Arsenal`s Good Friday Agreement
When to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason
and bow and accept the end of a love, or a season.
When the new season is still weeks away with only international tournaments and the frustrations of transfer comings and goings to occupy us then occasionally something will bump your mind to think back on past events. Prompted by a throwaway remark I have drifted back to a point in the invincible season when, for me at least, the season took a defining turn and going the whole season unbeaten became more than just an aspiration.
Others will look back and say that van Nistelrooys penalty miss at Old Trafford was the point at which the achievement was conceived but that was back in October. The season still had far too long to run and the concept of invincibility hadn`t really been seriously raised yet. Or had it?
Wenger in a casual response 2 seasons before when asked how his team could improve on the championship they had just won said simply "Well, we could go the whole season unbeaten". The Mancs laughed as they took the title the following season and even produced tee-shirts with a charicature of Wenger, replete in French beret surrounded with the legend 'Comical Wenger - we can go the whole season unbeaten`. Little did they expect that most of the stock would be snapped up a year later by gooners. One of which my son still proudly wears.
As the season drew into its latter stages and we passed the point in February at which Grahams 1991 team had lost its first and only game, narrowly missing the chance to go unbeaten themselves, the idea began to grow.
Friday April 9th 2004 was the day we faced Liverpool at Highbury in the 31st league game of the season. A tough enough game made even more so by the fact that we had lost two key games in the preceding week. First to ManU in the FA Cup semi-final and then dramatically the 2nd leg of the CL Q/F against Chelsea just 3 days earlier. We were mortal after all. Maybe in the context of a season in which we had fared well in a number of competitions it probably shouldn`t have been as much concern as it seemed then. But somehow Arsenals failures always seemed to travel in bunches and with two defeats behind us there was an air of fragility going into the game.
Still, it was nothing that a good start wouldn`t cure! Hyppia scored for Liverpool in the first 5 minutes. It was early in the game, still time to get back into it and sure enough Henry equalised. That`s it we were back on track even if not playing particularly well. Minutes before half time Owen restored their lead.
At half time my confidence had deserted me. The game was drifting away I felt. Our failures come in bunches don`t they? So let`s listen to reason. Liverpool had a decent defence. At that stage only conceding 17 goals in 16 away games and none in the last four PL games. The reasoning was that Arsenal were feeling the pressure and it was showing.
Whatever was said at half-time, and maybe it was nothing - maybe collectively from somewhere the team had just decided that it wasn`t going to let this season drift by and yield to reason, the second half was born of a spirit that in hindsight I was wrong to doubt.
Pires brought the score back to 2-2 and then Thierry scored again. This time a brilliant piece of individual, magical skill that mesmerised the whole of the Liverpool defence before curling his shot past Dudek. Liverpool fought hard to get back into it but as we reached the final 10 minutes Thierry ended Liverpools resistance this time with a contrastingly untidy goal that bounced off his legs after rebounding off the 'keeper.
That`s when the unbeaten season became a reality. There were still seven games to go, including away to Spurs on the day we won the title at White Hart Lane, but this for me was when I knew we could do it. We won 3 and drew 4 of the remaining games in a tiring but triumphant end to the season. For the first time in 115 years a team had gone the whole season unbeaten. It was that 2nd half performance against Liverpool that told the team they would do it. They would accept the end of a season - but only as unbeaten champions.