved were as small as one-hundredth of a goal. But despite playing on the home ground of its fiercest rival, Tottenham, Arsenal scored the only goal and won the championship cleanly – pulling it off before a frenzied crowd of 60,000 inside the arena, with another angry 50,000 locked outside an hour before the game began.
Arsenal also played more thrillingly than it had for months, attacking with a drive and exhilarating insistence that nearly made the crowd forget that the team had scrambled through five of its last six home games by snatching single goals when it should have been capable of getting three or four. Frank McLintock, the Scottish captain of the Gunners, promised that they would show their true worth when they met Liverpool in the Cup final at Wembley.
Another figure in the gathering drama was Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager. Shankly is an extraordinary figure in British football, so obsessed with the Liverpool Club that if he is asked a question on any issue, he will find a way of answering it in terms of soccer. He cannot talk for more than 10 seconds without mentioning one of the “two best teams in Britain – Liverpool and the Liverpool reserves.”
By three o’clock last Saturday afternoon all the talking was over. Wembley’s turf was as green and inviting as it has ever been (though it can be a treacherous invitation, for that rich grass saps and cramps limbs already made vulnerable by tension), and a dazzling sun coaxed a few of the 100,000 crowd into shirtsleeves. It was a setting that asked great players to declare themselves. Perhaps it was the day for Liverpool’s Steve Heighway, a graduate in politics and economics and until recently an obscure amateur, to excite the stadium and a television audience of around 400 million with his graceful and murderously direct running. Heighway, who made a huge reputation in his first season as a professional, was ideally equipped to violate Arsenal’s well-rehearsed calm.
The figures in Liverpool’s goals-against column reflected an even more disciplined resistance than their opponents could offer, but Arsenal had two men in particular with the ingenuity and variety of technique to offset them – George Graham, a tall, upright Scot with the dark good looks of a virile male model who controls and passes the ball with a beautiful touch and deep perception, and Charlie George. At 20, George is the archetype of the uninhibited, well-paid and socially confident footballer of the ‘70s. His lank fair hair falls to his shoulders or streams from behind him when he runs, which he does with perfect balance and great purpose, taking the ball with him as if it were an extension of his limbs. He has the ability to absorb the fluctuating patterns of play, the moment-to-moment deployment of players at a glance, and his right foot kicks the ball with shattering power.

But despite playing on the home ground of its fiercest rival, Tottenham, Arsenal scored the only goal and won the championship cleanly – pulling it off before a frenzied crowd of 60,000 inside the arena, with another angry 50,000 locked outside an hour before the game began.
Heighway, Graham and, above all, George were to make themselves felt before the afternoon was out but, as the game went on, they suffered in the overall dreariness. Even then, if Ray Kennedy, a strong attacker who had scored the lone goal on Monday against Tottenham, had taken more chances, Arsenal would have had the Cup beyond Liverpool’s reach. But the chances were missed and the game was still a scoreless, dreary deadlock when Shankly drafted in Peter Thompson as a substitute, dazzlingly skillful but an erratic player, suddenly transformed the match, using his lithe, consuming stride to carry the ball where Arsenal least wanted it and aiming passes with unfamiliar thoughtfulness. He brought Heighway to life and restored the pride of the Liverpool crowd, usually the most articulate in the land but this afternoon reduced to numbed silence.
Thompson could not quite turn the match in the regular 90 minutes, but as the teams launched into the first of two extra quarter-hour periods, he immediately set Heighway on a characteristic run along the left. The surge ended in a low, angled shot – and Arsenal was behind. Bill Shankly rose to give a victory salute to his followers, but 10 minutes later Arsenal forced in an untidy but not undeserved equalizer, and everything was riding on the last quarter. It was then – with nine minutes of the two hours left – that Charlie George reasserted himself after a prolonged spell of vagueness. Teammate John Radford contrived an opening for him a few yards outside the Liverpool penalty area. A couple of swift, measured steps and that explosive right foot did the rest.
“Have A Double On George,” the London papers advised archly the next day. Charlie was the one pure, 24-karat Londoner on the Arsenal team. The North can make what it likes out of that.

1 comment:

casey said...

My die hard Toon Army in-laws said recently they may have to start backing Arsenal. Mind this was fresh after the Joe Kinnear debacle so I'll chalk it up to pure emotion. I've seen that otherwise sweet woman tear up seats at St James over a loss before. And 1 victory. Of course, I think the problem with London clubs, like Chelsea is they have more money than god so they can afford all the best players to stack their deck. That and the South looks at the North with disdain so there's not a lot of love lost there.