When Arsenal played Australia at Highbury in 1984

John Kosmina and Kenny Sansom before Arsenal v Australia in 1984

Arsenal’s start to the 1984/85 season had been relatively promising, with eight wins in the first eleven league matches. Don Howe had taken over from Terry Neil in December 1983 and results had improved. However, that good form soon dipped, with defeats away to West Ham, Manchester United and – just a couple of days before the friendly with Australia – Sheffield Wednesday.

The season overall was a disappointment. Some decent league performances were undermined by a complete lack of consistency - and two embarrassing cup exits, to second division Oxford United in the League Cup and York City in the FA Cup.
So, a friendly against Australia seems like an odd fixture to throw in at this stage of the season and was at best an inconvenience. The fans weren’t convinced either - just 4,090 turned up. The club didn’t exactly go out of their way to promote the game - in the matchday programme for their previous home game against Queens Park Rangers, just ten days earlier, there was no mention of the fixture whatsoever!

So why play Australia at all?

Arsenal’s Australian connection began with a 3-1 defeat to the national side in the World Soccer Cup in Sydney in 1977 - a one-off tournament, during which the Gunners also played Celtic and Red Star Belgrade. One of Australia’s goal scorers against Arsenal was John Kosmina, who obviously made a good impression, as in March 1978, Arsenal signed Kosmina from Adelaide City. Kosmina’s Arsenal career was limited to four appearances – one in the league and three in the UEFA Cup – but he maintained his Arsenal connections and returned as captain of the national team for the match at Highbury.

Australia were in the midst of attempting to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, and knew they would end up having to contest a play-off against a European side (most likely Spain or Scotland) to get there. Lacking serious competition in their part of the world, European tours were a good way to gain experience against top class sides.

On this particular tour, the Socceroos had already beaten Manchester City and drawn with Nottingham Forest. In the summer, the Australians had also beaten the Italian champions and European Cup Winners, Juventus.

How seriously each club had approached these matches is hard to say, but in the programme for the match Don Howe certainly suggested his side would not underestimate the Aussies: “We'll be starting with our strongest team available. We know we can experiment in a friendly like this but we always want to win too."

There is no TV footage from the match itself, but accounts from those who were there suggest Arsenal played poorly and were rather fortunate to grab a very late winner from Raphael Meade. Australia had taken the lead twice, both times thanks to mistakes from Arsenal defenders - Chris Whyte deflected in the opener and Viv Anderson’s error let in Marshall Soper for Australia’s second. Both Australia goals were equalised by Ian Allinson.

Arsenal’s erratic form continued, though one of the few positives of the season was the emergence of Martin Hayes, who made his first appearance for the Gunners against the Socceroos. Australia eventually got their World Cup play off, but were beaten 2-0 over two legs by Scotland, and it would be another 20 years before they next qualified for the World Cup Finals.

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