|A N D (Arsenal Not-playing Disorder)
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I am not obsessed with Arsenal and football but whenever
the season ends I get mildly depressed and find myself
at somewhat of a loss.
After such a marvellous season that sadness is exacerbated.
Cricket, tennis and even Euro 2004 just will not lift
my summer torpor. I love football but although I want
England to do well and will be in the pub, or even in
Portugal cheering along, I will be as happy if Thierry
has a great tournament as if Owen rediscovers his form.
I remember celebrating as loudly as the French boys,
in a casino in Reno, when Vieira and Petit scored the
third against Brazil - they were Arsenal, my team.
With 75 days until the next meaningful match I know
I will anxiously await news of tickets for the Ajax tournament
and friendlies against Barnet and Wycombe to fulfil my
need for Gunners games. Even now the thought of beating
United in the Community Shield warms my blood.
This has been a rollercoaster of a season, history made
by an outstanding team. Arsenal have achieved what many
thought impossible in the modern game but they have not
succeeded on all fronts, as we had dared to hope, and
I have loved every single minute of it. I miss the constant
rigour and rhythm of pre-match build up and post match
analysis. I miss the baiting of friends, family and workmates.
This season has had many highs and deepest lows but for
me, as I'm sure for any true fan, it just got under my
skin unlike any other.
Losing out to United in spring was almost too difficult
to bear. I needed a new season to get my fix and my revenge.
The fixture list is a pulse in my life - planning for
away matches whether in attendance or watching a Euro
broadcast in some dodgy north London pub. Going to Highbury
has rituals and is always a rush. I await the summer
publication of the fixture list to plan holidays and
weekends. The lottery of the Champion's League draw determines
my European travel plans. I am not obsessed, really,
but it adds a different and complicated dimension to
organising my life.
I think the fantastic nature of this past season has
made it more compelling than ever and makes its inevitable
demise that much sadder. All the talk at the beginning
of the season was about transfers, not ours, but the
big name signings at Chelsea, bought with dubious Roubles,
and the activities at United where a team icon and football
shirt brand was sold to Spain and the wrong Ronaldo was
acquired. After our sudden loss of form and nerve at
the end of last season, to hand our greatest rivals the
Championship, passionate Gooners and the tabloid press
demanded transfer action. In particularly we needed to
shore up a defence where the mighty Keown was fading
and Seaman was moving on from Manchester City and eventually
to Dixons. The acquisition of a little known German goalkeeper
did little to convince the diehards that Arsenal could
bounce back and reclaim their trophy. The lack of a new
big name centre back, particularly following the loss
of Upson, was viewed as conclusive proof that Arsenal
would not revive their Championship winning ways. The
more extreme fans were questioning the club's sanity
and financial commitment to success --the fan sites were
a manic depressives convention. However, I had faith,
Arsene knows, he believed in stability and not trying
to buy the title. He knew things about his players that
we just hadn't seen but we saw and understood later.
Arsene Wenger is now Arsenal's most successful manager
and we simply did not fully recognise that his drive
and willpower, tactical nous and ability to transfer
players to new positions in his system would prevail
so spectacularly. He has been doing this for seven years
at Highbury and developed this approach at Monaco where
he often moved players from defence to midfield and vice
versa. With a much smaller budget than the global PLC
brand of United and the instantly inflated Stamford Bridge
coffers, Wenger has been forced to invest and nurture
wisely. His signings of the highly promising Senderos
and Cesc in last year's pre-season are patient investments
in his long-term plan. In fact David Dein, who we must
truly thank for acquiring this footballing genius,
believes that what Arsene has achieved behind the scenes
is even more remarkable. He has developed world class
training facilities and leading edge coaching routines.
He has used his sophisticated and experienced network
to develop and recruit young stars and to build a long
term youth policy which will herald even greater success
in the future. The board's belief in Wenger has hastened
the construction of a new state of the art stadium to
satisfy over 25,000 people on the season ticket waiting
list. Dein believes that up to now we have been punching,
albeit very successfully, above our weight.
Success on the field and sound financial planning behind
the scenes are the foundations that will take this team,
and club, up to the next level.
My abiding memories of the season have some key highlights
and some low periods. After four wins and a draw the
first pivotal episode was Ruud the Horse® missing
the penalty at Old Trafford, after having blatantly cheated
to con the referee and get Paddy sent off. The teams
mass delight at his miss and hounding of him raised the
passions and raised the stakes in terms of team rivalry.
The best 0 - 0 draw for many a year. We had had both
got, and made, a point at Old Trafford. The subsequent
fines and suspensions could have caused more problems
but somehow it seemed to galvanise the squad.
The supposed continuing poor discipline under Wenger,
and in particular this incident, was used by the media
to berate Arsenal and to talk up Chelsea and United supposed
strengths. However, the following month the determination
signals were even stronger, willpower not indiscipline
drove this team. We were outplayed at Anfield but defensive
stability and counter attack at its very finest, topped
off by a Pires special, delivered a sweet victory.
On the downside our dismal start in Europe, a stunning
victory by Inter at Highbury and poor performances in
Eastern Europe, led everyone to believe we could not
even break out of the group phase.
However, on a passionate bonfire night at Highbury,
Cole scored a last gasp winner to send the crowd ecstatic
- fireworks indeed. Then the unbelievable happened, we
went to San Siro needing to win, and boy how we won -
a 5-1 victory that really convinced me that, at last,
we had shaken off our European hoodoo, we would stay
Henry was simply brilliant, of course, but the team
showed such an immense will to win after earlier setbacks
I somehow contrived to be in Italy when we played in
Russia and in Moscow when we dominated Milan. Missing
that latter victory, in person, I still deeply regret.
Persuading Russian businessmen that they really must
watch European football in a BA lounge was scant reward.
In my "exuberant" celebration I am really surprised I
was allowed onto the flight. Subsequent victory over
Lokomotiv secured our passage to the knock out phase
as group leaders - some fight-back Arsenal.
As the season continued I feared we were drawing too
many games in the Premiership and that would be our eventual
downfall. But, with hindsight, we simply weren't losing
games where we had stumbled before. So as had been expected
the pack of three broke away from the rest and the fixture
list became even more compelling
I first truly convinced myself that we were going to
win the Premiership when we beat Chelsea at Stamford
Bridge six days after Reyes had announced his arrival
so spectacularly in beating them at home in the cup.
The team spirit was immense and Vieira was inspirational
and a driven man after his early error. The team's reaction
at the full time whistle really showed me that they believed
they could do it.
In the two domestic cups we were progressing well, with
the first team dominating the FA Cup and the youngsters
going through the Worthington rounds before stumbling
at Boro in the semis. As an aside the Worthington rounds
provided an opportunity for travelling bloggers to meet
which added an interesting social aspect to events.
However, I truly believe, this success on all fronts
was to sow the seeds of our failure to finally win through
The signing of Reyes and his winning performance against
Chelsea in the cup was another highlight at this point,
a signs of greater things to come you'll see.
We progressed on in Europe and disposed of Celta Vigo
with room to spare, Edu being the man of the hour. The
trip to Spain was a personal highlight, the perfect example
of the draw taking me to a pleasant Spanish west coast
fishing town that I would otherwise never visit. Great
support, great atmosphere, great game - that is why we
go on a European tour.
The rollercoaster kicked in by April. We hit really
bad luck in the cup draws. The fixture congestion and
the hated opposition meant we faced a daunting run of
games in a short period. The semi-final at Villa Park
showed an unsure team formation, in a really lacklustre
effort, in front of strangely muted Gooner crowd. United
and their fans treated it as their cup final and it showed.
Media and opposition supporters gloating as the treble
dream, that they had imposed on us, was dismantled was
a real low point. Worse was to come after Chelsea's outstanding
second half performance at Highbury. A step too far for
a clearly tired Arsenal. We had stumbled in Europe yet
again. I really thought we were going to make the semis
and the other results from the quarter-finals meant that
the competition was at its most open for years Truly
a missed opportunity and a huge disappointment.
The following match at Highbury was critical and I was
a bag of nerves for days beforehand. Being 2 - 1 down
at half time didn't help my frayed emotions. The second
half was Arsenal's best performance of the season, at
half time Wenger conjured the response required. Henry,
the master craftsmen, with my goal of the season, dismantled
a determined Liverpool defence.
So a week of sustained depression, where I must have
been very poor company, was suddenly all sweetness and
light again. I now knew we were going to win the league.
I just didn't know it was going to be so easy.
Then a new twist kicked in. It dawned on everyone that
we were seven games away from going the season unbeaten,
this became my guiding light and an all consuming passion.
If we could really do this in the face of all round scepticism
and after the taunting of a misquoted Wenger the previous
year, failure in Europe could be forgiven. Perhaps not
so Comical Wenger?
All eyes turned to the fixture list again, where could
we win the League? Surely not at White Hart Lane, again?
Well results conspired in our favour and despite struggling
through the sheer animosity of attending the worst ground
in London, and following Chelsea's earlier loss at Newcastle,
the scene was set. This was the perfect canvas. Arsenal
were quick out of the traps and counter attacked to full
effect. Half time 2 - 0, we were having a laugh! Despite
their comeback, and Mad Jen's final folly, we did it.
Locked in and singing for an hour while Ashley put an
inflatable trophy on the centre spot.
So there were four games to immortality as the finest
unbeaten team in English football history. We stumbled
but we didn't fall. A dull Birmingham game, a rainy night
in Portsmouth, and a gift of a goal in Fulham.
Then the final game against a relegated Leicester. Nerves
jangling as again we are losing at half time but Dennis
contrived to create for Patrick to deliver a captain's
finishing touch every bit as sweet as Tony's six years
How did we do it? Wenger knows. He had seen something
special and believed in Kolo Toure who became a rock
at the back and was our young player of the year. Lehmann,
though much maligned, was the keeper we probably needed
the year before. Henry was immense, Vieira inspirational,
Pires magnificent, Dennis Bergkamp and the Brazilians
brilliant. I miss them all.
So, as you can clearly see, I am not obsessed but after
a season like that could you blame me if I were?
I now have a busy summer of work, social events, garden
centres, DIY, holidays and family visits.
When is that Barnet game?