2002/03 – Did We Throw Away The Title? by Dan Smith
In the summer of 2002 both Tony Adams and Lee Dixon retired from football. Having both been at the club for over a decade you were never going to directly replace those two, but it still seemed a gamble to only buy Pascal Cygan for defence (in comparison Man United at the same time got Rio Ferdinand for 30 million).
We were led to believe throughout pre-season that World Cup winner Gilberto Silva was Vieira’s replacement. Not just did Viera yet again not leave, he was named our new captain.
In general with the uncertainty over the new TV deal and plans to build a new stadium under way, transfer activity was quiet throughout the English game (unless you were Leeds United who were having a fire sale).
Obviously, you’re not going to get as much credit compared to the years you win titles, but there was a period this campaign from August – Winter where we played some of the best football of my lifetime. This included a bizarre purple patch for Kanu who out of nowhere scored 6 in 4 games (didn’t do much after).
The danger always was going to be us finding it too easy. Every week the press were writing how good we were, as it seemed like we reached new records every passing game (14 game winning sequence, away games without defeat, consecutive matches where we always scored)-
It was like Mr Wenger couldn’t get over how beautiful his baby was, and maybe went over the top with his praise, going as far as saying he thought we could go a season unbeaten (he wasn’t wrong, just a year out). The likes of Keown has since admitted that this put the players under pressure.
When Wayne Rooney scored a 90th minute winner for Everton (remember the name), it had been 30 matches since we had lost in the Prem (nearly a season). Suddenly a group told how good they were couldn’t cope with the opposite feeling; it was like we forgot the taste of defeat. It was a surprise our manager hadn’t mentally prepared them better for the possibility of one day you will lose.
We responded by losing 4 out of next 5 games in all competitions. We had gone from dominating to now the likes of Blackburn, Sunderland and Auxerre were winning at Highbury.
Despite a loss at Old Trafford, it was evident they respected us. Sir Alex from this point forward would set up his side differently to before He was more intent on trying to be physical with us, letting us have the possession. In general though no one took advantage of us dropping silly points and by the time we knocked Man United out of the Cup on their own pitch, it felt like there was still a gulf in class between the two. This was the day Sir Alex kicked a boot which hit of all people David Beckham in his face. That, coinciding with their painful defeat to Liverpool in a League Cup final had some bookmakers paying out on the title race.
As our rivals were losing in a final, we on the same Sunday beat Charlton to increase our lead to 8 points, having played a game extra.
A couple of weeks before we had raced into a 4-0 lead in the first 20 minutes at Man City, so the assumption was we had re-found our early season mojo.
The turning point was Blackburn away, where injuries meant that Lauren ended up as the only first choice member of our back 5. At Ewood Park, Silva had his worse game in an Arsenal shirt, his mistake making it 2-0 to Blackburn.
Suddenly Touré was scoring an own goal at Villa, Keown would do the same at Bolton. Campbell would be harshly sent off against United, Luzhny was being asked to be a centre back.
We didn’t bottle it, but we didn’t enjoy being hunted down either. Previously we were the ones hunting them, now United had everything to gain having been written off. Even when winning, you could see the tension was affecting us. It was the first clear sign we missed the leadership of a Tony Adams.
When we drew 2-2 with Man United in a classic, Sir Alex played mind games, celebrating like that was the result that gave them the edge. In reality it meant if both sides took maximum points from their 5 remains games, we would be champions again. Instead we walked off with our heads down. An Adams or a Dixon wouldn’t have accepted that body language.
10 days later, a makeshift defence would throw away a 2-0 lead at the Reebok to put our destiny out of our own hands. And Man United were confirmed champions when Leeds won at Highbury. In the end it was one injury too many for our back 4.
The worry was now would those injuries and heartbreak of losing our title have a knock-on effect on the FA Cup Final (our third successive appearances in the show piece).
With Campbell suspended and Cygan injured the talk in the build-up was; how would Luzhny cope out of position? To be fair he produced easily his best ever performance for us against Southampton.
FA Final week had also been dominated by doubts about David Seaman’s ability, not helped by him about to become a free agent. The media seemed more concerned about his ponytail and moustache, and after mistakes for England the press was not giving him the respect he deserved.
It shows the mentality of the man that he had responded by producing perhaps his best ever save in the semi final. Here he was in his last ever game as a gunner, as captain, lifting the Cup after a 1-0 to the Arsenal, him marshalling a makeshift back 4.
It would have been a tragedy if we had nothing to show for a season which for the majority looked like being a Double again.
Mr Wenger was defensive in not wanting his men to be accused of bottling the title race, rightfully pointing out to how well as a club we were doing in competing with Man United who again we couldn’t match in the transfer window. And yet we hadn’t replaced Adams or Dixon. Having them, even in his staff, around the club could have helped? Now on top of that we were losing another leader in Seaman.
Meanwhile a certain Russian wanted to buy a football club ….