North London's Warriors: The Story Of Arsenal's Gruelling 79/80 Campaign

Despite the kind of fixture congestion that'd have managers and the media up in arms today, Arsenal's men got their heads down and powered on through 14 games in just over a month during an unforgiving early summer.
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Despite the kind of fixture congestion that'd have managers and the media up in arms today, Arsenal's men got their heads down and powered on through 14 games in just over a month during an unforgiving early summer.

When Arsenal defeated their arch rivals Spurs 2-1 at White Hart Lane on Easter Monday 1980 it led on to an incredible sequence of games that would take in five FA Cup ties, six First Division matches and three European Cup Winners Cup games – including four lots of extra time, one penalty shoot-out and result in absolutely nothing.

That derby victory left The Gunners in fourth place in the League Championship table and whilst, during the days of 2 points for a win, top of the table Liverpool seemed to have an almost unassailable seven point lead, games in hand over second placed Manchester United and third placed Ipswich meant that Terry Neil’s team could be forgiven for having at least an eye on runners up spot.

But before they could even think about playing for league points again, Arsenal were in European action, with Juventus the visitors to Highbury just 48 hours after that victory at Spurs. The 1-1 draw was to be a regular result to report over the coming weeks and, with an FA Cup semi-final and League clash against double-chasing Liverpool to take in before the second leg trip to Turin, it looked as though that particular trophy hunt was over.

So, just three days after that draw with Juventus, Arsenal and Liverpool slugged out another stalemate as their semi-final tie finished goalless. As was the way with the FA Cup back in 1980, the replay was staged just four days later and a late Arsenal equaliser saw it finish 1-1 to set up a second replay the following week.

Arsenal then travelled to Anfield to face Liverpool in the league a further three days after that replay date, and again the two sides could not be separated with the game once more finishing 1-1, leaving Arsenal nine points adrift of the leaders with just one game in hand.

Four days after that Anfield clash Arsenal were in Italy for their Cup Winners Cup semi-final second leg where a last minute Paul Vaessen header shocked the Old Lady and sent The Gunners into the final.

But there was little time to celebrate that with a First Division match at home to West Brom 72 hours later. Arsenal’s binary run continued through and another 1-1 draw all but ended title hopes, leaving them to focus on the cups, which wasn’t hard, with their second FA Cup semi-final replay with Liverpool two days later.

Another 1-1 draw meant the sides had to meet for a fifth time in 18 days, when, after another 72 hour break, Arsenal finally secured their place in the final with a 1-0 victory.

That third replay win came at Coventry City’s Highfield Road and it was at the same stadium 48 hours later that they recorded a 1-0 league victory over the Sky Blues. Another two day lay-off and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were the visitors to Highbury in a 0-0 draw.

Arsenal were then treated to a full five days off before taking to the Wembley turf on one of the hottest days ever recorded for an FA Cup final. Their 1-0 defeat to West Ham was made all the more torturous in the heat when they played much of the second half with 10 men following the sending off of Willie Young.

But there was no time to lick wounds, four days later they faced Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup final in Brussels’ ill-fated Heysel Stadium where yet another goalless stalemate led to penalties and ultimately, defeat for Arsenal.

That match was played on May 14 1980. Since their victory at White Hart Lane on April 7, Arsenal had played on the 9th, 12th, 16th, 19th, 23rd, 26th, and 28th of April in matches taking in trips to Hillsborough, Villa Park, Anfield and Turin and three games of 120 minutes – two of those night matches. That schedule eased slightly in May with matches on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 10th and 14th but would have been all the more draining in an unusually hot early English Summer and with agonising final defeats.

After 12 matches in just over 30 days, there were still a couple of outstanding league matches to take care of. Two days after their penalty shoot-out defeat in Belgium they beat Wolves 2-1 at Molineux – the only time they managed to score more than one goal in that entire run – and then 48 hours later succumbed, somewhat understandably, to a 5-0 battering away at Middlesbrough.

They finished fourth in the First Division – a stat that meant nothing then, rather than an appearance in Europe’s Premier competition for champions as it does now.

I know all the arguments for the game being technically world’s away and a million miles an hour faster these days, but you still have to have an enormous amount of admiration for that paper-thin squad of which just 16 different players started matches in an epic and ultimately fruitless endeavour.

Fuelled on nothing more scientific than steak and chips and, I daresay, the odd can of Long Life, there were no headlines screaming for an end to this fixture madness, and the only signs of squad rotation were when 35-year old ‘keeper Pat Jennings’ huge hands were given a rest and Paul Barron took over for two league games when chances of the title had seemingly gone.

Had today’s saturated coverage and social media existed back in 1980, perhaps the desperation for content on rolling news and timelines would’ve necessitated a feature or two on fixture congestion – or had they experienced a similar schedule this season, perhaps live coverage of Arsene Wenger spontaneously combusting. We will never know. This is the football that The Premier League left behind. A day when competition and a finding a rightful winner came before saving yourself for the most lucrative prize – even if it meant playing again and again and again to find that true champion.

In fact, if you spoke to a member of that squad or fan who followed that amazing run back then, they’d probably wished they could’ve had another crack at Valencia in a replay rather than go to penalties.

Now read another brilliant football story from Merv... Millwall: It's A Father And Son Thing