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Arsenal Station’s Decade in Review
This week, Arsenal Station will look back at the decade that has come and gone with a few features including a few decade review articles from me and our guest contributors and a piece with my own personal rankings of the players and moments or matches of the decade. Enjoy and Happy New Year!
And so another decade has passed in our club’s long and glorious history-perhaps, its most glorious decade yet. Herbert Chapman and George Allison’s dynasty won 5 league titles and one F.A. Cup in the 1930s. In the decade past, Arsenal have won 2 league titles and 3 F.A. Cups. Yet the dynamics of the game, as sport and business, and the league has changed so much, that I tend to think trophies are much harder to win nowadays. Either way, those of us who have followed the club throughout the decade know that we were lucky enough to witness something very special. It was a decade full of dozens of magical moments-the kind of moments that are the reason anyone watches football or follows a club. We experienced many unprecedented highs over the last ten years that, at the close of the decade, it is worth recalling a few, though space restricts me from mentioning everything worthy of recognition.
For me, three moments stand out as the most satisfying. First was the match at Old Trafford on May 8th, 2002. Coming four days after goals from “It’s only” Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg had secured our second F.A. Cup trophy under Arsene Wenger, the club traveled north and sealed their second double in four years with a single goal by Sylvain Wiltord. Ever since the double in ’98, we had played second fiddle to United and had to endure the pain of watching them win the treble in a season in which I still think we were the better side. The satisfaction following that league title was priceless.
It’s also a bit sentimental as 2001-02 was the first title-winning season in which I was able to see a majority of the matches. I started following the club in late 1997 and for the first few years was lucky if a dozen matches all season were broadcast here in the States. Perhaps, more importantly though, 2001-02 was the launching pad for a 4-year run during which Arsenal played a class of football not seen before in England or many other places. And I still firmly believe that the Arsenal side from 2001-2005 was the greatest team in Premier League history, if not all of English football history. Of course, the lack of a European trophy means many people will never consider them in the same way as say Liverpool and Nottingham Forest of the 70s and 80s. But, domestically, the amount of records the club broke and the style in which they did it in has no match.
The second and third moments have to do with the unbeaten run. Closing out 2003-04 unbeaten still takes my breath away when I think about. I remember knowing what a big deal it was at the time, however, I now feel as though that achievement has somehow become underrated in English football history. Domestically, 2003-04 was as close as you can get to a perfect season. To go unbeaten, win the league at White Hart Lane, and come from behind in the final game to seal the record at home was better than a movie script. Especially considering the sticky business at Pompey a week and a half earlier.
While the match against Blackburn broke Nottingham Forest’s record, it was the previous match against Middlesbrough that remains far more memorable for me. 1-nil up and cruising into the break, quick goals on either side of the interval saw us behind and when Queudrue’s shot whistled past an out-of-position Jens Lehmann, it looked like the jig was up. But before the full level of despair could set in, Bergkamp had waltzed up to the box and brought the match back to 3-2. Something had clicked and you would be hard-pressed to recall another instance where a team with the lead looked such unlikely winners. A goal by Pires and another from Reyes off the re-start and Boro was sunk and the record equaled.
The caliber of player we have seen wear an Arsenal shirt in this decade is just astounding. For me, it was an absolute honor to watch players like Bergkamp, Henry, and Pires on a weekly basis and, as time goes by, I become more attuned to the fact that it is highly unlikely I will see players like that lining up in the red-and-white again. Don’t get me wrong, we are seeing some great players now, but there is a big difference between this and the previous Arsenal sides.
Coverage of the club here in the States in the early part of the decade was hit or miss. I was able to see maybe half of the club’s league matches by driving long distances and paying cover charges, but I had to follow the rest over the internet and in day-old, overpriced English newspapers. The reward was well worth the effort, however. Recent American fans of PL football are spoiled for choice as no less than 8 matches are shown every weekend on American television, with about half of them carried live. And, with a satellite package or broadband subscription, you can watch them all. It is now a very rare occurrence indeed for an Arsenal match to not be broadcast somehow. And even then there are internet streams.
Of course, the greatest disappointment of the decade has to be the 2006 Champions League Final. Champions League football in the mid-90s was my introduction to the club game. Ever since I started following the club, I dreamed of seeing them win the Champions League. I have to say that I truly believed it was our destiny, our fate to win that Final. The amazing run in the knockout rounds defeating Madrid, Juventus, and Villareal… it was like watching a script being written. Campbell’s goal after going down to ten men only reaffirmed that feeling. I don’t believe I have ever felt so empty after a match as I did after that Final. Not getting there is disappointing but getting there and losing is devastating.
Perhaps slightly more devastating was the move to the Emirates. I was never in the kind of financial shape that would have allowed me to hop the pond to catch a match, like many American Gooners, and so I ended up missing out on a trip to Highbury. The ground mesmerized me from the first time I saw it on television. The row houses between the North and East stands, the pitch, the closeness of the stands to the pitch… all of it gave Highbury some kind of mystical and mythic aura, even through a television set thousands of miles away. I have, in fact, had dozens of dreams of going to a match at Highbury, and, without exaggeration, not getting there before the move is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
The bright side after the Champions League Final disappointment and the closing of Highbury was that we began to see a new side coming together along with the emergence of Cesc Fabregas. In 2007-08, I had a similar kind of feeling about us winning the league title. The victory at Milan was incredible and the subsequent loss at Anfield, despite Theo’s amazing run was even more incredible.
Flamini and Hleb’s departures put a speed bump in the way of the development of the team but, following a necessary year of re-tooling last season, we seem to be back on track towards becoming a side that can dominate the PL and Europe for years. I truly believe that. All that needs to be done is to keep the team together with very few, but critical, additions, with Arshavin and Vermaelen being the examples.
Well, enough ranting, by me. It was a decade to which we should all be thankful to have beared witness. We did things that no one thought any club could do and played football that no other club could play. And at the end of it, despite the lack of trophies, we have gotten to watch an unbelievably entertaining side, second only to Barcelona, be created from scratch right before our eyes.
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