Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday August 19 2010
After the Double success of 2001-02 , Arsenal simply glided into the next campaign, picking up where they had left off with a brand of scintillating football. Though Wayne Rooney`s last minute winner for Everton in October 2002 curtailed the manager`s ridiculous prediction a month earlier that Arsenal "could go a season unbeaten" (what an arse, eh?) the Gunners looked set to romp away with the league title again. But they ran out of steam as United absconded in the spring, heartbreakingly conceding the title they had looked destined for with a 3-2 home defeat to Leeds. They did bag an F.A. Cup, beating Southampton 1-0 in the Final, but it felt like a mere consolation prize in context. (How spoiled we were). Arsene Wenger outlined his belief that, "The team became complacent when things were going well in the autumn 2002 to spring 2003." Meanwhile, the departing Oleg Luzhny underlined the determination that would spur the team on for 2003-04. "Credit to United, they overhauled us. But we saw it as United`s windfall title. They won because we blew it."
The summer of 2003 saw the landscape of the top flight change forever more as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovic bought Chelsea, wiping out their crippling debts and handing them a transfer kitty that dwarfed any other on the planet. They spent and spent big. In the meantime, Arsenal replaced departing legend David Seaman with German veteran Jens Lehmann, and dipped into the market only to purchase teenagers Philippe Senderos (who was injured and didn`t appear for 14 months) and Gael Clichy. Whilst Chelsea were tempting the likes of Crespo, Duff and Makelele, Arsenal, with a new stadium to finance, went the tried and tested route, tying the three musketeers; Henry, Vieira and Pires, to new contracts. That sense of cohesion and bonhomie in the team translated into instant results; a sign of Arsenal`s sturdiness apparent on the first day as they defeated Everton with ten men at Highbury. Middlesbrough and Aston Villa were swatted aside, but it was the month of September that would forge the flames of the Gunners cast iron spirit. Firstly, there was a national clucking of tongues as Robert Pires dived to win a penalty in a 1-1 home draw with newly promoted Pompey. The opprobrium received was deserved, but out of proportion with that dished out to the many other offenders. (Matt Holland took a horrendous dive against us at the Valley a month later, but he was born in Bury so it`s o.k.) Of course the dive has only been repeated once ever since on these fair shores by Eduardo last August. Nobody has done it since either. Honest. Four days later, Arsenal were given a 3-0 shoeing by Inter Milan at Highbury in the Champions League. But it was the next game that would test their resolve to its fullest.
Having been given such a comprehensive beating by Inter on the Wednesday, Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford with caution at the forefront of their mind; the manager wary of the psychological implications of another defeat. Pires and Wiltord dropped to the bench for Parlour and Ljungberg as the Gunners ground out an impressive point without surrendering too many chances. The game was simmering when a piece of van Nistelrooy play acting earned Patrick Vieira a second yellow card. Vieira was livid at the Dutchman`s histrionics, which were so clear to everyone other than Steve Bennett that Vieira found an unlikely ally in Roy Keane, who, marching Vieira away from the scene was seen to say, "I know he did, just appeal it." Arsenal looked as though they had the point they had come for until injury time, when Diego Forlan tripped over a troublesome blade of grass in the penalty area and Bennett awarded a penalty. Van Nistelrooy celebrated the decision inches from Martin Keown`s face. Sky, who coincidentally owned 9.9% of United at the time, didn`t show that. Van Nistelrooy stepped up and smashed his penalty against the crossbar. The mixture of relief and injustice exploded in a combustible cauldron of poetic justice, as Keown, Parlour and Lauren were swift to "console" van Nistelrooy. At the final whistle, a melee broke out between both sets of players, Quinton Fortune gave Lehmann a full blooded whack across the shins (what did Jens Lehmann ever do to anyone?)- Conveniently Sky didn`t show that either. But those of us in the away end were ideally positioned to see it. Tensions increased for supporters outside, the fact that the penalty and the melee had all exploded seconds before everyone left the stadium made for a heated situation and flashpoints were a plenty. Though the media reportage and the F.A. levies were laughably one sided, two things happened. Firstly, Arsenal corrected the indiscipline which had plagued them in preceding seasons and the red card count fell away. Secondly, the siege mentality had been conversely created for them by a mixture of injustice and slanted media. The two institutions perceived to be trying to aid United, gave Arsenal all the motivation they needed to create history.
Supporters and players were united in the cause of Arsenal versus the world. Though I recall arguing about these incidents till I was blue in the face and my brow being furrowed into a semi permanent arch, in hindsight, it was bloody brilliant. Despite the rash of suspensions, it gave the Gunners the momentum they needed to negotiate a tough October. Liverpool were banished 2-1 at Anfield thanks to Robert Pires` late screamer. Two weeks later, the nouveau riche Chelsea came to Highbury, their supporters armed with a "we`re considerably richer than you" repertoire of songs. Edu`s deflected free kick gave Arsenal an early lead, before Crespo`s long range strike levelled it up. But with 15 minutes to go, Carlo Cudicini spilled a simple Pires cross directly onto Henry`s shins and the ball dribbled delightfully into the net. In the Clock End, our refrain of "Chelsea, get your cheque book out" was met with blank, glum expressions. In truth, I think we all knew we were enjoying it while we could. Everybody knew Chelsea`s steroid injection would see them win the league sooner or later.
The twin successes over title rivals Liverpool and Chelsea gave Arsenal the encouragement to kick on and record a fine November. (When Arsenal have a brilliant November, you know you`re on the cusp of a special season). Leeds and Birmingham were comfortably swatted aside away from home. Spurs came to Highbury and, in truth, utterly outplayed us for large swathes of the game. I still regard it as our least impressive performance of that season. However, Robert Pires came off the bench to bag his customary goal against Spurs, before Ljungberg`s hilariously and quite ludicrously deflected effort gave Arsenal the most undeserved of victories. Though the domestic front had been a veritable smorgasbord of montage moments, our Champions League campaign had been quite the disaster, as the Gunners bagged only one point from their opening three games. On Match day 4, we looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw at home to Kyiv and the limpest Champions League exit of recent times, until Ashley Cole`s last minute header gave us a reprieve. It was another checkpoint of the season, a timely boost to keep confidence plateaud. On Match day 5 we travelled to the San Siro and scored an unlikely 5-1 win against Inter on their own patch. Suddenly, Arsenal had the aura of invincibility.
They strutted through the winter months with a perfect blend of silk and steel. The patterns weaved on opponents` pitches by the likes of Pires and Begrkamp was underpinned by the steel of Lauren, Campbell, Vieira and Gilberto. The side was chock a block with winner; Vieira`s job as captain was easy. At the helm of it all, was the jewel in the crown, Thierry Henry. Sashaying through defences with a sublime mix of speed, grace and power, permeated by an insouciant self belief. He would go on to rack up 30 league goals as well as 15 assists; unrivalled numbers for a striker on these shores. In December 2003, he was scandalously only awarded 2nd place in FIFA`s World Player of the Year award. Surely nobody could take this ceremonious tripe seriously any longer? In January, Arsenal added young Spanish striker Jose Antonio Reyes to their ranks to swell their already impressive armoury. They glided into February, top of the league and still unbeaten. They would need to face Chelsea twice in a week. In the first meeting at Highbury in the F.A. Cup; Jose Reyes announced his arrival with a two goal salvo to defeat their West London rivals 2-1 in the F.A. Cup. A week later, Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge for a more important league match. The start was inconspicuous as Eidur Gudjohnsen gave Chelsea the lead after 22 seconds. But Arsenal called upon grit as well as wit, replying with a Vieira equaliser after a sumptuous Bergkamp through ball, before Edu put Arsenal in front from a left wing corner. The Gunners comfortably held onto the result and with United drawing at home to relegation threatened Leeds, the North London side now held a six point lead at the top of the table.
With Bergkamp enjoying a latter career renaissance and Edu forcing his way into the team with a string of fine performances, both players shared a unique distinction of being named joint Player of the Month for February by Barclaycard. As Arsenal swanned into March in imperious form and still undefeated, I think Arsenal scored the goal that summed up the whole team in a 2-1 win over Bolton at Highbury. Edu looked up in the centre circle and chipped an inch perfect ball to the feet of Bergkamp on the edge of Bolton`s area. With his back to goal, Bergkamp telepathically read the onrushing run of Pires and touched the ball into his path first time. As Ivan Campo ran to block Pires, Bergkamp, having just laid the ball off, quickly moved to shoulder charge him away. This left Pires with the time to take a touch and bend the ball into the corner. It was one of the best goals I think I have seen in my time watching Arsenal, it encapsulated that team. It was technically perfect, brilliantly executed. It showed telepathy, and it also showed the mixture of brains, brawn and ballet in Bergkamp`s play. The vision, the touch and then the presence of mind and muscle to nudge Campo out of the way. The attributes of a whole team laid bare in four touches. The team was like a swan, gracile on the surface, but beneath the surface, the legs were beating away with fury.
By the time United came to Highbury in late March, they had all but conceded the title, sitting as they were eleven points behind the Gunners. Henry`s long range exocet gave Arsenal the lead, in context, Luis Saha`s late equaliser meant little to either side. But the draw did mean Arsenal had broken a record for the best ever start to a league season, having now lost none of their 29 games. Though it looked as though the Gunners would fly to the title on wings of faith, their mettle would once again be put to the sternest of examinations. After losing an F.A. Cup semi final to Manchester United at Villa Park; Arsenal welcomed Chelsea to Highbury for a Champions League Quarter Final 2nd leg, having grabbed a precious away goal in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea shocked a leaden footed home side by coming from behind with a 2-1 victory. Arsenal had tumbled out of two competitions in the space of four days. Suddenly, the unshakable house of belief they had built, looked to be sinking into quick sand. Liverpool were the next visitors to Highbury on Good Friday. Where confidence had reigned in N5 for some months, now tension prevailed. The atmosphere in the stadium and in the streets around the ground was one of nail chomping tension. The players did not seem to be immune.
Sami Hyypia`s header gave Liverpool an early lead. Henry equalised for a tepid looking Arsenal, but then Gerrard`s through ball found Michael Owen who put the away side 2-1 up on the stroke of half time. The anxiety filled the pause of the half time interval, discussions on the Clock End, where yours truly was positioned, was more intense than usual. Edu remembers; "At half time we had a problem on our hands. We were mentally drained, but not totally spent. We re-emerged a different side." Pires hit an equaliser seconds into the second half to cut through the nerves. But genius was afoot. Thierry Henry recalls; "You could feel that everyone was asking themselves what was going on. You could feel the whole stadium asking if we were going to blow it right at the end. Then we were back in it…" Henry took the ball on the halfway line and slalomed past one, then two, then three Liverpool players. As he glided into the area, he bamboozled Carragher to the point that he comically collided with Biscan, leaving Henry to slot into the bottom corner. My season ticket seat at the time was on the barrier next to the away fans in the Clock End. I glanced to my left as my vision was caught by the sight of a Liverpool fan climbing to his feet and applauding heartily. It remains one of my favourite memories of that season. Henry completed the hat trick to make it 4-2. Later that day, Chelsea lost at Villa Park and in his post match interview, Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri graciously told reporters, "We have only to congratulate Arsenal, they will be worthy champions."
In the next home game, Arsenal smashed relegation haunted Leeds 5-0, Thierry Henry scoring four and putting in a performance that surely must stand as one of the great all time individual displays from a player in the colour television era. His fourth goal was of a level of insouciance scarcely seen on a football pitch as he roared through on goal. A weary Gary Kelly, presumably tired of chasing his shadow, cynically clipped Henry`s heels. But as he fell Henry still summoned up the strength to flick the ball over the hapless Robinson. Commentator Andy Gray was moved to say; "I`ve seen a lot in my 25 years in football. I haven`t seen the likes of him." I doubt any of us had. His team mate Edu attests; "At times during that match, even his team mates watched him with awe. His last goal, where he trips and scores, is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in football." The next weekend, Chelsea lost 2-1 at Newcastle in the early Sunday kick off, just before Arsenal took the field at White Hart Lane. I remember a group of us gathered at the back of the lower tier, pressing our noses against the glass at the police box; as they were watching the game on Sky. The final whistle was greeted with a roar and an embryonic cry of "Champions!" The Gunners needed only do what they had for the 33 games previous. Avoid defeat. The teams were greeted to a deafening cacophony of noise from the away end, "Bring on the champions!" we demanded in unison. The Gunners turned on champion style too.
Henry broke away from a Spurs corner 90 seconds into the game; he tucked the ball down the line for Bergkamp. The mercurial Dutchman looked up and spotted the loping run of Vieira, Bergkamp`s low cross was met with Vieira`s telescopic limb to give Arsenal the lead. Another deliciously worked team goal gave the Gunners a two goal lead when Vieira tucked the ball back to Pires, who found the net with typical calm. The melee in the away end was of such ferocity that my seat snapped clean in two. It`s o.k., I wasn`t using it anyway! "71, we`ll do it again!" came the cry. The Gunners took their foot off the pedal in the second half, Jamie Redknapp`s long range strike gave relegation threatened Spurs some hope, before Lehmann`s scuffle with Robbie Keane in injury time gave Spurs the chance to level. Keane converted the penalty and White Hart Lane erupted; believing they had delayed our title celebrations. The final whistle was initially greeted with a hilarious cheer from the home fans; which quickly petered out when they saw us celebrating and Henry leading his charges over to the away enclosure. The celebrations lasted for a good 90 minutes as the police secured the streets outside. In the absence of the real McCoy, somebody tossed an inflatable Premiership trophy down to the players so they could hold a mock ceremony. Ashley Cole promptly planted the trophy in the centre circle a la Souness at Galatasaray. We were eventually wearily marched to Tottenham Hale station. Upon entering the train, the driver informed us that the train would not stop at Seven Sisters. But the train did stop and pulled into a platform of foam mouthed Spurs fans, who had waited for nearly two hours to shed some Gooner blood. Suddenly, my guts dropped along with everyone else on the carriage as hate filled faces pressed up against the window and glasses were smashed against the carriage. But gloriously, the doors never opened and we slowly pulled away from the sneering Neanderthals, laughing and pointing. Occasionally in life, you just get those days where everything falls into place.
Arsenal now had to focus on creating history and finishing the season unbeaten. Drab draws with Birmingham and Portsmouth followed, as well as a dreary 1-0 win away at Fulham. Relegated Leicester came to Highbury on May 15th in our final league game. Paul Dickov traversed the script by giving Leicester a one goal lead at half time. But two minutes into the second half, Henry`s penalty restored parity and confirmed him as the first Arsenal player since Ronnie Rooke in 1948 , to notch 30 in the league. A fine caveat to match his feat of winning the PFA Players and Football Writers` Player of the Year; both for the second consecutive season, as wella s the Golden Boot. Then Bergkamp`s through ball found the captain Vieira, skipping around Ian Walker to make it 2-1. Martin Keown came on in his final game for the club, allowing him the requisite ten games to earn a winners medal. The final whistle sounded and Arsenal had achieved the feat that Wenger, in a rare moment of Ali-esque confidence- had predicted eighteen months earlier. "We are unbeatable" was the tune emanating from the crowd as Highbury was enveloped in sunshine. "I always had that dream" a smiling Wenger told a reporter, sporting a tee shirt with his infamous quote from the season previous on it. Patrick Vieira wistfully recollects; "Nothing can overshadow the memory of lifting the Premiership trophy in the sun at Highbury. I could feel the enormity of it. To be captain of an unbeaten team fills me with pride. It always will." Watching that unbeaten side likewise fills me with pride. It always will.LD.
Date:Thursday August 19 2010
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