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2005-2006 Champions of Europe? My biggest dream - Old Big Ears I will say here at the start that this is my last in this series, for now at least, of My Life as a Gooner. It is 49 and I will talk about when we were almost Invincibles again. Invincibles of Europe, that is. I will write about different things from now on but if there is any aspect of Arsenal that you would like me to write about, please request it and I will do it. Up The Arse! One of the defining matches of my life was the European Cup Final of 1968. I was 10 years old, my older brother was a Manchester United fan and we watched it together in black and white. It was magical. The quality of the football was superb, although played at a slower pace than we see now as grounds were heavier, as were balls and boots. Fitness technology had not really entered football so diets were also heavy. Everything was heavy. It’s no wonder heavy metal music had its origins in that period. The Joy was unprecedented for Man Utd It was 1-1 at full time. Then George Best and Man Utd upped their game against Benfica to score 3 times and it seemed like everyone in Ireland celebrated. Worldwide that must have brought in lots of new Man U fans. The European Cup was the glamour trophy to win in club football just like the World Cup was the one to win for a nation. The magic of Bestie trumps all When I chose Arsenal a year later, they didn’t make me wait too long to get our own crack at the European Cup. In 1971 we won the double and we also started our first attempt that year. We did well until March 1972 when we came up against the amazing Ajax side, who were champions, in the quarterfinals. Ray Kennedy scored an away goal for 2-1 in the first but they beat us 1-0 at Highbury. They went on to win it and we gave them a harder time than any other team. The great Ray Kennedy got to lift Old Big ears R.I.P. Not allowed to play But we didn’t win the league again until 1989 and we were barred from Europe then. That team, under George Graham would have had a chance. George was always good tactically and a strong defence was always important in Europe. And so it was 1991-1992 that we got our second chance but we didn’t even make it to 1992. We were knocked out by Benfica in the second round. So we had to wait for Arsene Wenger to weave his magic but he left it behind in Europe. We were constantly being beaten by teams that were lesser than us. It didn't look possible By then, though it was up to four teams getting through so no longer true champions. And 2005-2006 was one of those. We were not champions. And honestly, how many of you out there would agree with me that once we lost that Invincible tag, we had gone backwards and it was difficult to be optimistic for this venture? And like I said last blog, the players we had got in were not of the calibre of the greats of the past and money was tight because we had staked all our cash on the Emirates stadium. But somehow in Europe, we looked like Invincibles again. We waltzed through the group stage like they didn’t exist. Thun, Sparta Prague and Ajax were thrown aside like the fodder they were. A final game draw with our reserves against Ajax the only dropped points. Yes, lesser teams, but teams like these had been our downfall in the past. Could we dream again? My biggest wish always was this trophy, ever since 1968 but I was afraid to dream at this point. Galacticos vs Invincibles And, of course, we got Real Madrid in the first knock-out round. The one club that never worry about money, never worry about buying the best, and never worry about Arsenal, either. We had them away in the first leg, so we needed to keep ourselves in it for Highbury as Real were never beaten at home. Except we were the Arsenal, we had our own royal in Thierry Henry and he popped in a goal to mean that Madrid had to come to Highbury to win. My eyes nearly jumped out of my head, we had beaten the magnificos at home! Our king beats the Royals Ok, it was 0-0 at home but that was good enough. If we could beat Real Madrid, surely we could beat anyone? Except we then got Juventus, the Fiat juggernaut of Italy who had our monster Vieira playing for them. Ok, I thought, the gods don’t want us to win. They don’t appreciate how much this trophy means to me. A nice monster beats a scary monster But we beat them 2-0 at Highbury. Fabregas scored to make a point to Vieira that we now had a nice monster who played pretty football to replace him. And our king Henry scored the other. They had no away goal to boost them and 0-0 in the second leg was good enough to send them back to their villas crying. We were Arsenal! And we were invincible in this Champions League! But then we got Villareal in the semi’s. They were very good at the time and even had a young Santi Cazorla in their squad although he didn’t feature. The first leg was at Highbury and it was the last European match played there. For some reason I can’t remember, we played in our change strip but it didn’t stop us playing well. Late in the first half, Henry took a corner that was headed back out to him, he fizzed it into Hleb who popped it across to Toure, who was still lurking in the goalmouth from the corner, and he stook out a leg to knock it in. 1-0 to the Arsenal rang out across the stadium and that was good enough. Another 0-0 away and we were through, for the first time, to my dream trophy. We can beat them all Heartbreak no.1 It was Barcelona, another giant of the game, with some of the best players ever lined up for them. They had Giovanni von Bronkhurst, one of our old boys, against us, as well as huge stars such as Ronaldhino, Eto’o, Puyol and the rest. We had a top side, most of the Invincibles were there and we were the Champions league Invincibles that year with 10 clean sheets and no defeats. I was allowing myself to dream big. We had already knocked over monsters and there was just one left. I watched it in Murphy’s in Sofia as I had an English visitor, Ian McMaster, a West Ham supporter over. I guess some of the Arsenal Supporter’s club in Bulgaria were there with me but I wasn’t aware of their existence at the time. Heartbreak no.2 Maybe it is petty of me but I have never fully forgiven Lehmann for dragging down Samuel Eto’o to get himself sent off. Almunia came on for a visibly distressed Pires, who was very angry with Wenger and left the club next season. I feel Wenger made the right choice as, with ten men, you can’t take off a defender or holding midfielder and it was between him and Llungberg and he probably felt Llungberg would run harder. It took him a long time to repair that rift. And then Belletti kills the dream And so it had all gone wrong. Barcelona had the wind in their sails and were looking the better team but somehow Campbell scored from a Henry free kick. Could we do it? Had the gods decided to reward me for my longstanding hope of lifting this immense trophy? But the loss of Lehmann and Pires was too much. Eto’o scored a probably offside goal on 76 minutes and it was hard to see how we could come back. I kept hoping for a miracle but Belletti, who had come on as a sub not long before, knocked in their second to sink us. Heartbreak no.3 The dream died that day. If Lehmann had done anything else bar foul Eto’o, I believe we would have won. And now, 15 years later, we are not even qualifying. Please Arsenal, understand that I am 63, qualify this year, and give it to me as a Beatles present for when I am 64! All you have to be is Arsenal again.
2003-2004 Unbeaten A rare picture of Davis Dine I am going to let you into a little secret, a conspiracy in fact, Arsenal were actually beaten in the Invincible season but Davis Dine, a shadowy yet powerful man with Arsenal, was willing to conspire to make sure that didn’t happen. Poor Mr Dine didn’t like the way everyone was laughing at his favourite person as, last time out, Arsenal had been beaten 6 times on the way to coming second after comical Wenger said we could go the whole season unbeaten. He resolved a plan which involved gathering all the dirt he could on all his rivals to make sure results would be changed if necessary. First he had to secure the Premier League and their managers but that was easy as he had been in a major position ever since the start. He knew all their secrets, their illicit affairs, their secret bank accounts, the bribes for votes, and as he was squeaky clean himself, they couldn’t get back at him. Or could they? Undefeated Harry Redknapp masterminded a win over Arsenal And so to the matches. Dine was hoping that somehow we would never be beaten and he would never have to unveil his plan. We started so well with 4 wins over Everton, Middlesbrough, Villa and Man City. On September 13th, though, he came up against Portsmouth and he didn’t even think he would need anything for this one as they were, well, Portsmouth. But the ageless Teddy Sheringham scored on 26 minutes putting Dine in a panic for a moment. Then he remembered that Harry Redknapp had bank accounts in the name of his dog and Tottenham was his dream job. So he quickly spoke to him, promised to keep shtum on the accounts and would use his contacts to make sure he would manage the Spuds in the future. Miraculously, Henry got a penalty soon after. We failed to score another so that would have been a loss. 1-1 and we were still unbeaten. Redknapp was no fool, though, and he insisted that the second match also had to be 1-1 and so it was on 4th May. And was it a coincidence that he finally got to manage the Spuds in 2008? Van Nistleroy: The star pupil of falling over But then the next match was Manchester United. Mr Dine had no worries here, he had a secret video training session recorded where players were taught to dive. Van Nistleroy was the star pupil. If anything went wrong he could pull it out. It was nervy as it was 0-0 but that remained the final score and Dine didn’t have to worry. He was really hoping they wouldn’t score late as it gave him little time to organise but in the end, all was fine. Unassailable Then 3 wins against Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea and Dine could breathe easily. An easy game against Charlton next, eh, no, they scored after 27 minutes with a Paolo Di Canio penalty. Dine was scrambling around trying to see what he could do when Henry popped up with a goal on 39 minutes. Luckily the scores stayed like that to the end as Charlton were a bit of a problem for him. He hadn’t got much dirt on them. Leeds, Tottenham and Birmingham fell to our sword next so no need to worry. Fulham next and 0-0. Again Dine was nervy about a late goal but we got through it. No need to pull any strokes. Leicester away next and this time we were one up after 60 minutes with a Gilberto goal. Ashley Cole got sent off on 72 and it got stressful for Dine but we held out until the 93rd minute when they scored an equalizer from Craig Hignett. But 1-1 and all is well. Indomitable A nice win against Blackburn 1-0 to the Arsenal and then Bolton away. Davis Dine wasn’t worried at all about this one as he knew where Sam Allardyce kept his secret stash of pies and would reveal his big secret. As it happened, Robert Pires scored after 57 minutes, Bolton rallied on 83 with Henrik Pederson to leave a risky 1-1. Big Sam’s pies were safe. We weren’t beaten. Your secret is safe, Sam 3-0 and 1-0 to the Arsenal next against Wolves and Southampton and all is good. Then Everton at Goodison. Kanu put us ahead on 29 and it seemed all was well but then Radzinki scored one for Everton on 75. Dine kept his nerve and it ended 1-1. Unconquerable Then we had nine wins in a row. Dine was wondering why he had never done this before. We were Arsenal, we were winning, we were sending teams home crying. And if we needed a little bit of help, he should have been providing it. Next step would be all other trophies. Suddenly, Manchester United were next at Highbury. He had his secret diving video as back-up here but he needn’t have worried. Henry scored after 50 minutes and even though Saha got one back on 86, it was enough for 1-1. No need to pull any tricks. We were still the Arsenal. Indestructible 4-2 against Liverpool. Easy peasy. Then 0-0 Newcastle. He had an ace up his sleeve with them if necessary. He would threaten them with Mike Ashley taking over if they gave him any problems. Leeds 5-0 then, and this was looking so good. Too late, Robbie The Spuds away. Mr Dine wasn’t worried as they always fell over for Arsene Wenger. It was his favourite ground. And so it proved as first Vieira on 3 minutes and then Pires on 35 scored to make us 2-0. Ah, Spuds, you are useless, the only team Mr Dine didn’t have to collect any scandal on, you make life easy for us. Although Jamie Redknapp scored on 62 and Robbie Keane got a late consolation on 94 to make it 2-2. These Irishmen can be a nuisance but we were still unbeaten. Invulnerable Birmingham 0-0 and no need for dramatics. Portsmouth next and the deal held as agreed earlier, another 1-1. We let them score first then we equalised. All good. One nil to the Arsenal against Fulham then 2-1 vs Leicester to give us the invincible season. But we would have been beaten at Portsmouth thus ending the dream. Who would have thought that Harry Redknapp was the mastermind who actually should have beaten us? Invincible We are Arsenal, we are the best, the invincibles, and Arsene Wenger the genius who made us so. A pity for Davis Dine, though, as he was to go out of favour at Arsenal, and his dream of having an ace in the hole for every match was never to be. Until today, this story never came out. But now you know the conspiracy behind the invincible season. As for me, I was delighted. Manchester United, who are you? No-one will ever beat us.
Why couldn’t we win all our matches? 1990-91 Invincible? It was considered unachievable in the modern game, because English football was so competitive. Every year low teams beat top teams, not to mention that you had to beat the top teams as well. Of course you could draw, but if you drew every match you are flirting with relegation. Once 3 points for a win came in in 1981, they became they only real currency to trade in. George Graham never made any bold prediction like Arsene Wenger did, but if you examine what Wenger actually said was that no top manager ever plans to draw and no manager ever plans to lose. He said he aims to win every match. I am sure Ferguson, Dalglish, Clough and others felt the same. I have no doubt George Graham was the same. So I left you last time with us unbeaten in October with a fairly lucky win at Old Trafford. 6 wins and 3 draws and behind Liverpool. At that stage Liverpool had one of their best spells ever, winning match after match. It was hard to see us being champions. Last season we were 4th, a distant 17 points away from Liverpool. It is hard to imagine nowadays what you had to do to beat them. These days so many fans are dreaming of billionaire owners coming in to the clubs and buying them success. Chelsea were the first such, in England. Man City popped up later, Leicester now as well. The traditional big clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, who had hoovered up in their existence a huge chunk of all trophies ever won in England, also succumbed to the allure of the billionaires. Everton and Spurs also, who were the next layer of top level clubs, are now part of the rich clubs and can believe they can compete. It was better for the smaller teams Tradition at that time meant you could attract the top players, yes, but unlike nowadays, once the first 11 was set, it was hard to get a game. So top players went elsewhere meaning that late developers, or players who found a nice groove at a new club, or those who kept improving with age and experience, could strengthen lower clubs and they could challenge. Aston Villa, Notts Forest, Derby and others were proof of this. But it is undeniable that Liverpool, Man U and Arsenal had an advantage in terms of attracting players, revenue and expectations. Liverpool the more so as succeeding there guaranteed trophies. But still they could only put 11 on the pitch and all supporters could rattle off the starting 11’s of most teams. Try doing that now? George Graham only thought of winning George Graham, I believe, wanted to win all matches and that is pretty much what we did after beating Man Utd on Oct 20th. 6 wins and a draw ending with a win 3-0 over Liverpool at Highbury to end their unbeaten run on Dec 2nd. Merson, Dixon and Smith rattled in the 3 goals to announce that we are Arsenal, we send even the greatest home to Liverpool crying all the way. Kenny Dalglish was feeling the pressure and wasn’t looking very happy but they were still the target and ahead. It took us until well into January to go top with a win over Everton on Jan 19th. We were still unbeaten. A Car Crash to crash our Season? But there was a huge dark cloud hanging over us. Our talisman, our leader, Tony Adams, was a man who loved to drink. He got banged up in jail on December 19th not long after beating Liverpool. Excessive drink driving and a car crash left him behind bars for 2 months. He was disgraced and our club was thrown into shock. We still had top centrebacks in O’Leary and Bould, and Andy Linighan had been signed. But we were beaten 2-1 by Chelsea on 2nd February to end our invincible run. Of course we didn’t know it then but we were not to be beaten again in the league that season. Oh My God, Tony! What have you done? We would go on to be out of sight, the 2 points deducted at Man Utd sunk into irrelevance as we showed the world that we could do it again. Twice champions in 3 seasons. Liverpool and Kenny Dalglish seemed mesmerized by us. We beat them again 1-0 at Anfield on 3rd March to emphasise our superiority. Dalglish had just quit a few days before that match and it really did feel like Liverpool were no longer the team of old. The end of a Red Empire signals the start of a different Red era? We didn’t know it then, but the Ancien Régime had crumbled. The empire was led into darkness by Graeme Souness and it was a long time before they troubled the top of the table again. But as I say, we didn’t know that then. They had tradition, finances, expectations, and the ability to attract the top players. Certainly in those days, that did not mean guaranteed success. You needed that extra spark and we had it in George Graham. Now we were ready, now we were Arsenal. We were the boys to beat. Even the great Kenny Dalglish walked away from the fight. Looking at the table, Palace were 3rd and Leeds were 4th but a long way back from our 83 points. I really felt now we could dominate. I looked at the rest and said, we can beat them. I had never felt that before. None frightened me. Not like when we had won the double and I definitely felt Liverpool and Leeds were better. Now, there was no one better. We were the champs. We just needed to bite down on the others and show them who was boss. Graham showed Wenger the way One defeat by Chelsea. One time our concentration had slipped. Arsene Wenger would have been saying I want to emulate George Graham instead of being laughed at. It was a great season, though, and maybe the only time as an Arsenal fan that I truly felt we were better than the rest, because even in the superb Wenger days, Ferguson kept coming back off the floor to knock us out. We never quite managed to dominate them. But back then we had Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams, O’Leary, Bould, Linighan, Rocastle, Thomas, Davis, Merson, Smith and Limpar and others who could walk into most teams. I couldn’t see anyone to frighten us. We were the best and almost the invincibles. Win all our matches? Surely that was the aim of George Graham? Oh, and by the way, we knocked 6 past Man U in the League Cup, 6 against Coventry in the League, 5 against Villa, and 4 against Palace and Chelsea alongside several 3 goal matches. Boring, boring Arsenal, I don’t think so. And only six 1-0 to the Arsenal all season in all competitions. Next season was to be looked forward to. Back in the European Cup, could we win that as well? We were good, very good. The Invincible`49 !!! Our 1990-91 team were almost Invincible before this great team !!! And maybe this team was better !? 61 Max points total Well, Everton did it to us. Our last real hope of qualifying for Europe via the league is most likely gone. It is all or nothing in the Europa league. Can we do it? Yes, we can. C’mon Arsenal.