After the two worst seasons in half a century, with League finishing positions of 16th and 17th, a new era dawned at Arsenal in the long hot summer of 1976: former Arsenal player and captain – and more recently Spurs Manager – Terry Neill was appointed to replace the retiring Bertie Mee. But Neill was not first choice. In a move that had echoes two decades later, the Arsenal Board decided to approach a foreign manager – in this case the Serbian Milan Milanic, who was at the time the manager of a small Spanish club called Real Madrid, and whose “track record is well-known throughout the world”, said Chairman Denis Hill-Wood. However, this move failed as “we were not able to conclude the negotiations successfully”, so Arsenal turned closer to home and Neill was invited down the Seven Sisters, having managed Spurs for two years.
All this was explained by on page two of the opening game’s programme against First Division new boys Bristol City. DH-W also wrote about new record signing Malcolm MacDonald, hoping that his arrival would prove a big step in the club’s avowed direction: “to build, once again, a team of International repute, to bring back success to the Club and to provide first class entertainment for our loyal supporters as soon as possible”.
The programme itself had also received a bit of a makeover in the summer. It remained 16 pages, but after a season of black and white, the colour returned – paid for by a new price of 15p (it had been 5p only three years earlier). To be accurate, the colour was on the cover and the centre pages only, the latter often featuring players ‘at home’, self-consciously sorting out their record collections or stroking the cat in front of hideous wallpaper. Other centre spreads involved the team travelling to away matches (chunky gold jewellery and wide ties much in evidence), in the dressing room before games and other off-field activities, plus posed pictures of the players taken in front of a full stadium before matches, but not much in the way of colour match action. Actually I say ‘posed pictures’, but in one Sammy Nelson appears to be levitating, which is more showing off than posing in my book.
The programme cover also had a new twist – it was no longer the same picture for the whole season! It didn’t yet change every match, but several different action shots were used throughout the campaign.
Inside, the layout was simplified from previous years, with fewer small items filling the space. The guest writer feature of the past had become Talking Football, usually with an Arsenal player or member of the backroom staff. The first of these was new manager Terry Neill, who said all the things you would expect a new manager to say: he was thrilled to be back, there will be a great deal of hard work, we all want success, no rash promises, we’re all in it together, he wanted to give fans reasons to be proud, we’ll always be looking for top players becoming available, football is in essence a simple game, etc etc. He ended by saying, “I want to avoid churning out all the old clichés in this situation…” Err, too late Terry! He came back mid-season to give us an update, with Arsenal threatening the top five, if not actually looking like serious challengers: “I think it is a moment for caution but also quiet optimism”. Spoke too soon Terry – we immediately went on a run of one win in 14 League matches, including seven straight defeats.
When players put their views forward, it was normally by way of a Q&A. Pat Rice, by then a fairly senior player, answered the question “Do you think the Continentals are ahead of us?” by saying that the Dutch did indeed “stroke the ball about better than we do”, while with Barcelona, “it is an education the way they use every blade of grass.” However, the problem really was us British fans: “The Continental spectators enjoy the build-up, whereas in this country the spectator wants his action in the penalty area.” Pat had no hesitation in picking out his favourite match from the 300-plus he’d played: beating Spurs at White Hart Lane to win the title in 1971.
Another player interviewed was Pat Howard, who like Malcolm MacDonald was newly arrived from Newcastle, and whose chiselled good looks stared out from the page. He wrote of playing against Pele – “the greatest of all time” – in a pre-season tournament, but Pat himself was sadly not in the same class. His Arsenal career lasted just one season and 19 first team appearances.
Arsenal’s General Manager Bob Wall was Talking Football in March. He’d joined the club in 1928 as assistant to Herbert Chapman, a post he held till the great man’s death in 1934. He had decided to retire now and immediately been invited to join the Board. He told a great story of how he got the job at Arsenal, and how the reserve match on the first day of his employment was refereed by Mr S F Rous, who later went on to become President of Fifa as Sir Stanley Rous. Bob completed 49 years as an Arsenal employee, then four more years on the Board before his death in 1981.
The visitors of the day still got a regular page and a half or two, plus a page of Visitors’ Viewpoint, usually written by the opposing manager, but sometimes a player or ex-player. Gordon Banks did the honours when Stoke visited, and wrote of his first match at Highbury, when Arsenal had put five past him, as well as his regret at not going to play in America after being invited the previous summer. He did of course go to play in the NASL in the summers of 1977 and 1978, despite his professional career in England having been curtailed five years earlier by a car crash that resulted in him losing the sight in one eye.
The catch-all Comment section was still on page 2, with page 3 normally including League tables for all Arsenal teams (First Division, Combination and South-East Counties), and upcoming matches – or ‘Events’ as they were styled. There were also seat ticket prices sometimes listed; for 1976 these ranged from £1.20 to £2.50.
Comment for the first match of the season was shifted to page six to make way for the Chairman’s message, but reminded supporters of the change to the League rules for this season: Goal Average had been replaced by Goal Difference at the League’s AGM, a resolution proposed by Arsenal and carried unanimously. The same page featured a picture of Malcolm MacDonald posing in front of the empty North Bank, with what looked suspiciously like a packet of cigarettes bulging in his shirt pocket. The picture cleverly managed to have him standing behind an advertising hoarding including the letters “SUPE” to give the impression the club was advertising the services of Supermac himself.
Later in the season a bare-chested MacDonald was pictured with other squad members training in Dubai on a mid-season visit. Is it coincidence that the two players transferred from Newcastle are the ones not wearing shirts? Probably.
The list of ‘Players Retained for 1976-77’ makes interesting reading. In a squad of 23 just seven had been signed from other clubs, with 16 having started as schoolboys or apprentices and having never played for another club. The longest serving was Peter Simpson, who had signed on May 16, 1960, followed by George Armstrong (August 24, 1961).
Peter Storey (’62), John Radford (’64), Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson (both ’66) and Eddie Kelly (’68) were the other long servers from the previous decade.
Elsewhere a couple of pages were normally taken up with black and white action shots of recent games, and of course the rear cover had the usual (predicted) line-ups for the day, officials’ names and details of the tunes to be played by the longstanding half-time entertainment, the Metropolitan Police Band with vocalist Constable Alex Morgan. One odd exception on the back cover was that the first programme of the season had the season’s fixtures listed on it, with the team line-ups moved to page three. This experiment wasn’t repeated.
On the pitch things had improved a little from recent years, with Arsenal recovering from the opening day home loss to promoted Bristol City to stay in the top third of the table until the new year slump. Eventually we finished eighth, reaching the fifth round of both cups. The team was a work in progress, and it was not quite the “season to remember” that Terry Neill had hoped for. I wonder what Milan Milanic might have achieved?
Read about the previous season, 1975-76.