Today marks the anniversary of the Arsenal’s first taste of European glory. On this day 47 years ago, the Gunners took on Anderlecht in the Second Leg of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final (via The Arsenal History). Victory seemed implausible; the Belgian side had romped home by 3 goals to 1 in the First Leg. However, now they had to come to Highbury, and the stage was set for one of the famous stadium’s most memorable nights.
From the first trophy success of the FA Cup in 1930, through that decade’s domestic dominance under Herbert Chapman and George Allison, right up to the league title of 1952/53, the Arsenal never had the opportunity to test themselves against international opposition. This is a considerable shame, and Gooners are left wondering what might have been, had the great Chapman had the opportunity to lock horns with his European counterparts. We will never know how the likes of Alex James, Cliff Bastin, Charlie Buchan and Ted Drake would have dealt with the catenaccio, for instance.
Up until 1955, no continental European club competition existed. That year saw the introduction of the European Cup – for which the league champions of Europe would compete – and the Fairs Cup. The latter was intended to be contested by the cities who held Trade Fairs, hence the tournament’s official title; the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. As a result, it was a London XI that took part in the inaugural Fairs Cup, which lasted from 1955 to 1958, and they ultimately achieved runners-up spot.
Thankfully, it was decreed that all future Inter-Cities Fairs Cups would feature the individual London teams, rather than a composite XI. However, this coincided with one of the bleakest periods in the Arsenal history; after the title win of ’53, the Gunners went 17 years without picking up a single trophy.
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The first season that saw the Arsenal present in European competition was 1963/64, but the club were knocked out in the Second Round by RFC Liége. “Who?” Well might you ask; the Belgian side now sit in the Second Amateur Division, so time has treated us a lot better than it has them.
The Arsenal did not return to the Fairs Cup until 1969/70, but this time they were ready for the challenge. Bertie Mee’s men swept aside the likes of Sporting Lisbon and Ajax on their way to the Final. Thanks to Ray Kennedy’s late consolation in Belgium, the Gunners knew that a 2-0 win at home would see them capture European silverware for the very first time.
Every one of the starting XI would play a part in the Double win the following season: Bob Wilson in goal…Bob McNab, Peter Storey, Peter Simpson and captain Frank McLintock making up the back 4… Eddie Kelly and Jon Sammels in central midfield with George Armstrong and Charlie George out wide…and up front, George Graham and John Radford (via 11v11).
It was Kelly – scorer of the Arsenal’s first in the FA Cup Final just a year later – who made the early breakthrough. In the 25th minute, he picked up the ball on the edge of the area, cut inside onto his right foot, and lashed an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net. The Gunners had to be patient however, and did not add a crucial second to their tally until the last quarter of an hour. McNab raced forward from full-back and floated a delicious ball to the far post, whereupon the ruthless Radford buried a header in front of the North Bank.
Needing a response, Anderlecht immediately flooded forward from the restart, and the Gunners punished them on the counter; George whipped a long crossfield pass to Sammels, who took the ball on his chest and rifled home.
The Fairs Cup belonged to the Arsenal, and the players took their new-found taste for success into the following season, 1970/71.