Big interview: Pat Rice

The 1970/71 double winning team

Very few people in the history of the game know the feeling of winning the league and FA Cup double in English football. 

Fewer still have experienced winning it more than once, as both a player and a coach, in different generations. 

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But Pat Rice belongs to that most exclusive of clubs. Having joined us as an apprentice aged 15, his breakthrough in the first team came five years later, when he became a regular at right back at the start of the 1970/71 season. A fully committed, whole-hearted defender, he missed just one game all campaign, forming part of a miserly back four that conceded only 29 games from 42 league games. 

He was ever-present in the FA Cup run, getting his hands on the trophy that he would go on to win again as a player in 1979, and four more times as first-team coach alongside Arsène Wenger. The first of those was in 1998 - Arsenal's second double – and four years later he was at it again, as we became the first club ever to win three doubles in three different decades. Now, on the 50th anniversary of that legendary win in 1971, Pat looks back on that historic achievement, and tells us the secret of the side's success. 

What's the first thing you think of when you remember the 1971 season?

For me the first memory that comes into my mind, and it may seem strange, but I remember the teamsheet for the game at White Hart Lane going up at Highbury the day before the game, and it said report time was three o'clock. We all thought that was strange because kick-off wasn't until 7.30pm I think, and it's only down the road, because we used to get the bus from Southgate. Anyway, the next day when we all got on the coach, there were cars absolutely everywhere. It was just amazing and at one stage it looked like we wouldn't make the game in time, even though we had left three hours early. Tottenham High Road especially was rammed - it was like every Arsenal fan had taken the day off work. So it looked like we weren't going to make it. The coach had to drive up on the kerb, and then we saw some of the wives and girlfriends of the players, so we stopped to pick them up as well. Anyway, I think we got into the dressing room eventually only about 30 minutes before kick-off. It was unbelievable.

What were your emotions before that game? Did being late make you more tense?

It wasn't ideal preparation maybe, but by then we were just thinking about the game. We knew what we had to do, we knew defensively that we were strong and you couldn't really see them scoring. We knew if we played to our ability, they wouldn't score, and that's what happened. It's a great feeling to have that confidence. That was the way I felt about it anyway. 

What was the season like as a whole? You were only 21 at the time, and just breaking through…

That's right, it's the way it happened. The first game of the season was Everton away, and what normally happened is that Peter Storey was moved into midfield to pick up Alan Ball, and I played at right back. Well we drew that game, then we played at West Ham on the Tuesday, Peter went back to right back and I was out of the team. We drew 0-0 I think, and then after that they went back to using Peter in midfield, so I got the spot at right back, and basically kept my place there. So it was due to the fact that we had played Everton in the first game that the double-winning system or formation came to fruition.

That West Ham game was the only game you missed throughout the double, how did you cope with playing every few days?

Well it was certainly better than training! There were a few of us who played every game near enough. And training was never light between the games either - not with Don Howe! No chance, we trained how we played, it was always full commitment. We had so many big personalities in the team though. Our captain, Frank, was an unbelievable personality. The word defeat never came into his vocabulary. So for me as a young guy, to have these guys like John Radford, Peter Simpson, Bob McNab - who was an unbelievable character too, as well as being a terrific full back. For me it was a great learning process and hopefully one that I made the most of.

When did you get the feeling during the season that you could achieve something special? Because the Double had only been achieved once in the previous 70 years.

To be perfectly truthful, we didn't really think about it. We just went into every game, and first of all, try not to be beaten. If you can't win the game, don't lose it. That was our motivation. And with those players I mentioned, we had real winners. You know how people say teams have a winning mentality, well that's what we had, we George Graham, Bob Wilson, Ray Kennedy, George Armstrong too. These guys had come up the hard way. Some of them would have had jobs too when they first started playing. So it was very different. That's not to say they wouldn't have made it if it was like it is today, but it was the way they were brought up and might explain the mentality. 

Everyone remembers the game that clinched the title at White Hart Lane, but what other games stood out for you that season?

I remember beating West Bromwich Albion 6-2 at Highbury one weekend. When we came in to training on the Monday, Don Howe called a meeting. He brought us in to the Halfway House, which was a small room halfway down the old tunnel at Highbury where we held player meetings. We went into the meeting feeling good after a big win, but then Don absolutely laid into us all. He must have gone on for 45 minutes – it was untrue. The reason he was so mad was he wanted to know how the smallest player on the pitch had headed both goals for West Brom. That was the kind of ruthlessness that came through the whole team. 

What are your recollections of the cup final? The players looked completely exhausted in the footage, how demanding was that game to play in?

Going into that game, from my point of view anyway, I knew that at least we had already won the league. All of our efforts that season had been rewarded with the title, so my personal feeling was that at least we have already got some silverware to show for it. So we went into the game as champions, and from my point of view the pressure was off. But yes the game was tough. I'll always remember after the game, I asked our physio to go up and get my medal for me because I was too tired to do it! He talked me out of it thankfully. We were so exhausted though, it was a really hot day too, and of course we were against a top-class side in Liverpool. Both sides had individual players who could win games - and one of them was Charlie. We knew what he could do because we saw it all the time in training. He scored goals like that often, so we were elated when he did it at Wembley, but we weren’t surprised. 

Now we're celebrating the 50th anniversary, that must seem crazy to you?

It is really, because all I've got to do is look in the mirror and I'm as beautiful as I ever was!

Do you keep in touch with the other guys on the team?

Yeah, I spoke to Sammy yesterday actually, and I did a podcast with Bob the other day. Frank doesn't live far from me, and George too, so I see them still. We always try to get together once a year as a team as well. 

You won the Double again as part of the coaching staff in 1998, then in 2002. Did you ever speak to those players about the first Double and your role in it?

I'm not the kind of guy to talk about what I've won in the past, and it wasn't until Bob Wilson told me that I realised I have been involved in more trophy successes for Arsenal than anyone else, as a player or coach. So I never really spoke to the players about it myself, but if they ever asked me about it I would tell them. 

Do you believe that the club's past achievements can inspire the next generations?

I think the players can, it comes down to them. Speaking personally, playing alongside somebody like Frank McLintock, who had already been to finals with Leicester, you have a lot of respect for that. The will to win, the determination he had was infectious, and that carries on in future generations and players coming through. I saw that as a coach as well, with the Invincibles side for example. You had people like Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, and that gets passed on to the younger players. All you have to do is watch them play and it rubs off, even more so when they are winners.

Back in 1971 were you inspired by previous Arsenal sides? Did everybody talk about the team of the 1930s back then?

Yes, but really it was in 1970 when we won the Fairs Cup against Anderlecht that was the big moment, because then we had matched the achievements of the past. All the photos that were up of the boy Bastin, the great Alex James and others, they could all be taken down because we had made our own history and had our own success that could be celebrated. We all desperately hope there is more to come now from the current generation, and they can go on to add their own piece of history to the club.

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