You're Just Too Good To Be True
After winning the Double in 1997-98, Arsenal fell into a Bermuda triangle of silver medals. They narrowly missed out on retaining the double in 1998-99; with United pipping them to the league by a point, whilst Bergkamp`s last minute penalty miss in the F.A. Cup semi-final against the same opponents cost Arsenal dear as they lost the match in extra time. In 1999-2000 Arsenal finished a distant second to United and lost the UEFA Cup Final on penalties to Galatasaray. That summer, Overmars and Petit were sold to Barcelona and Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord came in, but Arsenal finished a distant 2nd again and lost the 2001 F.A. Cup Final to Liverpool in a heartbreaking final seven minutes. The Gunners had picked up a reputation as English football`s perennial bridesmaids, who would let the bouquet slip at the crucial moments. By now the fabled back five was creeping towards retirement; Lauren replaced Lee Dixon at right back, Academy graduate Ashley Cole made the number three shirt his own. But Arsenal were struggling to replace the influence and leadership of Tony Adams in the defence. That was until Arsene Wenger journeyed to the other end of the Seven Sister`s Road and made the most controversial signing of his reign. Sol Campbell`s Tottenham contract had come to an end and the cream of Europe cased his signature. Barcelona showed Sol around the Nou Camp, Inter Milan promised him a wage of around £120,000 a week. But he chose to come to Arsenal, much to the chagrin of the Spurs faithful.
Effigies were hung on the Seven Sister`s Road as the Tottenham captain had joined arch rivals Arsenal on a free transfer. But despite the hyperbole and the bile, Sol spoke of his desire to play in the Champions League and win trophies. He would do both with unerring regularity in his Arsenal tenure. Arsene added the signatures of goalkeeper Richard Wright, Dutch midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Japanese tee shirt mannequin Junichi Inamoto and responding to Henry`s demand for a "fox in the box"- Everton striker Francis Jeffers. All of the aforementioned would be spectacular flops in an Arsenal shirt. As well as the signing of Campbell, the summer was dominated by a long running transfer saga involving one of their best players (isn`t every chuffing summer?), as Patrick Vieira courted the attention of suitors in Madrid. Arsene buttered his young midfield charge up with the vice captaincy, promising that he would pass the armband to Vieira in full once Adams had confirmed his imminent retirement. The future of the manager himself was also under close scrutiny, with only twelve months to run on his deal, Arsene Wenger appeared reluctant to put pen to paper, though he repeatedly affirmed, "My word is as good as my signature."
The Gunners began at the Riverside to tale on Steve McLaren`s Middlesbrough, those of us that travelled revelled in the signature of the Spurs captain with a repertoire of songs that must have aped every single classic pop song you can think of. But one really stuck, Middlesbrough come out to "Papa`s Got A Brand New Pig Bag" by Perfecto Allstarz, and as the teams emerged from the tunnel, the balmy Teesside air reverberated to "Do, do, do, do, Sol`s a Gooner." Much like another one of our more famous chants of the period, "We`ve got Dennis Bergkamp" it was much a tuneful expression of disbelief as a gloat to beleaguered opponents. Henry`s smart chest trap and volley put Arsenal ahead, but when Ray Parlour was sent off midway through the second half, Arsenal`s indiscipline looked set to cost them again. The previous two seasons had seen a bevy of red cards coupled with a poor away record; key reasons for finishing more than 15 points behind United in both campaigns. Yet the Gunners displayed a fortitude many doubted they possessed. Ehiogu brought down Cole with two minutes left, Pires scored the penalty before Dennis Bergkamp scored two fabulously taken injury time goals to seal a 4-0 win. Before the match, so poor was our record on the road, when a friend predicted a 5-0 victory, I spat that I promised to streak if we went 5-0 up! But Wenger had slightly altered our tactics for away matches, Wiltord and Ljungberg played as attacking wingers behind Henry, this gave Pires a more central berth. His form that season would justify that tinkering beyond all reasonable doubt.
But despite the strains of steel visible that afternoon in Middlesbrough, Arsenal still took a little while to gel completely. Disappointing home draws with ten man Bolton and Blackburn Rovers, as well as home defeats to Leeds United and Charlton Athletic left Arsenal off the pace in early November. Sol Campbell returned to White Hart Lane amongst the invective and the vitriol as Arsenal drew 1-1 with Spurs. Campbell`s Arsenal career had begun underwhelmingly to that point, with weight problems and indifferent form dogging him. But conversely, the Spurs fans that voiced their hatred of him so vociferously kick started his Gunners career. A week later, Manchester United visited Highbury sitting four points clear at the top of the league, it would prove to be a make or break fixture on a filthy rainy evening at Highbury. Paul Scholes- playing in a new role upfront with Ruud van Nistelrooy, opened the scoring as the home side trailed 1-0 at the break. Such a result would have left Arsenal seven points behind their Northern nemesis, but a second half comeback that would be the catalyst for their campaign was about to blow the race wide open. Freddie Ljungberg`s dink and subsequent sweary celebration epitomised the hybrid of flair and grit the team would show. But it would be calamity that gave the Gunners the points, with nine minutes left, Barthez inexplicably kicked the ball straight to the feet of his friend and compatriot Henry, who slid the ball past him. Four minutes later, Vieira`s spinning through pass should have been gathered comfortably by the errant French keeper, but he allowed the ball to squirm under him; leaving Henry to slip the ball into an empty net once more. "Give it to Barthez" echoed through the Highbury rain as Ferguson looked on stony faced. At the final whistle, I recall a huge crowd gathering outside the dressing rooms on Avenell Road in the pouring rain, looking up at the visitors` window and shouting, "Barthez, man of the match, Barthez, Barthez, man of the match!" (Before you ask, yes, I did join in). The game gave Arsenal the confidence they needed to end their relative drought and the second half fight back showed the Gunners were developing a presence and togetherness to compliment their passing football. Gilles Grimandi recalls; "The balance was developing in the side at the time, with a gritty defence and a mixture of muscle and skill in midfield."
There were a number of collective factors that lit up the 2001-02 season; the sublime coming of age of Robert Pires, the mesmeric forward play of Henry, the defensive steel of Campbell, the blossoming of Ashley Cole and the purple patch of Ljungberg (or should that be red patch?) But individual moments likewise punctuate the campaign. In December 2001, the Gunners hit a six day patch that would elevate the club to another echelon. A resounding Champions League victory over Juventus was followed by Arsene Wenger ending speculation over his future by signing a new deal on a Wednesday. The next day at Islington Town Hall, Arsenal`s plans for a new stadium less than two miles away from Highbury were given the green light as planning permission was granted. On the Sunday, Aston Villa came to Highbury and assumed a shock two goal lead at half time. Sylvain Wiltord hit back with an instant second half consolation, before Henry equalised with twenty minutes remaining. In injury time, Enckelman`s poor kick was seized by Pires, he typically split the Villains` defence with one slide rule pass leaving Henry to slide the ball into the bottom corner for an unlikely 3-2 win. The momentum was gathering apace, but the visit of Newcastle nine days later threatened to enervate it. Ray Parlour was sent off quite ludicrously by Graham Poll- so inept was the decision that even opposing captain Alan Shearer pleaded with Poll not to produce a red card. Craig Bellamy was sent off in the second half for an accidental collision and Poll`s reputation as a gurning attention seeker was crystallized. But so far as Arsenal were concerned, two late Newcastle goals saw them lose 3-1 as the Geordies won in the capital for the first time in five years. The points weren`t all they lost; at the final whistle controversy ensued as Henry proceeded to blow his top at Poll, ranting at him all the way to the dressing room despite Lewin`s best attempts to calm him down. The national press clucked its collective tongue and told the country it was another example of Arsenal`s indiscipline. But though an unsightly incident; it gave Gooners the germ of the thought that this team had developed some fire in its belly. Arsenal didn`t lose another game for the rest of the season.
Nine times out of ten in the modern game, referees will succumb to the torpor of the media when officiating any team that is in the eye of a storm. (Arsenal waited five months for a penalty following Eduardo`s dive last season). Paul Durkin took a pound of Arsenal flesh in the following game at Anfield. Arsenal were already missing Tony Adams through injury and Patrick Vieira through suspension, when Giovanni van Bronckhorst was on the receiving end of on e the Premiership era`s most deplorable red cards, he slipped on the unctuous surface under no challenge, climbed to his feet and jogged away. Durkin gave him a second booking for diving. The referee had no such inclination to send Dudek off for a professional foul nine minutes later as Henry converted the resulting spot kick. Ten minutes into the second half, Robert Pires sauntered to the by line and cut the ball back for the onrushing Ljungberg to make it 2-0. Despite Litmanen`s consolation, Arsenal held on to win 2-1 at Anfield, with ten men as a nation poured scorn on them in the days building up to the game. The demonstration of a siege mentality had all of us travelling fans believing that this side had what it took to win the league. Consecutive draws with fellow title rivals Liverpool and then Leeds at Elland Road in January made it appear as though the title pendulum had swung towards Manchester again. (Apropos to nothing, that Leeds game at Elland Road was the last time I was not present at a domestic Arsenal fixture. Very noteworthy in our club`s history, I`m sure you will agree!)
But one thing that stayed absolutely constant was Arsenal`s ability to score- they became the first club to score in all of their league fixtures for a season- and there were some pearlers amongst them. Pires` volley against Middlesbrough, Bergkamp`s chip against Bayer Leverkusen, Parlour`s volley with the outside of his boot in an F.A. Cup tie against Gillingham. But the ides of March were to delivery artistry on a different plateau entirely. As the business end of the season approached, the Gunners were beset with injuries. People often forget that Igors Stepanovs played enough games alongside Sol Campbell to secure a winners medal, whilst guardians of pub triva everywhere will be aware that the Gunners are the only league winners ever to dish out medals to three different keepers. Giovanni van Bronckhorst ruptured his cruciate ligament in a 4-1 win over Fulham in February, Martin Keown tore a hamstring, Tony Adams` fitness was such that he could only manage one game in three (he only appeared away from home once in the whole season; on the first day at Middlesbrough), Jeffers` ankle troubled him constantly. When Arsenal travelled to St. James` Park on March 2nd, Henry succumbed to a stomach bug whilst Oleg Luzhny`s injury meant the Gunners were playing fifth choice left back Lauren. But as the wounded lay strewn across the battle field, Dennis Bergkamp lit the evening sky up with a bolt from the blue. With the scores at 0-0, Pires whipped a ball into Bergkamp with his back to goal on the edge of the area. What followed next is burned onto the memories of all that saw it.
Bergkamp twisted his foot, meeting the ball with his instep and flicking it around Dabisaz, who was at Bergkamp`s back. Once he had executed the spin, the ball arrived around the other side of the dumbstruck Dabisaz, where Bergkamp used his strength to hold the defender off, before slotting the ball into the bottom corner. Such an outrageous piece of skill so sublimely executed would have been written off as fluke had any other player pulled it off. Not Bergkamp. To this day, what strikes me most about the goal is not the execution, but the speed of thought. Those of you that have played the game need only to put yourself into the Iceman`s position. We`ve all had a ball drilled to our feet with our backs to goal; the thought of most footballers, professional or otherwise, in such a situation is surely to hold it up and look for a team mate. In the 0.3 seconds it takes for the ball to travel from Pires to Bergkamp, at what point does Bergkamp decide on such an outrageously complicated piece of skill? It is surely not possible to devise such a move in such a small vacuum of time? It was a goal that said everything about Bergkamp as a footballer, improvised, unchoreographed genius. A natural footballer who seemed almost at times to be guided by satellite, as though he had one of those radars you get at the bottom of the screen on simulated football games operating in his brain at all times. My great regret about that goal is that we were so high up and so far away in the third tier at St. James` Park, that we did not see the manifest piece of genius properly. It`s like being told you`ve just missed a shooting star because you were tying a shoelace. Sol Campbell added a second as an injury ravaged Gunners side beat one of their main title rivals on their own patch.
The next league fixture at Villa Park provided a similar piece of footballing artistry. The Gunners led 1-0 at Villa Park when David Seaman crucially saved a Gareth Barry spot kick. Arsenal cleared the danger as Freddie Ljungberg looked up and played a long diagonal to Robert Pires, who had only Boateng between himself and goal. Pires lofted the ball over Boateng`s head, leaving the Dutch midfielder chasing fairies, before Pires poised himself and lifted the ball gently over the head of Peter Schmeichel. Again, the goal is of symbolic importance, Pires had been the league`s brightest star for the entire season. His poise and balance on the ball, the ability to pick a pass emphasised by his 15 assists, the nack of arriving in the area right on cue. Pires revolutionised the way the winger played in England, he was a left winger just as likely to pop up in the centre circle or the six yard line. The days of the chalk on the boots type so revered in this country through great players like Giggs and Waddle were at an end. A week after that goal, in an F.A. Cup replay with Newcastle, Pires hurdled a challenge from Dabisaz and landed awkwardly, rupturing his cruciate ligaments. His season was over, but it didn`t prevent him picking up the Football Writers` Player of the Year award. His team mates were to give him their own tribute some weeks later. But for now, Arsenal had a void vacated by their prescient left winger. One young man was ready to fill that void and propel Arsenal headlong to the title.
The injury to Pires was a sentimental blow, but it also robbed Arsenal of their most potent creative attacking player. Some reading this may find it difficult to believe that Henry ever took a backseat to any attacking player the club had during his eight years, but Pires really was that good. But his cruel banishment allowed one of the great Arsenal double acts to flourish. Most recall the end of the 2001-02 campaign belonging to Freddie Ljungberg, with his penetrating runs, streak of red hair and boy band looks. But to dismiss the part Dennis Bergkamp played in Freddie`s purple patch is Gooner heresy. Tottenham were the first to feel the sting of the roundhouse kick and karate chop, Bergkamp fed a sumptuous through ball to Ljungberg as the Swede slipped in unnoticed to slide the ball past Kasey Keller for 1-0. But Spurs won a penalty with eight minutes left when Seaman felled Poyet; arch nemesis Sheringham despatched the penalty and ran towards the visiting fans with his lips pursed towards the club crest. But when Chris Perry took a swipe at Henry in the area in the 88th minute, the Gunners had the chance to keep their title tilt on an even keel. With Henry injured, Lauren stepped up as a stadium held its breath. Fingernails were chewed clean off, heads pensively rested in hands as Lauren stepped up. Ludicrously, he demonstrated a scary amount of composure and pea rolled the ball down the middle of the goal at a rate of about 0.3mph. The ball brushed Keller`s studs and barely had enough puff to hit the net. But it crossed the line- quite literally in slow motion- and Highbury exploded as the tension was relieved and the tension was released into the early spring air.
The Gunners quickly secured a place in a second consecutive F.A. Cup Final when they despatched Middlesbrough 1-0 at Old Trafford- tellingly, that fixture meant Arsenal`s game away ay Manchester United was to be moved to May 8th. "We`ll win the league at Old Trafford" came the expectant cry in the games that followed. A tense home match with Ipswich was won late on with a Freddie Ljungberg double in the last ten minutes. Likewise, the Gunners left it impossibly late in the following game at Highbury with West Ham, Ljungberg once again latching onto a Bergkamp through ball to break the seal after 83 nerve shredding minutes. Kanu added a second in his typically idiosyncratic style. United`s response was to beat Ipswich at Portman Road that Saturday, typically Ruud van Nistelrooy dived to win a penalty in a 1-0 victory. But United`s reign was coming to an end. The Gunners went to Bolton and once more, it was the class of Bergkamp that told; first another inch perfect through ball to Ljungberg established an all too familiar pattern to make it 1-0, before matching his feat with a pass of similar elegance to Wiltord to secure a 2-0 win at Bolton. Hard as it is to believe now considering what`s gone on between the clubs since; Bolton fans cheered each of our goals, chanted "you`re gonna beat Man United" towards the away support and even applauded our supporters coaches on the way out of the Reebok, such was their distaste for United. Arsenal went to Cardiff in the Cup Final that Saturday and defeated Chelsea 2-0, a sublime Ray Parlour goal and another Ljungberg effort- this time a gorgeous solo effort in no way aided or abetted by Bergkamp- confirming one half of the Double secured. Their next league fixture was at Old Trafford, where they needed only a point to be crowned champions and swipe the crown jewels in full view of the throne.
Wednesday, 8th May, 2002 will forever go down as one of the greatest nights in Arsenal history. I was about to sit my A Levels and made myself incredibly unpopular by bunking school yet again to attend- thereby missing a Mock English A Level. That`s a big no no when a) you`re English teacher is also your form tutor and b) you`re applying to do an English degree! But frankly no teacher in the world would have believed that I had been struck down by a mystery illness on the day Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford and my teacher was even less impressed when I refused to even apologise the next morning. But the omens did not appear to be good, on top of injuries to Pires and Adams; Bergkamp and Henry dropped out on the morning of the game. Most of us simply refused to believe that United would countenance conceding their title on their own ground. Yet Ferguson`s tactics were spiteful and disappointing. Keane and Scholes- two of the greatest midfielders of their generation, resorted to kicking and clogging. Ferguson left van Nistelrooy on the bench and Arsenal, spurred on by the majestic duo of Vieira and Edu- took control of the game. United registered barely a shot. On 68 minutes Arsenal, who though in control, had rarely threatened themselves, burst through when Wiltord`s reverse pass found Ljungberg, his shot was straight at Barthez, but Wiltord had continued his run unchecked to slot the rebound through Barthez`s legs. Yours truly was unfortunately positioned against a barrier and as such, was squashed to smithereens in the resulting celebration, but it`s hard to even register physical pain at such moments. Someone brilliantly unveiled a banner marked CHAMPIONS SECTION. United knew the game was up, Ferguson sent on van Nistelrooy who had time to donkey punch Ljungberg in the kidneys in full view of referee Paul Durkin. But Arsenal were having the last laugh. "Hand it over Ferguson!" the triumphant travelling Gooners sang, as his face grew gloriously purpler with every passing minute. At the height of the Arsenal United rivalry, this was truly epoch making stuff. It also meant Arsenal had been the first club in over a hundred years to complete a league campaign without a single defeat away from home.
The final whistle sounded and, to their credit, a large section of United fans applauded the Arsenal players in their finest hour. It was a gesture that showed that this was a rivalry underpinned by a mutual respect- albeit a grudging one. We sang and celebrated for a good hour after the final whistle, the players joining us. The sight of Campbell careering towards the East Stand lower with his lips pressed up against the badge and Vieira making an identical gesture further cheered a delirious travelling contingent. Until Arsenal win the Champions League, I doubt I`ll find a night to match it. In fact, I think it might have been the greatest night of my life. Music is a great stimulant for memory; I recall wearily climbing back onto the coach and the radio playing Daft Punk`s 'One More Time.` That song always takes me right back to that night. Our coaches parked up on Avenell Road to find an absolute sea of beer and champagne bottles where homebound Gooners had celebrated around the walls of the stadium into the wee small hours. We crept through the now moribund terraced streets to our cars and buses home quietly murmuring the "Freddie song." That Sunday, Arsenal played to a party atmosphere, defeating Everton 4-3. Henry confirmed the Golden Boot, scoring his 24th goal of the season, the Gunners confirmed their record of having scored in every single league game- a record that would eventually stretch to 55 consecutive league games on the score sheet. As the players ceremoniously lifted the trophy, a heavily strapped Robert Pires went to lift the trophy last; his team mates all genuflected to him; an illustration of the team`s indomitable togetherness and of the form of the player himself. Tony Adams and Lee Dixon bade farewell as both retired having served the club with scarcely paralleled distinction. The day didn`t perhaps have the poetry of the Everton match in 1998, but it was the perfect end to the perfect season.LD.