From The Vault: Arsenal v Swans
23rd March 2014
As part of our weekly 'From the vault' feature, we take a look back through the archives from past matchday programmes.
Ahead of Tuesday's trip to Arsenal, former Swans player Max Thompson looks back at a classic clash against the Gunners at Highbury in October 1981...
Prior to the 1981-82 season, there had only ever been five competitive matches between Swansea City and Arsenal, with the Gunners winning four out of five encounters while a League Cup second round, first leg meeting on August 26, 1980 ended in a 1-1 draw. By the time the two clubs met again on October 10, 1981 in the old Division One, the Swans were a top-flight side for the first time and relishing the opportunity of playing Arsenal again.
The Gunners, wearing away colours of yellow shirts, blue shorts and yellow socks, settled earliest in the match at the old Vetch Field. Neil Robinson and Bob Latchford both cleared shots off the Swans goal line to prevent the visitors from North London going in front. At the other end, Alan Curtis' shot produced a fine save from Pat Jennings in the Arsenal goal before Leighton James finally opened the scoring for the home team.
"Leighton James was immensely talented," reflects Max Thompson, who part of Swansea's defence that day. "He was good on the ball, a great crosser and he got lots of important goals for us, like that one. He was one of a number of really gifted players we had in that team and like the rest of them, off the pitch, he was a smashing lad as well."
Leading 1-0 at half time, the Swans would have fancied their chances of going on to victory, boasting a 100% home record at that stage of the season. Leeds United, Notts County, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland had visited the Vetch Field earlier in the campaign and all were beaten by John Toshack's in-form side.
"The Vetch Field became a real fortress for us... It was our Anfield if you like," says Liverpool-born former Reds defender Thompson. "We did lose five games at home that season (to Everton, Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and West Ham United) but I think we pretty much won all the rest. We were also pretty decent on the road as you'd expect from a team that ended up finishing sixth."
Arsenal would have a goal disallowed in the second half and also saw a brilliant, long-range free kick from John Hollins - who would of course go on to manage Swansea City - saved by Dai Davies. There was the feeling that the Welsh team would go on to claim maximum points and so it proved when Thompson scored one of the most memorable goals of his career seven minutes from time.
"We won a free-kick and Tosh (John Toshack) was shouting to me 'stay back, stay back' from the touchline," says Thompson. "For whatever reason, I just felt this urge to go forward and was just in the right place at the right time to score. Dzemal Habziabdic swung in the free-kick and I got a really good connection on the ball to volley it into the back of the net.
"Funnily enough, I came across the highlights of this game on the BBC website recently, so it was nice to watch it back. 99 times out of one hundred, I probably wouldn't have scored that volley, but it flew it. It was a great feeling, though I'm a bit embarrassed looking back at my celebrations. I was obviously a bit overcome!"
With victory number one secured against Arsenal, the Swans didn't have to wait too long for their next triumph over the Gunners. Later that season they went to Highbury and won 2-0 again on February 27, 1982.
"Beating Arsenal home and away was a real highlight for us in what was an absolutely brilliant season," says Thompson. "We also beat teams like Leeds, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool. In our first campaign in the top flight, it was like a dream playing and beating such massive clubs. We did in on merit too, we thoroughly deserved it with the squad we had and the football we played.
Now retired from football, having worked as a sports physiotherapist after his playing days for Liverpool and Southport as well as coaching in America for Baltimore Blast, Thompson is a season-ticket holder at Liverpool. He recalls his time at Swansea City with great happiness and also remembers the vast number of players with a connection to his native Merseyside to have plied their trade for the Swans in the early 1980s.
"It was a great time for me at Swansea," he says. "I loved the place and the club and I wish I was still there now. There was a real influx of players from the big two Merseyside clubs to Swansea City at the time which made it easier for me to settle, with the likes of Colin Irwin, Bob Latchford, Dai Davies, Gary Stanley and Ray Kennedy, who I knew pretty well. We were of course plating for a Liverpool legend in John Toshack too."