Stquad rotation is now a common feature of top-flight football but it wasn’t always this way. There are various tales from the distant past of marathon seasons, where tiny squads racked up game after game, many of them cup replays, as players were worn down and exhausted by the quantity of matches. Arsenal’s season in 1979-80 is a prime example. Their small squad played 70 matches, taking in the Charity Shield, First Division, League Cup, FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. The schedule was relentless.
Terry Neill and his players contested 10 matches in April alone as their quest for domestic and European glory took on a slightly masochistic flavour. Beating Liverpool and Juventus in cup semi-finals was hard enough but, to add an extra challenge, Arsenal were also trying to finish in the top three to qualify for the Uefa Cup.
Arsenal were facing five fixtures in 11 days at the start of April and really needed a little help from their friends. After playing Norwich and Southampton in the league, they had a north London derby at White Hart Lane before a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Juventus and an FA Cup tie against Liverpool. Struggling with the schedule, they asked to move the Tottenham fixture. The Football League agreed to their request but, unfortunately for Arsenal, their neighbors were not so obliging.
“It’s one of the biggest matches on our calendar and has been sold out for a long while,” said Tottenham secretary Geoff Jones. “Our first priority must be to our fans. They have known about this fixture since last August and many have arranged their Easter holiday around it.” How times have changed. A football club worrying about fans seems quaint now, in an age when fixtures can be hastily rearranged according to the whim of broadcasters.
Tottenham were not for turning. “We had the same in 1972,” Jones added. “In that year we had to play six matches in 12 days, including a Uefa Cup semi-final against Milan. We asked Ipswich to postpone an Easter Monday match and they refused. We sympathize with Arsenal and are also envious. It’s the mark of being a successful club.”
There was little Arsenal could do. With Sammy Nelson (hamstring), David Price (shin) and Steve Gatting (flu) definitely ruled out and four others doubtful for the game, Neill shuffled his pack for the derby. The manager rested Pat Jennings, Graham Rix, Alan Sunderland and Frank Stapleton, played Paul Barron in goal, moved full-back Pat Rice into a midfield alongside 17-year-old debutant Paul Davis, and deployed midfielder Liam Brady to partner 18-year -old Paul Vaessen up front.
Juventus, their opponents later that week, had no such concerns. Giovanni Trapattoni and his players even had time to attend the match at White Hart Lane, no doubt bemused at Arsenal’s situation. “We want English teams to succeed in Europe, yet we seem to put as many obstacles as we can in their way,” complained Arsenal coach Don Howe. “If the Arsenal players were horses, the RSPCA would already have intervened. It’s a crazy situation which is cruel on the players.”
Yet, with league points and local pride at stake, Arsenal had to get on with it – and they ended up delivering a delicious dose of schadenfreude to their rivals. It was not a great game – Norman Fox described it as “no more exciting than an Easter Day trip to the Dartford Tunnel” in the Times – but Tottenham’s refusal to reschedule the match gave the atmosphere an edge. “Arsenal fans and players were furious,” recalls Jon Spurling in his excellent book All Guns Blazing. “The atmosphere in the ground was vicious, with the Gunners getting the upper hand both verbally on the terraces and on the pitch.”
Arsenal kept a poor Tottenham team at arm’s length, winning the match 2-1 thanks to goals from Vaessen and Alan Sunderland. “Arsenal win with plenty in reserve,” declared the Guardian headline, with reporter David Lacey writing: “Arsenal’s main ambition was to prove that, having beaten Spurs on Boxing Day, they could hold their neighbors with one hand tied behind their backs.”
The game was goalless until the last 10 minutes, when David O’Leary flicked on a corner and Vaessen headed home from close range. There was delirium in the Arsenal end and, just two minutes later, there was another shot of joy when Sunderland lobbed Daines from 30 yards out to give Arsenal a two-goal lead. Chris Jones halved the deficit shortly before the final whistle, but Arsenal held on to clinch the points. For Arsenal fans, the result was given an extra sheen due to the circumstances. “Travelling Arsenal fans composed a new chant that day: ‘We beat the Spurs with six reserves’,” recalls Spurling.
Ultimately, it would be a season of crushing disappointment for Arsenal. They won their semi-finals against Juventus and Liverpool – the latter after three replays – only to lose to Valencia in the Cup Winners’ Cup final and West Ham in the FA Cup final. To add salt to the wounds, they lost their final league game of the season 5-0 at Middlesbrough and missed out on a place in Europe. They had finally run out of gas.
Still, it was a season to remember in many ways, with 70 games and highlights aplenty. There was no silverware, but the memory of beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane while playing six reserves eased the disappointment.