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“George has done it!”: Remembering the 1971 FA Cup final fifty years on

There is an especially brilliant phrase in the author James Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which occurs at the conclusion of its third chapter.

Kneeling amongst his college classmates during the Eucharist, Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus experiences the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour. He trembles with pious anticipation as the ciborium, the vessel containing the host, passes from communicant to communicant.

“The ciborium had come to him.”

It is a phrase that captures a moment of full religious realisation for Stephen. It is a moment that, to bring the focus back to football, many experienced in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Fifty years ago, on 8 May 1971, the ciborium had come to Arsenal – the latest communicant, in an era where there were many of them. Their 2-1 defeat of Liverpool after extra time confirmed the Gunners’ fourth FA Cup; only the second ‘double’ of the twentieth century.

Arsenal attack vs Liverpool defence

The match was played on a baking hot day at Wembley. Although not the sole reason that the final would stretch to extra time, the oppressive heat was undoubtedly a factor in the quality of the game.

Perhaps the above words ought to be amended to ‘the lack of quality’. There was poor finishing, ham-fisted defending, and rough challenges . Brian Glanville noted in his match report the four free-kicks the Gunners conceded in the early stages. Several viewers were left unimpressed.

Mike Langley noted the disgruntled opinion at the stadium that day. “Many Wembley observers groaned,” he wrote in his match report, “that it was the worst final since the war, although in a text-book way it was always interesting.”

Frank McGhee was positively scathing: “to put it bluntly, for its first ninety minutes this was the worst Cup Final I have ever seen. And I have seen more than twenty.”

Harsh words, but in truth no one could or should have expected a thriller. In addition to the nerves of two sides full of young players, the matchup didn’t suggest an open game. Liverpool’s main strength was their stingy defence. The four-strong ‘red wall’ plus a fine goalkeeper in Ray Clemence, that had conceded the fewest goals in the Football League and only once in the FA Cup, were up against the First Division’s second-best attack.

At the same time, the Reds had scored a mere 42 goals in 42 league games that season. The misfiring front line had their work cut out for them against the league’s second-best defence ; Pat Rice, Bob McNab, Peter Simpson, and FWA Footballer of the Year Frank McLintock.

You Say You Want a Revolution

The game may simply have been a bore for the casual viewer, but it was absorbing in its own way. It is worth taking a closer look at the narratives that made it so compelling.

Liverpool’s main attacking threat, was the exciting Steve Heighway – quick and capable of the unexpected. A 23 year-old enjoying a breakout season, and with a haircut and moustache that suggested his countenance belonged on the cover of the album Let It Be, Heighway posed a dangerous threat breaking down the left.

He was the bright spark in a young and fresh side. After Liverpool’s defeat in the final, fans and writers alike acknowledged the achievement of this inexperienced side in having come so far and predicted great success in their future. 

Their youth was offered as a mitigating factor but Arsenal weren’t exactly full of old hands themselves. The Gunners’ average age was 25.5 against their opponents’ 24.23. Both the 19-year-old Ray Kennedy and 20-year-old Charlie George were in the thick of the action for the double winners.

Rather, Liverpool’s achievement is best seen in context of the radical changes to their squad in a very short period of time. Age had caught up with the great side of the sixties and a shock FA Cup defeat to Second Division Watford in February 1970 prompted manager Bill Shankly to wield the axe.

Six of the eleven that started the 1971 FA Cup final could count themselves amongst the beneficiaries of Shankly’s purge. “The revolution, once begun,” wrote Jonathan Wilson and Scott Murray in The Anatomy of Liverpool, “happened quickly.”

My Way or the Heighway

Back to Heighway, then. A couple of early ‘reducers’ on him by Peter Storey set the tone. Heighway was quiet for much of the game – until his goal.

Liverpool already had the blueprint from the league win over Arsenal at Anfield in January. On that occasion, Ron Yeats released Heighway down the left before the winger’s centre was knocked in by John Toshack.

In the final, the Welshman served as a decoy. Liverpool’s substitute Peter Thompson, enjoying a fine appearance, released Heighway on the break. The latter drifting infield, dancing with the ball at his feet.

Two delectable changes of pace followed, and Heighway’s alert eye spotted an inviting aperture. Writing after the game, Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson explained that had been distracted by threat of the advancing Toshack – destined, Wilson mistakenly believed, to be the target of a cross by Heighway. “I moved off my post to anticipate the chip,” he wrote, “and my weight was on my front foot. I didn’t realise I’d left Heighway a good yard of space to aim at.”

Heighway’s smooth finish with his left foot from a tight angle put Liverpool, improbably, in the lead. “The silly thing is,” Wilson added, “is that I’ve seen Heighway do it before. […] It has been shown on television repeatedly. Yet, in that split second at Wembley it didn’t occur to me where the danger lay.”

(via gr8footy)

Cannons Knock Down Walls

Heighway’s opener came after a period of normal time where Arsenal failed to convert numerous opportunities. Kennedy inexplicably fluffed a close-range chance, swiping ineffectually from six yards out, only making contact with thin air as the ball dropped across the face of goal.

Twice in quick succession, George Graham nearly headed the Gunners into the lead. First hitting the bar and then seeing his goal-bound effort from a corner cleared off the line by Alec Lindsay. 

The most dramatic of these near-misses was undoubtedly George Armstrong’s header, a firm connection between the ball and the cranium of Arsenal’s number seven as he climbed above the red wall.

The result was an outstanding save by Clemence, who, for good measure, clung on to the ball to deny the preying Armstrong an easy tap-in. “What strange gaps were appearing in Liverpool’s Berlin Wall!” exclaimed Brian Glanville of the Reds’ defensive lapses in his match report.

It seemed a matter of time before one of these lapses proved fatal . So it was in extra time with Arsenal’s farcical rejoinder. Less than ten minutes after their side took the lead, the Liverpool contingent had reason to be frustrated as Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes dithered in clearing a ball that plonked on the turf between them. Their hesitation not dissimilar to the mix-up involving Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger in Liverpool’s 2012 FA Cup semi-final against Everton.

Arsenal substitute Eddie Kelly became the first substitute to score in an FA Cup final when he latched on to this fatal lapse and bobbled home an equaliser. It was all square again.

Thompson Turns the Tide

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Liverpool’s lack of a cutting edge had been a problem since 1967. They were held to thirteen draws in the league that season, and then eleven each for the next three campaigns before the nadir. A joint-league-high of seventeen also came in 1970-71.

One of Shankly’s several attempts to solve the problem was splashing the cash on young Alun Evans in 1968 and it was between him and Thompson for a starting berth at Wembley in 1971.

Both had undergone surgery that season, and Evans had shown signs of sluggishness, so it was a bit of a gamble either way. Shankly opted to start with Britain’s most expensive teenager, perhaps owing to his hat-trick against Bayern Munich in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, his goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton, or to the simple belief that the club’s top-scorer that season was a better bet than anyone else.

It didn’t work. Having failed to significantly affect the game, Evans was eventually withdrawn for Thompson. It was with the introduction of this sparkling talent, who had won the FA Cup with Liverpool in 1965, that the Reds enjoyed a better spell.

Thompson’s contribution, however, would have to wait. After ninety minutes, the score was 0-0 and the Wembley crowd witnessed remarkable full-time scenes. The pitch resembled a scene from the war front. A medical tent on the edge of a battlefield, exhausted bodies strewn everywhere, players sprawled on the turf, being treated for cramp. 

Some of the Arsenal players, Simpson and George among them, were vigorously splashing their weary countenances with water from a small bucket, resembling a group of horses gathered around a water trough. Rest, refuel, resume.

Freak Occurrence

In The Guardian, Eric Todd entertained the question of possible Liverpool victory if Thompson had been included from the start. It is tempting to think that the player described by Glanville as “that dazzling enigma”, having supplied the assist for Heighway’s goal, could have ensured Liverpool’s second FA Cup triumph if chosen in place of Evans. 

But hindsight is 20/20. One cannot, similarly, help but wonder if the narrative of that season may have hailed Liverpool’s solid defence a bit more and not criticised their misfiring attack quite so much had they not failed at the final hurdle. 

Then again, given the nature of the praise that Arsenal have received through the years for their historic achievement suggests that the writers and the public may not have automatically showered a considerably more turgid Liverpool with glowing tributes. 

Phrases such as “grindingly consistent” and “superbly organized and ultra-functional” are used by Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson to describe the double winners of 1971 in The Unforgiven, their wonderful book about Don Revie’s Leeds United. “No-one will recall this Arsenal side with starry-eyed affection” declared Langley. “They’re too serious, too intently professional, too defensive.”

They were also bloody tough. Despite Arsenal’s dominance, there was something freakish about Liverpool’s defeat. Ray Clemence pointed out after the final that it was the first time in 1970-71 that, in the sixty-second of sixty-two games that season, Liverpool had been a goal up and lost. Only Arsenal could have done that.


They came from behind to win the FA Cup final as they had come from behind to win the league . Looking dead and buried before coming back to life. In that respect, the cup final and Charlie George’s celebration after his famous winner is a snapshot of the whole campaign. Set up for a shot outside the box, with three Liverpool defenders converging on him – one from each side – George took a touch with his right foot and, with eight minutes remaining, slammed home what proved to be the winner.

Watching footage of the celebration, the resemblance is instantly noticeable and deeply symbolic. Collapsing to the turf, arms outstretched and legs close together. George, revelling in the torrent of the Arsenal machine that has won yet again, is hauled up by his teammates. 

His limbs are frozen in place, but his body is in defiance of gravity owing to the muscle power of his teammates. It looks like the statue of Christ the Redeemer going up right in front of our eyes. 

As they were at one stage in the league. As they were at one stage in the cup final. As George is now. Arsenal were resurrected. The twentieth century’s second double had the qualities of a miracle.

Chaos Theory

Arsenal did not reach these heights again for several years, but one could be forgiven for thinking that 1971 was the dawn of a new dynasty. The Gunners had won the league five days earlier at White Hart Lane. A late winner by Kennedy securing their twenty-ninth win of the season. A record number of victories for an English league champion that wasn’t broken for 46 years.

But an observer with their finger on the pulse of English football in the early seventies would perhaps not be so hasty as to make such a judgement. Part of the Eucharist is the idea that the ciborium will move on the next communicant. 

A study of English football in the sixties and seventies suggests that the major trophies in the domestic game shared with this vessel of the sacrament something more than the fact that they were all cups.

To say that Arsenal were disruptors would be to imply that there was an order to disrupt. Between 1959 and 1977, no club successfully defended the First Division title. There was only one successful defence of the FA Cup between 1952 and 1982. The League Cup did not see a successful defence until 1979.

The default state was chaos, and the 1971 FA Cup final was only the latest episode.

The Dreamers

Since the war, but before the onset of the 1960s, the competition in English football was healthy but not frenzied – the First Division title, for instance, had been retained three times between 1946 and 1959. Part of the reason for the churn in the subsequent two decades was the introduction and expansion of European competitions and the League Cup. It was a new world. The small squads of those days found it tough to compete on multiple fronts with equal intensity.

Arsenal weren’t the only shooting star in that era but they burned brighter than most. Their brilliance wasn’t quite as ephemeral as is sometimes imagined – League Cup final defeats in 1968 and 1969, a Fairs Cup win in 1970, and defeat in the Centenary final of 1972 to Leeds meant they could safely be described as Wembley regulars.

But it is not merely the frequency with which trophies changed hands that made the era so exciting . It was also the variety of winners. The sixties and seventies were a tumultuous time in English football. No dominance was secure, all that was solid melted into air. Equally, though, it meant that clubs were never too far from success either. If you were a supporter, it was quite realistic to believe that next year could really be your year.

If there was an innocence to the time, it was more than the innocence of shirts without shirt sponsors or goalkeepers without gloves. Money has never been entirely absent from football. Whether capital has transformed the sport for better or worse is a different discussion.

But when financial disparities were not as deeply entrenched, there was more sincerity than delusion to being a dreamer. It is that sincerity of supporters, players, and mangers in their belief to take advantage of the chaos, renewed every single season, that perhaps remains the more compelling story in our imagination of a memorable time in post-war English football.

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