So, we are all missing football right now. What better time to review the archives of my Arsenal memories? In my new feature I will summarise each season starting from when I was young enough to remember…
I thought I would start at Mr Wenger’s first full season as manager when we won his first fantasic Double. Younger gooners might learn a few things, while us older ones can remember the good old days.
I was born in Plymouth, but my parents kept moving around to the point I was going to school in Staines in Middlesex. My best friend at the time was chatting about what he called ‘The Arsenal’ – little did I know what I was letting myself in for.
It wasn’t until his first pre-season in 1997/98 where Mr Wenger could really work his magic. It took an incredible amount of self-belief by essentially taking on an established dressing room.
While, with hindsight, many now thank him for introducing dietary requirements and training methods that prolonged their careers at the time, this was an unknown manager who had coached in Japan, trying to change the habits of senior pros who had been successful. It led to many writing off the likes of Adams whose injuries had been mounting up.
Buying six or seven players from abroad was essentially a gamble that could have created a divide behind the scenes, especially when a club legend like Paul Merson was asking to go to Middlesbrough, more due to how much a Championship club would pay him and not accepting his own personal problems.
Ian Wright has spoken how the French recruitment would be cliquey, not respecting certain values of the club. Meanwhile the likes of Bergkamp have spoken about his amazement regarding the drinking culture he walked into at Arsenal.
Contrary to assumptions at the time, our new manager wasn’t trying to replace our famous back 4, but get the very best out of them for as long as possible.
In return they would educate the next generation about our ethos, through the likes of Vieira, Adams and Henry, etc.
Maybe it was his relationship with David Dein where he felt he had the backing to make long term changes, but at other clubs it might have been a gamble for so many radical changes so soon. Clearly Mr Wenger had been promised a major say on many aspects of the club.
Senior players felt the squad lacked fitness, blaming training being too short, but their coach insisted they would see improvements in the second half of the year. This was the case when we failed to win 5 matches in November/December – the same time as the year before we lost pace in the title race.
The lowest point was when even Ian Wright was getting criticism from the fan base, to the point that police had to step in when he stood in his underwear outside Highbury, arguing with gooners (this was after home losses to Liverpool then Blackburn).
This was a far cry from months earlier when a hat trick vs Bolton made Wrighty our greatest ever scorer. He was being overshadowed by the form of Bergkamp (Player of the Year) and the emergence of a young Anelka.
So, Wenger was under pressure to prove that stamina would indeed prove crucial, not that anyone could have envisaged by the time we would lose again we would be Champions. While we had games in hand a 12-point lead for Man United saw some bookmakers pay out. But we then put together a winning run which included 8 consecutive clean sheets (a record) which was ironic; here we were trying to play more entertaining football yet were grinding out 1-0 wins George Graham would have been proud.
This is where it was clear the old back 5 were responding to the new way of doing things, while Petit and Vieira battled in midfield, seeing both end up in France’s midfield at the World Cup.
We were pleasing on the eye (Overmars became our big match player) but we could also fight you if we needed to as well. The squad players also proved vital in this period. To win things you need talent on the fringes who can do a job for you.
Injuries and suspensions would have proved costly if not for the contribution of a Manninger, Grimandi, Upson or Wreah, etc.
Sir Alex feared us enough to play mind games. He had the points on the board, we had congested fixtures – and on law of averages we couldn’t keep winning 1-0.
When we went to Old Trafford in March, we were 9 points behind our opponents but with 3 games in hand. It wasn’t just that the winner would have their destiny in their own hands, but it could be a huge psychological blow to the loser. In arguably his best ever performance for us, Overmars scored our first ever Prem goal on the ground in a win where we won all our personal battles.
Now it was our turn to play the mind games, still calling United favourites as we saw the pressure was getting to them.
United were still 1/3 on to retain their trophy as we still had to keep on winning, including tricky away fixtures at Blackburn, Villa and Liverpool.
The more Manchester United spoke where our run would end only highlighted their own insecurities.
They were the ones who were being accused of bottling it, while we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Draws with Liverpool and Newcastle showed they were choking while routs over Blackburn and Wimbledon showed we were enjoying the occasion – at which point Fergie played his last throw of the dice saying it would take us to collapse now.
We won our two games in hand to set up a scenario where we only needed one win out of our final 3 fixtures. Highbury was still nervous though as our last two games were trips to Anfield and Villa Park so there was urgency to get it done against Everton with home advantage. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of that afternoon was how calm we were in our performance.
It would be the same case in the Cup Final against Newcastle, almost like no matter what the pressure, the team has reached a point where they believed nothing could stop them winning a fantastic Double. It ended as an easy 2-0 win to the Gunners.
During what proved to be an 18-game unbeaten run, there had been nervous times where we were happy to scrap for a 1-0 win, but the 3 points were never in doubt here.
Tony Adams clinched the title in a way only Shakespeare could write. Here was ‘Boring, Boring’ Arsenal adding a 4th goal in the last minute against the Toffees after a chipped pass from one centre-back to another. Here was a darting run and volley from a defender not originally receptive towards all these fancy Wenger ideas. But most of all here was ‘Mr Arsenal‘ professionally and personally on top of the world after battling his demons.
I think …. That just about sums it all up! A fantastic season and a fantastic Double.