Arsenal v Newcastle United, 1976
Arsenal and England striker Malcolm ‘Supermac’ MacDonald was the centre of attention at Highbury on the 4th December 1976. MacDonald came up against his former club Newcastle United, who he had left for a record fee of £333,333 that summer, for the first time in this game. Arsenal were in transition from the double-winning side of 1971, with only George Armstrong and Pat Rice remaining in the starting line-up, as new 34-year-old manager Terry Neill, formerly of Tottenham, re-shaped the squad. This First Division fixture at Highbury marked Alan Ball’s last appearance before moving to Southampton, while John Radford moved to West Ham in the same month. However the club had a healthy youth policy, with the emerging Irish trio of David O’Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton all establishing themselves in the first team.
Newcastle had reached the previous season’s League Cup Final under manager Gordon Lee, an uncompromising figure who insisted his team would have ‘no stars’ and antagonised many fans by overseeing MacDonald’s departure. The striker himself admitted that he had ‘an incentive’ to excel against the manager who sold him. Lee was himself to leave Newcastle in January 1977 for Everton; the appointment of his replacement, first-team coach Richard Dinnis, was controversial. With limited playing experience or management credentials, Dinnis was not the board’s first choice as Lee’s replacement. However, player-power, in the form of threats to strike led by club captain Geoff Nulty, secured him the job.
Meanwhile Arsenal ended the season 8th in the First Division, MacDonald sharing the Golden Boot with Aston Villa’s Andy Gray on 25 goals. Newcastle secured UEFA Cup qualification with an impressive 5th place finish, their best league position for 26 years, and one they wouldn’t better until 1994. Micky Burns was their top scorer with 17 goals, and a return to European football after seven seasons saw Dinnis given a two-year contract. This didn’t prevent his sacking early in the following season, a disastrous campaign ending in relegation, and after which Nulty was signed by Lee for Everton. The club didn’t return to the First Division until 1984, with Kevin Keegan playing a leading role in his last season as a player; Keegan was manager at St. James’s Park ten years later, as Newcastle finally surpassed their 1976-77 position.