On the day Luis Suarez arrives in Spain to finalise his move to Barcelona this is quirky short blog today, which whilst not directly Arsenal related I hope you might find interesting. During the research for my book on Arsenal legend Geordie Armstrong I uncovered a little known or perhaps a forgotten fact when writing a chapter on his ‘Testimonial Year’ in 1974. In 1973/74 in a very unusual set of circumstances Arsenal played Barcelona twice in a season in friendlies. One match at the Camp Nou on the 16th October 1973 and one at Highbury on the 13th March 1974, which was Armstrong’s testimonial. It took me some time to uncover the reasons behind this unprecedented 2 match agreement between the giants of North London and the Catalonians. Can you think of any other occasion in our history where we have played the same side, let along such an illustrious one in a single friendly during a competitive season let along two? I hope you are intrigued, as I was and keen to find out how this came about? There is more detail in the book but I wanted to write about it now because strangely what has happened at this World Cup with Luis Suarez and the biting incident, which 167 people expected and cashed in on, may just lead to a fascinating parallel between Barcelona in 2014 with Barcelona of 1973. That is of course if as seems certain the Uruguayan is signing for the Catalans as reported. It is the length of the Suarez ban and when he can play for his new club that provides the unique parallel. In August 1973 Barcelona signed the then World Footballer of the Year, Johan Cruyff from Ajax. He was without any question at that time the greatest player on the planet and he assisted his new club to win La Liga in his first campaign, Something they had not done for an incredible 14 years. But here is the twist, due to bureaucratic complications with the transfer Cruyff was not able to play for his new club and the start of the season and not in fact until October 23rd.
Luis Suarez is not able to play for his new club or nay club until October the 27th. On the face of it therefore it might seem a huge gamble on Barcelona’s part investing £60/70 million on a player who has so many issues and who cannot play for them until then at the earliest. At that stage he will have missed either 6/7 La Liga fixtures and Cruyff missed 7 in 1973. So what happened in 1973/74 when Cruyff could play for Barcelona? Well having lost 2 of their first 7 they proceeded to go on a 24 match unbeaten sequence with the Dutch maestro pulling the strings and virtually single handedly taking his club to their first title since 1960. Could Suarez have such an impact on an already impressive Barca squad in 2014/15? A squad without Sanchez en route to N5 not Anfield and one must assume with Neymar initially at least?
So let’s get back to Geordie and Arsenal in 1973 and the friendlies. Unlike with Suarez and his ban from all football activity Cruyff could train with his new team but of course this would not give him the match sharpness to make an immediate impact in La Liga. Barcelona therefore approached Arsenal asking if they would bring a full strength side or close to it for a midweek friendly a week before Cruyff’s competitive debut. Cruyff at Ajax had played against Arsenal on 4 occasions in 1969/70 and 1971/71 and respect them as opposition and Barcelona saw us as a big draw for a prestigious friendly.
Arsenal agreed but shrewdly had the presence of mind to insist on a return fixture the following spring to reward one of their greatest and most loyal servants, Geordie Armstrong with a much deserved testimonial. So on the 16th October 1973 the first time one of the greatest players the game football has seen pulled on the famous shirt of Barcelona for a match was against the Arsenal. It was Arsenal who game to the assistance of Barca and Cruyff and allowed the player to hit the ground running and win them their first title in years. There will be no training or helpful friendlies in 2014 to assist Luis Suarez’s preparedness to play as soon as he is eligible to and I suspect the player he is replacing at the Camp Nou, Alexis Sanchez, will have a more dramatic and instant impact at the Arsenal.
Whether Sanchez plays on the left or the right for Arsenal I suspect Geordie Armstrong who graced both flanks with equal aplomb would have approved.
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If you wish to read about Arsenal legend Geordie Armstrong please also check out the website for the new tribute book available to pre-order now