This was a defining year for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger and David Dein. This set the pattern for every year afterwards. Arsene Wenger revealed his philosophy and his vision – that running a football club the right way was paramount to all else. Of course, he meant the right way as he saw it. It was exactly parallel to the vision to be unveiled by Roman Abramovich 3 years later. Stability was the order. A state of the art training ground at Colney, paid for by the sale of our new wunderkind, Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid. Now, Anelka’s family were pushing for this move although it was debatable whether Anelka was. Wenger did want him to stay and develop into an Arsenal icon. Anyone who saw him at Arsenal in those days recognized that an exceptional talent was being formed. But it was in this whole episode that we saw the genius of Wenger.
Because he sold Anelka for £23.5 million and paid for the then astonishing Colney training ground, easily the best in the country at the time with £10m and Thierry Henry £11m with Davor Suker coming the other way from Real Madrid for £3.5m.
A big mistake?
I will take an in depth look at these decisions later but first let me give my impressions of the time. Man Utd, our only serious rival, never worried about spending money. They had given us a lesson in comebackability the previous season. 2 years before, we had won the double of league and cup. Then they won league, cup and the mighty Champions league to put us in our place as second best. But we decided to sell potentially our best player and top scorer in Anelka to pay for a training ground? We got Davor Suker, a Real Madrid castoff and Thierry Henry, a Juventus castoff as compensation? The message was we should forget about competing with Man Utd, who don’t sell their best players, but we put financial security first? I am not sure many of us were happy.
Now there is a general belief that Wenger was a genius in the transfer market and he probably was but that was not so evident at the time. Lots of players were coming and going without any impact. 11 players went and 6 came in but most of them were not notable other than the ones mentioned above. The aging Steve Bould was moved on to Sunderland with Oleg Luzhny brought in and Remi Garde retired.
Anelka our GOAT?
Bergkamp was sublime but never the quickest although he might have had the quickest brain. Anelka seemed to have the world at his feet. He was quick, he was talented, he was scoring goals and surely the perfect foil for Bergkamp or Kanu. But we got rid. And we got Davor Suker who was good, yes, but started out injured and really was mostly used as a sub or in the less important matches. Honestly he wasn’t better than the 3 I have just mentioned. Was he better than Thierry Henry? At that stage it was hard to say. Henry may have won a world cup but he couldn’t score for us and he kept missing chances. Sukor, when he got a chance, seemed to score.
Now, I know what you are all saying at this moment. Gus, you are talking nonsense. Henry is probably Arsenal’s best ever player. Anelka ended up playing at the likes of Bolton. Wenger was a genius. I agree, but I didn’t quite know that then, and nor did all that many fans. What we saw was a team that had been weakened by the loss of Anelka and we had got a winger trying to play as a striker who didn’t know how to score. Man Utd were the best team in Europe and Juventus had dumped Henry. Real Madrid had snatched potentially our best player to try and become the best in Europe. And us? We got a winger who couldn’t score and the best training ground in the world. We wondered could the training ground get out on the pitch instead and knock in a few goals?
London Colney - the best on the planet
It is a magnificent facility, to be fair,and still among the best on the planet although teams with bottomless pockets have come after us. To give you an idea the training centre covers an area of 143 acres, it houses ten full-size pitches, an indoor facility and a medical and rehabilitation centre. Inside the complex there is training and rehabilitation areas, physiotherapy and massage rooms and remedial and hydrotherapy pools. This was when a lot of teams trained on their home pitch.
It has undersoil heating, and the grass is designed to mimic Highbury which was generally regarded as being the best kept ground in England if not the world. The landscapers were experts and given the best resources. So with the medical facilities and players were to be given a level of treatment unprecedented as they strived to have players perform at their very best. Ian Wright had moved to West Ham and thought he was being sent back to the dark ages with their facilities and that was before London Colney had opened. Could you imagine what he would have thought if he had been inside it?
There are tricks that can be performed at such training grounds, you can make easily it a replica of your home ground or you can make it the same size as your next opponents which helps with your passing and spatial awareness. Your next opponent has a very tight ground and size? Just change your markings and you are ready to train.
Ah, but the legend was emerging
Henry was slow to score and slow to impress but in September he scored. He was our top scorer that season with 17 in the league and 26 in all competitions. The legend had arrived. Still a bit raw, but he was learning from the intelligence of the players around him, Bergkamp, Kanu, Overmars, Petit, Vieira but don’t underestimate that stubbornness, will to win and ferocity of the back four, particularly Adams and Keown. He was taking from everyone, adding a bit to his game from all, becoming the most feared striker in the Premier League.
So was it good business? Getting Anelka and what were regarded as his greedy family to take the money and go so they could pay for stratospheric training and medical facilities plus Thierry Henry? You betcha! No wonder the phrase “Arsene knows” became a byword. But spare a little thought for Nicolas Anelka. At Arsenal maybe he could have been like Thierry Henry, a legend, overtake Ian Wright by far as he was 2 years younger than Henry, developed his game with Wenger looking after him, and learning, like Henry did, from all the stars around him. Instead he was pitched up, still raw, with the galacticos of Madrid where he was gobbled up like Pacman and bounced around football until he ended up with the likes of Sam Allardyce. We might now be talking about him with awe as we do about Henry as the GOAT. Sometimes in life you have got to make the right decisions and instant money isn’t the right answer. You have got to do what is right for you. Ask Arsene Wenger, he knows.