Following the dismissal of Billy Wright in the summer of 1966, Arsenal appointed physiotherapist Bertie Mee as his successor. The move that brought surprise to some, not least Mee himself, who requested that he be able to return to his old role as physio if being manager had not worked out after 12 months. With assistant Dave Sexton, Mee brought a more professional approach to the club and promoted talent from within; Arsenal’s youth team had won the FA Youth Cup in 1966, and talented attacking players such as Charlie George, John Radford, Peter Simpson and Ray Kennedy graduated to the first team.
Mee complemented this attacking ability with some more experienced heads; captain Frank McLintock at centre half marshalled a strong defence, while the hard-tackling Peter Storey filled the defensive midfield position. The team showed early signs of promise, reaching two successive League Cup finals, in 1968 and 1969. Both times the Gunners went home empty-handed. The first time Arsenal lost to Don Revie‘s Leeds United 1–0 in a dour match of few chances, Terry Cooper grabbing the only goal.
The second League Cup loss was an infamous upset – Arsenal lost 3–1 to Third Division side Swindon Town. Eight of the team had been struck by flu that had led to the postponement of Arsenal’s previous League fixture, and Arsenal had only reached extra time thanks to a late goalkeeping error that had allowed Bobby Gould to score. In extra time, Don Rogers scored twice as Arsenal searched for a winner. However, that season was not a total disaster for Arsenal; they had also finished fourth, which won them a place in Europe for the 1969–70 season.
In turn, this led to the club collecting their first silverware in seventeen years and also their first European trophy, the 1969–70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Arsenal beat Ajax 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals, and then staged a famous comeback against Anderlecht in the final. Arsenal were 3-0 down after 74 minutes of the first leg at Stade Émile Versé, but Ray Kennedy got a late away goal to give the Gunners a glimmer of hope; in the second leg in front of a packed Highbury, inspired by captain Frank McLintock, Arsenal won 3-0 with goals from John Radford, Eddie Kelly and Jon Sammels, to win the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
The same season, Arsenal had only finished 12th in the league, perhaps distracted by their European campaign, and did not look like league contenders. Yet the following season, 1970–71, Arsenal went on to become only the second club of the 20th century to win the FA Cup and League Double, the club’s first. After a bright start Arsenal looked to be out of the title chase with a 5–0 loss to Stoke City in September. However, Arsenal recovered and put in a strong run (they did not lose again in the league until January), and as the season closed they became involved in a tight race with Leeds United.
Arsenal were pushed all the way – after being defeated 1–0 by Leeds in April, they needed to beat or draw 0–0 with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on the last day of the season to take the title on goal average. An 87th-minute goal by Ray Kennedy gave Arsenal a 1–0 lead and despite Spurs’ desperate attempts for an equaliser Arsenal hung on to win and take the title. In the meantime, Arsenal had also reached the FA Cup Final, following a titanic semi-final battle with Stoke which saw them come from 2–0 down to force a replay and eventual victory. In the Final, five days after the win at Tottenham, Arsenal beat Liverpool 2–1 at Wembley; Arsenal went 1–0 down early in extra time, before Eddie Kelly‘s 101st-minute equaliser from close range. Ten minutes later, Charlie George scored the winner from the edge of the penalty area to win the game, and the Double, for Arsenal.
The Double proved to be a premature high point of a decade characterised by a string of near-misses. Despite signing World Cup winner Alan Ball for a club record £220,000 in the close season, Arsenal began 1971–72 badly, losing three matches in August, and were forced to play catch-up for the rest of the season, ultimately finishing fifth. Their debut in the European Cup started encouragingly, but they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by a Johann Cruyff-inspired Ajax, who went on to win the trophy as part of a hat-trick of European titles. Arsenal also reached the FA Cup Final for the second year in a row; in a repeat of the 1968 League Cup Final they lost 1–0 to Leeds United, in an ugly match of few real chances.
Arsenal finished as First Division runners-up in 1972–73, but within a year the Double-winning side had been broken up, and Mee was unable to build a new team in its place. The club’s form declined sharply, finishing 16th in 1974–75 and 17th in 1975–76, their lowest in more than forty years, which prompted Mee’s resignation. Tottenham manager Terry Neill, a former Arsenal player, was appointed in his place, even though he had never got Spurs anywhere beyond mid-table, to become Arsenal’s youngest-ever manager.