Would You Believe It?!
After sweeping to the title in 1991, Arsenal could and should have dominated the 90s. But Graham became gripped by caution following a European Cup exit to Benfica in October 1991, in Manchester Brian Kidd was overseeing a crop of youngsters that would become the staple of United`s success for the 90s. This just at a time when the Taylor Report had crystallised and a new TV rights deal saw Sky Sports pour money into the game like wine. Arsenal were still comfortable on the breakaway league`s cash cow loaded gravy train, but as passengers rather than front runners. Graham`s Arsenal never challenged for the title again, though the Scot did secure an F.A. Cup, a League Cup and a Cup Winners Cup on the sideboard. But by 1995, the Gunners were plummeting down the table, producing a turgid style of football that turned supporters against him. When 'bung` allegations involving the transfers of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen were made public on February 1995, the board sacked Graham citing misconduct, but in truth, it was a convenient excuse for them to swing the axe on a manager that had alienated supporters and players beyond repair. Bruce Rioch steadied the ship for a year, securing the lucrative signature of Dennis Bergkamp in the process. But by October 1996, the thunderstorm had cleared the air in N5 and a French revolution was about to sweep the Marble Halls.
Once his contract with Nagoya Grampus 8 had concluded, French manager Arsene Wenger was appointed Arsenal manager, taking up the reigns in October 1996. He brought a young Senegalese midfielder called Patrick Vieira, who had been floundering in A.C. Milan`s reserves and he set about blowing the cobwebs away from a club gone stale. He introduced new fitness and dietary regimes that were still, well, foreign on these shores. Many players admit to scepticism in retrospect, Lee Dixon remembers, "He turned up and I just thought, he doesn`t look like a football manager, he looks like my geography teacher! Every one of our training sessions was timed to the second and all we seemed to do was stretch." But such a new approach would pay dividends, extending the careers of an ageing back line, one which Wenger knew he was blessed to inherit, "When I arrived they were university graduates in the art of defending and Tony Adams was a doctor of defence." His impression was immediately visible on a team that began to express itself with the ball in a way an Arsenal side never had before. I think I really realised things had changed in April 1997 in a 2-0 home win over Leicester. Tony Adams played a ball out to Merson with the outside of his boot, before careering into the box to meet the cross. 13 months later, the sight of Adams careering into the box in a poetically much more meaningful moment, convinced the world that things had changed forever at the club. With the young Vieira commanding with his long, loping limbs and cast iron spirit, Arsenal challenged for the title in Wenger`s first season, but came up just short, finishing 3rd. But the football was of such a vintage that Arsenal fans were excited about their team again.
Having maintained a 5-3-2 system for his inaugural season, Wenger began to sculpt the team in his own image. In the summer of 1997, he made the shock decision to sell fan favourite Paul Merson to Middlesbrough. He purchased Dutch speedster Marc Overmars in his place, who had just recovered from a career threatening knee injury; he also brought in a pony tailed centre half from Monaco named Emmanuel Petit. He planned to remodel Petit as a cultured central midfielder to ally the grit of Vieira. I don`t doubt that it was a midfield partnership which is arguably the most symbiotic the club has ever produced. With the back five still very much in place, Wenger went for a 4-4-2 of sorts. Most graphics would show Overmars as a left winger, Parlour on the right, with Bergkamp and Anelka upfront. But the team showed a wonderful adaptability, Parlour, Vieira and Petit provided a protective midfield three, whilst the outrageously pacey Overmars and Anelka sat further forward, feeding off the sumptuous through balls of the withdrawn Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutch forward was in his prime and probably the greatest attacking player in world football during the campaign. It was a beautifully balanced side. Wenger also sought squad reinforcements in the shape of Grimandi, Boa Morte, Alberto Mendez and young goalkeeper Alex Manninger. Deadwood was cleared away.
However, the side took some time to gel and Arsenal`s start to the season was slightly cumbersome. On the other hand, Dennis Bergkamp was operating on a higher level than any other player in Europe. In August he became the only ever player to occupy all three available spots on the podium for Match of the Day`s goal of the month competition. A run and fulminating drive in a 3-1 victory at the Dell showed that Bergkamp had adapted to the physical rigours of the Premiership; he took the ball forty yards from goal and ran with Saints defender Francis Benali practically clinging to his coat tails, Bergkamp shrugged him off before blasting the ball into the net. But it was the hat trick in the 3-3 draw at Filbert Street which really announced his arrival. In particular an injury time masterpiece which saw him juggle David Platt`s diagonal ball out of the air, taking him past Matt Elliott before placing it past Keller. Though the goal and the hat trick have gone down in the annals of the club`s history, the mood on the night was one of disappointment as the Gunners surrendered a two goal lead, reassumed the advantage in injury time only to leak another equaliser right at the death. The Gunners trailed the leading pack at the outset, but the first seeds of belief were planted at Stamford Bridge in September. Bergkamp again inspired Arsenal, setting up Wright with a delightful pass and then scoring with a sweet volley himself as the game looked to be heading for a 2-2 draw. But in the last minute, Nigel Winterburn carried the ball forward from left back and let fly with an unstoppable left foot shot into the top corner to snatch the points in an absorbing London derby.
A week later Highbury would witness a moment of history it had waited for for some months. Ian Wright began the season four goals short of Cliff Bastin`s all time goal scoring record of 178. After a double against Coventry in the opening home game, Wright went through a drought. The club hardly helped with the constant references; such as the countdown in the match programmes and the big screen montages. Wright had missed a couple of sitters in a 0-0 draw with Spurs which would have taken him clear of Bastin. But that September, the wait was over. Bolton came to Highbury and actually took an early lead with an Alan Thompson header. Wright scored a swift equaliser to equal the record; in his excitement he whipped his shirt off to reveal a vest with the slogan 179 Just Done It. Of course having blown his beans and showed his celebration too early, he was determined to save some face by scoring again. He did, around fifteen minutes later, Bergkamp`s slide rule pass found the gliding run of Patrick Vieira, Keith Branagan slid out of the goal to foil Vieira, but the Frenchman slid a telescopic limb out to toe poke the ball to Wright, two yards away from an open net. Wright remembers now, "The fans were fabulous to me that day, for the goal that broke the record they practically sucked it over the line." Later in the second half Wright`s mishit volley completed the hat trick and he was substituted to rapturous applause. In many ways, that was his big exit from Arsenal. He was 34 and not a striker in the Wenger mould, the manager would come to prefer strikers that made and created goals, the team functioned better as a collective without Wright. He only registered six more times in an Arsenal shirt. Anelka was waiting in the wings and would be an automatic starter by Christmas. Once in the dressing room, Wright stripped completely naked and began throwing his kit through the dressing room window and down at the Arsenal fans on Avenell Road. But it was his more reserved strike partner that was the darling of Highbury now. After masterminding a 5-0 home win over Barnsley, Bergkamp was announced as the Player of the Month for September, just as he had been for August- the only player to win back to back awards. Following the Barnsley match, a reporter asked Wenger if he felt Dennis was the best player in the world; "If there is someone better, I haven`t seen him" was the telling reply.
But the Gunners were still somewhat trundling along until November. A 2-0 reverse at Hillsborough was followed by the visit of Manchester United, who led Arsenal by four points. Dennis Bergkamp was suspended after reaching five yellow cards, as was Emmanuel Petit as Arsenal incurred the wrath of officialdom many times in the season. United were big favourites, but the game had an added spice to it with the embryonic exchanges of the infamous Wenger and Ferguson feud beginning and the fallout from Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel`s tiff the season before still brimming at the surface. Wright was injured for the game, but Arsenal began brightly and Anelka`s low shot opened the scoring with his first goal for the club after eight minutes. Fifteen minutes later, Vieira lobbed Schmeichel to make it 2-0, but he damaged his knee ligaments sliding on the unctuous surface in celebration. But ex Tottenham striker Teddy Sheringham stoked a fertile atmosphere with two goals in response, the second of which saw him run to the mocking North Bank kissing his badge. But despite their cavalcade of injuries, Arsenal roared back and snagged a late winner when David Platt headed Winterburn`s corner into the top corner with only 6 minutes left. Libyan striker Chris Wreh recalls now, "I`d been led to believe Spurs matches were the matches, but games against Manchester United were something else entirely." The beginning of one of sport`s most hostile rivalries was beginning to bloom, Patrick Vieira`s jousts with Roy Keane would eventually come to symbolise these classic encounters and Vieira pinpoints this match as the culmination of that rivalry; "That game proved that Arsenal v Manchester United was becoming the game in the Premiership. It was explosive in every way."
But the victory itself did not ignite Arsenal`s title challenge; limp defeats to Derby County and Liverpool were suffered in November before the team reached its nadir in December. Blackburn beat an unconvincing Arsenal side 3-1 at Highbury as the supporters voiced their displeasure. Ian Wright, who three months earlier had been throwing his kit down at celebrating Arsenal fans from the dressing room, was now remonstrating with audibly disgruntled fans on Avenell Road. Captain Tony Adams looked off the pace throughout and told his manager after the game that he was considering retirement. "I was letting myself down and I was letting my team down." Wenger told his captain to take some time off as he looked to prevent seventh placed Arsenal`s season from falling apart. They would not lose again in the league for ten months. The team, written out of the title race, quietly began to pick results up. Anelka came into the side and began scoring, thanks to the ammunition made available to him by Bergkamp. Overmars likewise feasted on his compatriot`s service, Petit and Vieira were showing signs of a telepathic understanding and became a solid, unbreachable wall in the midfield. They bundled on until early March, when a 0-0 draw at Upton Park put them eleven points behind Arsenal- albeit with Arsenal having played a game less. A Manchester bookmaker paid out on all bets for United to win the title. Emmanuel Petit says in his autobiography, "There was nothing we relished more than proving those doubters wrong." Despite their supremacy, United began to wobble, with Keane out for the season with a cruciate ligament injury and Cantona having just retired, United were operating without their two most vital cogs. A 1-0 win at Selhurst Park in one of their games in hand courtesy of a Chris Wreh goal showed signs that Arsenal were waiting to pounce. But the belief sprang eternal three days later at Old Trafford.
Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford, where they hadn`t so much as scored since 1990, six points behind United with three games in hand. Marc Overmars gave United`s young full back John Curtis such a torrid time in the first half that he was replaced at half time as Phil Neville dropped back from midfield, but he couldn`t stop the wing heeled Dutchman either. Alex Manninger, in for the injured David Seaman, also made three world class saves to keep Arsenal on level terms. With eleven minutes left Bergkamp won a header half way in United`s half, then Anelka genuflected the action by winning one himself, which put Overmars racing clear. Schmeichel advanced but Overmars slipped the ball between his legs. There would be further embarrassment for the Dane in injury time when he raced forwards for a corner as United desperately searched for an equaliser; Schmeichel pulled his hamstring running back towards his own goal with all of United`s available substitutes having been used. Schmeichel would miss three weeks as a result, another vital player missing for their run in. The final whistle saw rapturous celebrations in the away end, most memorably from Arsenal fan Barry First, who was pictured celebrating with such zeal that his eyes looked like they were going to propel out of his forehead! The game put wind in Arsenal`s sails just at the time that United had hit choppy waters.
The season flowered into a reel of picture book moments as the Gunners careered on to win ten games in a row. Vieira`s rasping drive in the 3-1 win over Newcastle, Emmanuel Petit`s first Arsenal goal in the 5-0 win over Wimbledon, Bergkamp`s drive in the 4-1 win at Ewood Park. Meanwhile, Chris Wreh`s winning goal against Wolves at Villa Park put Arsenal into another Cup Final. The chance to match the class of 71 was on the cards. Arsenal were playing champagne football, until another Bergkamp masterpiece at Barnsley put the Gunners within touching distance. The tension inside Highbury when Derby came to visit on April 29th was tangible. Maybe it`s my imagination, but nervy home games with Derby always seem to be a feature of title run ins in the last 20 years. Tragedy was afoot as Bergkamp limped out of the game, it was later confirmed he had torn a calf muscle and would miss the remainder of the season including the Cup Final. Bergkamp had spoken at length about the importance of a Wembley Cup Final to him when deciding to ply his trade in England, as a boy in Amsterdam; the English Cup Final was considered a more anticipated event than Christmas. That he was to miss a Wembley final in the year that he scooped double Player of the Year awards from his peers and from the press, as well as the Goal of the Season award, was cruelly tragic. But Emmanuel Petit`s free kick gave Arsenal an edgy 1-0 win. Arsenal were within two points of the title, they had one home game left.
The perfect game scarcely exists in the real world, despite our most dream filled reveries. But Sunday, 3rd May 1998 must be as close to a perfect day as Highbury ever witnessed. Chris Wreh would later gush, "It was a beautiful performance, on a beautiful day and showed that Arsenal had become a beautiful team." Relegation threatened Everton came to London with Arsenal needing a win to ensure their eleventh league title. Any sign of tension evaporated into the late spring air after five minutes, when Petit`s free kick saw Slaven Bilic head into his own net under pressure from Tony Adams. On 22 minutes, the Gunners raced two goals clear when Marc Overmars accelerated away from a leaden footed Toffees defence, sliding a left foot shot under the body of Thomas Mhyre. Early in the second half, Overmars repeated the trick, slaloming away from veteran Dave Watson before slipping the ball into the bottom corner. The chorus of "Champions!" reverberated around a celebrating Highbury. But there was yet one more twist in the tale. In Injury time, Steve Bould chipped an inch perfect left footed pass over the top of Everton`s defence. Tony Adams, for so many years his partner is the miserly arts, raced onto the pass, chested the ball down on the edge of the area, he steadied himself in front of an onlooking North Bank, not quite able to take in that that was indeed Adams on the edge of the box. Highbury exploded as Adams pulled back the catch and unleashed a left foot volley into the top corner. "It`s Tony Adams put through by Steve Bould? WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?! THAT sums it all up." Screeched an incredulous Martin Tyler. It really did sum it all up, the chrysalis of the team from the spotty school bully that was only loved by his mother, into a multicoloured butterfly. Central defenders playing defence splitting passes and executing perfect left footed volleys, it was everything Wenger had brought to the team in a beautiful nutshell. But it was redemption for Adams the man too; his transformation from the clumsy cockney alcoholic that used to smash pint glasses on his head as a party trick, into a cultured, articulate person that read poetry, played piano and was capable of inch perfect, sweeping passes. After years of being told he was an ugly duckling, the manager had given him a facelift. In the build up to the game, Adams told the press how he could not remember Anfield 89 or Highbury in 1991 because he was so inebriated after the games that his memory was wiped clean of the events of the preceding day. When the net first ruffles, you can see Adams close his eyes and take a deep breath, literally breathing the moment in and savouring it, taking hold of it as a man in control of his life again. I have an outstanding picture of that celebration; Adams with his arms spread wide, the legend 6 ADAMS on his back with an ecstatic North Bank braying to him. A man surveying his manor. The moment and the celebration were just of a befitting poetry the likes of which I cannot recall being matched in my time as an Arsenal supporter.
If Nayim's last minute freak goal in the 1995 Cup Winners Cup Final elucidated a club on a downward spiral, Adams' goal was emblematic of a team whose star had risen once more. Arsenal lifted the trophy in the early evening sunshine, Patrick Vieira and Lee Dixon laughing maniacally as the supporters tried- and failed- to hold the high note on "we`ll keep on fighting- till the end" as We Are The Champions blared out over the speakers. Ian Wright bade a fond farewell to the supporters, running around like a lunatic and shoving his Premiership winners medal under everyone`s nose. The Gunners lost their final two games against Liverpool and Aston Villa, but they completed the Double with a 2-0 win over Newcastle at Wembley to win their 7th F.A. Cup. The chemistry of footballing styles throughout the team was matched by the symbiotic personalities. The ageing back five were the cajolers, the leaders who urged their men on in early March when all and sundry had written them out of the title race. Ray Parlour blossomed into a fine footballer under Wenger and was essential to the squad with his chirpy demeanour, Overmars and Anelka were the quiet, serious ones. The team was one of great players that complimented one another and held together by friendship. Wenger beamed; 'This is my greatest achievement. I'm surprised but delighted we have won the title so soon; but this team can get better.' Arsene hadn't so much nursed a wounded animal back to health as created a different species altogether.LD.