Monday, May 16, 2022

Arsenal win the league at Old Trafford – 20 years on

On May 8th 2002, Arsenal went to Old Trafford, beat Man Utd 1-0 thanks to a Sylvain Wiltord goal, and won the Premiership title.

Twenty years on, Elliot Ross reflects on that achievement, the rivalry, and that particular Arsenal team.

Follow Elliot on Twitter @Elliot__Ross

The Man Utd fans I grew up with in the 90s and 00s are really struggling these days. They hate how lousy their club has become, and many are simply losing interest. I’m not surprised.

Back when we were kids they swaggered around with a distinct air of superiority. That was the whole point of being a Man Utd fan. These uniquely grating characters seemed to genuinely think of Alex Ferguson’s success as their own personal accomplishment, as though United won things because their fans “demanded success” and not because, well, they had Alex Ferguson.

Maybe the Man Utd fans you grew up with weren’t like the ones I knew. But I bet a lot of them were. They looked down on fans of other clubs as idiots who for some odd reason had chosen to support a team that didn’t win the league every single year. They had two speeds: rubbing your nose in it (most of the time), or else (after any major defeat) seeming to completely lose interest and detach themselves from any association with the club. I’ve never seen supporters of any other club behave in this way.

My most cherished Arsenal memory is the 1-0 victory at Old Trafford that clinched the Premier League title exactly twenty years ago tomorrow. It probably always will be. You probably have a fair idea why that’s the case.

There were two legendary Wenger teams in that period, not just one. There’s no need to have a preference, of course, but I’ve long felt that the singular nature of the Invincibles’ achievement has slightly dulled the collective memory of Arsenal’s 2001/02 Double, and just what it meant. I love that we went unbeaten, but I’ll always take two trophies instead of one if I have to choose.

I’ll take that exquisite FA Cup final in Cardiff with Ray Parlour sticking it right up Tim Lovejoy; Freddie Ljungberg with his red hair and cool tattoos and Calvin Klein undies dumping John Terry on his repulsive face; and 38 year old Lee Dixon warming up behind the goal and running onto the field to celebrate like a child as the ball curled perfectly into Cudicini’s top corner for the second time in nine minutes.

I’ll take winning the Double right after nicking Spurs’ magnificent but hitherto trophy-less captain on a free transfer literally nobody in the world had any idea was happening until the moment he turned up at London Colney with Wenger.

It is true that we lost three times in the league, all of them at Highbury, to Leeds, Charlton and Newcastle. But we won every single one of our final 13 league matches of the season. It was just win after win from 2 February onwards. Imagine that. Bergkamp scored his wonder-goal at Newcastle at the beginning of March, at a time when it really, really mattered in the title race. Nobody had ever seen a goal like it. Who could stop us?

Until his injury Robert Pires often looked like the best attacking player in the world in 01/02. It was the year we saw the very best of him in an Arsenal shirt, and the same is true of Ljungberg and Parlour. And of course, we still had Adams. If the Invincibles were a pure Wenger team, the 01/02 Double side still had a strong flavour of Graham’s champions from a decade earlier.

The 2001/02 team could do amazing things. Like going down to 10 men at Anfield, sticking Kanu back to fill in in central midfield, and winning it comfortably. In a shiny gold shirt, sponsored by a Japanese video game company. Arsenal have a truly lovely habit of clinching our championships at rival grounds. Long may it continue. Winning the league at Old Trafford during that period, against that team, led by that manager, was something else.

Rewind it back. You have to know how we got here to know why it felt so good. Long before the Old Trafford 8-2 that forced the panicked signing of Arteta and Mertesacker, there was the Old Trafford 6-1. That was in February 2001. (By the grace of God, I somehow missed both games and have never even seen the goals, but like the pain your body feels when you have a tooth extracted under a really good anaesthetic, you know the trauma is still in there.)

They won the league by a single point in 1999, 18 points in 2000, 10 points in 2001, having beaten us 6-1. We were runners-up each time, but we were miles off, and they wanted to make extra sure in the summer of 2001 by taking Vieira and putting him next to Keane in their midfield. That didn’t happen. Instead, we kept Vieira, beat Barcelona to sign Campbell on a Bosman, and won the Double on their pitch, right in front of Alex Ferguson. A seventeen point swing in our favour.

As always, they tried to kick us off the pitch. As always, they had help from a very helpful referee. They couldn’t do it. We were too strong, completely resolute, simply too good. It remains one of the most comfortable 1-0 victories I can remember against a top side. The XI that humiliated Ferguson and Keane in front of their home crowd that night was: Seaman, Lauren, Keown, Campbell, Cole, Ljungberg, Parlour, Vieira, Edu, Wiltord, Kanu.

The sole substitute Wenger used was 38 year old Lee Dixon, sent on in the 89th minute to take the piss, which he duly did by barging into Fabien Barthez for no other reason than it being very funny.

When a glum-faced Paul Durkin blew the final whistle, Martin Tyler offered a simple but brilliant summation of what it meant: “Arsenal are the champions. They have taken the title away from Manchester United, and they have done it here, at Old Trafford. It does not get more conclusive than that.”

Anyone who listens to the Second Captains podcast will have heard these lines a lot in recent years. They feature on a brilliant audio-bed that splices Tyler’s commentary on Wenger’s greatest achievements with clips from furious YouTubers towards the end of his tenure. Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/secondcaptains/bye-bye-wenger-sc-breaking-news-special-for-arsene

Arsenal fans are often accused of “living in the past” when we mention anything about that period, the most successful in our recent history. I don’t see it that way at all. There’s nostalgia, of course, but then why should we forget those moments, or enjoy them any less? Is there some kind of statute of limitations on enjoying the memory of such remarkable feats? Aren’t these kinds of memories the whole point of football, and the exact reason why it has such powerful cross-generational and cross-cultural appeal, as a shared language and a common set of stories?

I thought about this when Chris Sutton tried to bait Arsenal fans last weekend, saying Petit and Vieira wouldn’t have celebrated like our players did at West Ham if they were “only” going for fourth. Don’t fall for it. Football media gets easy filler content by insisting on a vexed relationship between a club’s past and present. Sure, they say, your club achieved some major objective, but was it as good as the best season the club has ever had? If the answer is no then aren’t you “lacking ambition” by celebrating? This obviously has nothing to do with our actual experience as supporters.

It’s why you get angry Man Utd legends sitting on TV insisting year on year that their much-diminished club is in decline because individual players lack “desire” when the wider technical and structural deficiencies are clear for all to see. It helps explain why they had Solskjaer as their manager for three years, apparently in the hope that if he reminisced about the Camp Nou in every single press conference and left Ferguson’s parking space vacant, the club would somehow magically return to those glory days.

The jubilant celebrations we’ve seen from Arsenal’s players and fans on this bumpy road to (maybe) fourth show precisely the opposite dynamic. We know exactly where we are and who we are competing with. This is not a club living in the past. If we were, we’d all be judging our current team against the side that won the league at Old Trafford 20 years ago, and rapidly driving ourselves insane.

Our expectations change with the times, but our hopes as supporters are basically always the same. These are shaped by our most cherished memories. For most football fans, most of the time, there is a pretty vast gulf between our realistic expectations and what we hope our team can do.

That’s how it felt to us Arsenal fans in February 2001, losing 6-1 at Old Trafford. Watching our players celebrate the Double on the same pitch just a year later, in front of Alex Ferguson, we learned that sometimes miracles can happen sooner than you think.

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