For those of you who are young, I must explain one thing, Manchester United, under Alex Ferguson, were the kings of English football in the 90’s. Year after year they seemed to win the league, and cups and other trophies. But in 1997-98 we were champions and double winners in Arsene Wenger’s first full year and we got to play United in the Charity Shield because they were league runners up.
We showed them who are the new kings of England as we thrashed them 3-0, Overmars in the first half and Christopher Wreh and Nicolas Anelka in the second to send them back to Manchester crying all the way. We were ready, we were Arsenal, and this year we could win everything. Maybe we needed to play cricket or rugby to give us a challenge, football was too easy.
I don't think so
Eh, hello, it wasn’t to be. Although we beat Forest 2-1 in the first match we weren’t very convincing but then we had 4 draws to tumble to ninth. We were flash in the pans, not a new star in the sky and the glory that Wenger seemed to promise us was fading away. Back to the old Arsenal for us.
We hadn’t done much in the transfer market and had got rid of our talisman and record scorer, Ian Wright. David Platt had retired as injuries kept piling up. We brought in Nelson Vivas as cover for the full backs and he was a good player who never quite made it at Arsenal. It was here that Wenger proved he knows, leading to the famous saying all Arsenal fans could recite. He brought in Freddie Llungberg who was to become one of our all time favourites. What could this midfielder do? Everything, score goals, provide assists, link play, dribble, even head the ball.
Our sweet Swede - Freddie Llungberg
Later he brought in Nwankwo Kanu from Inter who was a superb footballer. His only real problem at Arsenal was that he was similar to Dennis Bergkamp but a fraction less good. One year I was in a pub watching Liverpool vs Arsenal with an Anfield follower David Lynch and Bergkamp went off after tormenting Liverpool and my friend let out a sigh of relief, then groaned as Kanu came on. That’s how good Kanu was.
But we took a long time to get going in the league and Man Utd had come back at us, they weren’t going to let some fancy Frenchman walk all over them. We were suffering from a winning hangover and not able to get really flying properly. It was a flaw that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had, we were never able to retain the league and this season was an early indication of that. However, we did show battling qualities in the second half of the season and we got top on game 34 after going 19 games unbeaten from December.
Competition for places
I should emphasise that Llungberg and Kanu were bit players that season but I feel they were crucial to the team upping their game, as we now had 2 players who could take the place of even our best players and they had to play better to keep their place.
So we had come back at Man U, we had knocked them off their perch and were top. Another season like last which had seemed to fizzle out had re-ignited and we were ready to win again. Except we couldn’t. A 1-0 defeat at Leeds on game 37 handed the initiative to Alex Ferguson and they won by a point. We had 2 tough matches against them in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and maybe that took its toll. The first match ended 0-0 after extra time and the second match 2-1 to United, also after extra time.
Oh no, not Manchester United!
It was to be Manchester United’s best ever season, they won the league and the FA cup and the big prize Ferguson craved, the Champions League. They famously looked like being beaten in the final against Bayern Munich but 2 goals in injury time got them the win.
We were left with just the Charity Shield for our season. The Champions league was disappointing as we went out at the group stages to Dynamo Kyiv and Lens. It wasn’t a difficult group but the first half of the season was poor. We also got hammered 5-0 by Chelsea in the League Cup 4th round. One thing that took me a long time to get used to was Wenger playing understrength teams and us getting hammered because of it. 30 players were used that season, often players I never heard from again.
The poor players needed a rest
We had 14 goalscorers to emphasise this with Nicolas Anelka showing we didn’t need Ian Wright anymore, we had a new kid who would surely break the mighty Ian’s record, seeing he was so young. He scored 19 in all competitions and Bergkamp 16.
The world had changed for me. Big squads with top players like Kanu and Llungberg only subs. The priority only being the big matches and the belief, often misplaced, that the reserves could win matches. I had grown up on 11 players and a sub being enough. Those players could play 3 times a week without complaint, now players were being rested. When I was a kid, we often would go out playing football all day long, every day, but these professionals needed to be rested. I couldn’t understand it and still struggle with the concept even though it has become engrained on the modern sports fans.
We were the Arsenal - we could come back
But I was an optimist. We had finished the season stronger than Man Utd. There was little to separate us in the FA cup semi-final. We could come back at them with Anelka to improve again and Kanu and Llungberg to show their stuff. We had beaten Spurs at White Hart Lane 3-1 towards the end of the season. We had 11 one-nils to the Arsenal, more than ever before.
Next season, I felt, would be good. Little did I know it was to be a defining season where the shift was huge and Arsenal was set to change again. But for the better? We will see.