1998: Hot Stuff
Arsenal built on their 1993 F.A. Cup win with a swiftly masterminded Cup Winners Cup victory in 1994. Arsenal`s defensive stoutness throughout the tournament gave birth to the "1-0 to the Arsenal" chant. Having also finished 4th in the Premier League that season, things were looking up for Graham`s side. However, with Limpar sold in 1994, Graham had by now dismantled the creative element of the side with the exception of Paul Merson. However, Merson would spend half of the 1994-95 season in a rehab facility where he would be treated for alcohol, cocaine and gambling addictions. It was portent of what would prove to be one of the worst seasons in Arsenal`s history.
Their drab, ineffective style of play had crowds dropping as fast as results. The Gunners laboured to 12th place, conceding 55 goals. The team also heartbreakingly lost the 1995 Cup Winners Cup Final to Real Zaragoza, ex Tottenham player Nayim scoring the winner in the 120th minute with a freakish 45 yard lob. Graham was losing his touch. However, a bung scandal gave the board the perfect excuse to relieve him of his duties. Graham had left the club in the mid table sterility in which he had found it.
Bruce Rioch was installed and freshened the club up in the summer of 1995 with the signings of David Platt and the landmark acquisition of Dennis Bergkamp in a club record £7.5m deal from Inter Milan. Rioch was a steady hand and guided Arsenal back to 5th place and UEFA Cup qualification. But in the summer of 1996, the club appeared to be back in limbo. Arsenal sacked Rioch some five days before the beginning of the season and brought in an unknown French manager named Arsene Wenger from Nagoya Grampus Eight. Fleet Street and Avenell Road looked at one another with bafflement.
But Wenger resuscitated an ailing club with revolutionary training methods and dietary requirements. The club`s elder statesmen revelled in the scientific approach as well as the newfound joie de vivre the new coach brought to the playing style. The club finished 3rd in his first season. He added exciting, swashbuckling players such as Petit, Overmars and Anelka, as well as revitalising the likes of Adams, Parlour and Keown. By the beginning of the 1997-98 season, Arsene had swiftly assembled a team to challenge Manchester United`s Premiership monopoly. He would win the club the Double in his first full season. I have already written about the team`s stylishly achieved Premiership winning campaign that year. This is the story of how Arsenal secured the second half of an historic Double and how they won the F.A. Cup for the seventh time in their history.
The Double season of 1997-98 will doubtlessly be committed to memory as a perfectly flawless campaign, when the sun always shone, the team always won and nobody had any complaints. But by the time the F.A. Cup 3rd Round rolled around in January, Arsenal were in something of a funk. They were 5th in the league table, their captain Tony Adams was suffering from rotten form- to the extent that he offered to retire after a particularly trying 3-1 defeat to Blackburn in December. Having broken Arsenal`s goal scoring record, Ian Wright was struggling for fitness and form and Nicolas Anelka hadn`t yet settled into his stride. The Gunners were therefore fortunate to be given a plum draw for the 3rd Round, when Second Division Port Vale came to Highbury.
But an injury ravaged side found the Valiants true to their nickname. With Bergkamp suspended, Vieira, Wright and Overmars injured and Adams still licking his wounds, the Gunners laboured to a drab 0-0 draw. Luis Boa Morte hit the post in the final minute, but the truth was Arsenal`s second string couldn`t cut mustard. A transfer policy that had seen Wenger sell the likes of Merson and Hartson in favour of Chris Wreh and Nicolas Anelka was audibly questioned. Merson and Hartson would meet with Arsenal again in this Cup run, but the Gunners up and comers would have the last laugh. So Arsenal travelled to Vale Park for a Wednesday evening replay and Vale would take their illustrious opponents the whole 12 rounds.
Even with Bergkamp back from suspension and Overmars back from injury, Arsenal still toiled and could not break the resistance of the Second Division side. Overmars` curling shot hit the inside of the post, crawled all the way along the goal line and then back out for a goal kick. Wright`s scuffed shot from Bergkamp`s corner would also hit the woodwork. But it would take a moment of inspiration in Extra Time to finally penetrate the Maginot Line in front of the Vale goal. In the 8th minute of extra time, Bergkamp collected Grimandi`s pass on the edge of the Vale area and produced a trademark finish- using the foremost defender as a screen, he turned and lifted the ball into the top corner with one stroke of his paintbrush of a right foot.
That should have been that, but the home side showed their resolve when Gareth Ainsworth skipped past Winterburn to the by line and pulled a cross to the back post, which Wayne Cordon was on hand to sweep into the roof of the net in the 112th minute. Not for the last time in this Cup run, the Gunners would need penalties to prevail. The omens weren`t good wither when Lee Dixon uncharacteristically missed Arsenal`s first. But with David Seaman in goal, you always have a chance and he came good, saving Corden`s spot kick. Overmars, Bergkamp, Wright and Hughes all subsequently converted. Alan Tankard stepped up, needing to score to keep the tie alive into sudden death, but after 210 minutes of toiling, Vale`s resistance finally buckled as Tankard smashed his penalty well over the bar.
The Gunners would meet with an old acquaintance in the 4th Round as they were drawn to play First Division Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. Paul Merson had been surprisingly sold in the summer of 1997 to make room for Dutch winger Marc Overmars. Wenger wanted explosive pace in his side which, for all his creativity, Merson was not able to provide. With Bergkamp`s radar vision sitting deep, Anelka and Overmars` mind blowing acceleration became a lethal concoction. Wenger had also introduced Plyometrics to the team`s training regime, an impactive training method based on a series of jumps and knee bends. "The idea is to increase the explosive strength of the muscles. It makes players stronger, more powerful, more agile," the bespectacled French manager was to say at the time.
That explosive quality would be made clear in the opening 17 minutes of the 4th Round tie. The Gunners would score from two early counter attacks. Inside 80 seconds, Ray Parlour gave them the lead with a quick fire breakaway from defence. On 17 minutes, Overmars would roar onto Parlour`s pass with another eye boggling counter attack, smashing his finish past Mark Schwarzer. With David Seaman injured, Alex Manninger would spend the majority of the next 3 months between the sticks. Again, he took a while to find his feet and made a rash error in the 61st minute, rushing outside of his area only to be beaten to the ball by Paul Merson, who rounded him to half the deficit. But Arsenal held on to a 2-1 victory and Manninger would prove his worth in later rounds. Though his rashness from his line nearly cost Arsenal in the 5th Round, where they were drawn to play relegation threatened Crystal Palace at Highbury. He positively clattered Jamie Fullarton on the edge of the area but inexplicably got away with it. When Bergkamp was likewise tripped in the area later on, the referee evened the score by refusing to give the penalty.
Arsenal were left with the farcical situation of Dutch international Marc Overmars playing the replay the day he landed back in London following Holland`s friendly international with the U.S.A. Bergkamp`s infamous aviophobia precluded him from the ridiculous trip. Overmars did shrug off the jet lag to set up Anelka who opened the scoring however, whilst Bergkamp doubled Arsenal`s advantage with a wildly deflected free kick, opening up a two goal lead inside 20 minutes. A scrappy Bruce Dyer goal on the stroke of half time proved a mere consolation as the Gunners marched into the Quarter Finals.
By now, Arsenal were beginning to show the form that would shoot them to the Double with an incredibly strong finish; ten consecutive victories in the league from March 2nd would see their superior fitness pay dividends. The likes of Anelka, Manninger, Gilles Grimandi and Chris Wreh would prove pivotal in that run in. Arsenal drew another Premier League London rival in the 6th Round, with West Ham coming to Highbury. Strangely, Arsenal did not win any of their home ties en route to the F.A. Cup win of 1998- each time being held to a replay. The Hammers even took the lead in this tie when Ian Pearce crept into the Arsenal box unnoticed to head home Eyal Berkovic`s corner. But Arsenal levelled the tie shortly before half time, this time Pearce would be a nuisance in his own penalty box, hauling down Martin Keown from Bergkamp`s corner. Bergkamp would coolly convert the penalty.
The replay at Upton Park on St. Patrick`s Day would show the darker side of this Arsenal team. The likes of Vieira and Ian Wright found their tempers difficult to control and seemed to be in the F.A`s disciplinary dock on a bi weekly basis. Vieira would pick up a two match suspension on the basis of video evidence from this game, aiming a senseless off the ball kick at Ian Pearce. Arsenal`s heartbeat Dennis Bergkamp, described by many as the best player in the world at this point, had exposed his mean streak as he was red carded for a calculated forearm smash to the face of Steve Lomas in the league encounter between the two 15 days earlier. The blow would have the Irish international`s nose seeping with claret. Arsene`s Arsenal were having troubles maintaining their discipline.
"We are not a dirty side, but a fair side. This game is about physical contact. I want positive aggression. If you`re too soft you don`t win many games." This was Arsene`s mitigation for his under fire side. But even without their talisman, the Gunners threatened to boss the tie and took the lead on 44 minutes when Anelka cut inside Pearce on the edge of the West Ham box and fired a fulminating strike past Bernard Lama. Arsenal defended with their lives with Alex Manninger making a series of gravity defying stops. In particular one from John Hartson from a matter of two yards took the breath away. But with six minutes remaining of normal time, John Hartson did eventually squeeze home a close range equaliser past Alex Manninger. Extra time could not separate the sides so the match went to a nail chewing penalty shoot out. Manninger saved from Berkovic with the same thrusting right arm that had kept Manchester United at bay three days earlier in a pivotal win at Old Trafford. With the fifth of the Irons` spot kicks, Samassi Abou hit the post and Arsenal were through. You sensed it was all coming together at exactly the right time.
As well as a revolutionary outlook to training and diet; Wenger brought a sense of tangible confidence to the squad. "An unbelievable belief" as Paul Merson memorably described it. He made an ageing but imposing back four believe they were more technically gifted than they had been previously allowed to express. He concentrated the players on refining their strengths rather than poring over weakness. "You can only be successful if you concentrate in your strengths, nobody can be perfect." It was with this sense of joie de vivre that Arsenal would cross the line into greatness. A mixture of the reinvigoration of the older guard, who had begun to go stale under Graham, as well as the refreshing sea change of the manager`s continental recruits, would fire Arsenal to the second Double in their history.
In the Semi Final of the F.A. Cup, Arsenal would meet First Division Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park- just as they had in 1979. (Incidentally, Arsenal would also knock Wolves out en route to winning the F.A. Cup in 2005). It was to be the Gunners` 27th F.A. Cup Semi Final. One of Arsenal`s unlikelier heroes would come to the fore. Having already hit crucial winners in 1-0 wins over Wimbledon and Bolton Wanderers, Liberian striker and cousin of Wenger prodigy George Weah, Christopher Wreh would score the winning goal after 12 minutes- with half the stadium still empty owing to an horrific crash on the M1. Patrick Vieira made a typical driving run, sauntering through the Wolves midfield and carrying the ball to the edge of Wolves` area, before slipping the ball to Wreh inside the area. The Liberian`s finish was calm and measured. But Wolves would make Arsenal sweat. Don Goodman`s header hit the crossbar, whilst Seaman was forced into an excellent late save from Steve Claridge.
But Arsenal held firm to book their place in the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley, where they would meet their Cup Final conquerors from 1932 and 1952, Newcastle United. In the meantime, Arsenal would sweep to Premier League glory, completing ten consecutive victories with a 4-0 win over Everton at Highbury. A beautiful Tony Adams volley in the final minute of that game would reveal a most pleasing chrysalis as Arsenal were a team admired for their pyrotechnic football. But heartbreakingly, they would take to the Wembley turf without Dennis Bergkamp, a pulled hamstring in a tense 1-0 win over Derby in late April denying him his boyhood dream. In the immediate aftermath the club had been upbeat about the prospect of him being fit. Though Bergkamp himself warned, "I am hopeful, but I will not let the team down. I will not say I am fit if I`m not." Two days before the Final, the club announced he had lost his battle for fitness.
The manager was cute about that announcement though. The news would likely give Newcastle a lift and he didn`t want them to experience that boost in the dressing room shortly before kick-off. But he also did not want to give them enough time to plan for his absence too rigorously on the training ground. The Final was not so much a demonstration of Arsenal`s new found knack for total football, but more their mental resolve. For all the plaudits afforded to Anelka, Overmars and Petit, it would be Ray Parlour`s rumbustuous performance that would take the Man of the Match trophy. The game also showed the extent to which some of the old guard were being phased out. Steve Bould and the irrepressible Ian Wright were unused substitutes- Wright unable to cement a place ahead of Chris Wreh by now. He wouldn`t appear for the club again. David Platt was likewise on the bench.
The Gunners ought to have led inside 5 minutes when Parlour`s lung bursting run to the line saw him pull an inch perfect cross back to Nicolas Anelka, who headed over in front of an open goal from five yards. But Arsenal did take the lead in the 23rd minute of the 126th F.A. Cup Final. Manu Petit curled a cultured pass to the heart of the Magpies defence, velocity merchant Overmars scampered onto the pass, nodded it down past Pistone and slotted the ball between Given`s legs to make it 1-0. A mixture of fortune and fortitude would be needed to keep the Geordies at bay. Nikos Dabizas headed Speed`s corner against the bar early in the second half, whilst Seaman was forced into a stretching save from Temuri Ketsbaia. In the 61st minute, Arsenal really were left counting their blessings. Keown trod on the ball inside his own area and his footing gave way, leaving Alan Shearer clear on goal from close range. He hit a left foot shot towards the corner which hit the inside of the post. Newcastle`s 1932 and 1952 Cup Final victories over Arsenal owed a great deal to serendipity. This time, it was Arsenal who were to benefit from the fickle mistress of fortune.
Minutes after Shearer`s miss, Arsenal punished Newcastle for their profligacy. Winterburn intercepted Speed`s pass in central midfield. Vieira headed the loose ball down to Parlour. In an illustration of the explosive power and pace in the final third that had been key to Arsenal`s effectiveness, Parlour lifted a through ball to Anelka, who brilliantly chested and controlled it in one movement, gliding beyond Dabizas as he did, before steering the ball into the bottom corner. In hindsight, one can point to Anelka celebrating that goal alone as portending of future problems. Parlour almost stretched the advantage when he darted between Pistone and Steve Howey into the area, but he smashed his shot into the side netting. He would find more tangible rewards in Arsenal`s next F.A. Cup Final triumph.
But Arsenal held out for a 2-0 win which sealed the second Double triumph in the club`s history and their seventh F.A. Cup win- achieved in Arsene Wenger`s first full season at the club. "This is my biggest achievement in my career" he gushed on the Wembley turf thereafter. He had transformed the club into a thriving, well oiled and beautifully assembled machine. The Cup run that year showed the perfect blend of qualities he had brought to the team. The flowing football, the explosive pace, the sturdy defence, the ability to bear teeth when needed, the mental resolve required to come through penalty shoot outs at difficult away grounds. The achievement would usher in a duel for supremacy between Wenger`s Arsenal and Ferguson`s United that would hold the attention of the country for a decade. But for now, 1998 was Arsenal and Arsene`s time. LD.
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