No, they were laughing at you, Arsene
The year when we won everything!
In the previous year we had won the double. Now we were ready to win all. Champions league, League Cup as well as league and FA cup. And our first trophy was the Charity Shield. By rights we should have played against ourselves as we were the holders of both qualifying trophies but we played Liverpool who were enjoying a resurgence under Gerard Houllier and had finished second the last season. We played super, were all over them but only won 1-0. Gilberto, making his debut, came on as a sub and scored. I always liked Gilberto. He acted as a sort of sweeper midfielder/defender but could play and sometimes score. He gave a stability to the team.
This is the famous year that Arsene Wenger said we could go the whole season unbeaten and was laughed at. In fairness, what he also said was that no manager ever sets out to lose, and that for every match he planned for a win. I am sure Alex Ferguson and the rest agreed with that. He rarely, even for the league cup, played a totally raw team, with always some experienced players to back up the youngsters. I would argue that by playing weakened teams, though, he was giving a lie to his argument that he always planned to win. He would often play a weakened team either side of a European match, if they were from low in the table, as well. I do accept his argument, though, that no manager sets out to lose. I cannot imagine a manager saying “Lads, I know it’s only Tottenham but you are going to lose”. But he averaged 30 or more players getting matches in his period and, in all honesty, all of us Gooners knew what he thought of as his top team, (Seaman, Cole, Lauren, Keown, Campbell, Gilberto, Vieira, Pires, Llungberg, Henry, Wiltord, with Bergkamp kept fresh for the important matches) so he had to believe that the fringe players could also get a win for him. He did have a good record against lower teams in cup competitions, in truth.
Always nice to beat this team
An undefeated season?
So could we? Go undefeated for a season? I am not sure any team has ever done it anywhere but maybe a statistician could enlighten me? It is not fully clear, from what Wenger said, if he meant all competitions or just the league but anyway, if we could do it this season, we would finally win the Champions League, the prize I wanted above all else.
Anyway, despite a good start to the season, October arrived and we had back to back defeats against Everton and Blackburn to disabuse us of any notions of being undefeated. Also back to back defeats in October in the Champions League against Auxerre and Borussia Dortmund. Strangely enough, all defeats were 2-1. We went out soon after in the League Cup to Sunderland on November 6th in our first round. The joke was on us. Undefeated? Could we even win anything? In my time as an Arsenal fan, we had never retained a title but in fairness, we were doing well to this point. A bad spell always knocked me back and every season we had them. Often October/November was the catalyst for the bad spells. Wet, muddy grounds conspired against our artists. Other teams were catching up but grass technology was expensive as was undersoil heating.
Too many defeats left us a bit deflated
We were to have 2 more defeats before Christmas against Southampton and Manchester United to leave us chasing retention. In the Champions league we finished top although level with Dortmund. This was an improvement. We at least finished top. But still the calibre of the teams were below us. We couldn’t seem to transfer our league form to Europe and this was borne out in the next round. We were drawn against Valencia, Ajax and Roma, all teams that we should have been better than but we went out in 3rd place, only Roma below us. There was no transfer to Uefa cup at the second stage so we were out of Europe.
But we had bounced back in the league and were top all over Christmas and looking like retention would happen, finally. Some nice results on the way, 3-0 Tottenham, 5-2 West Brom, 3-0 Charlton, 4-1 Leeds, and 3-1 Villa and Sunderland. It was a time when we played lovely football, the neutrals came to love us, we scored almost every match, and Henry seemed to only score magic goals.
But then the double came back on
How did Giggs miss?
So we were looking good when the Fa Cup came around. The first 2 were Oxford and non league Farnborough, we despatched them easily enough only to draw the biggie – Manchester United away. I had a strange feeling of confidence going into this match but Ryan Giggs did everything right early on as he skipped through Arsenal, but somehow managed to miss the easiest goal chance he ever had in his life. It sticks in everyone’s head and I am sure he still has nightmares about it. Watch it on Youtube, you will not believe that he missed. But then Edu (yes that Edu) whacked in a free kick, it took a wicked deflection from the Man U wall and left Barthez in goal no chance. Later the same Edu went on a nice run, slipped the ball cleverly to Wiltord and he jinked past the Utd defence to put our second past Barthez. 2-0 to the Arsenal and a sign that we could retain both trophies and leave the Mancs to cry for the rest of the season.
Edu could play, you know
Chelsea next and 3-1 after a replay. Then Sheffield Utd in the semi’s and 1-0 to the Arsenal. On to Southampton in the final. Robert Pires scored the only goal and again 1-0 to the Arsenal. Always nice to sing that one, particularly when we win the Fa cup and become the only team to retain it in a long time. And our first time for me as a fan for us to retain a trophy. Wenger was breaking all records.
One half of a double – is that such a thing?
But a stuttering end to the season in the league including 2 defeats to Blackburn Rovers 2-0 and Leeds 3-2 meant Man Utd had made a comeback and finally finished 5 points above us in 1st. We were second again as we had been many times before to them, on 78. We scored 85 goals in the league, easily the most, 10 above Man Utd, and finished well ahead in London.
So no undefeated season for us. Not a bad season but not great. My dream of Champions League seemed to be just a dream and I reckon Wenger’s dream of going undefeated was also just a dream, but I was still going into 2003-2004 with a lot of confidence. We had pushed Man Utd hard, been a little better in Europe and had finally retained a trophy. We were Arsenal, c’mon boys, prove it.