Friday, 6 October 2017

1986: Arsenal lose to Watford on consecutive days

Arsenal have suffered at the hands of Watford in recent seasons, but at least they didn’t lose twice to the same club on consecutive days.

In this modern world of ours, it seems that Arsenal are only ever a couple of defeats away from a full-blown crisis. An unwanted reverse can now lead to torn badges appearing in newspapers, as the cracks in the Arsenal fan base expand, Twitter explodes, and even fans of other teams reach for the popcorn and turn to AFTV for some entertainment.

Two examples of this trend in recent years have involved defeats against Watford. The first, a 2-1 home loss in the 2016 FA Cup Sixth Round, put an end to the three-in-a-row dream in that competition, and coupled with Leicester winning the league, caused many to join the swelling ranks of the Arsene Must Go brigade. Another 2-1 defeat at home in the Premier League in February 2017 was completely soul-destroying; confirmation, if needed, that Arsene Wenger's latest team had absolutely no stomach for the fight ahead.

Both losses were met with outrage. But can you imagine the storm that would be created if, for example, a managerless Arsenal had lost twice to the same team within the space of 24 hours? Because in the spring of 1986, that prospect was very much a reality. If you think the situation at Arsenal in the latter part of the Arsene Wenger regime has been messy, then take a look at the farce surrounding the club towards the end of the 1985/86 season.

Under Don Howe the team had been making baby steps towards a recovery from the end of the Terry Neill reign. After blooding a number of youth team products in Martin Keown, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Martin Hayes, and Niall Quinn, Arsenal had enjoyed the many highs and lows that often comes with giving the kids a chance. On the one hand, wins over Liverpool and Manchester United were confirmation that Howe's youngsters were made of the right stuff; yet a 6-1 hammering at Everton, and disappointing Cup losses to Aston Villa and Luton proved that this was very much a work in progress.

The team did recover well after the Luton capitulation. Four League wins on the bounce in March propelled Arsenal to fifth in the table, seven points behind leaders Everton, but with two games in hand. However, it would be after the final victory of this run (against Coventry) that the brown stuff truly hit the fan. Don Howe's resignation sent Arsenal into turmoil, the club hurtling out of control towards the end of a season that had at certain points provided encouragement. You couldn't keep Arsenal off the back pages.

Chairman Peter Hill-Wood had reportedly informed Howe after the Luton Cup defeat that his contract would not be renewed at the end of the season, and initially the Arsenal manager had agreed to stay on until his deal expired. But Howe had become disenchanted with the behaviour of the Arsenal board, especially with regards to their moves behind his back to secure Barcelona's Terry Venables as their next manager. Prior to the Coventry match, he approached Hill-Wood.

"I saw the chairman before the match and asked to be released from my contract," Howe stated. "If you have been watching developments over the last week it would not be difficult to put together a case for my wanting to be released. It is the way the whole business has been conducted that hurts and it has hurt me very deeply." Certainly Hill-Wood and Arsenal did not come out of the whole affair with a great deal of credit. "My only regret is the way it became public," Hill-Wood admitted. "Don has done a good Job here and it was not our intention to hurt him."

After returning from Tbilisi where he had been assisting Bobby Robson for England's friendly against the USSR, Howe, along with his assistant John Cartwright, met Hill-Wood to see if an agreement could be reached. When both Howe and Cartwright informed the chairman that they did not wish to stay at the club, Arsenal were officially in crisis mode. "That is the price the club officials have paid for the shabby way in which they have treated two men who have at least emerged with some dignity from the distasteful affair," Stuart Jones wrote in The Times, who also accused the board of belittling the name of the club.

"It should not affect the results of the team because they still have a lot to play for," Hill-Wood announced after Howe had finally left the club. In reality, the chairman should have been afraid. Very afraid. Losing your manager on the eve of any football match is far from ideal. When that match is a North London derby, then it merely emphasises how the omnishambles at Arsenal had plunged the club into complete chaos.

Chief scout Steve Burtenshaw was handed the unenviable task of steering the ship through choppy waters, installed as caretaker manager for the final eleven League matches. Arsenal may well have been unfortunate to lose at White Hart Lane on Easter Saturday, but what followed on Easter Monday and the day after that was a case of the club reaping what they had sown.

Of all the teams Arsenal could have faced next, Watford would probably have been low down on their wish list. Although Graham Taylor's team were in 12th place in the table, Watford had enjoyed previous successes against Arsenal since their promotion in 1982. And to make things worse for Arsenal, the two were about to go head-to-head twice in a little over 24 hours.

The strange nature of the double header needs some explaining. After the original Boxing Day fixture at Vicarage Road had been called off, a winter freeze in the early part of 1986 led to a fixture backlog in the League programme, and finding a date for the rearranged match was also not helped when both clubs embarked on lengthy Cup runs taking in a number of replays along the way.

So it came to pass that the teams would play each other at Highbury on Monday March 31 (11.30am kick-off), with the return at Vicarage Road on Tuesday April 1 (7.30pm); obviously playing the second match on the Wednesday would have been far too sensible. Come the end of the double date, Watford probably wished they could play Arsenal every day of the week.

The first match at Highbury was notable for the poor attendance - only 19,599 spectators came through the turnstiles for the Bank Holiday fixture - and the behaviour of Arsenal fans on the day. Many choose the match as an opportunity to vent their anger at the Arsenal board; some decided that the only way to get through it was by applying some gallows humour.

Jon Spurling, writing in his excellent All Guns Blazing book on Arsenal in the 1980s, describes the black comedy of that day. "Every Watford attack (prompted by Brian Talbot, who proved his particular point on his Highbury return) was greeted with ironic cheers, showing just how far morale had sunk." Arsenal had in fact started well, keeper Tony Coton thwarting a number of attempts in the opening twenty minutes. But there was trouble ahead.

Once John Barnes had given the visitors the lead, the Arsenal fans turned their attentions to the Arsenal chairman. Chants of "Don Howe's red and white army" filled the air, as well as songs directed at the chairman. After Malcolm Allen had doubled Watford's lead in the 70th minute, some fans started to drift away. But others made their way to Avenell Road to make themselves heard outside the marble halls.

Eventually the police were brought in to disperse the crowd, with Hill-Wood adamant that he had made the right decision in not renewing Howe's contract. "What happened today doesn't affect me. I've heard it all before. I would rather they wouldn't jeer, but a couple of goals will change it all. I don't think it will last."

A little over 24 hours later, more than 3,000 Arsenal fans were putting themselves through misery again. With six Watford regulars out of the team, Arsenal again started on the front foot, and really should have taken the lead through Tony Woodcock. But as with any mentally fragile team, as soon as the going got tough, the players disappeared. When Neil Smillie gave Watford the lead on the half hour mark, the house of cards came tumbling down.

Watford were a little fortunate with their second goal - Keown had brought Barnes down outside the area, only for referee Keith Cooper to point to the spot - as Kenny Jackett's strike in the 35th minute piled on more woe for the travelling Arsenal support. Allen's second goal in the space of a day clinched the win for Watford in the 51st minute, as the press went to town regarding the state Arsenal now found themselves in.

Harry Miller in the Daily Mirror commented that "Watford stuck the dagger where Arsenal's heart used to be and twisted it to complete the Easter humiliation of one of soccer's great clubs last night". Steve Curry in the Daily Express was just as damning in his verdict: "Watford last night heaped further humiliation on Arsenal who, in less than a week, have disintegrated into a shambles. Arsenal, like a tired army without its commanding officer, surrendered timidly at Vicarage Road. They were without heart, without will and without discipline. Their spirit eroded and ambition stilled."

It's probably just as well that Twitter and AFTV did not exist back in 1986. Luckily, through Twitter, I have been able to gather a few opinions of those who did go to both of the matches:

@Daz_R: I sat with my Watford supporting friend at both games so it was particularly humiliating!

@ChrisFergy: Only thing I remember is O'Leary falling flat on his face when running along the line in front of the West Stand, North Bank end. Everyone pissed themselves with laughter! Didn't seem to be much fan anger, just resigned to being really crap.

@PMartin1972: Hill-Wood protests outside Highbury one day. Singing "if you've had a shitty Easter clap your hands" in the away end the next day!!

@MatttillettN6: Reasonably sure that was the time someone made a pretty decent job of trying to burn down the away end. Also recall an outrageous penalty (1.5 yards outside box) at which someone ran onto pitch and got taken out by a police dog. In other words, we were role models of gracious defeat.

Fittingly, Arsenal drifted along in a sea of mediocrity as their season drew to a conclusion. Just 14,843 were present at Highbury for a 2-2 draw against West Brom, and a 3-0 humiliation at Oxford on the last day of the campaign saw the home team stay up, sending Ipswich down in the process.

The links with Venables died down - reportedly El Tel was not too enamoured with the way the Arsenal board had treated Howe - and on May 14, 1986, George Graham arrived as the knight in shining armour to turn the fortunes of the club around.

Graham immediately delivered silverware, using many of the youth players and signings that Howe had introduced to the first team. But even in his triumphant first season, Watford would prove a thorn in the side of Arsenal. Their FA Cup Sixth Round win at Highbury was clouded in controversy, with referee Brian Stevens taking centre stage, leaving many Arsenal fans raging. At least the angry Arsenal fans did not have to sit through a repeat performance on the next day, though.

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