As the 1975-76 season started, with Arsenal having finished 1974-75 in a lowly 16th place, even Chairman Denis Hill-Wood was not brimming with confidence, writing in the first programme: “We must all be rather anxious about what is in store for us.” However, he ended his message with the words: “I am confident that the ‘Arsenal Spirit’ will carry us through to better times as it has on occasions in the past.” As it turned out, better times were not in a hurry to return.
Meantime, after a season of full colour, the programme went back to black and white for the new season, rather reflecting DH-W’s mood. The price stayed at 10p and no immediate explanation was given for the lack of colour. It was later said that the colour had to go in order to keep the price at 10p, though as this was still 100 per cent more than it had been a year earlier, this must be debatable. Inflation was high in the 1970s, but not quite 100 per cent a year. A special edition programme for Peter Storey’s testimonial match against Feyenoord on 9 December cost 15p – the highest price an Arsenal programme had been at the time.
Aside from the lack of colour, the structure and layout were much the same as they had been the previous season. Inside the front cover – which this season used the same rather uninspiring picture of Jimmy Rimmer flapping at a cross for every match – was the Comment section. This covered all news of travel, injuries, admission prices, changes to the laws of the game, as well as occasionally answering fans’ queries, in the absence of a letters’ page. In the days before internet searches, such questions as ‘Was David O’Leary, who made his debut on the opening day of the season, Arsenal’s youngest ever player?’ were harder to answer without help. (He wasn’t, by the way; we were informed it was Gerry Ward in 1953.)
The updated system of penalty points for players was explained early in the season: anyone accumulating 20 points would face a disciplinary committee, and points could be ‘awarded’ for everything from violent conduct (12 points) to ‘Gesticulating in front of the player taking the [free-]kick” (2 points). “Continued comment to referee concerning his decisions in an effort to intimidate him” was worth 4 points, while “Player using shoulders of his own team colleague to assist him in heading the ball” was a single point offence.
In October Comment informed us that Arsenal had now scored 4,000 goals in the First Division, though Aston Villa (1957), Everton (1964) and Sunderland (1965) had all beaten us to it by some margin.
The Guest Writer slot was still in evidence, including this season Bob Wilson, who was something of a regular. He wrote in September about how special Arsenal’s keepers were, including the memorable passage: “Under Don [Howe] this special training [diving at oncoming players’ feet] became an obsession. There were times when he’d kick at me and whip me into a frenzy.”
Other writers were former players Ronnie Rooke, Dr Kevin O’Flanagan and Derek Tapscott, showbiz stars Barbara Windsor (Gooner) and Eric Morecombe (not Gooner), and various visiting managers or other club officials. One was Jimmy Hill, who suggested in his column that professional fouls, wherever committed, should be punished by a direct shot from the edge of the 18-yard box, with no wall. An interesting idea, but open to interpretation on what constitutes a professional foul, of course. He was also an advocate of three points for a win, a much talked-about concept at the time, when football was commonly perceived to be dying from stiflingly defensive tactics. The Chin was also aware of the Pandora’s Box he’d opened with the lifting of the maximum wage. He now advocated a maximum wage for clubs as a whole, in order to keep them solvent. In a way this is what FFP has at last tried to introduce – a cap on the amount of extra money clubs can spend on wages year on year. Better late than never.
Another guest writer was Tommy Docherty, ex-Arsenal player and by then manager of Man Utd, who were third in the table when they visited in November, after their brief visit to the Second Division the previous season. The Doc spoke of his ‘wonderful days with Arsenal’ and the club – at that time with a couple more titles than Utd – as ‘one of the greatest in the world’. He also had a message for hooligans, as Man Utd had one of the worst problems with that at the time: “It must be stated that in many cases our supporters have been to blame for incidents… it has got to stop.”
Bobby Robson was the guest writer when his Ipswich side visited. “Play well at Highbury and the whole country knows about it,” said Bobby. “Highbury is a football Mecca. An Ipswich victory today will mean more than two points.
“It takes a long time to achieve the sort of world status Arsenal have reached. And it’s not just a matter of how many trophies you collect. The way you play football, the way you present the game and the way you represent your country abroad. All are vital ingredients.” All this was said at a time when Arsenal sat fifteenth in the table, a slump which was seen as just as incredible as Manchester United being relegated two seasons before.
Hooliganism was an occasional theme for Comment as well as the guest writers, but at Arsenal the problems were largely kept away from the ground itself, unlike many other clubs – hence the lack of fences at Arsenal even in the darkest days of crowd trouble.
The season’s opening programme announced that for the first time ever Arsenal had appointed a club captain – Terry Mancini – in addition to the team captain, Eddie Kelly. Mancini’s duties as club captain would “embrace the whole club and involve many off-the-field activities”. We weren’t told what.
The squad list had been modernised at last – gone were the old abbreviations of HB for half-back, WH for wing-half and so on, it was just GK, DEF, MF and F now. Some were still stuck in old ways of thinking, though: one guest writer was Derek Dougan, recently retired from playing with Wolves and now installed as Chairman of the PFA. Dougan’s message was that not only were the doom-mongers in football going too far, but in fact England were just naturally so good at the game that he fully expected great things from them in the next World Cup (1978), while the Dutch (finalists in 1974) were clearly a flash in the pan and would struggle. In case you’ve forgotten, England failed to qualify and Holland reached a second consecutive final. Barcelona, quite possibly the greatest club side ever, still benefit from adopting the models of coaching and tactics developed by the Dutch in the 1970s.
Two pages of the programme were still given over to details of the away team, with the traditional few lines on each player, a summary of our record against them and usually their squad picture. By a quirk of the fixture list we faced Everton at home twice in three days in September, first in the League and then in the League Cup. Given the printing schedules, Tuesday’s programme was off the presses before Saturday’s game had been played, so every detail of Everton and their record was identical the second time around – the League Cup programme couldn’t even record that we had drawn the League match 2-2!
On the pitch it was another disappointing season, as we started mid-table then gradually drifted dangerously near the relegation zone as the months went on. The match action pages headlines sometimes had to take a rueful tone: “A great fightback against Manchester City just fails”, and “It might have been different, but Tottenham won 2-0” being two examples. There was a small rally in early spring, and with Arsenal looking safe from relegation Bertie Mee decided it was time to announce his retirement as manager effective from the end of the season. He’d been criticised for turning a Double-winning squad into strugglers in under five years, despite high profile signings like Alan Ball, Jimmy Rimmer and Brian Kidd, and decided the pressure was now too much. His message in the last programme of the season thanked the club and supporters (of course) and wished his successor, whoever that might be, good luck and (rather ungrammatically) his “unstinted support”.
Arsenal had been knocked out of both cups at the first hurdle, losing to Everton in the League Cup and Wolves in the FA Cup. Following Mee’s announcement the season petered out with three losses in a row and Arsenal slumping to 17th in the table, three places above the relegation zone but one place worse than the previous season and the lowest position almost in living memory. Things could only get better.
Read about the previous season, 1974-75, here.