The Emergence of Great Players
Top players, top goals and a double!
We have had some great seasons in my time as an Arsenal fan. The greatest, I suspect, will always be the double of 1971. And why, because it was so miraculous. As a child, all the Irish around me supported Man Utd, Liverpool and Leeds, Arsenal were second rate and I was made fun of. But suddenly, we were the best, we had accomplished the miracle of the double. Since then, this allure has dropped as Liverpool, Manchester United and us in 1998 had all achieved it. It was no longer miraculous as it had seemed throughout the majority of the 20th century.
It was getting easier, helped by the huge money flowing through the Premier League, the enormous squads, the creation of elite teams. I will make a prediction here and now, I don’t believe we will see in my lifetime another Leicester winning the league, or a non-elite squad winning a double. At the moment, this season, I would confine that to Man City and Liverpool, with a lesser chance of Chelsea and Man Utd. And I doubt if few would seriously argue with me. Arsenal 1971 was easily the equivalent of Leicester winning the league as it was equally unexpected to me.
An unexpected season
But 2001-2002 had its similarities. As I said last time, we had 3 seasons in second. Man Utd were winning better than us. We were letting go some of our best players, only if Ferguson had a fight with one would that happen there. The feeling was that we had settled for second best and in fact were second best.
However, one significant transfer happened this season. Sol Campbell came from Spurs. Our defence was aging, Tony Adams was finally coming to an end as was Lee Dixon. David Seaman also and Richard Wright was brought in to take over. Ashley Cole had appeared and Gilles Grimandi, both good players. But Campbell was hugely important. I was a big admirer despite the Spud background. He was consistently England’s best defender at big tournaments. He linked with Keown, Adams or Grimandi to form a solid partnership that conceded little.
A beast of a defender
Sol Campbell was the star
From the time he arrived, he formed part of our elite trinity, he in defence, Vieira in midfield and Henry in attack. I reckon most fans rated Henry as the most vital of those but I didn’t. It was Sol Campbell, he snuffed out danger, allowing Vieira and Henry to accomplish their miracles.
The under-rated Sylvain Wiltord
Pires and Llungberg came alive this year, terrorising the opposition and got 30 goals between them in all competitions. Sylvain Wiltord never quite got the acclaim of the other two but honestly I don’t remember him missing a match. He also scored 17. I have just checked, he played a massive 54 times equal to Vieira and well above the rest. This shows the importance Wenger attached to him. Sol Campbell played 48 times, more than any other defender. We were getting teeth.
But so were Pires, Llungberg and Wiltord
Our superstars had arrived
Giovanni Van Bronkhurst was brought in from Rangers as was Francis Jeffers from Everton. Two blues but whereas Van Bronkhurst did well, Jeffers didn’t. An Everton friend at the time, an actual Scouser, Jim Woolridge, believed he would be a great signing for us but it wasn’t to be.
So what happened on the pitch? We thrashed Middlesbrough 4-0 in our first match, then beaten by Leeds 1-2, and were unbeaten until November 4th when, improbably, Charlton beat us 4-2. We were playing well, hard to beat, and scoring every match it seemed. Those 2 defeats, plus a few draws, meant we were challenging for the top but rarely getting there. Liverpool had popped up as challengers under Gerard Houllier, a close friend of Wenger’s, as had Newcastle under Bobby Robson with Alan Shearer as his spearhead. It was all close up to Christmas.
We struggled in Europe and the League Cup
In the league cup we went out to Blackburn in the 5th round 4-0 on 11th December. Wenger consistently used this trophy for the reserves and he never won it. I reckon he did far better in the FA cup because it started in January and our options were narrower by then.
The Champions League wasn’t so great either but we got through the first qualifying round with Panathinaikos topping the group on 12 points and us scraping through in second on 9, level with Mallorca. Then we fell out at the next group with only 7 points for 3rd. Bayer Leverkusen and Deportivo La Coruna qualifying. These were the type of teams we should have been capable of beating but for some reason we were mostly poor in Europe under Wenger. He could not seem to find the magic formula against even lowly European teams.
Unbeaten in the second half of the season
But in the league, we were performing. On 18th December we were beaten 3-1 at Highbury by Bobby Robson’s Newcastle but that was our last defeat. We went on a long unbeaten run including our final 13 matches in which we won all. Man Utd, astonishingly, it seemed, could only finish 3rd on 77 points. Liverpool were second on 80 and we were top on 87. Back on top, and the Northerners left to scurry on home crying all the way. We were Arsenal.
And the FA cup? Mostly tough matches but we kept winning. Watford 4-2, Liverpool 1-0, Gillingham 5-2, Newcastle 3-0 after a replay, Middlesbrough 1-0 in the semi to set up a final with Chelsea.
We won all the awards
We won 2-0. It’s only Ray Parlour and Freddie Llungberg scoring to send them home to collect their pension down the King’s Road. We were the best. We were clearly Kings of London with Chelsea the next best at 6th and with 4 northern teams between us and them, also Kings of England. The great days had returned. What had seemed improbable at the start of the season had become reality. We had managed to overcome Alex Ferguson. We had won the double twice now under Wenger. Robert Pires won the Football writers player of the year.
How did Bergkamp do it?
Freddie Llungberg won Barclaycard player of the year. Dennis Bergkamp won goal of the season for his astonishing goal vs Newcastle. I never get tired of watching that and still don’t believe it. Arsene Wenger won manager of the year twice and Henry won the Golden Boot. Even Paul Burgess won groundsman of the year because of the amazing surface at Highbury, generally believed to be the finest in the world.
Paul Burgess, we sold him for a million to Real Madrid
Ah Arsenal, my Arsenal, you are the best in so many ways. But I wanted more. I wanted, so badly, the Champions League. I wanted, I needed, us to be the best in Europe. Next year, surely, we can do it?