With just a couple of days now till the Europa League Final in Baku. I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane to take a look at our previous endeavours in Europe. All in all it has to be said for a club of Arsenal’s stature we’ve underachieved in European competition. Just two trophies in our entire history. The first was the forerunner of the UEFA Cup the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1970, which was 49 years ago and our last European trophy the European Cup Winners Cup was won in 1994 a quarter of a century ago. Just a couple of fleeting glimpses of glory in an otherwise trophy less history in Europe for the Gunners.
If you look at our record compared to most of the other top English clubs it doesn’t make good reading. Liverpool are leading the way for English clubs in Europe with no less than eight European trophies. Five European Cup’s/Champions League’s (Hopefully number six will arrive in the very near future!) and three UEFA/Europa League Cups. Next come Manchester United with five trophies. Three European Cup’s/Champions League’s, one Cup Winners Cup and one UEFA Cup. Chelsea on four European trophies have won twice as many as us. One Champions League, two Cup Winners Cup’s and one Europa League (Please God don’t let them add to that on Wednesday!). Even that lot down the road have won Three European trophies. One Cup Winners Cup (the first British club to win a European trophy in 1963) and two UEFA Cups. I’m thinking of emigrating to Australia if they win old big ears on Saturday!
Our first ever venture into Europe got off to a flying start in the Fairs Cup with a 7-1 away victory over the Danish outfit Staevnet courtesy of hat-tricks from Joe Baker and Geoff Strong and one from Scottish winger Johnny MacLeod way back in 1963. Although we lost the home leg 3-2 we qualified comfortably enough for the next round where we were promptly eliminated by Standard Liege 4-2 on aggregate.
Arsenal fans had to wait another six seasons before finally getting another opportunity to see the Gunners in action in Europe again. By which time Manchester United had won the European Cup and London rivals Tottenham and West Ham had both lifted the Cup Winners Cup. Arsenal had a fantastic run in the Fairs Cup that took them all the way to the Final disposing of Glentoran, Sporting Clube de Portugal, Rouen, Dinamo Bacau and Ajax. This was no mean feat as Ajax included Johan Cruyff in their ranks. The Dutch team were approaching their peak and were on the cusp of winning the European Cup three times on the spin.
Arsenal were 3-0 down in the 1st leg of the Fairs Cup Final away at Anderlecht with time ebbing away when young Ray Kennedy scored a precious away goal to give the Gunners s lifeline in the 2nd leg back at Highbury. Many Arsenal fans who were there described the 2nd leg as the greatest ever night they’d witnessed at Highbury. With a loud and passionate support urging them on Arsenal were unstoppable, goals from Eddie Kelly, John Radford and Jon Sammels without reply gave the Gunners a 4-3 win on aggregate ending 17 years in the trophy wilderness and winning The Arsenal’s first ever silverware in Europe on a glorious night in North London in April 1970.
In the following season 1970-71 Arsenal defending the Fairs Cup went out to the German side Cologne. We were 2-1 up from the first leg at home but lost 1-0 away going out on the away goal rule. However that season’s European campaign was more memorable for an epic punch-up after an earlier round against Lazio. After the match outside a restaurant in Rome the Arsenal and Lazio players had an massive brawl where The Arsenal led by skipper Frank McLintock gave a good account of themselves. A week later the Gunners knocked the Italians out at Highbury 2-0 before going on to lose to the Germans.
In the 1971-72 season Arsenal were making their debut in the European Cup. We managed to get through the first few rounds but unfortunately we went out to that great Ajax side of the early 1970’s. Arsenal lost the first leg 2-1 and Highbury was rocking for the 2nd leg. I was stood on the North Bank and it was as loud and raucous as I’d ever known it. Peter Marinello missed a glorious chance to put us one up as he fluffed a one-on-one with the keeper then George Graham silenced the home support when he headed an own goal and Ajax went through 3-1 on aggregate.
Arsenal were in the doldrums for quite a few years and didn’t qualify for Europe again till the 1978-79 season. Other English teams were beginning to dominate in the European Cup Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and later Aston Villa all won it. But back to our UEFA campaign in 1978-79. We went through against East German side Lokomotive Leipzig and then narrowly defeated Yugoslavian outfit Hajduk Split. We lost away 2-1 Liam Brady scoring our goal and won a tight game at Highbury in the second leg with big Willie Young heading home the winner taking us through to meet another Yugoslavian side Red Star Belgrade. In another close encounter, we lost away 1-0 and an Alan Sunderland goal wasn’t enough for us to go through in a 1-1 draw in the return leg at Highbury.
Having won the FA Cup in 1979 in thrilling fashion we were in the Cup Winners Cup for the first time in 1979-80. The Gunners despatched of Fenerbahce, Magdeburg and Gothenburg. However Arsenal were fighting for silverware on three fronts and the sheer volume of matches eventually took its toll. Arsenal had a crazy fixture schedule. We played Southampton at home Easter Saturday, Spurs away Easter Monday, two days before facing Juventus in the Cup Winners 1st leg at Highbury. It was a tense affair Cabrini put Juventus ahead from the penalty spot and Roberto Bettega was sent off for a terrible foul on David O’Leary and the game finished up 1-1 with Arsenal getting a late equaliser with Juventus scoring an own goal.
Before the 2nd leg Arsenal had to fit in three games against Liverpool! An FA Cup Semi-Final, a replay and a League game up at Anfield. It was a daunting task to go to Turin and get a result. No English side had ever won there and David O’Leary played with stitches in his shin from Bettega’s over the top challenge at Highbury. Young Paul Vaessen was brought on as a last throw of the dice and he came up trumps when against all the odds he headed a late winner past Dino Zoff to secure a famous victory and take the Gunners through to the Final. Unfortunately it was heartbreak again for Arsenal. After losing the FA Cup Final on the Saturday we lost the Cup Winners Cup Final against Valencia on the Wednesday. 70 games was just too many matches. We went to extra time against Valencia but it was still stalemate at 0-0 after 120 minutes. However Graham Rix missed our final spot kick as we lost the penalty shoot out. One of the worst ever weeks to be an Arsenal fan utterly depressing is an understatement. We also missed out on qualification for Europe. We managed to beat Wolves 2-1 two days after losing the Cup Winners Cup Final. Although the team were physically and mentally shattered and we were smashed 5-0 three days later at Middlesbrough in Liam Brady’s final game for The Arsenal.
Winterslag put us out the UEFA Cup in 1981-82 on away goals and the following season in the UEFA Cup Spartak Moscow gave us a lesson in how to play football at Highbury. I think anybody who was there would concur that the Russian side were magnificent as they toyed with us beating the Gunners 5-2 on the night and 8-4 on aggregate.
It was nine long seasons before Arsenal were in Europe again. Initially down to our poor league campaigns and then the ban on English clubs after the Haysel stadium disaster. In 1991-92 the English clubs were back and so were The Arsenal in the European Cup. George Graham was at the helm twenty years after scoring that own goal against Ajax in the same competition. George fancied our chances in the competition and so did I. We cleared the first hurdle beating Austria Memphis and then met Benfica. Kevin Campbell scored in a 1-1 draw away to put us in a good position to go through. We went one nil up at Highbury with a goal from the unlikeliest of scorers Colin Pates. The Brazilian Isaias equalised before half time and the game was very even as the two sides went into extra time. But Benfica’s experience in Europe started to tell. They went ahead 2-1 and then Isaias lit up Highbury with a great individual goal to kill the game at 3-1 and The Arsenal were out.
George was a quick learner though and he loved pitting his wits against the top continental coaches. Arsenal were back in the Cup Winners Cup in 1993-94. Arsenal beat Danish side Odense and crushed the Belgians Standard Liege 10-0 on aggregate. Italian outfit Torino were a tough nut to crack in the Quarter Final. A 0-0 draw in Italy and then a narrow 1-0 win at Highbury with a goal from the skipper Tony Adams. The Semi Final was just as tight. A 1-1 draw away against PSG in Paris, with a goal from Wrighty and a Kevin Campbell winner at Highbury in a pulsating atmosphere saw us through to the Final at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. The only downside was a yellow card for Wrighty which ruled him out of the Final.
In the Cup Winners Cup Final Arsenal faced crack Italian side Parma who had Zola, Asprilla and Brolin in their side. Alan Smith led the line and rifled one in on the volley clipping the post on the way into the net after 20 minutes to put us one up. The rest of the game was one way traffic towards our goal. Paul Davis rolled back the years and used his experience to help guide youngsters Ian Selly and Steve Morrow in midfield. It was a masterclass of defending from the famous back four as they and David Seaman dealt with everything Parma threw at them to see out the game and lift the trophy.
The following season 1994-95 Arsenal were in the Cup Winners Cup again to try to become the first team to retain the trophy. By the time we played Auxerre in the Quarter Final George Graham had been sacked and Stewart was caretaker manager. Wrighty did the business scoring in a 1-1 draw away and notching the winner in a 1-0 victory against the French side in the 2nd leg at Highbury. The two Semi Final matches were both thrilling encounters with Italian side Sampdoria. Both matches ended 3-2 to the home side, a Stephen Schwarz free kick two minutes from time in Italy ensured it went to extra time and penalties. David Seaman was the hero as he saved three of the Italians spot kicks to see us through to the Final in Paris against the Spaniards Real Zaragoza. The two sides were locked at 1-1 with John Hartson equalising for us. The game went into extra time and it looked as if the final was heading towards penalties. I must admit I fancied Seaman repeating his heroics from the Semi Final if it went to a penalty shoot-out. However disaster struck when ex-Tottenham player Nayim caught Seaman off his line and agonisingly and freakishly chipped the ball over Seaman’s head from the halfway line and into the net to win the trophy and leave the Arsenal fans heartbroken not for the first time in Europe.
We went out early again in 1996-97. This time against the Germans Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Cup 6-4 on aggregate and Arsene Wenger had arrived by the time we played the 2nd leg. In Arsene’s first full season we had an early exit yet again in the UEFA Cup to Greek side POAK Salonica.
After that followed a long spell of 19 continuous seasons of Champions League participation. Although Arsenal didn’t made that much of an impact on the competition with no silverware to speak of. In 13 of those seasons we didn’t make it past the last 16. Although after being eliminated from the Champions League in 1999-2000 we dropped into the UEFA Cup and went all the way to the Final against Galatasaray. With shades of the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1980 Arsenal again drew 0-0 after extra time and lost again in the cruelest of ways on penalties and another European adventure was over. In 2000-01 Valencia and John Carew did for us on away goals in the Quarter Final of the Champions League.
One of the worst defeats we’ve had in Europe, maybe even the worst was the Invincible season in 2003-04 when Chelsea put us out in the Quarter Final. There is no doubt in my mind we should have won the Champions League that season. We were the best team in Europe without a doubt. What didn’t help our cause was the way the fixtures fell. We played Manchester United twice, a league game at Highbury, followed by an FA Cup Semi Final at Villa Park, sandwiched between the two legs against Chelsea. Arsenal drew at Stamford Bridge 1-1 with Robert Pires scoring for the Gunners. In the 2nd leg at Highbury Jose Antonio Reyes put us 1 nil up just before half time and all seemed to be going well. Then five minutes into the 2nd half Frank Lampard equalised and as the game wore on you could see the Arsenal players physically dropping off. They looked as if they were running through treacle and three minutes from time Wayne Bridge of all people scored the winner and we were out. I’m convinced we’d have beaten Monaco in the Semi Final and gone on to do Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the Final as well. That was definitely our season to win it and it was sickening to go out like that to Chelsea.
Of course we got so close in 2006 in the Champions League Final in Paris. Coming within 13 minutes of beating Barcelona 1-0 with a Sol Campbell header. Thierry Henry was clean through one-on-one with just the keeper to beat to sow it up at 2-0. But like Peter Marinello in 1972 he fluffed it. Only Henry at that time was a lot better than Marinello, he was the best player on the planet at that time and we’d seen him convert that sort of chance so many times. However this time he missed and Barcelona went on to defeat us 2-1. That was our sixth European Final and we’d lost four of them.
The heartbreak continued. A Quarter Final defeat against Liverpool in 2008. A Semi Final drubbing against Manchester United in 2009. Another Quarter Final loss against Barcelona in 2010. Then came seven seasons of getting beaten at the last 16 stage. Usually against Bayern Munich, the last of which were two 5-1 annihilations in both legs by the Germans.
That was our last participation in the Champions League. Last season we reached the Europa League Semi Final but as usual in Europe we lost, this time to Atletico Madrid. This season we’ve gone one better and reached the Final our first European Final for 13 years. We’ve never beaten an English team in Europe and Wednesday night would be a great time to put that right. It’s also high time we won another European trophy. Come on you Gunners don’t let us down!
As always thanks for reading.
Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?