A football manager does not have to be the best player in the World, but he needs a bit of luck and some skills that makes it possible to do that special. But a manager without his special assistants around could easily fall into a trap believing he is “the special one”.
Being born on the 25th of December, as Bertie Mee was in the year of 1916, could have seen him as a man of many presents, but his run of success in football was build on good leadership, appointments of staff that had influence and getting a generation of young players through.
After the dismissal of Billy Wright in 1966, Bertie Mee, a physio at Arsenal at the time, was appointed as manager. With no experience from top flight football as a player and just a minor playing career at Mansfield Town to show for.
When Bertie Mee was appointed manager at Arsenal it was with a clause that he could return to his job as physio if it didn’t work out. But as the story is told that would never happen. Bertie Mee made some very important decisions as he entered the World of football management at Arsenal. A clever and important move were to appoint Don Howe and Dave Sexton as his assistants, both well known players but on the way out and both curious about football coaching and later also management. and as time will show becoming two of England’s most recognized men in their trade.
Looking at some of the men in management back then, you will often find their best years and great successes when their team of assistants and staff also were perfectly build and had that “magic” that you as a leader is as important as to guide your players into their best form.
Attention is often on the manager and the players, those 11 picked to do the job, while those men in the shadows are seldom given the credit they deserve, but you will soon recognize their importance when they are out.
You should never underestimate or take away the credit of a manager because he is picking his staff and always in charge, but if his recruitment is failing he will soon be told as he walks along the path of unsuccessful business that his days could be numbered.
The move for Don Howe and Dave Sexton was made to be able to avoid mistakes tactically as the two were seen as “experts” in the field and Bertie Mee believed he might have lacked some of those abilities, not really having the same player experience as the two top flight players had.
When Bertie Mee took over in 1966 Arsenal had in real “dried up” as they hadn’t won a trophy since 1953. It would take a bit of time to build a good enough team but with the rise of a number of youth players, such as Ray Kennedy, Charlie George, John Radford and Pat Rice it was possible to find a formula and pick a team that over time would reach finals and compete for silverware again.
The first notice of this rise of performance and Mee’s team building, happened in 1968 when Arsenal reached the final of the EFL Cup, but had to see themselves beaten by Leeds, a year later they were back at Wembley for a new final in the same competition but surprisingly lost to Swindon Town, which in a way was a big blow, but again reaching a Wembley final two years in a row was in a way seen as success.
The fact that Arsenal the following season (1969/70) had the opportunity to play in Europe in the Inter City Fairs Cup, later to be the UEFA Cup, made another step towards greatness in the era of Bertie Mee. Arsenal had their team well balanced with the young generation of players and later “double winners” to be starting to show quality of such a level that winning trophies no longer would be a surprise.
The final at this time was a two legged affair and coming up against Belgian club Anderlecht was not the easiest of competitors. This was early doors for a number of the names, with final team members such as Eddie Kelly, Ray Kennedy and Charlie George still in their teens. The final was a special battle, first going over to Belgium and getting battered 3-1, but that single away goal scored by Ray Kennedy would be vital in the chase for glory.
Being 3-1 down from the first game made the second game at Highbury difficult, but and early goal from Eddie Kelly after 25 minutes would see hope that things could turn in the right direction for Arsenal. And indeed it did with goals from John Radford and Jon Sammels securing a 3-0 win and for the first time in 17 years a new trophy could be placed in the cabinet at Highbury.
Dave Sexton had left Arsenal a few years before but the tactical genius of Don Howe was still very much by the side of Bertie Mee and the two became a solid force to guide this group of players into a new season which became “historical” with the club winning both the FA Cup and the League as we all know as the 1970-71 “The Double”.
Bertie Mee was at this moment seen as a “iconic figure” in football, a physiotherapist that had taken Arsenal to heights they would probably never have imagined, but the involvement of Don Howe might have been a bit overshadowed by the press and those hyping the occasion.
Arsenal were to compete in the European Cup for the first time in their lifetime and it all started with games won in major figures, Stromsgodset from Norway were battered 7-1 over two games (3-1 (A) and 4-0 (H)), then Grasshoppers from Switzerland became the next slaughter hammering them 5-0 (2-0 (A) and 3-0 (H)). Arsenal had reached the quarter finals of the most glamorous competition in World football, but it ended in “full stop” as the winners to be, Ajax set Mee and his Arsenal team on the ground, and this was probably a start of a bit of a fall to see, as the FA Cup final also later that season was lost to Leeds United.
Bertie Mee had earlier in that season made a sensational transfer approach for Alan Ball, bringing the former England World Cup winner to Highbury for a new record fee of £220.000, but the highly profiled midfielder couldn’t help Arsenal in their chase for a new league title, ending 5th, and being cup tied in Europe made it all a bit unbalanced as the team didn’t really play to their best strengths in every game.
Don Howe had left his role as assistant to Mee and took over as manager for his former club as a player, West Bromwich Albion. But the “brilliant” assistant was never to be a great success with The Baggies and Mee had seen his best years in management gone by, not to see any more “finals” to be reached after that 1972 FA Cup Wembley appearance.
The 1972-73 season had everything set up to become another great for Arsenal, and not to be faulted at all, ending just three points behind Liverpool in a runners-up position was of course a great achievement and gave Arsenal another chance to compete in Europe, but as the 1973-74 season came along it was again no sign of improvement sliding down to 10th, and the decline was even worse in the two next starting to fear relegation and Mee’s position was questioned.
Alan Ball was a favorite among Arsenal fans, but in a way upset the balance in the Arsenal player hierarchy and the slide down the league ladder started to unsettle fans and players as Bertie Mee’s formula for success never materialized, introducing the likes of Brian Kidd (Man Utd) and Jeff Blockley (Coventry) to replacing the likes of Graham, McLintock and in real upsetting players still not in their mid 20’s yet, with Ray Kennedy and Charlie George shipped out the door at Highbury, signing for Liverpool and Derby.
Mee left his position at Arsenal in 1976, at the time the most successful manager in the history of the club with 241 wins, a number only surplussed by Arsene Wenger in 2006. Mee later had an assistant role at Watford under Graham Taylor and a again played an important part in the rise of The Hornets, and “pushed upstairs” staying on at Vicarage Road in a director position until 1991. Mee died in 2001 at the age of 82.