She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: The Story of Arsenal’s Forgotten Season 1979/80

 

It is late in the evening on the 14th May, 1980, and The Jam, sum it up: ‘The dying spark, you left your mark on me’, the previous three hours had indeed been The Bitterest Pill. The 1979/80 football season had been a momentous journey for the Arsenal and while it still had two more games to go of a never ending story, symbolically it ended when Carlos Pereira lurched to his left and blocked Graham Rix’s penalty kick. I’d watched it through my fingers, held up over my face with tears streaming down my cheeks – I knew what would happen before the penalties even started.

That evening, so soon after defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup Final, five days earlier, was the severest blow upon the deepest bruise. Yet less than two weeks earlier, as the non-stop Brian Talbot headed the single goal sufficient to claim a place in the Cup Final a different conclusion hung like a dream in the barmy spring night air. For in the space of nine days Arsenal had claimed two of the greatest victories in their history: 1-0 in Turin; and 1-0 in the Cup semi-final 3rd replay: nine days that represent the zenith of Terry Neill’s tenure as Arsenal manager. Although we weren’t to know then, the poignancy of those few days would later grow and spread exponentially, every time we saw the hazy re-runs on YouTube of Paul Vaessen’s goal in the Stadio Comunale, the goal that causes Paul’s star to blaze still in the Turin sky with a magnitude rarely equalled.

It was a season which taught lessons to me, the boy to the man who now writes these words that football glory can eclipse the smallness of mere trophies, that it resides in the community which exists between a club, its team, and its supporters; glory is located in the shared space where those three things overlap: in the end Turin and Highfield Road were enough, and to go with Big Willie Young, Rixy, Sunderland, Pat Rice and all the golden shirted heroes into the long night of time past was a victory of a bigger kind! Victoria Concordia Crescit.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: The Story of Arsenal’s Forgotten Season 1979/80 is my attempt to capture the joy and the sadness of that long, long season, which now, from the viewpoint of contemporary football, seems so unimaginable. It discusses the chemistry and the football engineering of Neill and Don Howe as they built their great cup team of the late seventies, and how that side came of age in the sun at Wembley in May 1979, and started the 79/80 season as genuine pretenders to the crown. Over the longest of seasons via Europe, Swindon Town in the League Cup, Turin, Liverpool again and again and again it builds to a sustained moment of football elation courtesy of Vaessen and Talbot and then crashes with a sudden and bewildering fall, to leave its own story hidden beneath the debris of its ending. But to pick over that debris is not the act of a car-crash fascination it is to acknowledge that the values of football surpass the littleness of defeat, that going through it trumps even victory. The tears soon dry, next season soon comes, and it’s the Arsenal, it’s the Arsenal! So come on you Gunners:

“What did she wear?
She wore, she wore
She wore a yellow ribbon
She wore a yellow ribbon in the merry month of May
And when, I asked, oh why she wore her ribbon
She said it’s for The Arsenal and were going to Wembley
Wembley, Wembley
Were the famous Arsenal and were going to Wembley.
WEM-BER-LEY, WEM-BER-LEY…”

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6 thoughts on “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: The Story of Arsenal’s Forgotten Season 1979/80

  1. David

    Thanks very much for posting this and the link. I was 15 at the time and despite not winning anything, that season has stayed with me. Two cup final defeats AND we lost Brady. My hero was Willie Young and he summed up for me everything about Arsenal and that season. I was also desperate to have a Paul Vaessen perm after Turin. I hope this brings back some good (and sad) memories for people of football in the pre-commodification days! And to younger readers who never knew that season I hope it starts to establish a trajectory of the recent history of modern Arsenal. At the end of the book I’ve put my contact details so please get in touch if you’ve anything to say about the book – critical or whatever – football is about opinions. Looking forward to writing some more stuff – Fairs Cup, FA Cup wins, and ‘87 League Cup; and winning at White Hart Lane next season.

    Reply
    1. Kev Foord

      That loss to Valencia is still the most painful memory of following Arsenal for me…..they had Bonhof, Kempes, Tendillo and we had Brady. All I can remember is their keeper 4 yards off his line as Rix took the spot kick…having kept them at bay for 120 minutes….it made Copenhagen all the sweeter in 94 but as a 14 yr old in 1980 I was crushed!

      Reply
  2. Patrick Harrington

    Any reason for the songs associated with each chapter being released well after the season ended? The Bitterest Pill didn’t come out until 1982!

    Reply
    1. David

      Hi Patrick – I used the The Bitterest Pill quote as it seemed to capture the moment – Valencia left its mark on me, and after West Ham, it felt like the bitterest pill (I’d also been listening to Going Underground almost non-stop while I was writing it, so I had a Jam bias perhaps – A Jam enthusiast has already had me for using it).

      The songs used for chapter headings were all out in 1980 ‘I believe’ and were picked by me because a) the song title commented, if somewhat obliquely, on the what the chapter covered; and b) it was an attempt to build a wider historical context to the narrative. I suppose on reflection it might be considered a bit gimmicky? The songs are ones I associate with the times but in the strictest sense you are correct to question they’re use – can I be excused artistic license?

      Reply

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