It is commonplace these days to hear how ‘tired’ players are; how they need a ‘rest’; or how the ‘fixture schedule is crazy’. Unsurprisingly, there are certain swathes of society who have little sympathy for the perceived whining of players and managers and wonder just how draining kicking a ball around twice a week for ninety minutes twice a week can really be.
We are told that the modern game is faster and more skilful than ever and so comparisons with players and teams that have gone before are moot and meaningless. While it might be true that the conditions of the present game give opportunity to matches being played on bowling green-type pitches, and the introduction of the back pass rule has made the game quicker to a certain degree, it is worth noting that in days gone by players would commonly play more than 60 games a season.
This was not unusual in the days of 42-league game seasons with the potential for unlimited cup replays. Successful sides of the 1970s and ‘80s would usually see most of their squad playing between 50 and 60 matches per season.
What, however, of a player who once played a staggering 70 club matches in a single season? Step forward Brian Talbot of Arsenal who achieved this feat in the 1979-80 season.
Born in Ipswich, Talbot made his name at his hometown club where he made 227 appearances in Bobby Robson’s vibrant young side. He was an integral part of the 1978 FA Cup-winning side that defeated Arsenal by a single goal and so it was a surprise when he departed Portman Road for Highbury the following January. The transfer fee of £450,000 was welcomed by Robson who used it to finance the transfers of Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen.
By May 1979, Talbot was making history as he became the first player in the history of the game to appear in two successive FA Cup Finals for different clubs when he scored the opening goal in Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Manchester United.
So to the 1979-80 season then, and kick-off was back at Wembley for the FA Charity Shield against league champions, Liverpool. A 3-1 defeat for the Gunners gave a taste for what would be a roller-coaster season ending in glorious failure.
All of that was still to come as Arsenal kicked off the league season with a solid 4-0 away victory over newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion. A defeat at home to Ipswich Town a few days later preceded a goalless draw with Manchester United at Highbury, so by the time Arsenal embarked on the first cup tie of the season, they had three points from as many games.
Next up was the second round of the League Cup which was in those days played over two legs. Leeds United, then in the First Division, were the opponents and after a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in the first-leg, the two sides met again at Highbury a week later. If the first game between the old rivals had been close, the return was anything but and Arsenal ran out winners by an amazing 7-0 scoreline.
Autumn came and Arsenal’s season continued with league form being steady rather than particularly impressive. By 1st November 1979, Arsenal had won just three of the 12 league games played and had already been beaten three times. These were the days of two points for a win of course, and so Arsenal’s six draws in this period were not too disastrous with the club in eighth place but only four points behind early leaders, Manchester United.
As 1978-79 FA Cup winners, Arsenal competed in the 1979-80 European Cup Winners’ Cup and by this time had safely negotiated their way through the opening two rounds of the competition. Wins over Fenerbahce and Magdeburg saw them safely through to a March quarter-final date with IFK Goteborg.
The Gunners’ League Cup adventure was also ploughing on with a 1-0 victory over Southampton in round three followed by a goalless draw away to Brighton in the next round.
November and December were ticked off the calendar as Arsenal made it past Brighton in the League Cup replay only to fall dramatically and dismally to third division Swindon Town in the next round, A 1-1 Highbury draw meant a replay at Swindon’s County Ground stadium where the home side prevailed in extra time by the odd goal in seven.
A good run in the league pushed Arsenal up to third place following a single-goal Boxing Day victory over their North London rivals, and although this was followed by a three-goal drubbing at Old Trafford, Arsenal then went on a run of seven wins and two draws in the next ten league games. This meant that by the start of April 1980 Arsenal were keeping in touch with the leaders at the top of the table.
By now the season was really starting to come to life in the cups. Having been FA Cup finalists in each of the two previous seasons, Terry Neill and his men were keen to make history by becoming the first side in the competition’s history to qualify for three successive Wembley finals.
Cardiff City were rather unconvincingly dispatched in the third round after a replay, a 2-1 home success following a scoreless draw at Ninian Park. Next up was a renewal of hostilities with new best friends, Brighton, who succumbed 2-0 at Highbury.
Another replay was required in the fifth round as struggling Bolton Wanderers shared two goals with Arsenal at Burnden Park before conceding three without reply in the replay.
Arsenal met IFK Goteborg in the first leg of the ECWC quarter-final four days before they were due to meet Graham Taylor’s Second-Division Watford in the same stage of the FA Cup. Warming up nicely for the trip to Vicarage Road, Arsenal practically made sure of their place in the ECWC semi-finals with a 5-1 victory.
A toughly-fought match on the mud at Vicarage Road ensued and when it was all over if was Arsenal who progressed into the semi-finals. Joining them in the hat for the semi-final draw were London neighbours West Ham, alongside the Merseyside duo of Liverpool and Everton.
Similarly, once the formality of the second leg against Goteborg had been completed, Arsenal awaited the draw for the semi-finals of the ECWC alongside Juventus, Valencia and FC Nantes.
Perhaps hoping to be drawn against anybody other than Liverpool and Juventus, Arsenal were, invariably, drawn against both. So it would come to pass that Arsenal would play six semi-final matches in 22 days against two of the top sides in Europe at the time. Added into the mix was also a league match at Anfield in this period.
Both of these titanic clashes have gone down into Arsenal folklore with the FA Cup semi-final collision with Liverpool going to three replays. First off a goalless draw was played at Hillsborough in a drab match enlivened only by Frank Stapleton hitting the bar in the last minute of the game. The two sides met the following midweek at Villa Park and this time shared two goals with David Fairclough’s opener for Liverpool being cancelled out by Frank Stapleton’s equaliser.
In the meantime, Arsenal had only managed a 1-1 home draw with Juventus in the first leg of the ECWC semi-final to seemingly hand the initiative in the tie to the Italians.
The 23rd of April 1980 is a date many Arsenal fans remember to this day. Needing either a victory or a high scoring draw away to Juventus in the second leg, Arsenal looked to be on their way out of the competition as the game approached the 88th-minute mark still goalless. It was then that the late Paul Vaessen secured himself a place in the hearts of Gunners’ fans for all eternity as he popped up out of nowhere to score the only goal of the game and put Arsenal through a final showdown at Heysel against Valencia.
Back to domestic cup action and Liverpool and Arsenal once again met to try and sort this semi-final business out once and for all. Back up to Villa Park, the two teams travelled on Monday 28 April and once again the sides could not be separated.
In perhaps the best game of the lot, Arsenal took a first-minute lead when Alan Sunderland scored after just 14 seconds and then managed to hold onto it for 91 minutes before Kenny Dalglish equalised in injury time. Extra time produced no further goals and so the sides were required to try again three days later.
By now the FA were getting twitchy and were beginning to worry that the final might have to be put back. They made overtures to both clubs to sound out the possibility of settling the tie by penalty shoot-out should another draw prevail, only to be categorically turned down by both clubs who threatened to simply refuse to participate and walk off the pitch if it came to that.
As it happened, the fourth time was the charm for Arsenal and the third replay, held at Coventry City’s Highfield Road stadium, was settled by a single headed goal by Brian Talbot. It was just reward for the man who had been ever-present throughout the season and was showing the form that had him knocking once more on the door of the England squad.
Dovetailing perfectly in midfield alongside Liam Brady and Graham Rix, Talbot’s strength lay in his ball-winning skills and industriousness. Although he would only score four goals in all competitions throughout the season, Talbot’s presence in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield was integral to their reaching of two cup finals.
As the league season came towards a close in the run-up to Arsenal’s two cup finals, their form started to wobble and only three points were picked up in four games. This meant that as the Gunners walked out at Wembley on May 10 for the FA Cup Final against West Ham, European football had yet to be rubber-stamped for the following season.
Against the Hammers, Arsenal would have the first of three opportunities to clinch such a place in Europe and yet they would ultimately fail in all three efforts.
A headed goal from (not-yet) Sir Trevor Brooking was all that separated the sides but it was enough to send Arsenal to Belgium in a despondent mood. A turgid match against Valencia followed and for the second time in five days, Arsenal failed to score in a cup final. The fact that the Spaniards failed likewise meant a penalty-shootout and misses from Liam Brady and Graham Rix meant Valencia lifted the trophy.
Arsenal still had one last chance to qualify for Europe via the league. After the disappointment of the two cup final defeats, they still had two league games to play and maximum points away to Wolves and Middlesbrough would be sufficient to secure a final position of third and thus entry into the 1980-81 UEFA Cup.
Running on empty, Arsenal pulled off a 2-1 victory at Molineux and so headed into their 70th and final fixture needing both points at Ayresome Park to prevent the season from being a total wash-out. Unfortunately, it was a game too far and with nothing left in the legs, Arsenal were crushed 5-0.
For Brian Talbot, the season was not quite over yet, however. Selected as part of England’s initial 28-man squad for the European Championships, Talbot joined the squad for the pre-tournament tour to Australia where he won his sixth and final cap.
Talbot would stay at Highbury until the summer of 1985 before moving to Watford. A further playing spell at Stoke City was followed by moves into management with West Bromwich Albion and Aldershot as player-manager at both clubs and then Rushden and Diamonds, Hibernian, Oldham Athletic and Oxford United amongst others.
In 2016, Talbot was voted 23rd in a supporters’ poll of Arsenal’s greatest-ever players.